Tag Archives: Project-based Learning

PBL :: Bridges

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, Week 3, Week 4 Week 5, Week 6 and Lessons Learned.

My six-year-old's first time with a hot glue gun.

My six-year-old’s first time with a hot glue gun. He loves this method of tinkering.

Our project-based “class” continues to meet each week and the kids have finished up their initial projects, so they are in need of a new one. The class has evolved from a ‘group project class’ to one that allows the students to follow their own interests.  It was left to each parent to decide whether or not their children needed to stick with the original topic of physics. My own kids went in opposite directions, but my youngest chose to study bridges. I thought it was quite sporting of him to choose a topic that still relates to physics!

In fact, this is a topic that has resurfaced in the last four or five months, so I knew it was something that truly interested him. Often, my children will mention something and in the past, I would jump on the topic – only to find that it was a shallow learning request. The interest wasn’t there for an in-depth study. I’ve since learned to be patient and see if the topic is brought up again – in a different situation – to determine if my children are truly interested.

C, age 6, begins his self-directed project on bridges. His only "requirement" is that he teaches what he has learned to the other kids at co-op.

C, age 6, begins his self-directed project on bridges. His only “requirement” is that he teaches what he has learned to the other kids at co-op.

Thankfully, we had a friend who did an in-depth study of bridges last year, so I had some ideas of how to help my six-year-old. Perhaps because of my Montessori training – or the fact that I am a kinesthetic learner – I always try to find a concrete, hands-on way to introduce a topic. And, since this is supposed to be a self-directed project, I showed him this K’nex set and asked if he would like to begin his bridge study with that. I received a resounding “yes!”

One of the projects we found suggests learning about the strength of an arch.

One of the projects we found suggested learning about the strength of an arch. We used his brothers library books to weight the sides of the paper.

In addition to the borrowed K’nex set, we also went to the library where he found all sorts of books on bridges to check out. Unfortunately, many of them were meant for parents, but we did find a story or two.

Pop's Bridge - be Eve Bunting - is a multicultural story about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pop’s Bridge – by Eve Bunting – is a multicultural story about building the Golden Gate Bridge.

After doing some reading and playing with the K’nex set, he built a cable-stayed bridge. Would I have chosen to build one of the more advanced bridges first?  No!

I think that project-based learning provides many opportunities to observe your children – as their own people. It’s quite humbling to realize that neither one of my children wants to build the items in the order they are suggested. Instead, they decide which one looks the most interesting and they build that. At least I think that’s how their brains work.

Thankfully, he was able to build it entirely on his own and then decided that he needed to draw it and create another one – out of popsicle sticks.

C chose the first bridge he wanted to build - a cable-stayed bridge.

C chose the first bridge he wanted to build – a cable-stayed bridge.

He decided he needed to draw a picture to be able to make his popsicle bridge. Hot glue is amazing.

He decided he needed to draw a picture to be able to make his popsicle bridge. Hot glue is amazing.

He then chose to repeat this formula with the beam bridge and the suspension bridge. All of the work was done on his own. He asked for help with the initial pillars , so I held those in place while he glued them down.

In the background - a cable-stayed bridge. Foreground- a suspension bridge and on the far right - a beam bridge.

In the background – a cable-stayed bridge. Foreground- a suspension bridge and on the far right – a beam bridge.

At this point, he is a bit stuck. He wants to bring the K’nex suspension bridge as part of his presentation, but he still wants to build an arch bridge and a double-bascule bridge. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to take the suspension bridge apart and rebuild it. So, I think it might be time for me to step in and suggest some of the projects from this book. We’ll see how it goes.

To read the next post on self-directed learning, continue to the presentation on bridges.

Project-Based Learning :: Water Cycle

In an ongoing effort to document our project-based learning, I wanted to talk about how my family first got started with self-directed projects.

A water cycle experiment that was in one of the books he found.

A water cycle experiment that was in one of the books he found.

When I first read the book, Project-Based Homeschooling, my oldest son was kindergarten-age and I just couldn’t see how he would be able to learn to read, write or do math solely with a project-based curriculum. At that point, he was a struggling reader and while we had always read books that he had chosen, he was showing no inclination to replicate anything based on this research. Therefore, I dismissed it and went on with our “Montessori at home” curriculum. And, thank goodness for that because my eldest child turned out to be a visual-spatial learner and without a Montessori way of learning, he would have struggled even more so. Today, at almost ten-years-old, he is a fabulous reader, but more importantly, he loves to read. But, I digress.

