It was a late Saturday night when my colleague and coauthor, Erin Murphy, wrote the first draft of our introduction to Hacking Project Based Learning. When she handed it over to me for feedback, I have to admit I was a bit teary-eyed as I read through the excerpt that focused on the work I did with my students as a fourth grade teacher. (Yes, I loved my job.) More specifically, the first paragraph of the introduction is all about the egg drop project I facilitated – yes that egg drop project in which students are charged with designing a protective packaging for an egg in hopes of it surviving a drop from up high.
Nonetheless, I realize not all egg drops are created equal. Just like any other project, the extent to which students are engaged in inquiry, critical thinking, and creativity largely depends on the teacher’s decisions (some subtle, some not so much) during the project planning process.
That being said, let’s take a look at how my fourth grade egg drop compares to the egg drop I experienced when I attended space camp as an eight year old.
Experience #1: Space Camp Egg Drop
As an eight year old I absolutely loved partaking in the egg drop (which is one of the reasons why I still remember it)! More or less the process looked like this: Campers were given a whole bunch of materials from which they could choose in order to build protective egg packaging however they wanted. My product ended up including an empty Triscuit box, loads of packing peanuts, packaging tape, and a bit more. And, my egg survived the drop from the top of the camp’s building!
While there’s nothing technically “wrong” with a fun activity like the space camp egg drop, slightly tweaking the project’s directions could get campers (and students) to think on a much more critical level. As an eight year old I had the simple task of building packaging to protect an egg, and really not much thought and effort had to go into it (other than piecing together materials and inserting an egg into the middle of it all). But, if we add on a constraint or two, we are now engineering. Constraints can include: the packaging must be no wider than 1 foot, no heavier than 2 pounds, all materials must be biodegradable, etc. We want these constraints to promote critical thinking, but at the same time we also want to them to represent what an authentic product includes.
Experience #2: Fourth Grade Egg Drop
Here we took an approach that blended design thinking with the scientific method. More or less, here are the steps we followed:
- The entire class worked together to uncover the attributes of ideal egg packaging, from the consumer’s point of view: protective, small size, insulated, attractive, etc.
- In groups, students researched, planned, and recorded how their packaging would “satisfy” each one of the attributes. Then, they sketched their packaging, conferenced with the teacher, and got approval before moving on.
- Groups engineered their packaging using materials from the classroom and/or their homes, iterating as necessary as they went along.
- Products were dropped from the school’s roof, and then students reflected upon the entire process.
For the space camp egg drop we examined how to increase a project’s rigor, now lets see why and how we might want to go in the reverse direction by taking it down a notch…
While an inquiry-based approach should always be considered, we shouldn’t always be leveraging inquiry to the greatest extent possible. Some students (and maybe, teachers) simply aren’t ready for it. For example, if you take a look at what I did with my fourth graders, this process could be a bit too open-ended for younger students and/or students who are not used to learning in this fashion. So, one way to remove a layer of inquiry would be to alter step 2 by providing students with a list of specific options for how their product could satisfy the attributes of ideal egg packaging (which were determined in step 1). What we’re doing here is clearing a path by ensuring students have one less hoop to jump through on the way to their “destination,” while also allowing for them to exercise their creativity because they are provided options, not a definitive list.
In the End
Yes, I know we’re comparing a “fun” camp activity with something that was meant to be more inquiry-based, but the differences are worth noting as they demonstrate how the “same” project/activity can look entirely different depending on instructional design. In fact, on several occasions I have seen an entire grade level of teachers agree to roll out the same project, but unbeknownst to them, the learning that transpired from classroom to classroom was almost entirely dissimilar. Most of the time, these differences were due to (1) the different comfort levels of teachers when designing inquiry-based experiences, and (2) the willingness of these teachers to “let go” and allow for students to be at the center of the learning. Either way, let’s keep in mind…Just because you’re teaching the same project as the teacher next door, doesn’t mean students from both classes are always getting the same experience.
What are your thoughts on a project being the same but different?
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