Thursday, January 5, 2017

Quick Build: Wind-Powered Cars

"Teachers need to give specific instructions," I say to my student teachers. "Model model model. Be clear in your expectations. Tell them what you're going to do, tell them/have them tell you what you're doing, tell them/have them tell you what you did. This is a good rule to follow."

I look at my students. "We're going into the MakerSpace. Using only the materials you can find in that room, each partnership is going to build a wind-powered car. This is all the description I'm giving you. You have an hour. Go."

Teaching is all about bending rules. They'll learn that too.

My class has been struggling with responsibility as a whole this school year. We tend to not make the best choices. Due to that, we haven't spent as much time in the MakerSpace as I'd like. There are 35 of them and one of me (unless Veronica or Jill is with me). That didn't feel like enough eyes considering the choices that enough of them would make in our own classroom.

But this is a new year. We started 2017 by picking our own desks and having (yet another) conversation about expectations and responsibility. We talked about why we hadn't been in the MakerSpace. And we all agreed that we could be better.

Can't have a conversation like that and then not put your money where your mouth is. I booked an hour fifteen in the MakerSpace the next day and went looking for an easy project to do in there. I didn't want a free-for-all, but I also didn't want to start the Big Project I have planned. I needed something to get us back into the groove. A few Google and Pintrest links later and I found some lessons about building wind-powered cars. As is my whim, I took the part of that plan I liked (the final product) and tossed what didn't work for me (everything else).

What I wrote above is exactly what I said to my kids before we went in. Veronica and Jill had created groups of two and three, students got into their groups, and in we went.

I like contracted time frames for projects. Jon Corippo describes lessons as being like a gas- they expand to fill the space they're given. Give students three days to build wind-powered cars and most groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Give them an hour and the same groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Plus it's fun to watch them plan, design, build, test, and revise as quickly as possible. Teaches efficiency and creativity.

It was interesting to see what students went for. A bunch started cutting Styrofoam into circles for wheels. Others found the Lego sets and pilfered wheels from there. Some found cardboard or wooden circles. This is where most ran into their first, and biggest, problem. Almost to a group they fixed their wheels to an axle and then fixed the axle to their car body. But they did it with tape, or by putting a hole in the body. And when they tried to make their car roll nothing happened. NOW the learning really starts. What's the problem? The axle isn't letting the wheels spin.  How do we troubleshoot this? Bigger hole? Rubber bands? There were all kinds of solutions. Only one or two groups used the straws they found as the fixed axle which attached to the car body, and put toothpicks they'd glued together inside the straw, connected to each wheel, allowing the wheel to spin freely. Most groups just made the holes bigger or figured out a way to get the wheels on the axle loosely enough that they'd spin but not come off. Hey, they solved their problem. I didn't say the car had to be elegant. You're not getting elegant in an hour. You're getting working.

The next major problem was the wind power. Once the wheels where on I caught a bunch of groups laying on the ground blowing as hard as they could on the back of their car, trying to make it go. In a moment right out of MEN IN BLACK one group finally noticed the fan sitting unused, plugged it in, and stopped hyperventilating. The others came over quickly, "Can we get in on that?" But they still just turned the fan on the backs of their cars. I did a little prodding, "Why do you think it's not working? Can you think of something else that is wind powered? What's that have that yours doesn't?" "A SAIL!" one group exclaims. Soon the idea to mount a sail spread across the room, as good ideas often do.

But that wasn't the end of it. Testing continued and, "Our sail isn't working, Mr Robertson." "Hmm, turn the fan on it again. What are you seeing it do?" Some sails became flags, others were too tightly straight. One-by-one groups realized their sails weren't catching any wind and they started testing ways to keep the sail from being a flag and ways to catch more wind. Curved sails began to appear. But none looked like another. Rectangles, triangles, big, small, paper, fabric, tin foil. Every car was different.

At the end of the hour, and I want to stress again that all of the above design, building, testing, revision was done in under 60 minutes, we sat and watched each group go, marveling at the breadth of the creativity in the room. Two groups were unsuccessful in their builds, but they knew why and were on the right track. With a little more time they also would have had working builds. Some cars only rolled a few feet. One tipped onto its nose immediately and fell over, but the group noted that the Lego man they put in the front was throwing the weight off, removed him, and had a successful second run. And two or three rolled impressively far.
"Why does your car have a spoiler?" "Spoilers are cool."

"We call it the Egg Roll."

Afterward, back in class, we wrote reflections, talking about the process, struggles, successes, and reasoning behind the choices made.

This is a project that I could go back to if I wanted to. We kept the cars, I'm going to display them in a case at the front of the school reserved for projects. We could continue to revise. But I like having proof of what's possible in a short amount of time. I can use that lesson in class for other things. And I was shown that my kids were ready for bigger projects in the MakerSpace.

All in all, a very successful hour. I think more Quick Builds might be in our future. I wonder what they can do in thirty minutes...

Here's the video of the final products rolling along.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe you have that many students in one class and you're still finding ways to let them be creative even if they haven't earned the "Big Project" yet. Kudos, Mr. Weird.