In STEM (STEAM, STREAM, and what-have-you) education, we talk a lot about prototypes. We outline criteria and constraints, design processing ourselves right into a “make” and then, after we build something loaded with potential, we inevitably have a dozen of the following conversations:
Student: Can I just turn this in? I just want to be done.
Teacher: We have time and space to make it even better, let’s go for it!
Student: Nah, I’m good.
The word prototype came about in the late 16th century from the Greek prōtotupos and means an original that has a copy or derivative. In short, you can’t have a prototype unless there is a follow up. When we don’t require an iteration, we short-change the learning experience for students who can and should take their awesome ideas and make them shine all the brighter.
The NGSS outline Engineering Design specifically to include a cycle, one in which the re-make is more important than the make in demonstrating learning. This is step three in the endgame, the optimization of a design solution. Students start out in the K-2 grade band evaluating solutions and in the 3-5 grade band are expected to revise solutions. Several times.
I know that each year’s group of students are a culmination of learning experiences yet I willingly take fresh responsibility for their relationship with the design process. I want students to leave understanding that the ability to build again is a gift, and without it we’d still have things like car phones.
Think about it. Car phones.
This year, I’ve tried to create a learning environment with two foci: alteration and perpetuity – in short, we are changing and adaptable, and expect more of the same tomorrow.
I teach in a school where the majority of students receive free or reduced-price meals, where more students than ever before are homeless or transitioning between homes, and an age group where life is a rollercoaster experience, whether or not one buys a ticket. Their lives are anything but static, and I admit to having an ulterior motive. If we can all be more comfortable with shifting, with trying again and moving forward, with the thought that every day can be better than the one before, then aren’t we increasingly ready to handle what comes our way in general?
In science we talk about prototypes, often in the form of models. Models help us to better understand science phenomena and help us solve problems for sometimes intangible concepts. How do we represent an idea that’s really big? Really small? An idea we don’t fully understand? Models helped me teach the Big Bang, glacial calving, and contagions, and each in its way was a prototype for next year’s work. As a teacher, I cyclically reflect on each year and consider how to build a better instructional model for the next. I’m building a career on prototypes, so to speak.
To assist in bringing that concept to students, to make it a commonplace part of their learning process, I’ve catalogued a few moves that helped build a culture where evaluation and recreation are the norm:
- I change our seating, often. Students rarely sit in one spot for more than a couple weeks, and the tables change formation just as often. The furniture I have isn’t flexible but the way I use it certainly is. What at the beginning of the year was upheaval is now just Tuesday.
- Asking, “and now?” when they share. There are many buildable questions from which to choose, such as “what about this?, “then what happened?” and even the simple “why?” I like asking what’s next in their perspectiveas it pops the ball right into their court of ownership. That question asks students to share their foresight, and often, how they are planning to get there. This means the aforementioned conversation shifts to:
Student: Can’t I just turn this in? I just want to be done.
Teacher: And now?
Student: And now I’m thinking that I need to go back over it.
(That third line is often prefaced with or followed by an early adolescent sigh, never-the-less it’s accompanied by another look at the activity, and more often than not, an improved product.)
- Show and tell my instructional adjustments. I love to let students check out my plan book. Sometimes what starts as curiosity and desire for a two-minute work break in the teacher’s chair, turns into astonishment over the quantity of changes with colored ink, washi tape, sticky notes, and anchor assignments that cover the pages. I also readily own my in-action, reflection-based changes, “I’d thought we would start on the assessment but now I think this simulation is what we need.” If students see and hear adults treating our professional work as a prototype, we are modeling the reality of work for many careers.
- Expect multiple outcomes for a given assignment. This one is tough, particularly as it seems we cram all the more learning into each year, but it is essential. Like my grandpa quipped about cookies, “two will always be better than one.” Here are a few resources about the design process and bulking up the expectation of prototypes in the classroom:
- Change those seats, and better yet, let the students choose how.
- Take a second (or third) look at developing and using models in the NGSS.
- Try some of the PBL action ideas at Teach Engineering.
- Learn that responsive teaching is all about the design process.
- and, Stanford has a guide for teaching physical protyping.
With all this talk about constant improvement, do we ever talk about staying the same? Absolutely. What doesn’t change is our dedication to the core values of ethics, integrity, and curiosity as our driving forces in STEM career fields and as what helps us grow as a species in charge of nothing short of saving the planet. What doesn’t change is my love for them as learners with whom I get to spend a year working on my craft while supporting them in building theirs.
After all, we are today a prototype of who we will be tomorrow.
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