Learning by doing, and other things that happened today


So I was really pumped up today in our weekly PD time for two reasons:

  1. We had choices about what to work on and whom to work with.
  2. The task was open ended. No product was required and no methods were prescribed. 

The choices we had were all dispositions that we are looking for in students. The one I chose to work on was “inventive”. As in we want our students to be inventive, how do we make it happen? 

There were three of us that chose this topic and we all seemed to be on the same page about a few things:

  • The problems have to be real. One teacher said “we don’t want their work to go up on the fridge, we want them to make the fridge”.
  • They need an authentic audience. As in not the teacher and rest of the class.
  • The problems have to be important to the individual student. 
  • Grades get in the way. We may not be able to get rid of them, but if we want kids taking risks, we have to get the grades out of the way.
  • Project based learning is the way to get kids inventing. And the less we prescribe, the better. Open ended projects will get us the most creative results. 

What struck me as I started to think about this short list is that these are the exact same reasons why I was pumped up about the work we did today. Chosen by us, no prescribed product, authentic audience, real (and important) problems. 

Learning by doing, I see what you did there. 

Also, this happened today: 



A kid made these after I told the class we needed something better than tape to hold these doors in the unlocked position. A few notes:

  • Not a graded assignment 
  • Kid chose to work on it
  • Audience = the facilities manager and maintenance workers

Our facilities manager liked them a lot. And he brought us another project: 

Apparently these are absurdly expensive if you only need one or two. So we’re gonna make one. Getting the font right and the raised Braille lettering correct will be the hard parts here I think. 

This reminds me, I’ve been meaning to ask, do you have something that’s broken and could maybe be fixed with some inventiveness and 3D printing skills? Bring it on, Lion Design Team can handle it. Will you be our authentic audience? We’ll do a Google Hangout and you can show us if it worked!

Thoughts on Teaching Engineering Practices


I am teaching Engineering this year. In this class, I really do feel like a mentor in the room, a partner in learning. I think the big difference is that the class really is project based. I haven’t quite figured out how to assess appropriately just yet, but I am sticking to the “here’s a problem, GO!” mentality. Our most recent one looks like this:

And here are some students working on it:

(note: Not staged. And I assigned no roles, just the problem.)

The kid on the left is modeling a plastic holder for a magnet that will have a name embossed on the side. He’s learning and practicing  skills in Autodesk Inventor (our 3D CAD software). He chose this role in the group as he is passionate about 3D modeling and printing.

The kid in the middle is measuring the magnets with a dial caliper. He is learning about precision in measurements and asked some excellent questions about significant digits.

The kid on the right is documenting the process in her engineering notebook. She has assigned herself this role because she is thorough and has a good eye for detail. She also keeps the group on track by doing this.

All three of them are learning and practicing communication and collaboration skills to solve this problem. They had to clearly define the problem and then brainstorm solutions before getting to this point. And now that they’ve arrived at their potential solution, they are working together to develop it.

So, I think they are hitting NGSS Practices 6 and 8 in particular:

6. Designing solutions in engineering

8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

But do I want a “Teamwork” section on my rubric? If so, what exactly makes a high score in “Teamwork”? Clearly, these three kids are rocking it. But what about another team that has a different dynamic? It’ll be hard to judge, but does mean I can’t? Not sure.

So here’s my rubric for now. My plan is to have the teams assess themselves with this rubric and then turn it in as part of their project portfolio.

Why are we doing this?


I feel the need to come back to the question again. The other day, my school had its first all faculty PD in which we discussed the new school wide goal. The admin team did a great job coming up with the goal. They got ideas from each department, tried to look for commonalities, and then came up with:

What does it mean to “do your best work”?

artwork via: cieradesign.com (a former Lusher student)

I think it’s a bit vague (maybe that’s the point?) and I feel like I already have a possible answer:

You do your best work when you really care about the end result.

(implied -> “…not just a grade”)

For example, I am writing this blog with certain readers in mind: Twitter folks Dan, Anna, and Alex. We chatted about this earlier and I wanted to get some ideas out there, so I am writing this blog post. I care about what I’m writing here because I really don’t want to waste their time (or anyone else’s who might read this). It might be different if this was a class assignment, “Write a blog post about what it means to do your best work” for instance. (Side note, if this was that assignment how would it affect my writing to have a specific grading rubric attached to it?)

So I’m not writing this to “check a box” as Dan alludes to here (in reference to some required observation form):

Ok, so then my goal should be to create tasks for students that have this quality to them. They’re doing the task for some reason other than to check off a box (where in their case, they check the box because if they don’t then their grade might go down).

Hmmm, so I’m a little stumped on this one for my Physics class at the moment. Maybe connect my tasks to something from pop culture so it’s interesting? A Martian themed problem?

