The Harvard Ed Portal in Allston was buzzing with the excitement of young minds on Feb. 5, as seventh grade students from the Gardner Pilot Academy (GPA) showcased “novel engineering projects.”

The event, coordinated by Kathryn Hollar, Director of Community Engagement and Diversity Outreach at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), along with GPA faculty members, exposed middle school students to the engineering design process. The cross-disciplinary project also provided an opportunity for these young thinkers to be mentored by Harvard engineering concentrators.

The impetus for the project was a new curricular unit based on Linda Sue Park’s novel “A Long Walk to Water,” explained seventh-grade teacher Katherine Atkins Pattinson. The book’s two main story lines support the Water for South Sudan Foundation. Salva Dut is a Sudanese “lost boy” in search of his family, and Nya, is a girl who walks hours on end each day to retrieve drinking water.

“Students read these books that are so sad, but wonder ‘so then what?’ We decided to empower students to be the problem solvers, to aid in creation versus just applying skills,” Pattinson said.

The seventh graders read “A Long Walk to Water” in the fall and, at the start of the new semester, had the chance to choose teams and pick a client from the novel. They came up with ideas to help Salva in his travels or Nya to have clean water.

One group of students presented a water filtration system made with layers of charcoal, pebbles, and sand. During their presentation, they demonstrated the device by emptying a cup of dirty water into their system and pouring out clear water.

“You think charcoal is going to mess up the water, but it takes the contaminates out. This could help Nya and her village not get sick from the lake water,” explained seventh-grader Alex Arevalo.

Other novel ideas ranged from bug zappers to combat malaria, to many iterations on shoes made of recycled materials. One student group of girls constructed sandals made from used plastic water bottles, a group of boys, including Francisco Sosa, constructed a pair of sneakers from cardboard and foam that remarkably resembled Nike Jordans.

This stylish and functional shoe was engineered with foam and cardboard. (Photo by Alana Davitt/SEAS Communications.)

“The girl in the story gets hurt by thorns in her feet. We wanted to make a thick sole and we thought the shoes should be waterproof,” Sosa said.

When asked what he learned from the project, he responded, “It’s better working in a group than working alone.”

The project was also an opportunity for students to make new friends, Pattinson said. They chose their own teams, organizing based on skillset rather than social status, an important lesson for middle schoolers.

Throughout the evening, visitors to the Ed Portal could see the camaraderie in action. As Harvard engineering students reviewed and judged each group’s project, every seventh grader in the room lit up with the excitement of sharing their work and knowledge with other young people they look up to.

As the presentations wrapped up, Hollar took to the stage for a brief presentation on some related engineering projects SEAS students are working on around the globe. These include a collaborative program in Peru focusing on the impact of illegal mining in the Amazon Basin as well as an Engineers Without Borders implementation of a clean water piping system in Los Sanchez, Dominican Republic.

Hollar’s closing slide showed an artist’s rendering of Harvard’s Science and Engineering building in Allston, set to open in 2020, with a picture of Gardner Pilot Academy students superimposed through a window.

“In 2020, we’ll be looking for people like you all to come and work with us here,” she said.