Reflections on a Problem-Based Learning Experience

Recently, I collaborated with another math teacher in my grade to develop a problem-based unit for our students to investigate volume and surface area of polygonal prisms and cylinders.  We presented our students with this task: you own a company that has makes packaging materials to be sold in stores, and decide to bid on a project for a new company that makes edible play-doh.  Design at least 3 different containers that would hold around 150 cubic centimeters of play-doh.

We gave our students a few stipulations for their project:

  • They needed to design a rectangular prism, a cylinder, and a polygonal prism (where the base was not a rectangle).
  • When designing their prototypes, they were to take into consideration the design factors of visual appearance, cost (with a given price per cubic centimeter), and overall design.
  • They had to give a presentation – in the form of business pitch – that was no more than 3 minutes long to present their prototypes.  Their presentation had to include specifications, the surface area, the cost, and a visual design.

In order to successfully complete the project, students were required complete six different tutorials on topics related to the material.  These tutorials took the form of instructional videos (we use PlayPosit), self-paced presentations (we used Nearpod), and self-graded Google Forms with embedded videos.  Over the 8-day period that students worked on the project, we periodically pulled students into small groups to re-teach on specific topics.  Completion of these tutorials became part of the students final project grade.

After completing this project, I have a few takeaways and thoughts from my first in-depth attempt at using Project-Based Learning.

One Thing I Liked: Use of Learning Management System

We used our school’s learning management system (itslearning) to organize materials for students to access.  For me, this was invaluable.  I didn’t have to direct students to multiple different websites, didn’t have to print out direction sheets or worksheets, and I was able to easily access my data from one, convenient location.  To me, using an LMS is a necessity in project-based and personalized learning environments.

One Thing I Would Change: Clearer Expectations for Presentations

By far, the biggest let-down for me in this project was the presentations that my students gave, and I know that’s 100% my own fault.  Students are used to simply standing in front of the class and reciting information, but this is not what I wanted.  Instead, I wanted students to give a business pitch, similar to what you would see on the TV show Shark Tank.  But I never showed them any examples.  I made one of the classic mistakes and assumed my students would know what I wanted.  In the future, I will definitely give an example of the type of presentation I am looking for

One Thing I Was Impressed By: My Students’ Creativity and Risk-Taking

One of the favorite parts of this project for many of my students was creating the actual prototypes.  Some of my students took the “easy route” and simply inserted an image from Google.  Some students went with a more traditional style and folded paper to make models.  Perhaps the neatest method I saw, though, was from my students who applied their skills from Technology Education class to create sketches using TinkerCad (and online drafting tool).  And even neater was the students who took those designs to our Multi-Media Center and printed them on our 3-D printer.  Awesome stuff, and a big shout-out to our Tech Ed teachers and Librarian for their help (even if they didn’t know it!)

One Thing I’m Not Sure About: Did I Really Assess All of My Students?

My students got to work in groups, so how do I know if all students truly understand how to find volume and surface area?  One thing I definitely to think more about in the future is my assessment practices through the unit.  Are formative assessments enough?  Are group project results enough?

Final Takeaways: Overall, I really enjoyed this project and will definitely use it again in the future – with some modifications.  I certainly feel that my students got value out of the activity, and look forward to how it can be improved in the future.

(Ohh, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about my project.  What suggestions do you have?  What do you think I could change?  I’m always open to suggestions and comments from others!)

 

Building Empathy: The First Step Toward Innovation

This year, I was lucky enough to be chosen as a participant in the first York County Innovation Lab run through the Lincoln Intermediate Unit.  This program, funded through the York County Community Foundation’s Doris E. Schwartz Education Fund, is designed to “inspire and empower educators and children to become creative problem-solvers.”  Since being asked to participate in this program, I’ve been looking forward to getting started and learning what it is all about.

Our opening session today was keynoted by George Couros, author of the book The Innovator’s Mindset and a leader in innovation in education.  Simply put, there was no better way to start kick-start this program than by engaging in a keynote like this.  While there were many great takeaways from the presentation (check out my Twitter and #YCIL to see them all), there’s one that jumps out: Innovation begins and ends with empathy.  You can have the greatest, most innovative solution imaginable, but if is not meaningful to your audience, it is pointless.

innovators mindsetBefore we (as educators) decide to dive into design thinking and find ways to innovate in our classroom, we need to start by building empathy.  There are many questions you can ask of yourself and of your students to begin building empathy, but asking the right question is key.  Try to avoid yes or no answers; instead, provide students the ability to respond freely and without judgement.  Yes, this means that you may need to make an anonymous survey, which sounds crazy; who knows what your kids will say about you, right?  Sure, you may receive some off-the-cuff remarks (I can tell you this from experience).  But you’ll also be blown away by what your students tell you, and you’ll gain a much greater perspective for your students’ feelings towards education and their learning environment.

I’m making it my professional goal to blog about my journey through the innovation process and the design thinking experience over the next year.  I hope you’ll follow along and interact, so I can learn and grow from your support.  Be on the lookout for an upcoming post about my first experience with the design thinking process!

Image from http://georgecouros.ca/blog/presentation-resources/posts-related-to-the-innovators-mindset