Monday, February 23, 2015

What Do I Do Next?

This year my senior science class has embarked on a learning journey. This class has been evolving from a traditional second year physics to a project-based learning (PBL) class that applies first year physics to real world situations. This year, we are researching and choosing a quad copter to build in class. While I am familiar with smaller projects, this is my first time to try a big project on a topic that I am learning along with the students. Since this opportunity was unplanned, I am working to stay one step ahead. (Not good practice for any class, especially PBL.)

Students have been made responsible for learning about flight along with real word skills like creating proposals and researching legal, safely and liability issues. I do not have the answers and often cannot affirm the students without some of my own research. They have become accustomed to the phrase “let’s look that up and see what we can learn”.

Notes froma class discussion
Recently students have struggled with what to do next. Our work takes multiple days and varies from research, labs, and communicating results. Students are asked to show what they have learned. This often makes assignments open ended. Students are given expectations and rubrics for guidance and assessment, but are more comfortable with concrete questions, blanks to fill and multiple choices to make. With assignments, students submit work and I assess and give feedback. Students are encouraged to add or correct based on the feedback.  Since we need to have the knowledge to succeed, it is not about the grades. They have not adjusted to the idea that submitting and assignment might not mean you are done. They have been trained to complete and move on.

It is taking work to fight this idea. Some of the students understand this is a different class. They love the freedom to learn. They like the real life experiences as well as the choices they have while we progress through the project. They are excited that this is all their learning and work. The lost students will be found and they too will being to appreciate the opportunity to make this their own class. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

How Deep? How Wide?

Each year I am part of the curriculum team. We work together during summer and mid-year. Our team is tasked with setting the pace for the course as well as defining the depth based on our state standards, TEKS. Our TEKS define the topics and concepts to teach. We cover all of them to some extent. The struggle starts with how long to give students to master a topic. In Texas every high school student is expected to complete a physics course to graduate as one of the four required science courses. The next struggle is deciding how much math should be required to solve the problem and   complexity of the problems.  So many variables make this a difficult balancing act.

Over time, the transition from a traditional lecture-based class to a fully flipped classroom has helped increase the depth of learning. Basic concepts, equations and examples are delivered through a video lesson done prior to class. This leaves our entire class time to apply and explore the ideas presented. Instead of having 30 minutes to run through data collection, we have 90 minutes to complete a lab and discuss the results. Other days, instead of sending students home with 5 – 10 practice problems, they have time to try activities that are designed to engage as well as provide the important practice needed to understand how math and physics come together with the guidance of their teacher and peers.

As activities are improved and students rise to the challenge of more thoughtful activities we are encouraging students to dig deeper into physics without overwhelming them with impossible tasks. I would like to see a model where students are given the information and can choose how they create depth. There will still be practice problem, but the amount could be tailored to the student need, not the length of the worksheet. Students will still have multiple choice tests, but they could also show learning in other ways.

Every year, things are tweaked and adjustments are made to make the course better for the students. With the right changes and the encouragement to innovate, we can move towards enough depth without the feeling of being rushed to cover content.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Slogging Through the Mud in PBL

In October I was presented with a marvelous opportunity, building quad copters in my Scientific Research and Design (SRD) class. My classes and I enthusiastically started off on a journey that would end with a cool result. The plan is to evaluate our skills, define our needs/plan, find an appropriate quad copter, create a proposal for administrators, purchase, build and execute the plan. It all sounds interesting, to me. To the students, some of it has been more work than fun. (They were expecting fun!)

The work becomes hard when students are asked to do something that has usually been provided for them in the past. Deciding which quad copter and defending the choice was the first big hurdle where student interest started to dwindle. By suggesting we don’t just present, we “Shark Tank” the presentations with administrators as the panel got the students re-energized. They even tried to get Mark Cuban to come and Shark Tank their projects. Mr. Cuban didn't make it, but our superintendent made a last minute appearance. Having a real audience helped students see the importance of their work. 

Now we have chosen and are finding out that what we are going to do is dangerous and there are possible legal issues. They are doing research for our principal to present to risk management. To keep them interested, we’re doing small experiments that will help with the quad copters later on. Propellers and shapes in wind tunnels, parachute design and air resistance. We are nearing the end and should be able to order our parts soon.

I anticipate the build to be exciting. I’m sure that there will be struggles. Keeping a whole class going on the one project is interesting. We will have a blogger, a safety planner, a flight trainer along with the students who are digging into the actual build. Wish me luck as I try to avoid another mud puddle.