Thursday, April 9, 2015

Student-developed Driving Questions in Science PBL

One of my favorite aspects of project-based learning is that students identify the areas within a topic that are most fascinating to them, and then dive into that area. I'm very interested in this questioning process, and you can read about our question-storming around hydroelectricity and ecology at the beginning of this school year, and our more wide-open questioning as we started our science geniushour, or - as we're calling it - Science Innovation Time.

I'm still getting my sea legs, though... A few weeks ago, we launched a new PBL theme around paleontology, and we had some great successes as well as some clear areas to improve for future project launches. (I say "we" here because I was at SXSWedu for the critical week of the launch, and so that week was led by the awesome woman - Kiki - who will be moving into my position next year so that I can take charge of our BIG Lab.)

You could think of this as "What to do, and not do, supporting students in developing their own PBL driving questions."

Here follows the plan, the reality, and the reflections:

1.) Bloom's Taxonomy: Having introduced Bloom's Taxonomy in launching the Elwha Project, I re-accessed my students understanding of those question categories, and we practiced brainstorming questions that we already have about paleontology in the different categories. This was straightforward and easy... my kids understand Bloom's.

2.) A Launch Event: The fabulous Leonard Eisenberg of Evogeneao happens to be a cousin of one of my students, and he offered to come speak to my classes. He gave a fascinating presentation on the fossil record and how we understand relationships between organisms. For his presentation, I asked my students to only focus on taking notes of questions that pop into their heads during the presentation. Again, this was easy for my kiddos... they're full of questions!

In launching, I offered the following theme statement to my students, to guide their questioning and their projects:

We rely on tiny amounts of data to craft our theories about the history of life on Earth, from the earliest Precambrian life through the current Holocene era. These theories can sometimes change drastically when new evidence is discovered.
As I explained to my students, this is the ultimate goal of the project: to prove deep learning and understanding around that theme statement.

I crafted the theme statement from NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas MS-LS4-1 and MS-LS4-2:
The collection of fossils and their placement in chronological order (e.g., through the location of the sedimentary layers in which they are found or through radioactive dating) is known as the fossil record. It documents the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of many life forms throughout the history of life on Earth. (MS-LS4-1)
Anatomical similarities and differences between various organisms living today and between them and organisms in the fossil record, enable the reconstruction of evolutionary history and the inference of lines of evolutionary descent. (MS-LS4-2)

3.) Whole-Class Practice Exploring Artifacts: Then I left for SXSWedu... Kiki's first activity was to present the kids as a whole class with two example artifacts: (1) an image of Tyranosaurus and Stegosaurus highlighting the fact that they lived farther apart than Tyranosaurus and us, and (2) a fascinating video about the discovery of a new anomalocarid. (You should watch it... it's really cool!)

A problem arose when Kiki asked the students to start brainstorming questions from the artifacts. You see, I had created a little template page with a sample question in each of the 6 Bloom's categories for each artifact, and then space for students to write their own question from each of the 6 categories. This really railroaded my students... they felt like they could only think of one question per category, and their many many other questions went uncaptured.

A future solution would be extremely simple... Instead, we should have had the kids brainstorm questions on Post-It notes... just all of their questions - without thought to Bloom's categories. Then the kids could have sorted their questions into categories afterwards. This would validate all of their questions, and if one or two of Bloom's categories have fewer questions, then so be it.

4.) Individual and Small-Group Deeper Artifact Exploration: Kiki and I together had collected some very exciting resources, including 3 "Burke Boxes" from our local natural history museum, and a few excellent children's books (that go much deeper than many children's books!) The idea here was to go back to brainstorming questions on Post-Its and then sorting, looking especially for those higher-level questions.

A problem arose because my students still really didn't have enough background knowledge to thoroughly investigate the boxes... Comparing 4 different hominid skulls is fascinating, but my kiddos simply didn't have the vocabulary to identify specific differences in the "zygomatic arches." When looking at the "Before The Dinosaurs" box, the trilobite fossils were amazing, but my kiddos simply didn't know how to compare them to other arthropods. Because Kiki is an incredible teacher and extremely knowledgeable paleontologist, she was able to more directly shepherd them through observations so that they could build truly deep questions.

