November 27, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

Three second-grade students pose with automatas made by Calvin University engineering students.
Three students in Mrs. Sytsema's second-grade class at Grandville Christian pose with the automata creations they collaborated on with Calvin University engineering students.

“It spins!” “How does that one work?” “This goes up.” “Did you see this one?” “That is awesome.” “This is mine … it does this.” “Is that what you thought it was going to do?”

This is the buzz inside Stephanie Sytsema’s second-grade classroom at Grandville Christian.

It’s delivery day.

“One girl opened up her box, and said ‘oh, the dolphin, the dolphin,’ because she wanted a dolphin,” said Sytsema, a 1996 Calvin grad.

No, it’s not Christmas. But you can’t tell from the excitement from the teacher or the students. “These are the creative things teachers not only have to do, but get to do right now,” said Sytsema.

School looks much different than it did a year ago in Sytsema’s class. But that’s true for pretty much all classrooms—students from elementary school to college are adapting and flexing to meet the COVID-19 environment.

But, the delivery day excitement in Sytsema’s class was the result of curiosity and creativity leading to an unlikely collaboration.

Engineering an opportunity

Monica Groenenboom is in her sixth year teaching Engineering 101 at Calvin University. A couple of years ago the curriculum for the class was reshaped and she was loving the new rhythm. It included having her students learn the steps of the engineering design process, having them work on a project that creates community amongst the class and which allows them to apply what they are learning, and then complete a service project.

With the realities of COVID-19 and the social distancing protocols, Groenenboom knew she had some logistical hurdles to jump over to create community and complete a service project this fall semester. And then late this summer a light bulb went off.

“Stephanie [Sytsema] is a good friend of mine. I thought why don’t we make her class our client, so I sent her a message,” said Groenenboom.

“She said, ‘Yes, tell me what I need to do,’” said Groenenboom.

“It gave my kids something that was aspirational. This isn’t normally in our curriculum, but we have a chance to learn about these design features, and engineering is in next Generation Science Standards,” said Sytsema. “We knew that our Calvin friends were learning the engineering design process, so we learned the engineering design process too.”

Unhindered imagination

The first step for Groenenboom’s students? Get to know their client.

“For me it was kind of a shock to think I was working with second graders,” said David Conhoff, a first-year student from the Virgin Islands. “I never had any interaction with engineering material growing up, let alone in second grade, so to think that second graders were going to be learning about gears and what engineering is, I thought it was incredible for them to have that opportunity.”

Once Conhoff and his peers figured out who they were working with, they then needed to figure out what their client wanted them to do.

Sytsema challenged her students to write down their ideas and their Calvin friends would take their ideas and turn them into automata. In other words, the students would be designing the mechanisms underneath that make toys work.

“When second graders are brainstorming ideas, they have no idea what is and is not possible. So their ideas are big and grandiose,” said Sytsema. “And they [the Calvin students] don’t want to let little people down, so they are going to make something really cool to not let them down.”

Learning and persevering together

But, part of the process is learning what’s possible together. The students at Calvin University and Grandville Christian shared videos often with one another as the design process unfolded.

“Those videos were fantastic, there was a lot of energy in those videos. They were so excited,” said Joel Bylsma, a first-year student from Hudsonville, Michigan.

One of the lessons learned early on … sometimes you need to pivot from your original plan. And that’s okay.

“Originally I was going to have a built-up platform and things rotating with gears underneath it,” said Bylsma, who was creating a Minecraft-themed automata, “but when I actually went to build it, I was like ‘ooh that’s not going to be as feasible as I thought it was.’ My actual design ended up being way different than the sketch.”

“It was cool to see the perspective of second graders, for them to see that these college kids took their ideas and themes seriously,” said Sytsema. “They’d watch the prototyping videos and go ‘WOAH.’ They got to see what does it look like to do a prototype, what does it look like to fail? And if college students can fail and persevere, can we do that too? All kinds of perseverance themes can be woven into it.”

But the students at Calvin were determined not to let their clients down.

“When I started to make it [automata] out of cardboard, it didn’t work at all,” said Conhoff. “But I was determined to make it work … I wanted to show the kids this is what is possible with the tools you are given.”

Sparking curiosity and wonder

So the hard work continued all semester, the relationship between the second graders and the first-year Calvin students grew … and then … it was delivery day.

“Seeing their creativity and designs, you could tell they listened to these 7 and 8-year-olds and understood what they are into,” said Sytsema. “The automatas are so intriguing for kids. They’d ask how does that work? How do those pieces work together? This instantly sparked curiosity in them, and that’s fitting because our theme this year at Grandville Christian is wonder.”

“For me it was a great opportunity to work with my hands to understand the material we learned in class on a deeper level,” said Conhoff. “And then to know the project you are building is for someone special is even more exciting, to experience the whole engineering process, what it means to design for someone else, to see the fruits of your labor, to know your client and user enjoy your product is really amazing.”

“Collaborations bring a lot of hope in a time when we need it,” said Sytsema. “I’m a gardener. My job every day is to plant seeds. I might never see the total blooming, but I get to plant something, I get to tend it, and I get to watch it grow, and for this I hope this has been a seed for them. You can see that in the way they gravitate to the automatas, how they are tinkering, what they are making outside of school … I don’t care if it’s a story, a book, a lego creation, a recipe, be a maker. That’s the first act God does in creation, that’s where wonder happens. He’s a maker, and because we are made in God’s image, we are makers as well.”

Top-notch program

In U.S. News & World Report's 2021 Best Colleges Guidebook rankings, Calvin University is ranked #46 on the "Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs" list, which ranks all colleges and universities in the United States that are non-doctorate-granting institutions.

Among Midwest Regional Universities, Calvin is ranked #3 overall and #5 for Best Undergraduate Teaching.

View Calvin's U.S. News profile

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