After a brief activator Day 2 of The UNCG STEM TLC Summer Introductory Institute got down to business. Initially the morning focus centered around rich vocabulary and the importance of teaching materials properties -floppy, firm, saggy, rigid, flexible, stiff, light, heavy, shiny, slippery, clear, opaque. We refreshed our belief that providing our students with the language to describe materials helps them to better understand how to use them.
That discussion segued into the whole group task for lesson 3 of our windmills unit. As engineers we were charged to construct the sail for a sailboat. We brainstormed whole group giving participants the opportunity to share their thinking. “Sails are designed to manipulate the wind.” When asked to think about a sail for a sailboat compared to the blade a windmill, someone noted, “Sails on a boat might be positioned differently on sails than a windmill.” As a group we determined the properties of sails are sturdy, tough, resistant and taut, flexible, resistant, lightweight, waterproof, thick, durable, not porous.
Taking the task to their teams the creativity, problem solving, and collaboration made the room hum. “Could potentially be good for a sail” One team member stated as she paired paper with the wax paper in an effort to make the sail waterproof. “I didn’t even think about it being waterproof,” another teammate chimed in. One team focused on mast creation. They wanted the base to be sturdy while the top of the mast was flexible. In this team, further examination of other paper combinations determined that the tissue paper would be lighter than regular paper and could also be paired with the wax paper. The index card size was an issue making it a reasonable contender for this group. “Are we building for real life? Out there the wind is only going one way?” the team wondered. The curve and rigidness of the cup came into play as they considered catching the wind and just going one way. “Too many choices.” The group began to draw on the prior knowledge of seeing pirate ship sails in books and movies. “I wonder if we could bend the index cards…” “If we do it this way we create that aerodynamic.” The team went back to identifying properties of other materials. The foil is crinkly, metallic, flexible, sturdy, shiny or reflective, it holds its shape, moldable. “When wind catches it will it unfold?” someone pondered. As teams were called back to the whole group someone said, “This is a fun one. I don’t want to gather.” When the team came back together it was time to create a model prototype sail, with the new understanding after whole group discussion that the only variable we were testing was how it tests in wind, not in water. Going with the sturdy base design of the popsicle stick but the flexibility of the coffee stirrers this team went with the double sail design using a piece of paper folded over on the bottom and the index card serving as the small sail on top both curved to catch the wind in the spirit of a 16th century pirate ship. Innovative designs ranging from complicated to simple were built across the teams. Some teams tried to find multiple ways to harness the wind. For instance on team tried using a plastic bag loosely wrapped around a triangular frame built of popsicle sticks with a cup, open end facing the wind, affixed to the top. Another team used a simple design with a sheet of tissue paper attached by opposite corners to the top and the bottom of their mast. Both teams considered their sails successful. They defined successful by the ability of their sail to harness the wind to move their boat.
As teams gathered around the rails to test the sails the foyer of the School of Education building echoed with whoops, clapping, accolades, laughs, and cheers and a “Yeah baby!!!” sailboats successfully set sail on the fan driven wind down tracks of fishing line or twine.
We took some time to study how we use and teach our students to use data and how we elicit robust dialogue amongst our students with and without teacher assistance. We took a minute to make a list of high quality questions we can ask as we walk between our student engineering teams or when we lead whole group. Questions like:
What evidence do you have that will work differently or better?
What are your successes and next steps?
Explain the process you would use to improve your design?
What properties of the materials seem to work the best?
Describe the materials that were not successful and why you think they didn’t work?
What can you learn from another team’s design?
This led to how we get our students to function within teams so they are resolving conflict themselves and having task driven discussions that are meaningful without adult intervention. One solution: have the students call-in. One way to do this is to use sentence stems. They help get kids started in their dialogue. “I wonder…”“I am not confidant…”“Can we think about it some more…”“How do we all feel about it?”
Coming back to our wind investigations we broke out into teams. This time with our design challenge – to create blades for a windmill that would harness enough wind to lift a cup of washers. The teams worked together. “We’re using our data” could be heard from one group. “Remember we made it a square last time. That worked.” The room was buzzing with problem solving, working through the shape and materials of the blades and how to position them. As with the sail experience, the teams did not want to stop. Again the foyer where the windmills were being tested resounded with hoops, hollers, and productive authentic dialogue about the process, the results and how to potentially improve the design, just as we see with our students during the culminating engineering projects. Genuine 21st century skills in action. There was so much enthusiasm we didn’t want to stop. One teacher quipped that she going to try to work on improving her design at home. Small group work continued with focused eagerness. So much so it was decided we would return to our small group endeavors tomorrow.
The perfect end to yet another exhausting but very satisfying day was a round of "Just like me". A game in which a statement is read and if the statement applies to you, you stand up and say “Just like me!” The statement drawing the largest applause was the statement “I had fun today!” Not an ordinary sentiment coming out of professional development but one that speaks volumes about the teacher support of teaching engineering in our classrooms.