School has already begun for many students across the country. For those who aren’t already in school, the start is around the corner. The first days of a new school year are exciting for students and teachers alike. Students are happy to see old friends, put away new school supplies and show off new clothes. They are curious and a bit nervous about what their new teacher will be like. Will he or she be nice? Fun? Strict? Teachers also are excited to get to know their new students.
In the past, teachers spent the first few weeks of a new school year getting to know their students, forming their class into a caring community, and teaching classroom procedures. Today, there is a greater sense of urgency during those first weeks as a teacher’s ability to accurately assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses will be reflected in how effective students are grouped for differentiated instruction during those first few months.
Using engineering lessons and activities at the beginning of the year allows teachers to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses across the curriculum. Students asked to solve engineering problems will reveal if math and science concepts have been retained – and more importantly, if they can be applied to a problem. The use of a design brief allows teachers to discover if their students can write in complete sentences, sequence events as they occurred and communicate ideas and problems. This is all very valuable to a teacher at the beginning of the year.
As important as it is to have the above information, a good engineering problem will allow teachers to learn so much more. As you walk around the room while the students are sharing ideas, you can discover:
- Which students are willing to listen to others’ ideas?
- Which ones are able to think outside of the box and come up with truly innovative solutions?
- Are there students who insist that their design is chosen to be built, regardless of the ideas of their other group members?
- Do you have students who constantly interrupt their classmates?
- Who are the students who are reluctant to share at all?
As you observe your students building their design, you will learn:
- Who takes over the project?
- Who won’t engage and sits back and lets other do the work.
- Who is a leader in the group?
- Who is able to draw in a reluctant group member?
Some of the most eye-opening information comes as students move into the test phase. If their design met the basic criteria, are they willing to try to improve what they have or do they say it is “good enough”? Who strives for excellence? If they are experiencing failure, do they keep trying or do they want to give up? Can they think critically about what specifically needs to be done to solve the problem? Are they able to complete a design and proceed to the test phase or do they redo and redo the design without ever proceeding?
As teachers, we know that the make-up of a good student is so much more than someone who can memorize facts. Solving real life problems with engineering will allow you to identify the critical skills of perseverance, and the ability to collaborate, problem solve and communicate that the usual beginning of the year common assessments can’t identify. You will see each of your students in a different light as many times, students who typically struggle with reading or math, are the ones who think out of the box to come up with an innovative solution, emerge as leaders and provide leadership to a team. It allows you and their peers to see them in a different light. Often, those students who are usually at the top of the class have little perseverance, a skill they’ve never needed to develop, and are confined to always looking for the “one right answer”.
So this year, choose an engineering lesson to kick off the new school year. It can be one that takes an hour or one that will continue over several days. You will know so much more about your students when it is over. And best of all, both you and your students will have had a great time doing it.