February 14, 2018 Hope Scibal

It’s Always About Making It Better

Article by Hilary Holladay in the Orange Review dated February 11, 2018

To read the complete article in the Orange Review online, click here

Sail a paper airplane across Julie Sherman’s classroom at Grymes Memorial School and be prepared for a conversation. The ebullient and energetic teacher won’t tell you to cut it out and behave yourself. Instead, she will very likely ask, “How can you make it better?”

That question opens up a world of creative potential, according to Sherman, a science teacher who has added engineering and design to her instructional portfolio. Under her supervision, fifth-graders have made footwear suitable for cavemen and cavewomen—and worn their fluffy, insulated shoes to “Caveman Day,” a school-wide event at Grymes. Fourth-graders have constructed islands with geographical features and moveable parts, plus sources for energy and water. And coming up for first-graders: designing and making little cars propelled “by wind or battery or rubber band.”

The projects are fun, but Sherman makes sure her students consider the scientific and mathematical principles underlying their models and inventions.

If it sounds like nothing but fun and games, don’t be fooled. The projects are fun, but Sherman makes sure her students consider the scientific and mathematical principles underlying their models and inventions. When she led fourth-graders in making “marble runs,” the goal was to slow down the marble. “They had to figure this out,” said Sherman, excitedly showing off examples of the project. “The only instructions were, ‘You have one manila folder and all the tape or glue you need. You have to design a marble run to make the marble go the slowest.’ That was all they got. And I just said, ‘Think about friction, think about gravity, think about angles, think about track.’ And they just started designing.”

Last summer, Sherman, 53, took a week-long class at James Madison University (JMU) on teaching engineering to children. Already a motivated teacher, she returned from JMU determined to ramp up engineering instruction at Grymes. As the lower-school science teacher, she is aiming for two engineering projects each year for every grade level from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. As adviser for the upper school’s engineering club, she works closely with older students who share her love of experimenting and invention.

Sherman’s father was an electrical engineer for WRVA, a Richmond radio station, and her mother was a teacher. At Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington), she earned a degree in biology and education and launched her teaching career in 1986. Before coming to Grymes, she taught in the local public schools. She also taught for a year in Aruba. The Orange resident began working at Grymes in 2003. In addition to teaching science, she is academic support and enrichment program director, a position that involves assessing the needs of prospective students, helping her fellow teachers devise plans for academically struggling students and tutoring students individually and in small groups.

“The more humor we add, the more joyful our classroom is. Why does it have to be drudgery? Learning is fun.”

To all her duties Sherman brings abundant cheer and a desire to pump up the energy level. In her teaching, she said, she likes to get everybody up and moving. Whenever possible, she also wants her students to be outside working in sync with the natural world. She believes this “full body” approach helps them learn and remember things. And she doesn’t mind a little joking around: “The more humor we add, the more joyful our classroom is. Why does it have to be drudgery? Learning is fun.”

She also thinks it is important to combine disciplines rather than draw strict lines between them. With that in mind, she is excited that the fourth-graders will soon be reading the Dr. Seuss classic, “The Lorax.” When those students show up in her science classroom, they will be designing “thneeds,” a Seussian term that means “something that everyone needs.” But their “thneeds” will be for people living in Mali, since they are studying the history of that African country.

The overall idea, she said, is to “incorporate the literature, the history, in engineering—creating something that will cover all the different subject areas. And that’s really my main love: to try to make learning as all-encompassing and thematic as I can. That’s my ultimate goal. And of course get outdoors and use the full body. I’m not asking that much!”

Students in the engineering club share her enthusiasm for invention and design. Eating lunch one afternoon in Sherman’s classroom, several participants spoke up about the different things they do during club time. Fifth-grader Cesi Delong said, “We get to build and design. I have designed a really cool shelf. You can flip it over. It can be storage or it can just be a regular wall.”

Club co-president Reese Horne, an eighth-grader, raised an intriguing apparatus aloft and said of Cesi, “She also helped build this—a hydraulic arm set. It’s currently being built. She’s been building this!”

Fifth-grader William Lillard could hardly wait to jump into the conversation. He wanted to talk about plasma and an “energy coil—a coil that basically conducts energy.” Showing off his notebook full of his ideas for inventions, he described medical applications for engineering projects.

William’s classmate Sophie Scibal paused during her lunch to comment on the club, which she joined because her mother encouraged her to do so. Turns out it was a good decision: “It’s really fun.” She and Gigi Wiley, also in fifth grade, said they enjoyed designing and decorating a model of an outdoor classroom that is in the works at Grymes.

Fifth-grader Joseph Blundin expressed a similar view. “Building things is really fun. Making, creating, designing. We made paper airplanes one day. It was really fun.” He said he went home and experimented with a design based on a world-class paper plane: “It had a really heavy weight at the tip so you would have to throw it high. So it would glide down.”

Reese, the co-president, said he thinks early exposure to the way engineers work and think will make creative risk-taking come more naturally later in life. “In my experience, I just love to always experiment, and I didn’t really have anywhere to do that except with Legos in my own room. And so a club like this would stimulate a lot more of that experimentation with everything around you and that curiosity to find out how this works—and how can I make this better?”

“It’s always about making it better,” Sherman added.

“What I love about the engineering is that the kids don’t fear failure anymore.”

Radiating optimism, she said out of earshot of her young charges, “What I love about the engineering is that the kids don’t fear failure anymore. They just keep going and going and going. Because my whole motto is, ‘Design a better blah.’ Whatever you’re doing, design a better something. Because that’s all people do nowadays, whether it’s a phone, whether it’s shoes, whether it’s anything.”

She continued in a rush: “That’s kind of what runs our country, runs the world: make it better, always make it better. And that’s what I love about engineers. They’re always looking to solve a real-world problem to help humanity. They always want to make the world a better place.


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