Feeling the force: machines and physics made simple for primary students
06 September 2016
Cog & Axle is an Irish company, founded by a primary-school teacher from Dublin working in Limerick, which is providing an innovative engineering education resource that enables students and teachers to enjoy working out simple and functional machines.
The company’s founder, Colm Ó hAnluain, is the brains behind the Lévó, a wooden teaching resource for schools, and the author of the storybook, Henry’s Piano, which accompanies it.
The Lévó uses levers, wheels and axles, inclined planes and pulleys to help pupils ‘deliver’ Henry’s new piano to his sixth-floor apartment. Used in conjunction with the story book, it enables students between the ages of four to 14 to learn about the science behind simple machines and the mathematics and vocabulary that go with them.
“Pupils work co-operatively in groups using the scientific method, and calculate with formulas in a way that is meaningful to them,” Ó hAnluain explained to EngineersJournal.ie. “The pupils acquire the relevant vocabulary to describe what they observe and record, in a structured and age-appropriate way.”
Classroom teaching aid
Ó hAnluain has spent the last twenty years as a primary-school teacher with a particular interest in making things. It is his passion for blending maths and science and introducing them into the classroom that brought about the idea for Cog & Axle. He came up with the idea while searching for a resource to help him teach young students about forces.
“The idea for the company started off with Henry’s piano,” he explained. “As part of the primary-school science programme, there’s a unit that deals with forces and I was looking for a resource to teach this. I looked online for a nice resource that would have it all in one box together – but I couldn’t find anything.”
Ó hAnluain was struggling to find a suitable resource and bemoaned the fact that many of those available offered no context to offer students a practical reason why they would need to be used.
“There was no context, no reason for it to be used except to show how a pulley works. With no context, no story and no problem to be solved, I used to sometimes make up a story,” he continued. “I’d ask the students to imagine they were working in Dublin Zoo and a hippo was being delivered. How would they lift it?
“Eventually, we ended up talking about Henry’s piano and it offered the students a context in which they’d have to work out why and how they’d lift a big heavy piano.”
Difficulties in teaching forces and physics
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has identified the teaching of forces as a problem area for teachers. Physics, and the teaching of it, is an area about which the NCCA and teachers are wary.
An NCCA Report from 2008 identified the teaching of forces as a “cause for concern”. Ó hAnluain agrees that the subject of physics has generated unnecessary bad press and has been poorly taught or even avoided at times. He has found that teachers who see the Lévó have been pleasantly surprised at how easily it explains the concepts of physics.
“The NCCA has identified physics and forces as areas that teachers have been avoiding,” he said. “Sometimes when teachers see the Lévó they ask, ‘Is that all that physics is?’ A lot of people are put off by physics due to the barrier of formulas that’s put up around it.
“When teachers then see the piano – the levers and the pulleys – they start to think that the teaching of physics is a lot more doable. It suddenly makes sense. When they get their hands on it, they’re delighted that it’s made out of wood: it’s very tactile and it’s easily assembled. It comes with a teacher manual which includes over 40 hours of lessons to cater for students from four- to 14-year-olds.”
Cog & Axle launched as a business in May of this year and Ó hAnluain has been delighted with the feedback he has received so far. “After testing it in my own class and my colleague’s classrooms, the reaction so far has been really positive.
“I also had to take it out to other schools where I wouldn’t be involved because I really needed to see that this would work without me; it had to work without me because I can’t be everywhere. It is now being used in one or two schools in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Canada an increasing number of schools in Ireland.”
Ó hAnluain designed the system very much with the primary-school curriculum in mind, rather than trying to retrofit it back into the curriculum. He looked into the primary curriculum not only in Ireland, but right across Europe, “because they’re more or less the same – levers and pulleys work the same in Ballymun or Berlin or in Bolivia”.
“It was designed specifically for teachers,” he added. “Teachers like resources that are clean, tidy and simple and do exactly what they want them to do. They like that there’s room for exploration but little room for things to break or things to go wrong.”
Streamlined structure for classroom use
Ó hAnluain believes the Lévó compares favourably to some of the other products available in terms of price and also the potential for losing parts and pieces.
“Often with larger companies, like Lego or Meccano, you’re getting a toy and trying to shoehorn it into a school environment. This is the other way around. It’s designed for schools; it’s designed to fit on school classroom tables and it has got very few parts.
“Having a box of 1,000 pieces of Lego in a classroom is a nightmare for parts being lost. Lego is wonderful, I love Lego – it’s great for playing with it at home – but often as a teaching resource, you just don’t have the time or the space to play with it in the way that you would like to.
“When I was designing the Lévó, I looked at it regularly and wondered if I could knock off a piece and make it simpler – meaning one fewer piece to lose and one fewer piece to break. It has been through a fair bit of testing with students. It doesn’t break and it is made from natural materials like wood so it all very environmentally friendly.”
Ó hAnluain wanted it all to be as sustainable as possible. All of his suppliers are based within about 25 or 30 kilometres from his home in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary. “I wanted the resources to be a celebration of Irish businesses, working together to provide quality materials, using the best available modern technology and traditional crafts and skills.
“I was as determined to get Henry’s Piano and the Lévó to market as I was to have it produced in Ireland and I’m delighted to say it is 100 per cent Irish.”
As a full-time primary school teacher, one of the biggest challenges facing Ó hAnluain is time and how he balances teaching along with running a start–up business. A big factor in getting the business off the ground was when his Local Enterprise Office (LEO) obtained a computer numerical control (CNC) router and a laser cutter.
“Before that, it was just me with a jigsaw in the shed, which wasn’t going to be a runner. But the Tipperary LEO opened and had the CNC router, which I can rent by the hour. We simplified the whole thing design-wise, so that it could be done in a kind of ‘just-in-time’ way.
“This works well for me because when I come home from the day job, I can go down there, cut the parts and have them in the post office and ready to go off to a school in two days. I was very lucky that those things fell in to place at the right time.”
Engineering in primary school
In time, Ó hAnluain would like to see the Lévó and Henry’s Piano become the go-to resources for teachers and primary school students tackling physics and engineering.
Ó hAnluain asks why we do not foster and encourage the mathematics and vocabulary that goes along with physics and engineering.
“We expect students to come out of school and be numerate and literate. We assume they can count and add, that they can speak and read and write,” he said.
“Why not actively encourage them to be scientists or engineers also? Everything we do requires a reason and logic of some sort, be it from tying your shoe laces to kicking a ball. It would be wonderful if that became a core subject – that everybody would consider themselves to be an engineer.
“We’re all readers, we’re all writers and we’re all mathematicians in that we add and we read and we write – and we’re all engineers, too.”http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/09/06/cog-axle-primary-physics/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Henrys-Piano-1024x768.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Henrys-Piano-300x300.jpgMecheducation,Ireland,physics,startups,STEM,STEPS