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Make It _______________!

STEM teachers have it easy when it comes to project-based learning. By definition, Engineering uses Science and Math to create Technologies to solve real-world problems. It would appear that all the answers are there in the acronym. In theory, it seems simple, but in practice there are a number of challenges.

I have been working on developing new projects and curriculum for biology, chemistry, math and middle school teachers for the past 6 weeks as part of my contract to coordinate STEM programs at a local school. Despite all of my previous experience at this sort of thing here in my own classes and overseas as a Fulbright researcher, new twists always arise in the implementation. I guess it supports what I have been saying all along – no curriculum is valid until it goes “live” with a classroom full of students and their teacher. In just the past few weeks, I have had very different experiences with same project when working with two biology teachers and when working with two chemistry teachers. It’s led me to the formulate four simple “rules” to use as guidelines for any project or curriculum unit.

1. Make it matter

2. Make it real

3. Make it manageable

4. Make it fun!!!

And maybe, I should add a fifth – make time to reflect and revise!

Here are some specifics.

1. Make it matter. No teacher has the luxury of time. It is an unfortunate fact, but it is difficult to find class time in curricula that are as packed as most of our high school science courses are. And, as all teachers will attest, planning time is very valuable. The beauty of shifting traditional verification labs to engineering design projects is that you can make use of time you are already planning to use to cover a concept. The challenge is in finding the time to let students truly explore aspects of design thinking, allowing opportunities to make mistakes and time for modifications. It really does work best if a few concepts can be covered in one longer term design project. But it takes some time to get to that point in a course and it can be difficult to design a multi-concept project so early in the school year. The best approach might be to take some time to get students onboard early in terms of engineering thinking by using a quick build project as an icebreaker early in the year. Focus can then be on the process rather than the concepts. (Contact me at for some easy ideas) Designing projects with clear connections to subject content for later in the course might be easier if students came to the project with some idea of how to “engineer”. Plus, teachers can devote more attention to maintaining focus on concepts in later projects rather than on introducing engineering skills.

In my recent experience, one teacher took a project designed with more of an engineering approach, loaded in pieces of old lab curriculum and far too many concepts and basically ended up with a mess, literally and figuratively. Too many pieces and lack of clear focus makes it too difficult for students and, in this case, the teacher to follow.  As much as project-based and active learning are student-driven activities, they need a teacher who has a clear road map connecting the project to what matters in terms of learning. Without it, the activity is “hands on” with little “minds on” value. And no one can afford that!

2. Make it real. News flash – the real world our students live in is a highly engineered environment. It makes no sense to exclude engineering from what they learn in school. Countless studies have shown that meaningful connections to student experiences and opportunities reinforce learning. In our highly designed world, science and math courses have to be connected to the real world. And it is incredibly easy to do so!

Designing a project with real world connections and meaning provides you with numerous opportunities to tap into, and in some cases, correct prior knowledge.  Student interest is engaged when things are real to them. A project I am currently working on involves adding some material science into an introductory high school chemistry course. It gives students a chance to explore, categorize, characterize and design using the solid materials around them. These are materials that contain a wide range of elements and molecules, but that are often left out of traditional courses where the focus is often on the gas and liquid states. Students can experience the solid world so much more readily and have actually developed their methods of categorizing and characterizing materials well before taking a chemistry course. It makes no sense to discount many years of real world experience in our efforts to teach chemistry.

3. Make it manageable. This in a way goes back to my first point. Too many ideas and skills can kill any project. It seems that in the quest for interdisciplinary, skills-laden content it can be easy to create a potpourri of “stuff”, without any real plan or meaning. As much as I like working in a large design space, with few constraints and criteria, it can be overwhelming. Curriculum itself needs good engineering, with careful adherence to the constraints of time, knowledge base, cost and space and with an eye to the primary criteria of content mastery. It is worth watching and working with a teacher and class in advance in order to gauge what level of structure makes sense. Younger students and larger classes may need forms to keep track of the steps in the process. Teachers in such an environment may need the same forms for assessment. There is a very fine balance between structure and an overly-scripted activity, and it definitely varies from class to class, teacher to teacher.

I view manageability as a two pronged approach. In terms of content – no more than two engineering skills and two concept ideas should be the main focus. And in terms of format, there should always be a very clear road map with whatever milestones are needed to delineate the path.

4. Make it fun.  Why should any learning be painful? It should always be exciting, engaging and somewhat entertaining. Students are human and there is far too much competition for their attention and too many other resources available to them to assume it is okay if they are bored in school. It is never okay! No one likes doing things that don’t interest them, that don’t value their input or that are overwhelming. Giving students ownership not only of their learning but of their current knowledge gives an activity value. 20-30 people bring an enormous range of talent, creativity and knowledge into one place and we very rarely design classes to take advantage of it. A classroom should always be an incubator for new ideas.

Make it matter, make it real and make it manageable – the fun will always follow!


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