In 6th grade Science, learning goes beyond notes and readings. Students practice more traditional skills like finding information in a text, how to efficiently study for a test, and how to take notes and refer back to them. However, they also practice how to come up with creative solutions, how to work with a partner, and how to persevere through challenges. Throughout the year, students are tasked with designing and building different items related to the unit they have been studying. Towers of spaghetti and marshmallows, catapults that launch candy corn pumpkins, water wheels, a container that will keep an egg from breaking when it is dropped, insulating containers, and solar-powered mini-cars are a few examples. For every task, students are given a list of materials they can use, most of which are common household items. Plastic spoons and cups, takeout container lids, popsicle sticks, wooden dowels, and reused cardboard are some of the most frequently chosen materials.
The first part of any project like this is for students to make an initial design and plan. Partners must come together to create one design, which often means compromise. With limited time to build, students must learn to work efficiently, and divide work between partners. Along the way, they must answer problems that don’t have easy answers. How can you connect a wheel to an axis where both spin together, and also allow the axis to spin in a stand? How can you connect two gears in a way that they are not far enough away from each other to not spin each other, but not so close that there is too much friction for them to spin at all? How can you connect an axis to a car while still allowing it to spin? And finally, how do you use the frustration of having an idea not work to move forwards?
Students must work with a growth mindset, as it is inevitable that part of their design will not work exactly the way they intended. They have to determine what it is that is not working, and what can be done to fix it.
While students are building, I offer minimal suggestions and guidance. My most common response to their asking for help is the question - “What haven’t you tried yet?”
Some students realize that their initial idea will not work, and they have to return to the drawing board and try something completely different. Others are able to make slight modifications, and continually make adjustments until they are told they have to stop building. Multiple failed attempts only makes the satisfaction of creating a working product in the end that much greater. Motivation goes beyond a grade, but rather students seek the gratification of making something that actually works. The enthusiasm students have when they find their design works is incredible, and the testing area is often filled with shouts of excitement.
Projects like this allow students to apply the information they have learned in class, but also allows them to gain many valuable skills. If education seeks to prepare students to be productive members of society, what better way to prepare them for the “real world” than giving them real problems to solve? In a world where information is easily accessible, creativity, problem-solving abilities and cooperation are increasingly valuable. Students may forget how to figure out the mechanical advantage of a wheel, but learning to work with a partner, persevere through challenges, and think of creative solutions are skills that will be valuable throughout their academic career and beyond.