The beginning of the school year brings lots of blogs, tweets, articles, and discussions about new things to try in the classroom. It is a time of new beginnings and challenges. But it can be overwhelming when we layer in the many new initiatives, pedagogies, and technologies we can choose from. It is often a time of year when educators and administrators alike take a revolutionary view of what needs to happen in the classroom, instead of stepping back, keeping what works, and making impactful evolutionary changes. Teachers who barely have enough time to manage the content mandated by standards and curriculum initiatives, along with many personalities and stories that occupy their classroom desks, have very little energy to invest in new format and delivery methods. As a result, many new teaching pedagogies, methodologies, and projects quickly become half-hearted, layered-on, and disconnected.
STEM teachers across the country are confronting many of these challenges. The ideas embodied in the NGSS rightfully encourage more application in general along with the inclusion of engineering. As a result, all sorts of STEM “projects” have appeared online and in print. Many look like a lot of fun, but a truly good project needs to multi-task and it needs to be more than a beauty contest. Making, tinkering, and designing all have a place in STEM curriculum, but in our rush to provide hands-on opportunities we often forget the disciplines that frame the acronym, Science and Math. Those are still the cornerstones of concepts in STEM and they should form the basis for projects.
The reality of most schools is that there is always a good deal of content to be learned and, given all of the constraints and demands that teachers face, that needs to remain their priority. If a project does not focus on the scientific concepts that need to be covered, it will be rushed, or be assessed quickly based on appearances, or become a “one and done” effort. In short, there will be no time for learning and the PBL will be missing its “L”. The “projects” just become one of the “problems” that teachers face in an already full day.
Students do learn some skills and techniques from having to work in groups and by working with artifacts from the designed world. But not much science is learned by gluing together spaghetti and building a bridge that looks good. Dropping eggs from up high without a discussion of momentum and impulse is really just a contest not a project. Very few chemistry projects that make “slime” involve really exploring cross-linking and the microscopic changes that create the properties of the new material or even investigating the uses of the original PVA that forms its basis. Making edible cells and creating DNA from gumdrops and pompoms is not really constructing models unless some sort of justification for the material choices is linked to the science behind the model. A recent NSTA publication featured an entire article on making fasteners without any discussion of elastic behavior. And it is even questionable whether fasteners make a very engaging introduction to the engineering process which is the focal point of the activity.
At ProjectEngin, we begin by asking science and math teachers where they want the project to fit into their curriculum. We “lead” with science and math, follow a path laid out by the Engineering Design Process, and arrive at a technology that is a solution to the problem. The Engineering Design Process, in the hands of a good teacher, is a powerful STEM tool. It contains natural entry points for concepts and provides opportunities to bring the focus back to science and/or math. Students document a design rationale highlighting the scientific reasons for the decisions. They should always be encouraged to justify and document any modifications that they make to their designs after prototyping and testing. Science and math should provide a foundation and springboard for the entire project. We really don’t have the luxury of activity for activity’s sake and there is no reason to leave the L out of PBL in STEM classes since engineering design provides a natural framework for providing both the project and the learning.
Much of what you teach in science class reappears in the designed world as an engineered process or product. Our projects focus on bridging that gap. Adaptation and natural selection lead to designing camouflage for wildlife photographers. Investigating solid materials in the classroom and their properties leads to making connections to bonding and micro-structure. And students learn how material options can limit or support product design. Energy transfer and simple machines leads to the more complex system of the car or bicycle and the design of a mousetrap car. And they learn that a car does not have to have gasoline and can gauge the viability of some of the more sustainable solutions.
Engineering can also help you find that balance between inquiry and transmission of knowledge. We start all of our projects out with some basic concepts related to the science behind the challenge. We call it the developing some “expert knowledge”. Online resources, videos, and even some direct instruction can help to frame the problem and generate a starting point for background knowledge. Knowing what the design project will be generates a “need to know” for students and they develop a more detailed knowledge base and begin to make connections. We carefully map out “job descriptions” for most project teams, often requiring individaul students to gain a little more specialized expertise to be shared with the group in support of a synergetic effort to gain understanding and apply concepts. All final documentation and communication of results loops back to a technical justification based on the science behind the project. All of our projects are designed to highlight engineering design as a process, not just a hands-on activity. And while the finished product matters, the assessments we design with teachers always reflect that the process and the explanations are more important. That is where the real, transferable learning occurs.
We have successfully designed both individual classroom projects and curriculum for full courses this way. And it sticks! Teachers truly get hooked and students become engaged in their own learning process. It works because we don’t layer on – we work with what is already there.