I realize this post originiated back in May, but hey...it's been a busy summer...and that is a totally separate blog post! So let's step back in time a few months and pick up where we left off, shall we?
Last week Monday was a day. I mean A DAY....like one of those days when you want to go run away and join the circus and never come back kind of days. Then I get an email from my principal telling me about how I'm supposed to do some kind of math enrichment for the 5th graders that passed both the Reading and Math STAAR tests back in April, and she wants to meet on Tuesday to discuss the details.
Great. After today....bring it on. Cue music! "Hit me with your best shot!"
Fast forward to Tuesday, and I finally get to meet with my Principal and Assistant Principal. She wanted to do math enrichment for the students who passed both tests. OK. The science teacher then said that she wanted them doing science enrichment stuff since the Science STAAR was coming up. OK.
All of that sounded like more of the same of what they'd been doing all year long. I wanted to challenge these kids and push them academically, but also do something SO different than what they had been doing all year. Then it hit me. Engineering. That's both science and math, and it's all applied, so boom...there's my real world connection. Since we were doing this in basically a small group setting, Project Based Learning also sounded like a good fit. But there was one issue.
I'd never taught PBL. Ever.
Did I mention that we were starting tomorrow?
So I got on the phone with my friend Leena. She's the Sales and Professional Development Manager for CodeMonkey. If you've never heard of them, go check them out...it's fabulous. I'm a Teacher Ambassador, so of course, I love the program....but that's another blog. Leena is a seasoned vet in the PBL world, so after chatting on the phone for over an hour that night, I was fired up and ready with a challenge.
PBL Day 1: The Paper Bridge Challenge
Wednesday - Today was our first day in class. We started out talking about norms. The biggest thing I wanted to stress to the students is that in this class, we celebrate failure. I told them I wanted them to fail, and they are going to fail a bunch. Instantly, you could feel the tension grow in the classroom. Failure was bad. What was he doing telling us we were going to fail??
We set up our Engineer Notebooks and left space for notes on challenges as well as a reflection page for each day. I wanted them to reflect on the precious day on what they learned, challenges they faced, likes, dislikes, drawings, etc.
So the initial challenge was this: You have 15 minutes to build a bridge that holds the weight of a school dictionary. You have one sheet of paper, tape and 15 minutes....we WILL TEST your designs when he alarm sounds. GO!
It was chaos....excited chaos, engaged chaos, but chaotic nonetheless. My control-freak teacher senses were pegged and then I took a moment to watch and listen. They were all discussing ideas. They were problem solving. They were asking questions and then testing their ideas. It was beautiful.
Most questions they asked were met with another question on my part.
Student: "Can we tape our paper to the plastic buckets?"
Me: "Do the build instructions say you can't?"
Students: "So can we?"
Me: "It doesn't say that you can't"
Students (frustrated): "Just tell us what to do!"
Me: "Nope....you have all the info you need. Figure it out."
So then they started taking some risks....perfect!
The next thing they knew, they'd done several prototypes, but successful and not (mostly not and that was the whole idea) and it was 12:30 and time for lunch. They were shocked. "what do you mean it's time for lunch?? We just got here!" "Nope....you have been working nonstop for 2.5 hours!" They were shocked. So was I at how smoothly things had gone and how much the students enjoyed what we were doing.
PBL Day 2: Paper bridge continued
Thursday - We met up out in our portable for day two. I was excited to get started and so were the kids.
We did a short debrief of the previous day, and then I gave them 15 minutes to reflect on the previous day in their notebooks.
This time for the challenge, we extended it. I gave them 30 minutes to research anything that might help them with the challenge...bridge design, strong structures, etc. Many of them googled the challenge itself and got build ideas from that. I also changed the build requirements slightly and added a total of 5 sheets of paper. The designs were definitely more refined and I started seeing the use of supports and columns underneath their road decks.
