Adventures in Engineering: What makes a quality project?

Some of the best times I've shared with students in a classroom have involved projects where they're making something. Not making as in making letters appear on a worksheet, as in building some object that needs to accomplish some task or solve some problem. There's something about working on a physical product that clearly demonstrates success or failure that resonates strongly with students.

As part of my attempt to make this site seem all professional and stuff, I proudly announce...wait for it...a series of blog posts tentatively titled:

Adventures in Engineering!

Here's what you can expect:

  1. A description and analysis of projects I've done in the past that involved engineering. I've been pretty bad about sharing these, so there are quite a few that have been wildly successful that I've never written about.
  2. Thoughts on engineering in the science classroom. Maybe you noticed that I previously asked for teachers to have their students fill out a survey related to engineering. That hasn't been forgotten, and I'll get to the results of the survey as part of the series. If you haven't had your students fill out the survey
    yet, don't fret, the survey is still open!
  3. Maybe, just maybe, I'll design brand new projects and share them out for criticism and critique. In fact, do you have any units that are badly in need of a project? Let me know in the comments and maybe I'll see if I can whip something up for you. Have a project that just isn't working out like it should? Let me know in the comments and maybe I'll test out my powers of project redesign1.

What makes a project an effective learning experience?

Let me kick the series off with some quick thoughts on what I think projects of this sort should include:

  1. It needs to be hard, but not crazy hard. I've discussed this a bit, but I strongly believe challenging tasks are good for us. However, the task needs to hit that sweet spot of being challenging enough but not so challenging that students deem success as an impossibility. I'd like to call this the Goldilocks Zo-ne of Proximal Development- a term that I'm sure Lev Vygotsky would've coined had he written fairy tales on the side (or been an astrophysicist). Truly great projects would start out fairly simple and increase the challenge as students are ready.
  2. Success requires the use and understanding of the desired concepts and skills. Not as in, "The teacher requires that I do this, so I'm doing it," but instead the task demands the students to utilize the concepts and skills as an integral part of successfully completing the task. To borrow an illustration from Papert, you could demand students to find 2/3 of 3/4 on a worksheet or you could have them make a 2/3 batch of cookies where the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of sugar. Both require the same skill, but an incorrect answer on a worksheet provides little motivation to learn. A batch of crappy cookies does2.
  3. A project that fails isn't a failure, but a chance to improve. There should be time built in for students to reflect on their project's failings, attempt to address them, and retry the challenge. You may know this as the Iterative Process or Engineering Design Process. I haven't been great at including time for this in the past, but as I've thought and more about project design I've come to value the Design-Test-ReDesign-ReTest model.
Number 2 to is pretty difficult to nail. Most likely I've never done a project with students that has truly met this standard. The better of my projects have inherently require some of the desired concepts and skills, but I'm also often "forcing" some concepts and skills into the projects even when they're not necessarily required to complete the task. I'm not sure that's horrible.

Next up in the series:

Pipe Insulation Roller Coasters

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  1. No promises I'll come up with anything mind blowing. Your mileage may vary.    (back)
  2. Cookie Monster would not be amused.     (back)
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