My workshop today was to really time looking at kid’s science and engineering thinking and work. Couple of things I noticed:
1) In many cases, the problem was not as clearly defined as the teacher thought, which resulting in kids going off in different directions. Actually, this may not be a bad thing, as it is typical of real world engineering. But that should be a conscious decision.
2) Kids misunderstand each other a lot and do not always share the same language, which results in misunderstandings. Teachers sometimes starting with having kids represent their thinking with drawings, but did not always persist in that. The drawings could help a lot to clarify the words. I would say in my experience in engineering, that they are much more important than words in expressing critical concepts.
3) When analyzing these lessons and thinking about how the you, as the teachers, might, have done things differently, the answer in almost all cases is: it depends on your goals for the student. I saw many examples today where the direction would be different depending on if the goal was:
- A science concept,
- Wanting the students to understand and experience the scientific process,
- Wanting the students to understand the engineering process. In the examples, we looked at today, the directions one could go with the students depending a lot on how the problem was defined and the constraints and objectives of the problem.
An interesting example of this was one of the video clips from the today. The problem given to the students was to design an instrument that made at least 3 tones: high, medium, and low. They had elastics, Legos, and balloons. The students in the study first tried to build a square with pegs sticking out of it so that the elastics could be made to be different lengths. Even with a cross beam, the square collapsed, and they went right to a triangle, which was a previous idea they had considered. Eventually, the abandoned that idea too. (They said it was hard to play though we did not see that part.) They finally went with more of a simple harp design with string of different lengths on each Lego beam.
So an interesting question is: how much should the teacher encourage the students to pursue their square idea?
To me, it depends on the goals you have. I think in many cases, these goals are not clear to us ahead of time and we respond instinctually when interesting subproblems arise. In this case, there is a really interesting engineering problem of what shapes can support the most weight.
What would you have done?
For me, instinctually, I would have wanted them to work on their square because it is an interesting problem. However, if the goal is the underlying science concept of sound frequencies and wavelengths, the shapes problem is not of direct interest. If the goal is to to explore the scientific process, you would want them to explore this problem. If the goal is to explore/understand the engineering process, I think the answer is less clear. While the square problem is a great engineering problem, a simpler solution is the harp solution. So it depends how you define the engineering problem. Is the goal the simplest/best solution or to explore the most interesting engineering problems? Is the goal to have the students persist more in their solutions? Is is to be able to reject ideas that don’t work and consider alternatives?