After we pulled him back out of public school (nice place, but way too much homework for 2nd grade), I abandoned all formal learning for the Spring and told him we would just work on projects. His choice of topic, his choice of final project. My strong-willed child loved the idea.

He initially chose to learn more about how we get our water from the faucet. He was quite fascinated by this Magic School Bus book. Since I was being as open-ended as possible, I tried not to direct him in any way. But, as we both learned, my newly-minted eight-year-old needed direction.

To find out about how we get water, we have to understand how the Earth gets water.

To find out about how we get water, we have to understand how the Earth gets water.

So, after an initial library search where he got to choose the books, I asked a few questions. I asked if there was anything in particular that he wanted to know about our city’s water. He did. He wanted to know how the water got into our house. So, we talked about where we could find that information. Since it wasn’t available online, we had to figure out who to speak with at our city.

Thankfully, we live in nice-sized rural city and the office staff are quite friendly. We went a few times to visit city hall and spoke with the workers to find out more information. He did a lot of the speaking, but I made sure to follow up on his ideas. I made the calls and the appointments and prompted him with the next step.

Eventually, he expanded his city water project to include the water cycle and concluded with a visit to our local wastewater treatment plant. All because he was curious. My child, who hated to write, was writing and taking notes.

Neatly writing out his final summary. He dictated to me and I wrote it so he could copy the correct spelling.

Neatly writing out his final summary. He dictated to me and I wrote it so he could copy the correct spelling.

That’s not to say that his final project – a poster – was completely self-chosen or that he would wake up every morning begging to get started. Nor does it mean that presently my kids only learn with projects – they don’t. I assign some work too. However, as we completed the project together, I learned that for a young child (under age 13?) they are going to need a lot more help with a formal project, which was not so clear in the book. While I made sure to follow his lead, I also did some “behind the scenes” research and ensured that a book on water would be one of the selected bedtime reading books. Or, we made a point to drive by the water tower on our way home. I needed to show him how to find out information. I had to be the example, but in a back-door sort of way so as to not co-opt his project. It wasn’t always easy.

Water tower. Initially, I forced us all to stay by the road and sketch. One of my many learning mistakes as my child was not keen on sketching anything by the side of the road.

Water tower. Initially, I forced us all to stay on the grass and sketch. It was one of my many learning mistakes. My child was not keen on sketching anything by the side of the road.

I did offer lots of examples for final projects – a drawing, a sculpture, a book, a poster. Since this was our first project, I needed him to understand that he was working toward a goal of creating something. He really wanted to do a poster and I made sure to follow his progress and encourage him when it became too overwhelming – or boring.

I also made sure that he finished it. There’s a lot of debate about whether a self-chosen project should be abandoned by the child, but I think that if you get halfway into a project, you need to help them to complete it – at least in some “final” way. The end product can change, but there needs to be some way to show what they’ve learned. I see that as my job as a teacher-facilitator. Nudge them – not too hard – and help them to stay on track. Quite frankly, I have a number of half-finished projects that I would love to have someone help me finish.

DSC_0522

Ironically, I have no picture of his completed poster.

 

Lessons Learned

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, Week 3, Week 4 Week 5 and Week 6.

R is hard at work on his ever-expanding city map for an Ozobot robot.

R is hard at work on his next project — an ever-expanding city map for an Ozobot robot.

We finished all of the project presentations last week and so this past meeting we had kids wondering what to do next. To be perfectly honest, I thought they would just be done with this class for the Fall, but one our parents had a great suggestion. She told her kids that they needed to pick a new idea to research – and to create a new project and presentation. They were all for it. And, yes, in retrospect, that does seem like a pretty obvious next step.

The students are now familiar with the relaxed format of the class and many of the them began new projects this past week. I think I’ll be continuing the project documentation, but I have to limit it to my own children’s projects. There are just too many to keep track of otherwise.

In the interest of learning from our mistakes, miscues and general experiences, I compiled this “lessons learned” post about our first-ever once-a-week, homeschool co-op, project-based learning class.

