The Hopper’s Eggernaut Design Challenge:
Not Your Average School-Based Egg Drop Experience
On a typical blustery, late-winter Colorado day last month, I bundled up in layers and stuffed granola bars into my pockets as I prepared to drive to the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont, Colorado, for Maker Boulder’s 6th annual Rocky Mountain STEAM Fest. The STEAM Fest was billed as an “awe-filled, jaw-dropping chance to tinker, hack, build, crumble, fly, drive, drink, DO, dabble – PLAY!” I was not going as a patron, although my two young children, accompanied by my partner, did join in the fun. Instead, I was volunteering with The Hopper’s famous Eggernaut Design Challenge. And I was not sure what to expect.
The last time I engaged in designing egg drop projects, I was an elementary school student. And I contemplated doing this hands-on educational activity with my own students as an elementary science teacher in Virginia. You may know what I am referring to – you get one egg (“don’t break it accidentally before the actual event!”) and your challenge is to design a capsule for the egg that protects it from the impact of being dropped from the roof of the school building by your teacher. Popular egg capsule materials included cardboard boxes, egg cartons, polyester fiberfill, packing peanuts and shredded paper. Some kids rigged plastic bag parachutes that created enough air resistance to slow down the drop. I remember being initially excited about the challenge when I was a 4th grader, but then bored. School science too often ‘schoolifies’ the fun things in ways that strip them of their wonder and limit the degree to which students can be creative and fully participate. (“Remember…you only get one egg!”) I am not going to lie. I was a bit skeptical of how The Hopper was going to pull-off their Eggernaut Design Challenge at an indoor STEAM Fest.
However, when I arrived at The Hopper’s booth, I was immediately taken by how much space the STEAM Fest had allotted for the activity. There were four tables with almost limitless building supplies, including many upcycled materials, to satisfy the most creative and critical thinkers (these were not items ransacked from your average school’s science supply closet). There was a large tarp-covered “splat zone” for dropping the egg-filled capsules and plenty of cleaning supplies to make sure everyone stayed healthy. The best part was the pulley system The Hopper had anchored to the barn rafters. A system of ropes allowed for the box holding the egg capsule to be hoisted a full 18-feet into the air before participants (not the adults, but the kids!) pulled a separate release rope to send their own egg capsule plummeting to the ground. I was already impressed.
My first job was to manage materials at the capsule creation tables. There, I had fun observing the many ways youth approached the task. Some had obvious experience with this sort of challenge. They immediately set to work engineering and testing their favorite capsule design. We encouraged these youth to try out different designs. Others adopted the cushion approach – wrapping their egg in so many layers of soft materials that the egg would not have broken even if it were dropped from the top of the Eiffel Tower. We challenged these youth to explore ways to protect the egg using less materials. Others took their time – looking at building supplies, thinking, tinkering, taking the entire design apart, starting over. Although our booth was only one of many hands-on activities offered at STEAM Fest, some youth remained focused on designing, testing and iterating for a good 45 minutes.
I was surprised and impressed by the extent to which adults tended to hold back and let their children take the lead as curious designers and decision-makers. And the best part of my job as materials manager – if an egg broke while someone was building their capsule, I just gave them another and let them know that there were plenty more eggs in the refrigerator.
My second job was in the capsule hoisting and ‘splat zone’ clean up department. Here, I got to see the full spectrum of emotions play out on youths’ faces as they excitedly placed their egg capsule in the release box, anxiously watched it be hoisted high into the air and gleefully accepted the ultimate power to pull the release rope and watch their capsule fall to the ground. Some eggs survived, some suffered a series of muffled cracks and others put on a beautiful yolk fountain show larger than the target zone. Some of the best moments occurred when youth stood over the trash cans near the ‘splat zone’ carefully opening up their smashed capsules, sure that there would be a yolky soup inside only to find that their eggs were perfectly intact and ready for the next iteration in capsule design.
The beauty of The Hopper, and other informal STEM education initiatives, is that youth are empowered to be creative, think critically, test designs and use their experiences to inform future ideas without adults getting in the way or bells ringing to signal that it’s time to transition to the next class. Volunteering for The Hopper was a great opportunity to help facilitate a classroom classic, like the egg-drop design challenge, in an informal environment that is all about expanding your hands-on learning horizon.