I can clearly remember many examples of the opportunities my teachers gave me for hands on experiential learning. And I know that many of these experiences directly led me to academic and personal successes. So I try to make sure that I have similar opportunities for my class.
One of my favourite examples, is what I call the Great Paper Roller Coaster Challenge, as adapted from Andrew Gatt on his website.
Essentially, I tell the students that the city is looking to add a roller coaster attraction to a local park and is looking for mock ups of potential designs. Students score points for the length of time their coaster takes, the excitement value, the sturdiness of their build, and the use of a theme. They then subtract points for the cost of materials. Bigger isn’t always better! They also have a limited amount of tape, so they have to conserve it or buy more themselves.
You can see it’s very easy to frame this project as science or STEM, and outwardly, I do call it science and have students learn about the physics and math, but there’s a hidden curriculum here too. What makes this project really great is what’s not taught.
As students work in small groups, I know they’re going to have interpersonal challenges. Sometimes these are small, and quickly resolved, and other times they require mediation. These bigger ones give me a chance to sit down with students and have a frank discussion. Kids get a healthy dose of empathy and understand each other on a deeper level. I actually look forward to when the kids say, “Mr. Inscho, we just can’t work together!” In the end, these often become the most effective groups. The approaches to collaboration are fascinating to watch, too. Some groups delegate, some work as a unit, and others, they find a way that defies my description but still get to a finished project.
Individually, students learn to work carefully, patiently, creatively and think critically. If students are hasty or careless, their coasters fall apart and simply don’t work. It’s not uncommon for components to be disassembled and reassembled multiple times in order to get it right at the beginning of the project. By the end they’re much more patient and careful in their building. Simply by the nature of this project, I know that students are going to have challenges in bringing their creativity and design to functional reality. As I circulate, I offer some suggestions but generally let kids figure it out. It’s not beyond them and they’re proud of the solutions they come up with.
Finally we showcase the coasters and have other classes come through the room for an hour or two. Younger kids are in awe and excited to try them out while mine are pleased to share their creations. They’re also proud to explain to their peers what problems they overcame, and how they did it. Occasionally they use some scientific language to do it, but I’m satisfied with their applied knowledge. Yet often they are unaware of their most significant learning: the perseverance, critical thinking, and collaboration. Perhaps I should make that more explicit. Perhaps not. Would you?