Wednesday, February 23, 2011

1st Annual Flink Off!

One of the few things I remember from middle school science is making Flinkers - objects that neither float nor sink in water, but rather stay suspended in between. Since we just finished our unit on density, I decided it was a good idea to have our 1st Annual Flink Off. The 6th graders were put into teams, given corks, styrofoam peanuts, pennies, paper clips of different sizes, and were challenged to make the best Flinker possible. At the end of the second day of designing Flinkers we had a competition to declare a winner. Even I entered a Flinker in the Flink Off, which seemed to raise the stakes as far as the students were concerned.

I've been trying to do these hands-on, problem-solving, group activities on a weekly basis this semester and so far they've been great. We had a lot of good cooperation and clever engineering going on during the last two days, and my hope is that, like me, they will never forget making Flinkers.

Check out the video of the Flink Off Finals. Not the best quality, but hopefully you can get a sense of how much fun we had as a class.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Goal #2: Hands-On Learning

Designing Anemometers

Is this what learning looks like?
Award: Most Functional Design
Award: Most Creative and Unique Design

Slowly but surely I've been trying to make good on my goals for this semester. Unfortunately, I haven't been as prepared for classes as I would like - if anything I've been doing more last-minute planning after taking on a third prep for a couple weeks - but I have been doing more hands-on activities in 6th grade science and I have been 'taking on more', for better or for worse. Here, I want to focus on my science class - in a future post I will discuss the pros and cons of stretching yourself too thin.
About two weeks ago I committed (or re-committed) to making my science class fun and hands-on, which means more experiments, more activities, more projects. It began with a 3 day project where the students were given an array of materials from the science closet and told to build an anemometer - a wind-speed measuring device. I didn't quite know what to expect from the students, I didn't know if this simple engineering project was over their heads or not, or whether they would enjoy it. I went with the 'less is more' approach and gave them minimal guidance, basically just handing them a box of materials and telling them to build something that can compare wind speeds. It turned out to be one of the most fun (hopefully educational?) experiences of the year.

To be honest, the only drawback was watching some students struggle with the problem to the extent that they felt unintelligent. I tried to help them troubleshoot their designs, but some of the students would just give up at the first sniff of adversity. This mostly occurred in the dysfunctional groups where, instead of all three students working together, each student worked individually doing three times the work. Next time I should be more clear about what it means to 'work in groups'.

One other quick note for first-year teachers to keep in mind: Be transparent with your students. One of my concerns for doing  more hands-on experiments and activities with the 6th graders was that they would get rowdy, out of hand, and in some cases be  unsafe. In response, I sat them down, had them elucidate what my concerns might be, and made them a deal: We would do more fun experiments if they promised to focus and listen whenever I spoke. So far, so good, knock on wood. The students were pretty amicable to this negotiation, so I would highly recommend just being honest with your class if you have any concerns.