Hands-on education: MDOT curriculum encourages prospective young engineers

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY – What started as a brief unit on architecture in Tracy Vainsi’s gifted class has grown into an MDOT-sponsored learning program exposing middle schoolers to transportation and civil-engineering careers.
Roadways Into Developing Elementary Students (RIDES) is an initiative available only in Mississippi. The program trains teachers and equips them with materials to help kindergarten through eighth-graders improve their math and science skills with hands-on activities.
“As a gifted teacher, it allows me to create my curriculum according to what the kids show interest in. The architecture unit led to bridge building led to studying simple machines,” said Vainsi, who got involved with RIDES two years ago.
Officials from MDOT and RIDES visited the class Thursday morning to present certificates of appreciation to Vainsi.
“RIDES encourages students to understand why something works the way it does and how that principle can be applied to something else,” said MDOT’s Travis Wampler. “When you have a program that makes kids want to keep learning, they will carry that through high school. It’s so important because without prepared graduates to hire, the work pool will vanish.”
The class of nine students broke evenly into three groups and assumed three different activities that demonstrated their understanding of the principles behind levers, wedges and pulleys.
At one station, a ruler was placed across a pencil like a seesaw. Students placed a load of washers at one end, then pushed down on the vacant end to test the resistance. They moved the pencil closer and farther from the washer end, testing the resistance each time again.
With each step, the students wrote out their process and observations and answered critical thinking questions provided by Vainsi. They concluded the closer the fulcrum was placed to the load, the less pressure it took to lift the load.
Damon Ladner, New Albany Middle School principal, said the emphasis on students’ ability to articulate their method and reasoning fits perfectly with the implementation of the Common Core standards.
“RIDES is giving students a better grasp on real life application, and that reinforces the curriculum very effectively,” he said. “This kind of learning will be key to the Common Core transition.”
riley.manning@journalinc.com