Saturday, July 09, 2016

Inquiry + Lego + Scratch = Magic!

"We only think when confronted with a problem."*
~ John Dewey

Last year when our parent association provided us with 12 sets of WeDo Lego I was over the moon, knowing that the students were going to love working with this material as they explored simple machines during a unit of inquiry. And it was fantastic - the kids loved it, the parents and other teachers were impressed by the complex creations the students had built and I was thrilled with the compatibility to Scratch which allowed them to programme their mini-robots.

But (and there is usually a but when you jump right into something new!) I wasn't as happy as I thought I would be. After thinking about the experience with the students I realised that it was just too prescriptive and I questioned how much the students had actually learned. They followed directions really well and built some very interesting machines, but there was nothing creative about the process. There were no challenges to solve (except perhaps for a few of the programming aspects) and I honestly do not think it deepened their understanding of how simple machines worked or why we might use them.

This year I vowed to do things differently. While I love using Lego and I knew the potential was there for some highly engaging learning experiences, I had to reconsider what I was doing in my limited time as a technology teacher with the students. I went back to my roots and approached the unit on simple machines as I would if it were my own class, embracing inquiry and project-based learning.

With their homeroom teachers, my Year 3 (Grade 2) students explore the central idea: Humans use their understanding of simple machines to serve a variety of purposes, learning  about simple machines, how they work and what they might be used for in our daily lives. After some initial research[1], I created a project that I hoped would extend and deepen this understanding through our once a week technology lessons using WeDo Lego and Scratch: We would build an amusement park for Mini-Lego people!

I had been using the Engineering Design Process with older students and thought that this might be a good invitation to the project. After an initial discussion about what an engineer does, we decided it was important to learn about the materials they would be using as engineers in the project and so, the first step was some free exploration time. Our first lesson was devoted to playing with the Lego pieces, experimenting, asking questions about what they might do, trying to make things fit and work. Many of the students quickly made connections to the simple machines they had explored in their classrooms and some of the students with previous Lego and Scratch experience recognised the motors and sensors. I was already happier than the previous year's experience with the level of discussion and the willingness of the students to take risks and help each other.

During out next meeting students formed engineering teams to test the effect of gears on a wheel and axel. Using this presentation, we had a guided exploration of some of the key pieces they would need for the eventual project task. I owe a debt of gratitude to Tim Ewers, whose lesson on WeDo Robotics in the Classroom formed the basis of our tests. Students built a simple propeller, programmed it to run using Scratch, and then observed and recorded the effects of changing motor speed and adding different gears. At the end of the lesson we shared our findings and discussed how this information might be useful to us as engineers when designing and building something.

Our next meeting built on the ideas from the previous lesson, now with a focus on pulleys and belts. I decided that it would be helpful to build one of the Lego Education projects to give students some experience in following directions and seeing how the WeDo pieces can fit together. The Dancing Birds project was a great fit as it introduced not only the pulley and belt, but also the crown gear to the students, while reinforcing the use of axles and gears. Again, students worked in their teams to collect data about the effects of using different types of belts and pulleys and at the end of the lesson we shared our findings and continued the conversation about what we had learned as engineers.

It was now time to introduce the project, time to become Amusement Park engineers! We shared what we already knew about amusement parks, why people might go there and what a good ride might look like. Using this presentation, I shared the task with the students:
You are an amusement park engineer. You have been asked to work in a team to design and build a new ride for the Lego Mini Amusement Park. 
Then, the students and I developed the following success criteria that we added to the slide:

Your ride must:

  • Be built using Lego
  • Fit at least one Lego mini figure
  • Move
  • Be programmed in Scratch to move automatically
  • Include at least one simple machine

We discussed some possible rides for our amusement park and then students formed new teams based on their initial ideas of what they may want to design. The groups looked at books and pictures of amusement parks and then sketched their ideas for their own rides. After sketching, students were asked to think about how they might build these ideas using Lego and this often led to a redesign, especially for some of the more elaborate ideas.

Once a team's design was agreed upon by the group, the building, testing and tinkering phase began. Without a doubt, this was my favourite part of the entire project. The students began building and immediately started testing their ideas. They were trying things and when it didn't work, they would try something else - showing great determination as well as flexibility their thinking. Students listened to each other, learned from each other and helped other teams when they discovered how to make something work. My role during this phase was really one as a co-learner, working along side the students. I am not a Lego expert and for many of their problems, I did not know the answer and so we learned together. It was an amazing experience!

The building, testing, tinkering lessons carried on for a few weeks and the level of student engagement never waned. In fact, every week I was insisting that students stop working and go for their lunch break - I'm sure they would have stayed in working on their rides all afternoon. Before we put all of the rides together into our Mini Amusement Park, students had an opportunity to share their rides with their classmates in a brief presentation. They explained what they had built, the challenges they had faced and what they did to overcome them. If a team was still having problems, their classmates had an opportunity to share possible solutions. At the end of their presentation, students also shared what they would like to do if they had more time or if they were to approach this project again. Afterwards, students had the remainder of the class to refine their rides before placing them into the amusement park. I was very pleased to see that many of the students took the ideas and suggestions from their classmates to fix or improve upon their creations.

Upon reflection I would have to say that this unit was certainly one of the highlights of my school year, if not my entire time as a technology coordinator. While still a guided inquiry, there was a freedom to the project that allowed different students to approach the task in different ways. The expectations were high, but every student was able to participate and experience success. It was a time of authentic and meaningful collaboration, and I know without a doubt that learning took place. But I think what impressed me the most about this project was the students' sense of accomplishment at working through the design process and creating something on their own - it was an empowering experience. The look of pride on their faces when teachers, parents and secondary school students were drawn into the room to see their amusement park was priceless. I think my students summed it up the best when I asked them what was the hardest thing about this project they answered, 'Building our rides using Lego.' and when I asked them what was the best thing about it was, they answered, 'Building our rides using Lego!'

Our Finished Amusement Park


[1] The idea of an amusement park project was sparked by reading, The Playground: First and Second Grade Curriculum Unit on Programming and Robotics by Amanda Sullivan, in The DevTech Research Group of Tufts University. Some of the key ideas from their paper resonated with me and what I was trying to achieve with my own students, especially the use of the Engineering Design Process and inviting students to think like engineers.

* This quote is a summary of Dewey's views and according to Quote Investigator cannot be traced to any one work.

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