A future solution could be to create some sort of guidance sheet to support students in comparing artifacts. Kiki found herself frequently asking students the same questions to guide their observations: What differences do you notice about these two fossils? What characteristics are recognizable? What might be start to infer about differences in how this or that organism lived?

An additional problem was that the hierarchical structure of Bloom's taxonomy led many of my students to interpret that the "create" level was the ultimate goal, and that "lower" level questions were unacceptable. This, of course, is not true! Especially in a field like paleontology, "analysis" level and other questions can lead to deep, rich inquiry.

A future solution could be to use a different scaffold for categorizing questions... perhaps one that is not hierarchical, but rather descriptive but with simple recall questions set aside - more in the googleable/nongoogleable framework.

A third problem (this just all-around wasn't perfect...) was that, to save space, I only posted sorting categories for the three "top" Bloom's levels. As I'm sure you can surmise from the previous problems, this just invalidated kids' "lower level" questions that were perfectly awesome for building bigger and deeper questions off of. Related to this was my students' voicing their beliefs that "create"-level questions were the ultimate goal, since those are the "top" of the pyramid...

A future solution, if I stick with Bloom's, would be to always give space for sorting all 6 levels, and build in explicit time for "growing" the lighter-weight questions into bigger, deeper. Better, though, I think is finding a Bloom's alternative, or at least de-hierarching the top levels so that "evaluate" questions are equally welcome as projects as "create" questions. I like the following graphic for that de-hierarchic-izing.

And I dig this little house graphic, but I don't love it...
Developing a questioning-support graphic may be a project!

5.) Sorting and Analyzing Questions: From their artifact-generated questions, my students selected their favorites to compile into a class database via a Google Form. It was during this database-entering that Kiki did lots of the support to move students from "understand" questions to deeper "analysis" and "evaluation" questions. Again, Kiki's domain expertise was absolutely critical in supporting this deepening... My own paleontology domain expertise would not have cut it!

The following image is literally a random, unfiltered, uncurated list of questions that made it into this database. I think their depth and breadth speaks for itself! You can see the whole database here.

6.) Final Project Proposals: From their own questions as well as from the whole-class database, my kiddos then defined their final project proposal. Here is the Google form I built for my students to enter their proposals, and I ran an Autocrat script to then return each student's proposal to them in the form of a Google doc shared with me and the student. This actually worked extremely effectively, and my students are now well underway in finding resources and scientific evidence to support answers to their questions.



1.) Bloom's is not the ultimate questioning support.
Bloom's is an effective starter to get kids thinking about different kinds of questions, but it can force artificial boundaries if it's held as the end-all, be-all. Questioning categorization needs to be presented flexibly, or at least with multiple different models, so that students' own thinking can also be flexible.

2.) Open-ended artifact exploration is insufficient without support.
We can present the most amazing artifacts in the world, but if the students don't have any ability to notice the amazing-ness, those artifact explorations won't elicit deeper questioning. This falls back to intensive training in observation, and teacher guidance in that observation. Not necessarily hand-holding - not "look at this piece right here" - but as Kiki suggested: some scaffolding to support looking for similarities and differences, and looking for small details.

3.) Launch events are quite effective!
Our visit from a domain expert launched some great thinking, and every other time I've had guest experts has also led to deeper discussions. A visitor with personal research, policy, field, whatever experience can bring so much to the table. Mr. Eisenberg's visit got my students asking big questions right off the bat, and they continued discussing his presentation and points more outside of class than other "typical" classroom activities.

4.) Deeper domain expertise from the teacher leads to deeper questioning from students.
I feel like I've known this in my own experience in my own areas of expertise (genetics, much of human anatomy), but it was fascinating to watch how much it made a difference watching a domain expert lead investigations in a field I'm weak in... Kiki's expertise in fossil details and paleozoology supported students in noticing key features and identifying keywords that I couldn't have supported.


