Sunday, January 12, 2014

I’ve Been Schooled!

Where did the whimsy go?


The passing of the bitter cold polar vortex signaled the beginning of second semester at Streamwood High School.  It is the second half of the school year starting fresh with new concepts and renewed opportunities for students to learn science.

It was a great idea. Get the students immediately engaged in concepts in physics by the introduction of an engineering-based challenge, The Paper Helicopter Project. Motivation should run high as students work hands-on creating, constructing and flying paper helicopters in the classroom.  The scientific investigation process will take over two days and the ultimate test will be a performance-based challenge that will judge the students’ abilities to solve problems in science.

Using a framework designed from a university-level project, I reformulated the required outcomes to help lead high school students through this learning process.  My colleagues spent the same time period covering vocabulary and graphical interpretation of motion, but I was convinced that this inquiry-mode of learning could provide the greatest opportunity for my students.

The project chaos and confusion ebbs and flows as students struggle to obtain their outcomes based upon the flight performance of these paper helicopters.  The struggle eventually turns into a methodical step-by-step approach to solving the problem.  Now here enters the issue that I struggle with.  The methodical approach of changing factors (independent variables) on the helicopter to make it fly better becomes regimentation and I sensed a loss of creativity and wonder by my students.  I keep pushing for the completion of the performance tests and analysis, but the whimsy of the project clearly waned.

Motivation by students in the classroom is like experiencing acceleration, you know it when you feel it but it is a tenuous thing.  Whimsy is the result of a convolution of factors set in motion from the genius of the project.  “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead” can sometimes sink your ship. Somewhere in the course of the project design I should have infused a more creative aspect more quickly and more dramatically. Students begin to treat the experience as an after- thought. There is no intellectual curiosity.  It boils down to same old same. The routineness of the methodology killed innovation. At this point I am still asking myself the question; how do I to effectively lace these important aspects of creative thought and innovation more profoundly within a workable time frame for the project?

After three days of testing the students now have the opportunity to build their own paper helicopter, designed to their own ideal specifications. They will then fly the final product.  It is a competitive flight with rewards given to groups that yield the most highly productive final model.  I am hopeful for a rebound in motivation, curiosity and playfulness. The product they create must fit within specific design parameters introduced during the previous three days of testing. This entire learning experience provides students with an opportunity to showcase, to the entire class, what they have learned.



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