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How to Transform Step-by-Step Directions into Inquiry

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In a previous post we explored a potential problem with prepackaged STEM products (or STEM in a box). In short, the problem is when schools and districts invest more in them than they do in their teachers. Because, if the ultimate goal is to leverage these resources to promote inquiry-based learning (which it should be), some form of professional learning is most likely needed, as opposed to simply handing over the goods and believing their potential will be maximized.

Now, let’s examine how teachers can take a product with step-by-step directions and transform/reconfigure it in such a way that inquiry-based learning is promoted…For the purpose of this post, we’ll look at how I previously accomplished this task with solar powered cars, but I believe these same ideas and steps can be applied across countless products/contexts.

The Starting Point

I originally purchased a classroom 10-pack of the car kits from this website (with the intention of having my students work in groups of 2-3), and the directions that came with them can be found here. As you can see, step-by-step errorless construction is endorsed. And, just in case, the website contains a video that demonstrates exactly how these directions should be followed.

The Transformation

First, to encourage inquiry-based learning and to place the engineering process/decisions in the hands of my students as much as possible, I decided they would not be receiving all of the supplies I had purchased. Also, I communicated these intentions and plans with my students…Especially with younger grades, I have found it helps to preview the productive struggle that is about to take place. Otherwise, many students (especially the high-flyers) lose a great deal of confidence because they don’t that realize the struggle is “all part of the game.”

So, I asked myself…“What supplies/directives do I absolutely need to give my students to maximize inquiry and creativity while ensuring an unreasonable level of frustration will not be reached?”…After working through this question with my custodian for quite some time, we decided the students would be provided the following (Take a moment to contrast this short list with what is included in the original directions.): 

  • 1 solar panel, 1 volt 500 mAmp
  • 1 motor with pulleys
  • 4 wooden wheels, 1.5’’ in diameter
  • 1 wooden dowel, 4 mm x 8.7 cm
  • 1 wooden dowel, 4 mm x 9.5 cm
  • 4 screw eyes
  • Students were also permitted to incorporate their own supplies.

Initially, when giving supplies/directives, it is better to “underhelp” than “overhelp.” Additional assistance can always be integrated if necessary, but once too much support is given you’ll never be able to get back the inquiry that you (and your students) lost.

One more thing…

To encourage engineering (as opposed to open-ended building with no constraints or goals in place), the students were made aware of five potential class awards they could receive for their final car/product: most creative, best designed, most eco-friendly, fastest, and highest speed per dollar. Each group was asked to select about two, explain their strategy for winning each one, and then blueprint and design their cars with their chosen awards in mind.

The Engineering

Other aspects of the engineering process included:

  • A more general blueprint, drawn in detail with all parts labeled
  • Explanations and mini-blueprints for individual systems within the car (e.g. making sure the wheels turn once the motor is powered)
  • Documentation of the main problems and solutions that arise during the engineering
  • Budget documentation
  • A reflection, with an emphasis on how successful/unsuccessful each group was in winning their targeted awards

In the End

Although I’m sure my process is not “perfect,” the advantages of what I created vs. what I received in the mail should be clear.

At the end of the day, we want teachers to be able to constructively criticize what’s in front of them and enhance what they have to better meet the needs of their students. Otherwise, we’re stuck with the regurgitation of resources that were created by those who (1) have never met our students and (2) most likely haven’t seen a classroom in quite some time.

Once again…while products and programs have a place in our schools, we must first and foremost remember to invest in teachers as learners and professionals.

What are your overall thoughts on transforming step-by-step directions into inquiry? Can you relate to the process I followed with my fourth graders?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.

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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Friday, 09 December 2016