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


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

Interesting (SSOL) stuff 2

While I'm not sharing these with my students anymore (yahoo for summer!), I'm still finding good stuff that I'm tucking away in my personal files. Here's a sampling of sites that made me SSOL (say "sweet!" out loud):

The Big Picture

Part of the Boston Globe's online space, The Big Picture posts amazing high quality images of recent events.
Particular posts I found moving/incredible/inspiring:

Typography as art

I only recently realized there's this culture of utilizing typography in a wide variety of artistic ways. Some of my favorites:

Kinetic typography

The art of using spoken text to create animated text which extends, adds to, or changes your perception of the original text.

Who's on First?

V is for Vendetta

Typographic animation

This short animated video utilizes only letters, numbers, and symbols right off the keyboard to tell its story.

Death and Taxes

I just ran across this yesterday thanks to It's a graphical depiction of the United States federal discretionary budget (i.e. where you income taxes go). Incredibly detailed yet incredible to look at, it's quick way to visualize the priorities of the government based upon how they fund the various departments. You can zoom and pan around the image at their site to get a better look. If you really like it, you can buy it as a 24-inch by 36-inch poster (that's roughly 61-cm by 91-cm for those world citizens out there).

Wow! SSOL!

Hopeful for great student presentations!

One day, I'd really like to see an erupting volcano. Yes, I'm planning at some point to visit Hawai'i and see Kilauea erupting in classic basaltic shield volcano style, but I'd really like to see a massive, ash cloud, explosive, Plinian eruption. Of course, I'd like the guarantee of being perfectly safe in doing so. 🙂

Kilauea Eruption

We're covering volcanoes in class right now, and as a cumulative project for the volcanic activity topic, I have each student select a different volcano (I provide a list of volcanoes that have either been active fairly recently or have had some spectacular eruptions in the past), and then create a presentation as if they were a travel agent trying to "sell" a trip to their volcano to adventure travelers. They're required to have specific information about the type of volcano it is, how it erupts, etc., but they're highly encouraged to take it to the next level by including trip itineraries, cool things to do near the volcano, and so forth.In the past I've been deluged with presentations from bullet-point hell in which students simply read directly off their slides. It stinks sitting through one 5-minute presentation like that. Imagine sitting through 85-90...yeah, I was going crazy by the end of the presentations- trying as hard as I could to not punish students going later for my self-created forced torture of watching poorly designed presentations for four class periods.

This year, I made a small (but extremely significant) change. I told them they could only have 2 words MAX on each slide- and it'd be fine with me if their presentation contained no text at all (except for citations, of course). I mean it too. Most students created a title slide that looked something like this:

Nope. Can't do that. Volcano name, plus "by: your name" counts as four words (I did concede that the name of their volcano only counts as one word, otherwise whoever covers Mount St. Helens wouldn't even be able to put the name of their volcano on a slide). The classes are in the middle of designing their presentations right now, and it's been a struggle for them:

"How can I give a presentation with no words?"

"You mean I have to memorize everything?"

"What do you mean 'of' is a word? That shouldn't count, it's barely two letters!"

Students can have note cards with information for the presentations with them while they present, so they don't have to memorize, though it's amazing to me that they've been so "well"-trained at designing poor presentations. Students are still in the middle of designing presentations as I type this, and I must say they're looking pretty promising. I'll let you know how they turn out!


Image Credit: Kilauea in 1993 from the USGS

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As promised: Presentations Before and After

As promised in yesterday's post, I've posted my before and after presentations that I made to go over basic Earth structure with my Earth & Physical Science classes. I've already used the updated presentation, and the students seemed to enjoy it better than the overly bullet-pointed first version. You may not be able to follow the content without the narrative on the newly designed presentation, but that's somewhat the point, no?

There were several students that expressed regret at the demise of the bullet points. It's easier for them to just copy down exactly what it says (of course it is, they don't have to actually pay attention or comprehend to do that). How well they've been trained by their past experiences!



These presentation design upgrades seem to be all the rage. Since my last post I've found two new (to me) posts by edubloggers discussing (and even sharing) good design in presentations. And I thought I was ahead of the curve on this one...

Check them out:

I welcome your feedback on my presentations. I even look forward to constructive criticism!

Design, presentations, and the power of the network

Dread! It all started with dread.

The last week or so, my classes have been covering material that I made PowerPoint slideshows for several years ago. While at the time, I put in lots of images and even embedded some video, I found myself dreading to give those presentations to my classes. I started pondering whether there wasn't a better way to utilize slideshows than what I was doing. I became discontent with my presentations

As if the heavens could hear me, wisdom rained down upon me.

Wisdom Bit #1: This fall, I happened upon Lawrence Lessig's talk on copyright at the TED conference. While the subject matter was interesting, I was enthralled (& engaged) by his simple use of visuals and high-contrast text. It made me want to go design my own presentation right then and there (it was a pretty busy time for me, so I didn't). As I became discontent with my presentations, my thoughts went back to his presentation.

Wisdom Bit #2: On a tip from Wes Fryer on his blog, I've subscribed to the Practical Principals podcast. In the first installment I was able to catch, Scott Elias discussed a presentation he gave on how to give engaging presentations. In the show notes, a link was provided to his presentation. I checked that out, and liked what I saw. The wheels were turning...

Wisdom Bit #3: Wes Fryer wrote a post discussing digital storytelling and dual-coding theory. Essentially, dual-coding theory states that when a speaker reads information off of a slide, very often the audience can become overwhelmed because there are two images to pay attention to (the speaker and the projected text). I found this very interesting, as I had previously been under the assumption that reading and projecting the text was helpful to students, as it provided both a visual and auditory pathway for the information. It's funny what information we believe that isn't really true.

Wisdom Bit #4: Clay Burell shared a presentation he gave and also wrote a bit on good design in presentations to boot. I especially liked his tip to include a "narrative thread" in presentations. It provides a something for people to grab onto, and combined with slides with relevant images (and very little text), people have to listen to hear the story.

Wisdom Bit #5: At the end of Clay's post, he provided a link to Dan Meyer's blog post on how to present. He pretty much reiterated what I had already heard and read from Scott, Wes, and Clay; but it was an excellently written post with great examples. I think what I took away most from this post was his statement: "If I can look at your slidedeck and determine the full content of your presentation, it's carrying too much information."

Direction! Finally, I had direction.

I think what struck me most about this process went far beyond my integration of a new and improved method. The online network that provided the wisdom is the big story here. Though no one whose wisdom was included in this post put their content online with the specific thought of helping me escape the doldrums of antiquated presentations, the simple task of accessing distant knowledge is pretty amazing in itself. The sources of my wisdom were located in California, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri, Korea, and California again. It was totally asynchronous, and exactly what I needed. I don't have a well-developed edtech network yet, but just because I can't tweet a question and get back 50 responses yet doesn't mean I can't take advantage of the network.

Yay, Network! Thanks, network. You're the best!

Stay tuned. I'll post my old presentation compared to the new one.

Photo credits: Medo/Fear by xaimex, BLESSINGS FROM THE SKY by dharmesh, Map and Compass by Inky Bob, and Be Positive by José Miguel Serrano