For the third Marking Period, I started creating four to five day projects that allow students to experience the design process, also known as the engineering process. A video from Teaching Channel was passed on to me by a colleague, Janissa Nuneville, and I immediately knew I wanted to do this project! Granted it's been a couple years since she showed it to me, but I finally had the opportunity to put it into practice.
I love how the teacher in this class was the facilitator, not the bearer of knowledge trying to cram information into these kids' heads. Instead the learning took place through inquiry; the kids were excited about the project and it gave them a purpose for learning about energy and motion.
I also designed this project with third grade in mind, not middle school. At the third grade level, students are not exposed to concepts like kinetic and potential energy so unlike the class in the video, the transfer of energy was not our focus. Instead, our focus was on the design process. [Update: I also tried this project with Fourth grade and think it is perfect for them.]
The Design Process
How I "Wilburized" it
Designing on a budget
Next I decided that I was going to use the same denominations of money that United States uses so that the buying experience was more realistic. I made $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills in "STEM money". I decided to make actual paper money instead of having the kids work off a spreadsheet to make the project more fun and kinetically pleasing. I priced out the materials kind of randomly, mostly by size and by how many the students would need. In other words, tracks and connectors are smaller and I knew their roller coasters would need a lot of them, so I priced them cheaply at $3 and $5 respectively. The loop base is much larger and the students could only buy two of them, so I made it worth $20.
To determine the budget, I figured out how much it would cost the students if they bought the maximum number allowed for each item. Then I rounded down so that they would NOT have enough money to buy everything. I wanted the students to experience trade-off when deciding how to spend their money. The number I landed on was $200 per group. An awesome moment for me was when one group realized they didn't have enough money to get everything they wanted. They looked so shocked and disappointed. What a great life lesson they were experiencing! Then they started again by talking about what items they needed for their design. "We don't really need two cars..." I overheard one of them saying.
Roles for Engagement
I felt that if students chose their role, or negotiated the roles as a team, they might buy into it more. When groups could not decide fairly, "Rocks, Paper, Scissors" solved many arguments. Another option for groups who wanted the same role was allowing them to split it- one student takes it the first few days, then the other student gets a turn. I am still on the fence about having kids stay in their role all week (for the whole project), versus switching each day. The benefit to staying in their role is that they get efficient at it and do it well. The disadvantage is that other students will not get to experience it. For instance, the accountant will be the one doing math all week. [Update: After doing this project several times, I noticed that students helped each other with their role duties. Meaning that often the groups worked together to figure out the math part and the accountant kept track of the money and wrote it all down. Also they all had a hand in the building even though it was specifically assigned to certain roles; they were good at sharing and including everyone... most of the time.][Update #2: Project manager now also helps build the roller coaster and the recorder drops the car. On the first day, during the brainstorming/research phase, the recorder is also in charge of the computer for the virtual lab (not project manager as depicted in image above.)]
More about the money
One thing that made this project more exciting, but may have added to the confusion, was that groups could earn money too! Some reasons I gave out money were: working hard, working quietly, being respectful towards each other, having their ledger filled out correctly, cleaning up quickly, having creative ideas (example: a hill in their roller coaster). I've noticed that the students worked even harder, quieter, and quicker as they are looking for ways to get some "dough" so they could buy more stuff!
The students got very excited about this project, especially when they celebrated parts of their roller coaster that worked well. To keep the noise volume down, I let students know that I could file a "noise complaint" against their group and they had to pay me $10. That was helpful and students learned quickly after one complaint to try to keep quiet because they wanted to buy more things with their money, not waste it. Wandering away from their table is another way groups could lose money.
I "opened the store" for ten minute chunks of time in class. Then I "closed" it so that I could walk around and conference with each group. It was funny to see how antsy kids got when the store was closed... they couldn't wait for me to reopen! I felt that it taught another great life lesson- you can't always get what you want, when you want it. Sometimes you have to be patient and wait. And it was realistic since stores in real life close and sometimes you just have to wait until the next day. Closing the "store" also gave students a chance to plan out what they needed next, especially since they did not want to forget anything before it closed again. I did not have a set schedule for "opening" and "closing" the store; it depended on groups' needs and how quickly I could see everyone's progress and check their paperwork.
When I say "store", I'm referring to the table where I had materials in bins ready to be bought, and a cart for me. My "register" consisted of a rolling cart where students brought their items. I counted them out and gave them change. I had my money separated by denomination in small trays. It made it easy for me to give and get bills easily and neatly.
The recorder was in charge of completing the graphic organizer that has a spot to draw out the design of the roller coaster. Their drawing should have had labels on it. And also there was a chart where they recorded modifications that were made to the design and why. The purpose of the graphic organizer was to collect evidence of the design process, particularly the part where students must redesign and make improvements. I found that students didn't realize the word "modification" means changes made. Going forward I will add "modification" as a vocabulary word to preview.
Another advantage to doing this project with fourth graders instead is to team up with their teacher as they learn about forces and motion in Science. Students could complete this project as an interdisciplinary activity where they learn about the scientific phenomenon occurring within their roller coaster and do the actual designing and building in my class.
The kids LOVED it! The online simulation is very realistic and while it focuses on kinetic and potential energy, the students were naturally going through the design process as they had to make modifications to their layout when either: (1) the car(s) got stuck going up a hill or around a loop, or (2) the car(s) crashed at the end. The simulation also got kids thinking about how they could incorporate hills to change the speed of their car. After experimenting with the simulation, the groups then brainstormed how they could create their roller coaster in real life with the Hot Wheels materials they could afford. Many students reported that they continued to play with the online simulation at home after school.