1. Self-directed project-based learning is good. But, facilitators are important too.
Each child (or group of children) completed a project and were happy with their final results. The design, research and presentation skills that they practiced were well worth any perceived shortcomings. Since there were so many different projects, I don’t think the students reached the depth that is typical of many self-directed projects. In the experiences with my own children, I will often do some side research to find hands-on materials that might help them deepen their understanding. Until we tried self-directed project-learning as a class, I didn’t realize how much “behind the scenes” work I do to help move my children into deeper learning. Quite often, it is still their choice to choose which materials to use, but it helps to have an adult finding those hard-to-reach materials and activities…and leaving them out to be discovered by the kids. This didn’t happen for every group at our co-op. So, to fix that problem, I might suggest…

2. When working with a group, choose ONE topic or project.
This can still be chosen by the students, but I think it would make for a better understood topic. For instance, the kids could have chosen to focus on gravity and then figured out a way to create a project or presentation as a group. I think the learning would be deeper as they discuss ideas with one another and create a unified project. As the designated facilitator for this course, I had too many different projects to keep track of, to document and/or to help gently push along.

3. Space and supply access really do matter.
While we are quite happy with our borrowed space (it’s free, after all), we definitely lacked materials and the right supplies. Many of our projects were wood-working and that doesn’t exactly lend itself to portability. It was much easier to help my own kids at home when I knew where to find the hammer, safety glasses and wood glue. Being in a well-designed space was also much better for the last minute changes that often occur with a self-directed project.

4. Tinkering is great, but…
For the catapult projects, the tinkering that the boys did was great, but it seemed to limit the depth of their projects. Only at the end did they haphazardly throw together some written research and while I know that they learned a lot – I don’t think it was as much as they could have (but maybe that’s the parent in me talking). With their new projects, I have been encouraging my kids to do some reading and research before working on their “final” project. Sketches and designs are okay, but no full-scale models until we’ve done the research.

5. Different ages have different expectations.
This isn’t really something that we learned, but rather I think it’s important to point out. The group of two young boys (ages 5 and 6) had a completed catapult, but no “official” presentation materials, whereas the group of three nine-year-olds had a wooden catapult and a tiny presentation. They also did a lot of their own research and it shows. It wasn’t nearly as thorough as the 11-year-old’s presentation on gravity. Help your students…not too much…but more if they are younger.

6. Group learning is part of the project.
Sometimes I was part mediator, part teacher, part parent for a couple of the groups. With a clash of different personalities, learning to work together is just as important as learning about  the topic. But, they need help. It’s important that the louder, more organized group member doesn’t railroad the quieter or less-prepared group members. Each member is equal and it’s important for everyone to figure out how to work that out.  That doesn’t mean assigning jobs, but it might mean that there is more mediation, discussion and written goals to be sure that everyone is happy with the direction of the group. I can’t say that I did this perfectly, but I recognize that this is an area where I can improve.

Overall, the project-based class was a big success and the kids have already chosen their next projects. Some will choose science topics, whereas one of my children is studying cities and the other has decided to explore bridges. But, more on that next week…

Kid's drawing of a cable-stayed bridge

C’s next project is learning all about bridges…using popsicle sticks and a glue gun. Fun!

To read about the next self-directed project, continue to the post about bridges.

 

Physics – Catapults – Week 6

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, Week 3, Week 4 and Week 5.

Made by C and G - ages 6 and 5. Just from looking at the cover of this book.

Made by C and G – ages 6 and 5 – just from looking at the cover of this book.

This past week, three of our groups displayed their ‘completed’ projects. Considering that this was the first self-directed project for many of our students, I think they did a pretty fabulous job of following through with their ideas. As a parent-facilitator, I feel the need to say that toward the end, my own kids were ready to be done with their projects. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy the process of sawing and hammering, rather I think they had learned what they needed and didn’t feel the need to do more research (especially since the building was all done)!  Afterward, they did feel quite satisfied to complete the projects, even if there were a few extra nudges from Mom.

The Gravity Girls, (ages eleven and barely eight)
These two had a completed poster last week, but needed a few more tweaks with a couple of experiments before they felt ready to present. The youngest member also took the week to really know the material that she was reading from the poster – a very mature choice on her part! She wasn’t forced to learn any of the material, she chose to do it so that she wouldn’t let her partner down. I was quite inspired by her enthusiasm.

