Saturday, March 29, 2014

Allow Students an Opportunity to Tinker

Allow Students an Opportunity to Tinker

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to
provide conditions in which they can learn."
                              - Albert Einstein-

Today is a pre-fab world. A world where it is no longer necessary to put things together yourself. From computers to toys and even chocolate cookies, we could "make" them ourselves and not even need to be able to decipher directions.

Have you put together a desktop computer recently? Unless you are colorblind or failed at putting the shapes into the correct slot when you were two, it is almost impossible to fail at putting the computer together. If a toy does not already come assembled, the most difficult part of putting it together, is deconstructing the packaging without damaging the toy.  Even Toll House cookies come in pre-fab slabs scored into cubes for the perfect size cookie.

Do most kids today understand the satisfaction of making something from scratch?  Building a model of the Apollo rocket from two hundred pieces, including the lunar lander, and sixty authentic decals.  Paint optional.  Even with gaps between the rocket panels, wispy strings of model glue and creases in the decal strips, displaying it lovingly on the shelf for all to see.

Most kids today are not very often given the chance to be creators.  They are manipulators of a touch screen world.  They can format a movie from a plug and play system on the computer.   They can put together a playlist from iTunes and add music to their PowerPoint. But, how often are they asked to actually create something from scratch?  How often do we as teachers create a rubric so detailed that it is impossible for students to make a mistake?

Heck, the last time I was at Michael’s, There was an aisle completely dedicated to pre-fab California Mission projects with everything necessary to create the perfect styrofoam mission complete with friars, indians, animals, trees, bushes, brick walls, animals and crops all pre-packaged for ultimate success.

I have found that most students are very uncomfortable with creating anything that does not turn out perfect and will avoid trying to create anything that they are not certain will meet all expectations.  Teachers also create rubrics that are so detailed it is impossible for a student to make a mistake.

But, how valuable are those experiences,when students are allowed to struggle through a process and try to figure out what works and what doesn’t?  How valuable is that experience that allows our students to make the mistakes that provide opportunities to learn?

One of my favorite in-class projects is to build Lou-vee Air Cars. 

Lou-vee Air Cars are composed of file folders, drinking straws, paper clips, rubber bands, and masking tape.
They provide an opportunity for students to discover their capacity to create a car that moves utilizing everyday objects.   I provide students with a set of directions and a schmatic diagram. I provide all of the supplies and tools necessary and I give them three blocks (95 minute periods) to create their car. And then on day four we have Lou-vee Air Races.

The first day I allow the students to work through the process and I provide very little guidance. On the second day, I build my own Lou-vee Air Car.  First to show them that it can work, and second to give them a model as a guide. The third day I offer suggestions and do some troubleshooting.

It is interesting to watch the dynamics that take place in the classroom as students interact with the process and each other.  Even though each student needs to create their own car, it does become a very collaborative process.  In some cases there is a natural division of labor that occurs. Those that are good at straightening paper clips take on that role for others.  Those who cut well start manufacturing wheels that are smooth and rond. It is wonderful to see the fear dissipate as students assist each other and try to help each other succeed.

The Louvee Air Car Challenge
Making a Louvee Air Car

The project is graded in two parts.
Part I, is to produce a Lou-vee Air Car
We set up a Lou-vee Air raceway in the dining hall divided into five foot sections. A fully built car at the starting line earns a student a 14 point score. (14/20 = a C grade) A car can earn two points for every portion of five feet it travels. ( 7 ft = 4 points)  Students can earn up to 24 points if they can get their car to travel more than 20 feet. (4 bonus points) 

Part II, is a write up that includes a series of questions about the process. 
What did they learn about themself?  What were they most proud of? What would they do different?
What worked? What didn't?  etc...
The write up also includes a section for students to explain three topics in physics that are demonstrated through the Lou-vee Air Car.  I typically do this project the first three class periods after the Christmas Holiday break.  This allows students to review the concepts of motion, Newton's Laws and Friction covered before the break.

I am always pleased to hear from students that they appreciate the project even though their car may not have worked as well as they had hoped.  They are usually most proud that they were able to get a car to the starting line.  They often mention a greater appreciation for following directions and reading carefully.  But. most often they write about how the process helped them to see the value in making mistakes and correcting them, thinking through  a process and using knowledge to create their own success. 

It is so important in a world that becomes less and less demanding of our students to afford them the opportunity to figure things out by trial and error to provide those opportunities in a manner that allows students the ability to make mistakes and find solutions in a safe environment.  

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