Project-based Learning :: Physics :: Week 4

 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, Week 2 and Week 3.

There was a lot of sawing and gluing going on this week.

There was a lot of sawing and gluing going on this week.

Although the time spent “in class” was much shorter than previous weeks, I think the kids (and adults) pushed through the tough parts of indecisiveness and now have clear research goals in mind. I wasn’t so sure last week.

As this series is a reflection on project-based learning (as part of a once-a-week class), I have noticed that much of the “learning” that happens seems to be going on during the week at home. It’s been difficult to bring all of the materials that are needed (even though we try), but projects change at the last minute and new materials are needed and at our borrowed space, we just don’t have the tools we need to keep crafting (or learning). We have to bring everything and since the projects are not so clear-cut, this has been our biggest obstacle. What we really need is an open, inexpensive makerspace for kids!

There are also some other “distractions” at this space – lots of indoor play equipment that are beckoning the kids. And, they need that. We understand, but at the same time, it seems there was more focus when we were at the library with no space to engage in physical play.

RG looks over some of the hardware to see if there is anything that will work as an eyelet for their catapult.

RG looks over some of the hardware to see if there is anything that will work as an eyelet for their catapult.

I think the projects are progressing quite well, but I can really only speak to the two groups that my own children are a part of since much of the learning and doing has been going on at home.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it is perhaps different than what I had originally intended. An hour-long class, at a less than perfect space, hasn’t been as useful once the initial “tinkering” phase has worn off. Also, having to wait a week between each meeting is hard for young kids – they really lose the momentum if they aren’t working on the projects everyday.

Catapult Building – group of three 9-year-old boys
My eldest son is a part of this group and has done some previous self-directed project-based work before this class. Therefore, I could see how easily his group lost the focused momentum during the regular class time. In addition to reminding them about their previous goals, I also made sure to provide some blocks of time for catapult research/design during our home learning time. And, since one of his fellow group members is at our house quite often, it was very easy to incorporate both boys into the mix.

At the end of the last session, these boys had decided to focus on one catapult model that RC had made. Though the boys had seen it during a video chat, RC’s model didn’t make it to the class meeting. So, the boys had agreed to remake the model for the upcoming class. And, as will often happen with these type of projects, the two boys at my house looked at the web site and decided that this model would be easier to make and potentially scale up at a later date. After a quick trip to the home improvement store, the boys came back and began measuring and marking their wood pieces. We already had a coping saw and a regular handy saw and the boys used those to trim up the pieces that they couldn’t get cut at Lowe’s.

Using wood glue to make a catupultAfter sawing most of the pieces, they brought the rest (along with the clamps, saws and glue) to our meeting place for their third team member to help. They consulted the plans and began the long process of gluing, and then nailing the parts of their catapult together. Everyone left the class agreeing that the two boys would complete work on the catapult at our house, while the third boy would begin work on the science research.

After each part was dried, the kids used child-sized hammers to nail in the parts. They learned a lot about keeping a nail straight!

After each part was dried, the kids used child-sized hammers to nail in the parts. They learned a lot about keeping a nail straight!

Catapult Building – group of two boys (ages 5 and 6)
Again, this little group seems to be hindered by the long stretch of time between meeting sessions. One child is barely five and the other is six-and-a-half and these two are the youngest in our group of learners. The focus and interest is there, but it requires more guidance (not necessarily instruction) from the adults. They definitely have their own ideas, but they really need someone to sit with them and keep them on track for a longer amount of time.  Last week, they did manage to cut the dowel for another part of their catapult model and then promptly called it quits. The playground was beckoning!

C and G are marking and measuring a dowel

C and G are marking and measuring a dowel

C is cutting the dowel for the rod part of his catapult.

C is cutting the dowel for the rod part of his catapult.

Since my youngest son is in this group, I made sure to block some time for him to think and work on his catapult design. He was quite determined to add a particular piece to his design and was quite frustrated that I couldn’t see the same picture that he had in his head. So, he decided to draw it.

He needs this type of metal clamp to hold down the twisting part of his catapult.

He needs this type of metal clamp to hold down the twisting part of his catapult.

Once I could see what he was talking about, I realized how I could help him. Instead of running out to the hardware store, we brainstormed some ways that we could make the fastener. He ended up choosing one I had bent out of a toilet paper roll. It served the same purpose and he could use tape (lots and lots) to hold it in place

Of course, he had to cut the dowel to the right size first…after measuring it with a tape measure. I did step in a little bit with some guidance and adult know-how for this part – if only because I didn’t want to run out and get another dowel when he cut this one too short. I merely asked him more about the function of the dowel – to ensure that he recognized that his measurements had a purpose! Previously, he had decided that he wanted to cut the dowel six inches long…because six seemed like a good number. Oh, so cute.

C is cutting another dowel - to attach to the first one - this time at home.

C is cutting another dowel – to attach to the first one – this time at home. Please don’t look at his footwear. I’m finding some comfort in the fact that at least he is wearing safety glasses!

Other Projects
The other projects are progressing nicely and I think that many of them will be moving on to the scientific research stage at the next class. Many of the projects have been explored on their own – during home study time. This is fabulous and although not completely unexpected, I was hoping for more dedicated work time as a group. Oh well. I’m enjoying watching the process unfold and already planning for the changes I will make for our next project-based group endeavor. In the meantime, the kids have two more weeks of class time before they present their findings to everyone. It will be interesting to see how the research and/or display information will evolve among the groups.

Catapult supplies - wood, tape measure and rubberband.

Catapult supplies – wood, tape measure and rubberband.

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