J and M (ages 8 and 11) present their findings on gravity.

J and M (ages 8 and 11) present their findings on gravity.

They began by reading off of their poster, which told a lot about how gravity works and about the scientist, Isaac Newton, who formed the first theory on gravity.

The girls hoped to drop two balls (one heavy, one light) to show that they dropped at the same rate. Surprisingly, they had a hard time! But, they talked about their discovering anyway.

The girls hoped to drop two balls (one heavy, one light) to show that they dropped at the same rate. Surprisingly, they had a hard time! But, they talked about their discoveries anyway.

Catapult Building – group of three 9-year-old boys
At the last meeting, the boys had decided to finish up their catapult (a joint effort, I assure you). I also ‘helped’ them to be ready to present their project the following week.*

The boys talked about what they wanted to put on their poster and RG sketched out how the poster might look. I stepped in a little bit to make sure that all of the voices in the group were heard and appreciated, and then the boys divvied up their respectful research assignments for the week. Since they didn’t have a chance to get together during the week, they added their research and pictures to the poster before presenting them to the class.

Creating something to display for their project-based homeschooling project.

Creating something to display for their project-based homeschooling project.

They included research on the history of catapults, the type of lever that a catapult is considered (third class), and the process of choosing and making the final wood design.

A and RC present their research to the class while their handmade wooden catapult waits patiently to be tested by everyone else!

A and RC present their research to the class while their handmade wooden catapult waits patiently to be tested by everyone else!

*In true ‘project-based homeschooling’ I think there are not meant to be time limits. However, I have noticed that kids will often drift from a topic when they’ve gotten the information that they needed – or sometimes when the work becomes tedious. At this point in my parenting (and teaching), I think it’s important for nine-year-olds to understand that follow-through is valuable. If you say you are going to do a project on catapults, then you need finish it up and stop dawdling! I reminded the boys to keep working a bit more this week than in previous weeks, but otherwise they did everything else themselves.

Catapult Building – group of two boys (ages 5 and 6)
After a little bit of encouragement, these two shy and quiet boys happily presented their catapult to the class. Much of this presentation looked liked some classic male one upmanship, but I think that was how these boys worked. They were excited to tell what parts they added and created, and I was quick to point out how they worked together. Either way, everyone had a chance to try out all of the catapults and everyone seemed to have garnered at least some new information.

Everyone had a chance to see how the modifications made the catapult work.

Everyone had a chance to see how the modifications made the catapult work.

In the end, there was a bit of a castle siege with some available castle blocks and the catapults were put to good use. Unfortunately, the castle fell – not from the catapults – but rather from the large number of children playing inside the temporary castle.

I wasn't quite quick enough to catch the original castle...just the remains.

I wasn’t quite quick enough to catch the original castle…just the remains.

A second attempt at a castle siege - this time with the catapult shooting poms poms to the outside.

A second attempt at a castle siege – this time with the catapult shooting poms-poms to the outside.

Read more about our ‘lessons learned’ from doing a project-based learning class through co-op.

 

Physics – Windmills – Week 5

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, Week 3 and Week 4.

N made this book about windmills and how they work.

N made this book about windmills and how they work.

During our last meeting, two of the groups were in the process of finishing up the “main” part of their project – the build. One of the groups was in the process of finishing their display poster, while the other was ready to present his project to the everyone.

As noted previously, a lot of the work is being done at home, which is great for individual projects, but more difficult for group projects. It’s hard to be motivated on your project when your partner(s) are not there. I think this is definitely something we all need to sit down and discuss as a group – should we assign everyone to work on one great, big project? Or should all of the projects be individual, unless you can meet with your partner during the week as well?

Since most of the projects were being “perfected” this past week, I wanted to show off N’s windmill project that he presented to the group. N’s project was an individual project and he did most of the work at home, without much help. He was genuinely interested and excited about his project and you could tell he put forth a lot of effort and creativity.

N created an elaborate farm (with a real working tractor) out of popsicle sticks.

N created an elaborate farm (with a real working tractor) out of popsicle sticks. The door to the barn opens and his windmill also turns.