PBL Day 3: Punt Formation
Friday - We were met with an obstacle today. They were going to be using the portable room to show movies as an attendance prize for classrooms that had 97% or higher perfect attendance that week. That put a little crimp on our plans for engineering.
We met in the computer lab and took on a new challenge: Build a Digital Portfolio.
Why not? They all agreed that creating some type of slide show or using some other type of digital media to showcase their learning during this PBL time would be cool.
So Google Sites it was. They created a site, added a home page, a PBL Page, and a "MY Stuff" page. Each page has a reflection on the activity, and pictures of the activity. I took pics and uploaded them to a Google Drive folder, Then shared the link to that folder with them through Google Classroom. All they had to do to gain access to the entire contents of the folder in their Google Shared Drives was to open the link from classroom.
Once again, it was lunchtime before they knew it and left wanting more time to work. Most of them were nearly finished with their websites. One more day in the computer lab and they should have those finished.
PBL Day 4: Paper Bridge Final Day
Monday - Since we had to punt on Friday do to double booking of the portable, we finished up the Bridge Challenge today. We began our day with a reflection on last week, and then split back into groups for a final day of research. We did two more runs of research, prototyping and testing, making sure that they used the engineering design process that we studied on day one.
One thing that added an extra bit of a challenge to these activities was that the students also had science tutoring that ran concurrently with our PBL "enrichment" class, so students were exiting and entering the room in the middle of the project.
That created an even more "real world" situation in that the students had to bring their incoming team members up to speed on the current stage of the build or face starting from the beginning. Some did start over at first, and then later realized that starting mid project was better since they could communicate with their project members and all be on the same page within a few minutes.
PBL Day 5: Paper Airplane Engineering
Tuesday - Today we started a new project - Paper Airplane Engineering.
We used data tables this time to record the distances. Each team was a paper airplane manufacturing company that were designing an airplane that they could produce rapidly to my (the customer's) specs.
We did our research right off the bat and they started building prototypes. They had 30 minutes to research and design, and then we tested our initial group of planes.
They then had an additional 30 minutes to refine their designs and come up with a final prototype.
THEN they had to build me (the customer) a total of four identical airplanes in 5 minutes or less.
That proved to be more of a challenge than anything since several teams had airplanes that used some complex folds. Although they flew great and met the criteria for flight, they failed to win the build contract because their designs were too complex and couldn't be reproduced in the required time.
This turned out to be a huge real world connection for them.
PBL Day 6: Paper Drop Challenge
So the paper drop challenge was basically a whirligig challenge but with a TON of math. They had a target zone in which they needed to land their falling objects as close to as possible and record the distances from the center. They also needed to time their drops in order to reevalute their build and rebuild in order to achieve the longest possible drop times.
This was daunting at first with our students, but we practiced a few examples from some sample data that we created together and actually used variables with subscripts to make the formulas simpler. They told me that they really felt like engineers because they were using math to help them with something "real world" just like real engineers. It was a neat moment to watch them really start to believe in themselves.
PBL Day 7: Paper Drop, day 2
We finished the rest of the prototyping and spent the day gathering data on their final designs and calculated our results. The students were actually pretty quiet because this was their last day out in the portable doing PBL. Most expressed feelings of sadness because they wanted to continue. I did too. I found that I was able to develop some very good relationships with some students who I had not had a chance to interact with much other than during tech apps class.
I have included the slide presentation for the notebooks the students created. It's crude, but like Austin's Butterfly - it's a good first attempt. I am honestly looking forward to learning more and getting into more pure project based learning over challenges...but the challenges were truly eye opening as to the possibilities that PBL holds.
PBL Day 8: Final Reflections
Last day with the kids and we spent it in the lab finishing their digital portfolios. The students were initially quiet like the day before, but soon were engaged in chatter. Mostly about the past week in reflective fashion, and lots about their portfolios and adding to their "personal" sections. I felt that it was important for them to make their sites as much about them as it was about what they learned over the past few days. They learned so much and most of them realized that as they looked back. So did I.