Project-Based Learning :: Physics :: Week 3

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1 and Week 2.

Catapult prototype, made by A.

Catapult prototype, made by A. One of the three nine-year-old boys…

I needed to wait awhile before writing this post because my initial reaction to last week’s class was a feeling of frustration. It seemed as if there wasn’t much learning going on, but I knew that I needed to step back from my current feelings and let them digest so that I could see what really was happening.

There was learning. Lots of learning. It just didn’t look like you would expect on week three. It looked a lot like week two, but with a little less enthusiasm. They were still experimenting – often with some of the same things that they made last week. I think that many of the parents (myself included) expected there to be a clear path of progress, rather than the messy trial and error that is reflected in the construction of knowledge.

Why do we adults expect learning to progress so quickly and thoroughly? Is it because we have less time? Is it because we feel the pressure to “get things done?” I know I do. A lot. I have to constantly remind myself that the learning my kids will do (on their own) will far outpace the direct instruction I give them…if only I can be very, very patient and wait for the breakthrough. Sometimes I can’t give them the time needed to do that, but for a class like this, that’s the whole point. We need to give them the time to goof around, play and think about their ideas – while still helping them to stay on track.

I think that’s the key – making sure they stay on track. And, if we’re being completely honest here – I think I failed a bit as a facilitating mentor this past week. I fell into the “parent” role and was chatting with my other parents. Oh, it is so nice to chat with other homeschooling parents from time to time. But, not during class. So, next week, we’ll move into a more secluded area where we can focus and not be so distracted by other things. Well…I think that wraps up my personal “lessons learned” from this week, so it’s onto the projects!

Catapult Building – group of three 9-year-old boys
Last week, these boys were building prototypes and despite a Google Hangout meeting later in the week, they were still undecided as to what path they wanted to take next. They decided to keep making prototypes and then to choose one to focus on and build out of wood. Yep. Wood.

Catapult prototypes made earlier in the week out of popsicle sticks.

Catapult prototypes made earlier in the week out of popsicle sticks.

A trial catapult (and ultimate design dismissal).

A trial catapult (and ultimate design dismissal) that used air pressure to launch the “weapon”

These boys were enjoying playing with their catapult designs but were less likely to build new ones and seemed a bit lost with what their next step should be. They definitely wanted to try out some different designs, but none of them had done any research or found any other books or web sites. It was if they thought the ideas would just come to them via tinkering. It’s not a bad way to construct knowledge, but it does take a lot longer and it is very easy to fall off the path of progress. I think this would have been less of an issue if we were in a dedicated space – full of books, computers and supplies.

That being said, I re-read their words to them about making a decision and they all decided to go with a design that RC had found online and made earlier in the week. Although his prototype didn’t last the week (oh, 9-year-old boys), they had all seen it during the online chat and all agreed to move forward with that design.

Their decision for the following week is to each build the catapult using the instructions and figure out how to “scale” it up next week. Research required…which means I’m bringing my computer so they can figure it out in class.

The Gravity Girls, (ages eleven and barely eight)
These girls followed up with some more experiments on gravity and had some “failures” as well. I’ve been noticing that many of the problems we encounter comes from not having the proper materials on hand. Despite our best efforts to bring what they need, sometimes the materials don’t work out and you need something similar, but not quite the same. This post on space makes a lot more sense now.

Gravity experiments

Gravity experiments

Regardless, the girls were reading, tinkering and taking good notes. They decided that next week they needed heavier weights and taller container for their experiments to work properly. They also need to remake the paper clown out of an index card because he was too big.

Taking notes -- handwriting and spelling practice without having to make them do it!

Taking notes — handwriting and spelling practice without having to make them do it!

Catapult Building – group of two boys (ages 5 and 6)
These two continued to make a catapult out of tongue depressors, based on the picture on the front of this book. It was interesting to see them work out ways to adapt the design – what to use for the wood cylinders – dowels or pencils? They also realized that they needed the hand drill to drill holes to connect their non-sharpened pencils to the catapult. I asked how they were going to connect it to the sides and this was their answer, so we’re going to let them have a go at it next week. This is all part of the process of learning – especially for five and six.

The frame is almost ready.

The frame is almost ready.

Windmills and Another Catapult
We have two other projects going on in class, but I didn’t get great pictures of them, nor did I have a good chance to interact and help guide these two boys. N was steadily working on his windmill design and would have kept working if he hadn’t run out of glue sticks.

E was not around last week, but had chosen to do catapults as well and had a blast making one and shooting off pom poms. As a 7-year-old, he is on the cusp of being perceived as “too old to just tinker,” but still a little too young to be expected to create an elaborate presentation on his own. It might be a challenge in the coming weeks to help him go further with his project, but hopefully seeing the older boys will inspire him.

With so many kids doing different projects, I’m finding it difficult to effectively facilitate and be “the record-keeper” for each group. I really want to help the kids to follow their own path, but they are still kids and need guidance, reminders and written documentation to demonstrate their thought processes. We will be treading this line in the next few weeks as we try and help them to dig deeper with their learning and push themselves to discover new ideas.

E's rapid-fire catapult

E’s rapid-fire catapult

To keep reading about self-directed physics, check out PBL – Windmill Presentation – Week 4.