A written report that he read to the group.

A written report that he read to the group alongside a poster of different types of windmills.

Cover for his homemade book on windmills.

The cover for his homemade book on windmills.

The kids were very attentive and appreciative of all the hard work that he had done. It was really amazing to watch them give him their full attention and for him to present his findings and his accompanying artistic work. Since we are homeschoolers, we have less need to formally evaluate the kids’ learning, but you could show off this book and poster and listen to him talk about windmills and know that he picked up a lot of new information.

Although, it’s not “true” project-based homeschooling, the parent (or teacher) could then suggest this challenge as a way to deepen the learning. You may even want to show them this video after they’ve tried it on their own.  Or, perhaps your child might decide that they would like this set for a birthday gift.

Often, I have found that kids aren’t quite sure how to deepen their learning and that’s where an adult facilitator comes into play. It can still be their choice, but you can help to provide some suggestions. Once they are ready, do the above research with them, so they can learn how to find it themselves.

To continue reading about physics and self-directed learning, go to Week Six – Catapult Presentations.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Learning about Physics – PBL – Week 2

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.

Ronan tests out a spoon catapult that he made.

RG tests out a spoon catapult that he made.

I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about the projects, tinkering and knowledge construction that has been happening since last week. I feel that it’s too early for me to make bold declarations, but I will say that I think project-based learning works better in a group setting than at home. At least for the elementary-aged child. That’s all I have experience with and it might change as the kids get older, but right now the energy level and excitement that all of the kids bring to class fuels everyone else…even though their projects might be different. It’s a fabulous sight to behold.

In order to keep this post from becoming a veritable novel, I am trying to limit the discussion and reflections to just a few parts of each project. Even with another mom helping, I definitely think there were things that I “missed.” And perhaps that’s okay. Only time will tell.

Catapult Building – group of three 9-year-old boys
These boys decided early on that they wanted to build a catapult (it was one of the suggested projects, after all and what boy can resist that)? After some research last week and some playful discoveries on their own, they came together this week and decided to each make a few prototypes.

Three boys...three different designs.

Three boys…three different designs.

Catapult protoype made by Andrew.

Catapult protoype made by A.

Ryan tinkered with this design and added some force.

RC tinkered with this design and added some rubberband force.

Catapult Building – group of two boys (ages 5 and 6)
This is by far the sweetest group of kids – ever! And, I only say that because my 6-year-old is one of them. No, seriously, it is really cute, and yet amazing, to watch these two as they struggle to construct knowledge about simple machines in a unique way. After reading about pulleys and checking out this book from the library, the boys decided to reconstruct the picture on the front – using popsicle sticks, masking tape, plastic spoons and rubber bands.

A catapult prototype built by Greyson.

A catapult prototype built by G.

Testing out a theory - a self-made rubberband catapult/slingshot...every boy's dream. Made by Calum.

Testing out a theory – a self-made rubberband catapult/slingshot…every boy’s dream. Made by C.

Experiments on Gravity – two girls (one 11-year-old and one almost 8-year-old)
As often happens with a homeschool group – there seems to be a large number of boys and not so many girls. There’s a judgmental statement in there somewhere about the state of education, but I’ll let it pass for now. These girls had a plan, which I think was devised in week one, and they were doing a fabulous job of carrying it out. They each had checked out books from the library on gravity and were conducting various experiments to learn more about it. Although we did our best to bring supplies to play with in our borrowed space, there were still a number of materials that they needed. However, they made some concrete plans to conduct experiments on their own and to continue the trial and error at the next class meeting.

Gravity experiments are a great way to test out the concept of gravity.

Gravity experiments are a great way to test out the concept of gravity.

Building a Windmill – one ten-year-old boy
After speaking to this child’s mom, I confirmed that N did all of the research, sketching and designing on his own. (His mother did give him some reminders – he is still ten)! I am beyond impressed with the path that he is on to create a windmill out of sticks. He was so focused that I didn’t spend much time observing him and I wished I had. He didn’t need any help, but I definitely missed an opportunity to watch the process of “flow” in action.

Hand sketches made by Nick.

Hand sketches made by N.

Hand-drawn and labelled by Nick.

Hand-drawn and labelled by N.

Starting to build a windmill with sticks.

