Jonathan Rothman writes about a "just-right" project, one that engages students while meeting educational goals.
I teach math and a maker class called Tech & Design at the Academy for Software Engineering (AFSE) in New York City. We’re an unscreened public school that serves as the pilot for the CS4All initiative that was launched by the de Blasio administration in 2016. As such, students take a course in computer science each of their four years at our school.
Our initial charter set out to create a school that would serve as a pipeline to jobs and bachelor programs in Computer Science for students of all backgrounds. We’re in our fifth year now and we’ve found success in that goal with some of our students, but realized early on that - as the unscreened public school system is set up - a percentage of the students that end up at our school land there unintentionally and, as a result, have little interest in computer science. Within this context, we decided to create a maker program to serve those students who needed a CS course, but were not interested in, say, programming in Java. In a sense, this flips the paradigm of maker education on its head - instead of serving as an opt-in or elective course, Tech & Design is a requirement for 75% of our juniors.
With this non-opt-in model, developing a course that meets the standards-based requirements of the Common Core, while meeting our computer science department’s goal to develop our students’ ability to reason programmatically while - and here’s the kicker - being truly engaging to our kids can be a genuine challenge. But it’s one that I’ve been excited to take on as, when successes come, they feel like the kind of thing that can be rolled out to other schools working with similarly diverse and, for a proportion of our kids, high need backgrounds.
With three years teaching within this context, I’ve stumbled upon certain projects that I would say hit the sweet spot with regards to student engagement and educational goals. I ran one of those as an end-of-semester project this past January. Succinctly titled “The Lid Project”, the premise was fairly simple. Students were given a canned good. Their task: design a lid that not only fits, but seals the can.
Make no mistake, I was scared in rolling out this project. It’s always a bit of a high-wire act running an activity for the first time. But this was bigger. This was a multi-day, open-ended challenge. I could provide some guidance, but students were the primary drivers of their own learning and understandings. These are the kind of projects which, if they go wrong with my students, go very wrong. Like half-the-class-checked-out-while-the-other-half-shrieks-for-help-every thirty-seconds wrong.
But it didn’t go wrong. In fact, in three years of teaching maker education, it was my most successful project to date, with many of my more “checked out” students staying focused in class and coming in after school to test their model.
So why did it go so right? Well, it’s not because I stepped back entirely and let the students drive the whole time. The project was structured and there was a crystal clear understanding of what a successful project would look like - either the lid fit and sealed or it didn’t. What other structures were provided? Students were given cans and looked at examples of lids for metal cans. We researched and evaluated can-sealing lids at online stores and discussed features that they had in common. I showed them the model that I was working on, so they had a foundation from which to work. Lastly, and most importantly, structure was provided at the beginning of each class in the form of a mini-lesson that addressed where students were at in the process and where they were getting stuck. Where possible, I encouraged those students who had engineered their way around those issues to share their tips and strategies.
Another reason the project went over well? The modeling requirements didn’t go beyond their skill level. In fact, a lid is one of the easier objects to model. So the project provided some challenge for their modeling skills, but nothing so far beyond what they had done previously as to lead to a serious roadblock.
Related to not going above the student’s skill level, the project also came after two months of lessons that focused on the development of fundamental modeling skills that were steeped within the modeling application that they were asked to use for this project - in this case, Tinkercad. After three years, I’ve developed a well-tested sequence of skill-building lessons and activities. Starting with navigation, moving into transformation (scale, rotation, translation), then grouping, dimensioning, and alignment. This meant that students had developed strong skill within the software and the conceptual underpinnings of modeling.
Lastly, what I’d like to say about this project - and any “just right” project - is that there was a certain amount of “right thing, right people, right time” happening that’s difficult to plan. After teaching for six years, I’ve come to understand that - despite its success this year - the same project rolled out in the same way might well flop next year. And next year’s students will run into different misunderstandings and so will need different scaffolds to address them.
And so any teacher hoping to use any teacher’s project will always need to approach their implementation with a certain amount of reflection, mindfulness, and flexibility. I’ve already planned to add one more lesson before rolling this out next year - a full class on accurate dimensioning with calipers and capturing those dimensions along a sketch. The weak point in so many of my students’ submissions was the planning phase of the project.
Even with the need to adjust for specific groups and contexts, I’ve always found it much easier to build upon someone else’s work than to develop a project from scratch. For that reason, I’m always happy to share my materials (linked below). Should you use them, please feel free to adapt as you see fit. And if you’re moved to comment, I’d love to know - what requirements have you found for the “just right” project? What projects have you rolled out that have hit the sweet spot for your classroom? And if you’d like to try the lid project, how might you need to adapt it to work with your students?