Moving toward project based learning part 3: going all the way
In part one of this series on project based learning, I wrote about my frustrations with students seeing physics as an extended exercise in problem solving. In part two, I wrote about the end goal I have for my students, helping them to be like Rhett Allain. This post will discuss my first foray into project based learning, capstones.
Undoubtedly, one of the most promising parts of my physics class this year was the introductions of capstones. Capstones were small student-initiated projects that students, designed to show synthesis, that completed in multiple revisions to earn grades above 90. In the very best cases, these projects were outstanding. Students came to me with questions I had never thought of—like trying to figure out the spring constant of a backyard trampoline, determining whether or not it’s possible to stop a charging lion with a gunshot, or trying to test the idea than you can reduce the reading on the scale if you stand on your head for a few minutes beforehand. These projects forced students to conduct all sorts of interesting experiments—the stand on your head student build a model of a person that put a funnel inside a beaker on a scale, and then allowed various liquids (honey, ketchup, etc) to flow through the funnel to see if the mass reading changed while the liquids were in the air.
Many of my most exciting conversations with my students were with students around their capstones. They would come to me with real problems—things I wouldn’t instantly know the answer to, and we would work together to figure out the solution. At times, it felt like I was the leader of a fairly large research group always surprising me with new discoveries and questions. For students who fully engaged the capstone process, I think the results were even greater. As just one example, see how a 9th grade student of mine managed to write a VPython program to solve a 2nd order nonlinear differential equation and presented his work virtually to a roomful of physics teachers and professors—these are the learning moments I want to create for all my students.
But capstones also had their share of flaws. Some students saw them as extra hoops they had to jump through in order to get the grade they wanted. This led them to select projects mostly from the ideas I provided, and they were generally less invested in the project and often wondering if they’d done enough to get credit from me rather than trying to push their understanding or answer some question burning inside them. Also, capstones were done almost entirely outside of class, so it was easy for students to leave them until the last minute, and that created a mad scramble to thrown something together, get feedback from me and be done. In addition, midway through the year, a new social media policy from the school put a crimp in my plan to get feedback from outsiders, which I think significantly impacted the authenticity of these tasks. The students who did get feedback from others were often blown away that another teacher, professor or family member hundreds or thousands of miles away had taken the time to read their posts and comment.
Why not go all the way?
Throughout this past year, I’ve read blog posts from lots of amazing colleagues that talk about the power of fully embracing project based learning and putting the direction of learning in the course fully in the hands of students. Here just a few people who have shaped my thinking.
- Chris Ludwig taught a 2nd year student-designed
physicsphunsics class where students build a gigantic trebuchet, hovercrafts, a and a Physics Day filled with physics activities for the entire town. The most amazing thing is that all of these projects and topics of study were decided collectively by the class.
- Sean Cornally continually inspires me with the crazy awesome stuff he’s able to do with students—this year, he’s teaching biology, and his students are doing it in a completely project based way—giving students a list of objectives and letting them design projects to show mastery.
- Bo Adams writes passionately about having students invest their energies in taking on real-world problems like childhood obesity, and climate change. Bo along with Jill Gough has put this talk into action by developing the Synergy course for 8th grade students—a trans-disciplinary course that students co-create with Bo and Jill to explore and solve problems in their community and beyond. One post that has me thinking the most is Contemplating pbl vs PBL, which explores the spectrum of project based learning and delineates a difference between small scale project based learning, like making a poster about a famous mathematician, and project based learning that asks students to take on significant issues for an authentic audience—like having students work to develop a campaign to combat childhood obesity for the Department of Public Health for a local county.
- Bob Rhyske, a friend and former colleague wrote a wonderful post about the big problems we face, like the energy crisis, are going to require innovate thinkers who are capable of taking risks, making connections across disciplines, have a love for experimentation and design, and persistent.
- Just today, Dan Goldener shared a beautiful description of a course taught by Harold Fawcett in 1938, called the Nature of Proof, which was ostensibly a geometry course, but began with the teacher denouncing geometry as no longer necessary for students to learn and instead had the students debate about whether or not the school should give awards for outstanding achievement. Of course, this lead to great debate among the students,and eventually, the students saw the need to better define their terms, and work to see how their conclusions were often the results of unstated assumptions, and of course, all of this led back to students wanting to move to a less controversial topic, and so they began to study how we describe space, aka geometry, but never letting go of questions of proof beyond geometry, and so the class continues to analyze things like political speeches and supreme court decisions.
Reading all these and reflecting on all these ideas makes me feel like I’m playing in the kiddie pool by asking students to complete small capstone projects on their own while we spend the bulk of our time doing activities, labs and problems I’ve chosen.
Begin completely fanciful, impractical, not-well-thought-out musings:
So why not just dive right in? What about creating a course alongside students—similar to Chris, we start with the question of what is physics? What problems can it help us to solve, and by problems I mean real-problems, like why can’t produce electric cars that are competitive with gasoline powered cars on price and range? From there, we’d identify the things we’d need to understand to answer these questions, many of which I’m sure would tie back to basic physics concepts. From there, we’d begin research, reading texts and articles, doing experiments, and talking to experts. We’d also have devise ways of testing our understanding, and some final artificat (maybe a class built electric car) to close out our investigation.
Of course there are lots of schools where students have built electric cars or pulled off other similarly awesome projects and I’m sure that students who worked on these projects will have learned many lessons that will last them a lifetime. But the 13-year physics teacher wonders how this translates into understanding of the physics content and problem solving that I’ve relied on for so long. This is something I’ll try to explore in the next post in this series.