Or would that just be “dressing up the material”? Dunno. But I think one thing I have been doing that helps is to disconnect the grade from the process. As students move through the unit, they are learning certain skills in order to solve one big challenge problem. Here’s an example:


In the gradebook, they only get one grade for the unit. And it’s never 100% clear how their progress towards solving the challenge problem translates into this grade. Of course, their progress is tracked on the various skills as they go; they can see where they need to put in more work. So, I haven’t totally eliminated the “what do I need for a B?” questions, but I think I’ve started to shift away from it.

Anyway, I think I’ve had more success this year in my engineering class.  I have made up a few design challenges for them to work on. The first one was this:

And I didn’t have to do much else besides show them this page to get them working on it.

They were learning the design process and collaboration skills in addition to basic circuits and conductivity of materials. They were practicing their sketching skills and documenting everything they thought up and tried out.


I’m not gonna pretend that every kid was engaged the whole time OR that none of the kids were doing these things just to get a good grade. But I can say that I didn’t receive the usual “what do we do next?” or “how are you grading us on this?” or “what do I need for a B?” questions. I’d say that’s progress!

How do we get a culture shift away from grades and towards learning?

So I think this is what I have so far:

  1. The problem and/or purpose must be meaningful and/or real. I still don’t know how I would do this in Algebra 1, although I did try a story based class last year in which they were solving problems to save an alien race from extinction.
  2. The grading can’t be a focus when presenting a project. For example, I have a rubric for the project they are working on now, but they haven’t seen it yet. They’re just mini engineers trying to solve a real problem. Now that I think about it, even when they do see the rubric, it’s not clear from seeing it what their grade might be. It looks like it might be out of 24 “points”, but that doesn’t mean 23/24 is a 96%. I will have to stick a grade on it at some point (begrudgingly), but where the grade came from is not totally clear (similar to my physics unit grades). There’s a little bit of “magic black box” in there between completing the task and getting the grade. Maybe I’m on to something with this “magic black box”? Thoughts?

Talking About Physics: NO COMMENT


First of all, I gotta tell you we played with MakeyMakeys today in Engineering class and it was amazing!! So much fun. And the learning.


Here’s the project we’re going to start working on next class. I’ll let you know how it goes.

But really I want to talk about talking. Specifically, we’ve been working on getting better at having discussions in physics. I had been thinking for a while about trying this Talking Points activity (since as soon as I heard about it). The basic idea is that you have a list of statements and the students take turns agreeing or disagreeing with the statements (and each other) and saying why. Check out the link for more details. And click around on her site for plenty of solid reasoning and even research on the topic.

Here’s the handout we used today:

What went really well is that we “fishbowled” a round first. We had one group do three rounds with the first talking point while the rest of the class watched and listened. It was interesting to talk about it right after because they seemed to know exactly what might go wrong.

“It’s hard not to comment even when you agree with the person. Like, you want to say so right away, but then you interrupt them.”   -student in 4th block

So I think they were better equipped to learn something from the activity right from the start. I got a chance to sit with most groups for one round (8-9 groups) and I found that it was hard for me to stick to No Comment as well (go figure, right?). But I love the timing of the activity, go for 10 min, then 2 min to assess, then share out with the class. One thing I changed was that I had each student complete the group self assessment at the end. I found that some students were not participating at all on that, so I printed it on the back of the talking points. So they discuss as a group, but everyone writes it.

Overall, I think this will improve discussions because it allows everyone to be patient, listen to each other, and change their minds once they’ve had time to be patient and listen to each other. Only time will tell, but I’m sticking with it. And I’ll blog it when we do it.

Marshmallows and Buggys and Wild Ideas!


First week down and one of my goals for this year is to blog at least once a week, so here I go!

In physics, we did marshmallow towers and then Buggy Lab. I loved the way we did marshmallow towers this year because we did them twice. The first time was at the freshmen orientation, so it was a great activity to do with the new kiddos, meet a bunch of them and have some fun. Most towers failed.


Pixel face here looks like he’s enjoying it nonetheless.

But that’s the point. They try out these amazing tall designs and realize too late that they aren’t sturdy enough to hold a marshmallow. Last year, that was the end of it. We just discussed what I wanted them to take away from the activity. But this year, they got to experience the takeaway. The second time we did the challenge, students were armed with a few new tricks:

1.) they knew of at least 3 designs that wouldn’t work because they all took pictures of their first fails

2.) they knew that the secret was to place the marshmallow on top first and build up from there

Almost every group had a successful tower the second time around. What a powerful visual to promote a growth mindset! A bunch of failed towers one day, a bunch of awesome sturdy structures the next! BAM!

