That Question Students Ask After an Amazing Lesson
Every teacher hears the question at some point (usually multiple some points), you know, the “when are we going to use this” or “why do we need to know this” question. Answering that the question is going to be on the test or covers a specific grade level standard doesn’t cut it in the young student’s mind. Like most teachers, if time allowed, I’d think of the best reason or example that I could “on the fly” and hope it sufficed. Over time, I developed several stock answers, and my students politely trusted me and then we moved on.
Enough is Enough
This approach never sufficed for me though. I always wanted to do a better job finding answers so I read and researched and improved my responses and eventually reached my breaking point around year five in the classroom. I appreciated that my students took my word for why we learned the given material, but I didn’t think they should have to take my word for it. The learning should either be self-evident from the activity, or there should be enough activities across the curriculum that intuitively answer the “why” question for students.
Inspiration Strikes (Ouch)
I didn’t want to just explain. I wanted to show students, or better yet inspire them in regards to what’s possible. Coincidentally, I was helping work with our afterschool program for at-risk students and we were trialing robotics as a way to do just that. The results made an impression on me. When students realized that they could build and write programs for robotics systems, their confidence went through the roof. Students felt like their work was worthwhile and meaningful, and they wanted more! I had my answer. I needed to find tools and technologies that empowered students through application of their current grade-level standards and learning. Robotics was the start of something, but definitely not the end.
Coding, 3D, and Bots… Oh My!
Robotics: The realization of my lightbulb moment kind of begins and ends with robotics in a circular manner. You’ve got the basics for this already, but not Destiny’s story. Destiny came into our afterschool program, sat in corner, and exclaimed that we shouldn’t even try teaching her robots because she couldn’t do math or science. We reassured her but didn’t pressure her. She sat and watched that first time but gradually warmed up over the following weeks as we encouraged her. Soon, Destiny was teaching the younger students and after more time passed she was presenting to outside groups. Destiny’s confidence skyrocketed, and, in conjunction with a lot of other interventions, her state test scores increased from the lowest level 1 to the highest level 4.
Programming: Destiny’s story is not the norm as there’s a range of responses to our curriculum, but students do respond. For Destiny, programming the robots made her think of herself in a new light. Programming feels kind of like a super power to many people. Suddenly, you can control computers and accomplish tasks far more complex than on your own. Programming is the power to create. Students respond to this. They also see the intersection of math and science with programming. Suddenly, their math and science have value. And since programming relies mostly on K-8 level mathematics to start with, most students can do the basic math involved.
3D Printing & 3D Design: While programming provides a sense of control and robotics a sense of accomplishment, designing and printing a 3D object is almost magical. For students, this feels like they can pour their imaginations into a computer drawing program, and then print something where before there was nothing. This also feels very professional to them, even though the majority of the math involved is elementary level. This professional accomplishment brings meaning to their math and science.
Circuits: Electronic circuits can be very abstract to teach. The traditional circuit drawings look more like hieroglyphics than functional circuit boards. Students need something that they can hold in their hands, put together in a lesson, and then activate. This is where tools like Snap Circuits come into play because they basically are the “LEGO” of the educational electronic world. Students can snap together a circuit in minutes, test the circuit, adjust the circuit, record their results, and try something new. After introducing these hands-on tools, our largely unsuccessful 5- to 7-day circuit unit was reduced in length to a very successful 3-day unit.
Robotics Expanded: Math, science, and technology are inherent throughout these examples. The engineering is what perhaps sneaks up on people though, and there’s a lot of engineering throughout all of these activities. Given the new engineering portion of the Next Generation Science Standards, this is important. So as we build on these lessons, we apply these new standards because the fit is a naturally logical one. We started expanding robotics first because this tool formed the foundation of our transition. Through robotics we’ve worked on using the design process with the software as well as with basic hardware add-ons. Students design multiple solutions to the challenges we create, and improve upon the identified failure points. This circle of innovation is incredibly motivating and engaging for students, and we are spiraling this process outward into a constantly expanding integrated curriculum as we identify new tools and applications.
Ideas for Links & Resources
Two of Two Lightbulb Moments: http://corelaboratewa.org/lightbulb-moment-two-of-two/
Gates Foundation (Very Different) Variation of this Post: https://www.facebook.com/notes/teacher2teacher/your-students-are-your-best-resource/780133908794484
Video Lightbulb Moment via ReadyWA: http://www.readywa.org/martin-sortun-elementary.html
Other Teachers’ Lightbulb Moments on Twitter: #LightbulbMoment via @teacher2teacher
Engineering with Squirrels: http://corelaboratewa.org/engineering-with-squirrels/
Maker Ed Convening: http://corelaboratewa.org/transforming-computer-labs-into-stem-m-labs/
Washington STEM: http://www.washingtonstem.org/
Washington MESA: http://washingtonmesa.org/
IMSA PBL Website: https://www.imsa.edu/extensionprograms/problem-based-learning
NGSS Website: http://www.nextgenscience.org/
NSTA Website: http://ngss.nsta.org/
Genius Hour: http://www.geniushour.com/
T2T Website: http://teacher2teacher.education/