(An Interview with 8th Grade Teacher Kelly Harris-Preston, Brentano Math and Science Academy)
When I visited Brentano Math and Science Academy last month for their first annual all school egg drop challenge, I was struck by the level of differentiation that allowed students across grade levels, from Kindergarten through 8th grade, to participate in the same activity with equal levels of both engagement and learning. Creating a protective container into which an egg can be safely dropped is one of the activities that STEM Institute facilitates in Advanced Inquiry to familiarize teachers with how to make engineering an integral part of their science curriculum in the age of the NGSS. Brentano did a variation on this by having students design a vehicle to protect the egg on its descent. But how can one activity fit so many grade levels of students?
Spending a little time after school with teacher Kelly Harris-Preston gave me a glimpse into how a clever teacher can adapt an activity to make it more challenging for older students, while still being essentially the same activity that the primary grades students are doing.
As had the other grades teachers, Kelly had her students working in design teams to create a receptacle for an egg that would allow the egg to survive intact when dropped from the auditorium balcony to the main floor. But Kelly had kicked it up a notch and in doing so helped her students connect the engineering design challenge to a real world scenario.
How did you differentiate the Egg Drop Challenge to engage the older students?
“We talked about the mudslides and wildfires that are happening in California right now. I posed a question. ‘How could we help?’ I knew we were doing the egg drop, so I wanted to bump it up for the eighth graders a little more, so we talked about that and they came up with the idea of dropping them food. So we started looking at how would that work, what would that look like? I brought in what if it was in New Orleans? What if it was in California? What are some differences in the geographic terrain that would make it difficult? So we first did a blind drop. They created a map and put an X on it and that’s where the food needed to go. They were up on a chair with a blindfold on with a ball and they had to drop it, just so they could practice or see how hard it is to get something to a specific target. And what if it didn’t get to the target. We had all kinds of discussions about that. So they knew going into the design that they wanted to make sure it hit the target, and if it didn’t hit the target, how could it survive? How could people find it if it were in the snow?
They each had a folder with their organization seal on it. There were 7 teams and each team represented a different organization: Marines, Air Force, Red Cross, FBI, CIA, California Fire Fighters, and Navy Seals. I was able to get books on each of those groups. The Oak Park Library is awesome. I have 40 books to take back. I also got books on tsunamis, rescues and SOS, and even small children’s books on survivors.”
How did you organize and pace the activity?
“We took two days to design. In the packet they had their write up, their mission, their objective, their requirements, their constraints. A page on what had to be done. They needed to get their information before they did anything else. Each group had a different location. Some were in New Orleans. Some were in Alaska. Some were dropping in New Jersey, others in California. They had to find out what was the human population. Were they dropping in a populated area? They had to pull all of these things in and account for them before they actually dropped. We went over the operational definitions that would help their design: the momentum, gravity, air pressure. When they sketched out their designs they would have to account for that in the actual designs. I created a sample data sheet for them, and they had to grade their initial drop 1, 2, or 3. 1 indicated a little success and they needed lots of modifications; 2 was for some success, with several modifications; and, 3 was great success, needing very few modifications. Each group had to come up with three designs. They had to write on what were their findings, what happened, how did it change from design to design, what were their failures, what were their successes. They had to account for all of these things, to write up this data to turn in. They had to say what were the modifications that they needed to make?”
How long did all of this take?
“The activity lasted a week.”
That seems like a lot to do in a week?
“Our classes are 90 minutes long. I love having that much time for science, larger blocks to work with.”
What happened next?
“So they investigated. They knew where they were dropping. They knew the population around. They knew all these things. And then they started to design. They needed color if they were dropping in Alaska, just in case it would reflect the sun if it got lost in the snow. These were the discussions they were having. And they started building. Two days of just building. Testing out prototypes. Building again. Testing out prototypes again. Talking. And then they spent the Friday presenting their findings. And whatever design, their last design that was a success, that’s the one that they actually dropped. It kind of like made them more excited. I just wanted to get them excited and engaged in something they could actually connect to instead of just we’ve got to drop this.
A lot of the groups had brothers or cousins in the Marines or in the Air Force. Some of them didn’t know anything about the Red Cross. They knew the symbol but they had never heard of it, so it was an opportunity for them to gain some knowledge about those organizations as well. They really enjoyed it. They want new groups. Next time they want to do Italy soccer teams. I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that, but I’ll figure that out. They want each team to be a different soccer team in Italy and to connect that to their next unit.
So they have it. They’re engaged. They take on the role. And I’m like the drill sergeant. I’m like ‘soldiers, double time double time!’ And we were moving back and forth. They have their rubrics. They moved around. They used laptops. No problem. Everyone was engaged. The only thing I remember seeing is safety goggles. And that was the only thing I would have to remind them of. There was no ‘what are you doing? Why are you not doing this?’ We also have three special education students, and they have a 30-minute pull out. When those students come in 30 minutes into the activity, they don’t miss a beat. The other students fill them in, but they know what to do as well.”
What did you do about evaluation?
“At the end they had an evaluation. And each student had to evaluate the engineering practices. And they also had it on the back of a badge, which I laminated. They had their seal on Monday. They created their own special seal. It had their name, and on the back of their badge, they wrote all of the NGSS Engineering Practices out. I would ask them questions. ‘Is that an engineering practice?’ I would always have them referring back to them. ‘What part of the engineering practices are we doing now?’ So they were always referring back to them, so that when it came time for them to evaluate themselves at the end, they evaluated themselves with evidence and their group overall.”
And I see on this sheet Prototypes and Teamwork?
“Prototypes = Practice. That was our mantra.”
That was the first time I’d heard that equation, and I think it’s a good one. It makes prototyping somehow more memorable as part of the design and development process and drives home the importance of practice, practice, practice. How else will today’s students get to the 10,000 hours needed to develop expertise? “Prototypes = Practice” is a sign worth putting up in your classroom to remind students that practice is essential and that it’s all right to fail as long as you keep working toward a solution.
And what do you want to bet that her students perk up and pay attention when the evening news has stories of food and medicine drops to people caught in wars or natural disasters? They’ve had personal experience with the challenge and therefore a connection to a real world issue.
Kudos to Kelly Harris-Preston for her commitment to her students in going the extra mile to select those library books, in addition to all the other work she did to creatively adapt this into a great eighth-grade activity. Kelly Harris-Preston, YOU ROCK!
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