Starting to build a windmill with sticks.

At the end of our time – and when you could tell some of the kids were getting hungry – I made a point to visit all of the groups and asked them to tell me their plans for next week. I wrote these plans down on a clipboard that I had left at each group table. While some of the groups were keeping their own notes, I knew that some were not. By leaving out a notebook and writing down their observations and plans, we can ensure that the adults have the supplies that the kids need – and if they get stuck at the next meeting we can read their words back to them.

To keep reading about their progress, click on Physics & Projects – Week 3.

 

 

 

Learning about Physics :: A Project-Based Learning Approach

We are quite fortunate to be part of a homeschooling group that’s willing to try new things. This group of five families also thinks that it’s important for children to learn and play together. Although our backgrounds and choices are not always the same, we all value self-direction and creativity.

Learning about space exploration - a self-guided project, by R, August 2014.

Learning about space exploration – a self-guided project, by R, August 2014.

Hence, they were all willing to go along with the idea of offering a project-based learning class during our co-op class meetings for this Fall. I have done some student-led, project-based learning with my own children and truly value the deep learning that comes as a result. I have also participated in the PBH Master Class and have read the accompanying book and I know that it can work…if you are patient, keep your mouth shut, record your observations, and ask lots of questions.

A homemade book on the history of space travel...in progress...from last year.

A homemade book on the history of space travel…in progress…August 2014.

Plus, it’s been more than a year since I started down that road, so I feel a bit more confident in letting things develop and “going with the flow” with regards to student-directed learning.  After much discussion and haphazard explanations (on my part), our group decided to set the topic – physics – and set a timeline (6-8 weeks, depending on what the kids need).

Most of the children in our group, ranging in ages from 5 – 11, are new to project-based learning so I wrote up a general description of expectations. I even included a number of wide-ranging sample projects that they could choose, but were not obligated to do so. In true project-based learning, you do not even suggest projects, but many of them were used to completing pre-designed curriculum and I was afraid they would get frustrated before they even began. I shouldn’t have worried.

Can you make a structure that can support a textbook using only 10 gum drops and 20 toothpicks?

Can you make a structure that can support a textbook using only 10 gum drops and 20 toothpicks? Experiments on force!

For the first class, and to spark our enthusiasm about the different aspects of physics, I brought this book and we (briefly) discussed it in class. Rather, my kids were eager to show it off (it does have pop-ups after all), but everyone was excited to get to the experiments that we had brought. Each family prepared an experiment (or two or three) that reflected a different aspect of physics.  The emphasis was less on “displaying” your experiment and more on letting others experience how science works. Of course, I brought my circuit blocks.

Working on solving the problem!

Working on solving the problem!

Not only did many of the kids bring their own ideas to the projects, but by bringing a physics experiment, many had already learned about some aspects of physics. And, they were happy to explain how and why it worked the way it did. All on their own…often without any adult prompts.

Experiments on magnetism - how poles repel, making an electromagnet and creating a temporary magnet.

Experiments on magnetism – how poles repel, making an electromagnet and creating a temporary magnet.

After spending an hour and a half working with the different experiments, the kids went off into the library to do some research. We had reserved a meeting room for this first class, so we would have an easy transition to library resources.

Even though I had done this before, it’s still hard to resist the urge to make suggestions and try to guide them to a more “educational” project. I can’t say I was thrilled when almost all of the boys chose the “sample” project of building a catapult (though, I should have known that would appeal to them). However, they are working in groups and will be learning to collaborate. In addition, once they build it they’ll have to figure why it works so they can teach it to the other kids (and adults).  Next time, I would probably give general suggestions on the “assignment” sheet and offer less specific examples.

My boys inadvertently made catapults while working on another project…it’s on their minds.

As the kids were gathering books, I asked questions to see what they were thinking about…and to ensure that we have the supplies they need for our meeting next week. So far there’s a great need for rubberbands, sticks and perhaps a complicated pulley-system. I know that my boys were thinking about their project all week, so I’m excited to see how things go for our next meeting. Will everyone have the supplies they need? Will the adults be able to figure out what the kids need – without offering suggestions? Will we be able to work through the group conflicts? I think so. I hope so. And, if not, then we’ll learn something too.

Check out the next post to see how the group is progressing.