IMG_1212 IMG_1216

We also did our buggy lab this week and I think I’ve got the setup for this one down. But I’m never sure how much to feed the students about the structure. This year, I gave away a little more than usual. I told them to make sure to include a graph, equation, sentence, and motion map, and I helped them out with creating all of them as needed. Some might say “well, um, isn’t that your job?”. Yeah, but it still feels a little weird, like I’m robbing them of a good learning experience. But in the end I think I did the right thing here. My science dept’s big goal is improving scientific investigation skills. And one of the things I’ve been doing wrong is not providing enough scaffolding early on in the year. Here’s the handout we used:

And here’s a board ready to go into the discussion next class:


Ok, so that’s it for marshmallows and buggys, what about the Wild Ideas I promised?! Well, in my Intro to Engineering and Design class (awesome right?!), we did a challenge where they had to get a HotWheels car to travel between two tables on a fishing line. One of the materials they had to accomplish this task was a balloon. So one group had the idea to put their car inside the balloon and then blow it up and tape a paper clip to it to attach to the line. It totally worked! Sorry no pictures, but take my word for it, it was awesome!

And that’s one of our first lessons for the class. Don’t throw out any wild ideas, sometimes they’re the best ones. Also, sometimes they suck and the boring-est idea turns out to be the best. But the ability to tell the difference and pick the winner makes for a good engineer. I’ll take pictures next time. :)

I’m Terrible At Following a Design Process: Why It Matters


I just got back from my first Project Lead the Way (PLTW) training so I can teach the Intro to Engineering Design class in the fall. It was an awesome experience! A full 2 weeks of draining 12-hour-day, dreaming-about-3D-models kind of awesome. ;)

I learned way too much to talk about in one post, but don’t worry I plan to blog weekly this year so I’ll get to everything eventually. For this first reflection, I wanted to talk about one of my big takeaways. I learned that I’m bad at following a design process and it’s kind of a big deal. First, here’s the design process we used (we’ll use this one in the class too):

1.) Define the problem

2.) Generate concepts

3.) Develop a solution

4.) Construct and test a prototype

5.) Evaluate the solution

6.) Present the solution

So, why am I bad at following the process? Seems pretty simple, right? And what am I even basing this evaluation on? Lemme explain.

One of the first design challenges was to design and build a machine to fling a cotton ball as far as possible. We only had about 15 minutes, so my partner and I went right to work prototyping. We made a catapult-like thing (because duh! the challenge is called “fling machine”, how else would we make it?). Here’s a sketch we made and our completed masterpiece:

Screenshot_080315_012910_PM IMG_1002 (1)

Turns out our design was THE WORST. I mean like by a lot. Our cotton ball hardly went anywhere. The clear winner in the design department was the slingshot.

And that’s why it matters that we skipped the brainstorming and concept development that we were supposed to do first. We thought, “no big deal, let’s get this thing done” and “that group over there just talking is never gonna finish”. But those groups were the ones that came up with the slingshot idea and won the challenge! Stuff like this:


But my lesson learning on this topic was not done. Oh no! Our last project was a virtual design challenge, so called because we were each paired up with another trainee from Kentucky (I’m in Louisiana). So my partner and I met up through Skype and we decided to design a locker organization system for high school students. Now, had I learned my lesson in the fling machine challenge I would have insisted that we brainstorm ideas and then sketch several concepts before deciding on a solution and beginning to develop a product. But I had not. And I guess she hadn’t either because what we did instead was immediately decide on a design and split up the parts to be modeled. While this division of labor proved to work nicely in terms of getting things done, and our end product was actually pretty good this time (as opposed to the fling machine disaster), we missed an opportunity to innovate! We could have made next generation locker organization products that change the world. Instead we made a shelf and some bins (booorrriinngg!!!).


And that’s why the design process matters. Using it as a guide, you can see where you might make improvements in your workflow and/or problem solving. For me right now, it seems I can improve on the first few steps. I need to learn to brainstorm better and to slow down and let ideas simmer for a bit before rushing straight to the prototype.

Woodblock Slingshot


So, we did the woodblock slingshot as a way to fit a parabola to a set of student collected data. The setup is easier to show than explain.



Here’s the handout I used:

What went well:

-The discussion about the shape of the data was great. As long as multiple groups got a smooth curve, the class tended to agree that a quadratic model would work best.

-The data was pretty easy to collect. It’s just linear distance measurements, so…

What didn’t work:

-The data collection was pretty messy, it was hard to get a consistent measurement across multiple trials. And as always, some groups just decided that multiple trials weren’t necessary, so their data was all over the place.

-My handout wasn’t crystal clear about fitting the curve. I think maybe I should include hints (does your data look like a linear or quadratic model might fit?)

-The payoff wasn’t flashy. I’m thinking next time, we’ll have a contest to see whose equation can make the most accurate prediction (like closest to the edge of the table or something). They’ll have to explain their prediction, including the graph and the equation, then we’ll test it out.

Ideas for next time:

-Leave the data table blank. Let the students decide how far to pull back in order to get a good range of measurements.

-Many groups were recording the position of the block (because that’s what my instructions said, whoops), not the distance it traveled. They are different because you pull back on it, so it doesn’t start at zero. I think the better method might be to have one measuring tape, and columns in the data table for “starting position”, “final position”, and “distance traveled”.

-Use a roll of tape as the object. the woodblock would rotate as it traveled, making it hard to get accurate distance measurements. One group used a roll of tape instead and worked nicely because the spin didn’t matter.