Cardboard Engineering and Origami Science
In some respects, I did everything backwards with my first Lightbulb moment. I shared a lot of exciting tools, but those tools cost a fair amount of money to procure. This takes time, and naturally slowed our implementation down. I’m learning that there are just as many low-tech ways to engage students. I like to call this “Cardboard Engineering” and “Origami Science” because we’re using everyday materials in innovative ways to accomplish the same educational purpose as much more expensive tools. The students really don’t mind. To this day, my most popular lesson series is an activity where students read “Those Darn Squirrels” and then design “squirrel launchers” using a Ziploc bag full of everyday materials like popsicle sticks and clothespins.
I recommend starting with this approach. The materials are much cheaper, much more accessible, and, most importantly, the students can continue this type of work at home with items from around their house. I’m actually part of an Engineering Fellowship that so far designed nine additional lessons around this idea. The first year of the program has 30 different teachers testing these lessons across 30 different schools. The lessons are a huge success, and more are coming. From using paper and tape to simulate bridges or empty pop bottles for rockets, the ideas are nothing new but the application and standards integration is not only new but powerfully engaging. I’d argue this is purpose-driven learning at its finest.
PBL Goes Together with STEM like PB&J
PBL has many different iterations from Project Based Learning to Problem Based Learning to Passion Based Learning to Place Based Learning… Phenomenon Based Learning is even a thing now. You get the idea. The central theme is the same across all of these manifestations though: provide students with a purpose to their learning. Some sort of driving and engaging question needs to not only hook student interest but guide their work. This work should culminate in some sort of meaningful communication, project, or presentation that has some level of impact on students. The final impression should be that students’ work, efforts, and thinking matter… because they do! This approach blends well with and even encompasses what I’ve been trying to accomplish with my students. I was originally focused on meaningful tools and technologies, but PBL takes a more global approach in the sense that it lends value to the actual work. Students can and should make a difference in their community. Their collective brain power is an under-utilized resource in our society, and utilizing that provides purpose-driven learning for the benefit of all.
One Lightbulb Grows into Many
Not quite enough for a chandelier, but my first lightbulb moment has been followed up by at least one to two more lightbulb moments. The inspiration that motivated me also motivated my principal, and together we created a brand new position that didn’t yet exist (at least to our knowledge). This position, STEM Integration Specialist, has since popped up elsewhere so our idea is not novel, but this is reassuring because it means that many of our colleagues consider the idea to be a good one. The idea is that a teacher leader acts as a resource for the building by helping other teachers bring purposeful technology into their classroom and assists those same teachers in designing PBL activities. Whether co-teaching, assisting, modeling, or coaching, the idea is added support to make this happen, because it’s not easy and certainly qualifies as “one more thing” on top of the “too many things” that teachers are already asked to do these days.
Beyond the creation of the position, lies the specter of burnout from adding too much. This is where PBL can actually be empowering for staff. The learning needs to help staff remember the sense of purpose that they brought into the profession. There’s no reason that a given activity or lesson series can’t tap into a staff member’s own passion. This is not just fluff. Passion cannot be taught or trained, but passion is contagious. The energy that grows from passionate teachers and students mobilizes learning in ways that few other things can. So we’re connecting staff, and students, with their passions in order to prioritize purpose for their learning. Together.
We’re also providing a place and a context to do this. We’re evolving our lab from computer lab to STEM&M lab. A place where STEM tools and approaches blend with Makerspace activities, concepts, and culture. This provides a venue for staff to empower students with tools that they may not have access to in their classrooms. This is not 100% of the time, but our goal is a reasonable 80/20. We spend 80% of the time on traditional curriculum, with the goal of spending 20% of our time giving the 80% purpose through passionate PBL activities that make a difference in our community.
Purpose-Driven Learning Emerges, Expands, and Inspires
I still sometimes have to answer the question regarding why students need to know something or when are they going to use it. The best part, though, is that usually adjacent students answer the question for me. They see the purpose behind their learning. I feel like we still have a long way to go overall with our plans, but this accomplishment invigorates me to keep going. I want students to see purpose to their learning. When the learning is purpose-driven, students are motivated to achieve and see reason as to why they’re doing a given activity. The reason for on-task behavior is no longer externally driven by a “carrot” and “stick” portion of a behavior management plan, the artificial motivation for a letter or number grade, or the indirect desire to please the teacher or another adult. The reason for on-task behavior and learning is an authentic desire to learn materially in order to directly solve a problem or complete a project. Purpose-Driven Learning is real. Students get that. Teachers get excited about that. In a world full of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, I believe that we must make every effort to instill a sense of reality to student-inspired learning.
So what are our next steps? Expanded integration across all subject areas. In some ways though, we are simply responding to authentic needs as we go. Perhaps truly student-centered learning via something like a “Genius Hour” concept would be appropriate. Whatever we do as we grow our program, I hope it to be authentic, meaningful, and relevant so that students are inspired to not just a sense of purpose in the classroom, but a sense of purpose to pursue outside of the classroom and beyond into life-long learning and perhaps even discovering a purpose for their eventual life’s work along the way.
Ideas for Links & Resources
One of Two Lightbulb Moments: http://corelaboratewa.org/lightbulb-moment-one-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
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/
T2T Website: http://teacher2teacher.education/
Genius Hour: http://www.geniushour.com/