Thursday, June 12, 2014

Respect and Good Work in a Bubble

I teach Scientific Research and Design (SRD), an elective science course for seniors, in the largest high school in Texas. Allen High School has over 6000 students. A week ago our community filled the American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks an Dallas Stars play, to celebrate the graduation of over 1500 students. There is only one school in our town, so eventually every kid in Allen is together; all income levels, all ethnicities and races. In a school the size of a small town it is important to provide opportunities within a classroom that not only teach the content but build community and foster good work.

With such a large school it is often the case that in a class of twenty five students any given student may only know one other person. I have had cases where a student who has lived in our community their whole life is in a class with no one they already know. We also enroll one hundred to two hundred new students each semester. SRD is problem based learning and it is essential to build a collaborative environment. Students must learn to work together with others outside their usual groups. To give this opportunity (or force the issue) at the start of the year, the first project begins with small groups selected by the students and becomes a whole class project. Students are tasked with designing a bubble out of a piece of plastic 50 feet by 10 feet that can be inflated with a standard box fan, has an entry, and can contain twenty students comfortably. The bubble will be used during the year by our class and then given to an elementary science teacher to use for lessons in the future.

In small groups they create proposals and model of their bubble. As a class we chose solely from the written proposal and model. After an opportunity to collaborate with the whole class to improve the plan, the chosen bubble is built for the whole class. The designers of the bubble are now the project managers and other jobs are assigned based on conversations about abilities and interests. Everyone must have a job every class period.

While students begin with a group they are comfortable working with, eventually they have to learn to work with everyone in the class. Personalities clash, skills are discovered and students learn to interact with one another with a goal in mind. Students range in academic ability from the struggling student to those taking Advanced Placement courses. Some students have never built anything before; others are welding barbecue smokers in other classes. They all must figure out how to relate, communicate and cooperate with one another. The expectation is that all discussions will be polite and constructive. This takes practice. Students have to learn to replace “that’s dumb” with “the problem with that is _____, and _____ might work better”.

One of the key steps in the project is between the selection and the build. This is the time where the class has the opportunity to be sure they are building the best bubble possible. The short time allotted for improvements to the bubble design is often painful for the winning designers. The class chose them so they must be the best. The other class members can go to the designers and suggest elements that they used that would improve our final product. It is difficult for the designers to hear some of the criticism, but they must listen and figure out a way to include the improvement or explain why the improvement will not be incorporated. This process helps student reflect on their work and learn to collaborate to improve their final product.

During the build more ideas pop up and opportunities for trouble shooting always present themselves. As they work through the process they must keep the goal of building the best bubble in mind. Every idea and solution must be measured against the knowledge that this is going to last for years and be used by other, younger students, and perhaps even their favorite elementary teacher.  This project breaks down walls between groups in the class. It also gives students a taste of what is to come throughout the year. Plan, try, make mistakes, learn, fix mistakes, learn and do your best work every day.