A middle school teacher immerses her students in engineering


Holli Joyal • INSPIRE



Holli Joyal

Joyal's INSPIRE experience revolutionized her teaching.

A few years ago, Indianapolis teacher Holli Joyal revamped all her science classes at The Orchard School around engineering. “I’m married to an engineer,” she says, “and until three years ago, I did not know what he did for a living.” Joyal’s got that detail covered now—and she’s got her 6th- and 7th-graders living and breathing the engineering design cycle (“Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve”)—thanks to Purdue’s Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning (INSPIRE).

When the School of Engineering Education launched INSPIRE in 2006, Joyal was accepted as the inaugural Bechtel Fellow to help plan and lead the Summer Academies professional development program for P-6 teachers. She worked with INSPIRE faculty and staff to understand engineering practice and engineering education pedagogies, to develop engineering curricula for the P-6 level, and to contribute to INSPIRE research. With 16 years’ teaching experience backing her, she also helped INSPIRE’s leaders understand how better to engage other P-6 teachers in engineering through the weeklong Summer Academies.

“Through INSPIRE,” says Joyal, “you actually make and take your own engineering lessons. You can take anything you have in your classroom and connect it to engineering. You learn that engineering is a way of thought.”

Orchard School

A plant-growth chamber under construction.

She’s brought that truth squarely into her classroom. In the 2007-08 school year, she assigned her students a massive project that integrated a range of science disciplines with engineering, including design, teamwork, and problem-solving.

Through NASA’s Astro-venture program, student teams went online to create simulated, life-sustaining worlds—new planets that differ from Earth but that can support life. Next, Joyal put this challenge to them: “Your client is NASA,” she said. “Design plant-growth chambers that can operate on these hypothetical planets, so that humans colonizing the planets could grow food to survive.”

Each team outfitted its growth chamber according to the peculiarities of its particular, imagined planet. One plant orbited a blue star and so required blue light. Another one had a chilly average surface temperature of 27 degrees Fahrenheit and required a growth chamber that maintained that temperature. Beyond constructing their chambers, the teams had to compare the growth of ordinary seeds—basil, to be specific—to that of basil seeds that had spent time on the International Space Station, in zero g, through NASA’s “Seeds in Space” project headed by astronaut Barbara Morgan.

Orchard School

Student teams drew on each member's ideas and perspectives.

Says Joyal, “We had kids asking, ‘Should we use reclaimed water?’ or ‘How can I create less atmospheric pressure—my planet’s got less pressure than Earth!’ Students were creating pulley systems for watering their plants and using strings of colored slights as heat sources.” They documented their failures and successes by blogging for Park Seed Co., whose nascent basil plants had traveled to space and back and were now trying to sprout in the Orchard School growth chambers.

“It’s stunning to me what the kids can do,” says Joyal, who fielded a call from Morgan praising her students’ achievement. “There are different kinds of intelligence, and all of that sits in engineering.”

Joyal’s experience with INSPIRE—Purdue’s unique, research-based model for engagement in pre-college engineering education—prompted her to run her own teacher professional development workshop and pursue a master’s in geosciences.



Engineering Education at Purdue. LEARNING to Make a DIFFERENCE.