Middle School Inventors Lab

October 20, 2014
By Educator Innovator

This post originally appeared on the Startup Classroom blog.

This is a big year for me as an educator. I’ve crossed the 25-year yard line on the teaching field and am pleased to find myself feeling as invigorated as I did when I began at age twenty-three. I’m a middle school math teacher but I start each day by teaching a class called Inventor’s Lab. For me, it’s something of a learning laboratory where I can try out anything I want without worrying about which standards I am covering. The only requirement is that the kids are engaged and happy.

So, we spend our mornings designing tee shirts and key chains to print on 2- and 3-D printers, programming EV3 Lego robots, and creating speakers out of paper cups. The kids are most certainly engaged and the most common refrain I hear from parents is that my class is what motivates their child to get out of bed and off to school. It’s a lot of fun, especially since I am lucky enough to team-teach the class with my co-conspirator Nate.

On a daily basis, I see students engaged in deep learning — problem-solving and persevering when their design doesn’t work out the way they envisioned. They are intrinsically motivated and have remarkable stamina. They naturally offer help to their neighbors and seem to appreciate one another’s skills and strengths without feeling inadequate.

The rest of my day is spent teaching 7th grade math, a course which revolves around standards, and where students often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not knowing the answer. I was an early adopter of project-based learning and enjoy nothing more than tinkering with curriculum to make learning meaningful for students. Furthermore, I have extraordinarily skilled and creative colleagues with whom I collaborate on a daily basis. Our emphasis in adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has been on the mathematical practices.

We regularly look for ways to create meaning through modeling. Last year, for example, my students learned about ratio and proportion through a clothing design project. They were given the task of designing a garment, pricing out the cost, creating a pattern, and determining the price. Currently, students are creating timelines of their lives as a means of exploring integers and rational numbers. Kids love these projects; they feel like a break from the regular routine. They are more confident in their learning and willing to ask each other for help.

What I am struck by is how different the experience is, both for my students, and myself when they are engaged in a more traditional learning environment. Suddenly, their neighbor’s success translates into their own inadequacy. There is a lesson here for all of us. There is something about the messiness that is inherent in Making that allows us to embrace our uncertainty. The fewer the constrictions the more comfortable we become.

It is a given that we will make mistakes because what we are trying to do is hard and new for us. My task this year then is to determine how to bring more Making into my mathematics classroom. For me this moves beyond PBL as it necessitates an openness to the outcome. So, I am looking for tasks that can serve as “provocations” to jumpstart this process.

SONY DSCI recently acquired a 3D printer for my mathematics classroom. I’ve been printing a number of objects and have been thinking about how I can incorporate this into my teaching. One of my students was really interested in how long it takes different objects to print. This sparked a conversation about volume. I had just printed a new bathroom pass in the shape of a troll. Students were suggesting that we find the volume of the troll and other objects to see how they correlate with print time.

This got me thinking about all of the different ways we could explore volume. We could break the troll into different shapes to estimate the volume; look at how much water is displaced when we submerge the troll in water, or measure the volume of the plastic needed to print one troll. My plan now is to have students design and print their own 3D objects for this exploration. They will collect data on the amount of plastic used and the time it takes to print to see if they can come up with some approximation of a mathematical rate for print/volume.

What works here is that I don’t quite know where this project will go and what students will learn. My hope is that by engaging in Making something of their own creation they will forget about measuring their own skill level against that of their neighbors and focus on how fun and interesting it is.

By Julia Marrero