Another nifty idea:
When Kiki and I presented this enactment and our reflections to our 4th-8th grade teacher colleagues, several additional questions arose further around how to support student questioning. They could essentially be summed up as "How do we wrangle student questions so that they (a) are answerable by the students and (b) call for an answer that will serve the learning objectives?"

A couple examples given were:
- (magnetism unit) - Why are some metals attracted to magnets and others aren't? not developmentally answerable by a 5th grader
- (human body unit) - Can I design a functional artificial heart? answering requires some anatomy learning and some really interesting materials investigations, but doesn't address human anatomy learning objectives beyond the circulatory system

A colleague and I came up with a potential solution while discussing the intersections between design thinking and PBL this weekend...

The ideation phase of design thinking and the process of developing potential driving questions for PBL have strong similarities. In the IDEO model, both are extremely divergent phases of a learning and development process. Sorting and specifying processes, then, are convergent phases. We already use many of the same techniques: identifying themes, grouping. What other ideation techniques could we steal to solve these problems?

What if we apply the matrix/axis sorting technique to our potential driving questions? A great technique in converging on wild and broad ideation outcomes is to sort ideas according to a two-axis framework, such as in the examples below:

What if we basically use those two concerns as a potential-driving-question sorting technique? With "highly answerable" and "highly meeting learning objectives" as two axes? This might then be followed up further sorting those top-right questions by two more axes: "most fascinating" and "most likely to be answered via a single google search" (in that case, you'd want bottom-right...)

What if we sorted our first giant brain-dump of questions into these matrices?

I'm definitely going to try this next time.


Infinite gratitude to Buck Institute for Education,, IDEO, NoTosh, and my wonderful colleagues in #dtk12chat for ALL my understanding of PBL and DT.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A 3D Printing Adventure

A nice quick blog post...

With my exciting new job coming up next year, I decided I needed to do something *really* splashy for our annual school fundraising auction... Something ultra "maker"-y... So I got it into my head to make a necklace featuring a 3D printed pendant of the auction's official logo. Here's how I did it:

1.) I downloaded an image file of the logo from our website, and threw it into Photoshop to make all but the main logo itself transparent. I did this just using the magic wand tool to select the parts of the image I wanted, copied, then pasted into a new transparent-background file. Very easy. Here's a quick guide.

2.) Next - and this was honestly the hardest part - I converted the transparent jpg file to an svg file. In searching and searching, I could only find one tool that could get the job done... This guide and online converter saved my bacon. From there, it was easy to just import into Tinkercad

3.) In Tinkercad, I added a background to hold the letters together, and two small loops to hold a necklace chain. My priorities were to keep the letters at the absolute forefront, and keep the pendant sturdy but as delicate as possible. The oval ring gave it a nice Jetsons feel!

4.) 3D printed! Using our not-amazing-resolution but incredibly reliable Cube 2nd Generation.

5.) After carefully sanding off the raft and various nicks, I visited Fusion Beads here in Seattle to choose a chain and some accent beads for the necklace. I used a purple paint pen to color the letters themselves, and just a normal black Sharpie to color the background ring, and I needed a pair of needle nose pliers to place the beads and chain.

6.) My necklace was a big hit! (As were the coordinating shrinky-dink earrings made by my lil' maker daughter!)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

More School Make/Innovation Spaces

In late October, 2013, I visited several makerspaces in the bay area crammed into one day, and blogged about my discoveries here.

Then, in summer 2014, I visited two more makerspaces and blogged about those here.

Most recently, the fabulous Jaymes Dec hosted me at Marymount in NYC, Kat Sauter hosted me at Ann Richards STARS in Austin (whom I also visited back in 2013 before their makerspace!), and Ross Monroe hosted me at Edmonds Community College right here in Seattle.

(This great post by the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont also has some great ideas and examples for flexible physical learning environments.)

Again keeping the same structure as my previous posts, with one additon:

Overall Organization
Safety (new)
Student Projects
Fun Toys

Overall Organization

Marymount's "makerspace" was actually significantly distributed throughout the school, with elements in the high school, middle school, and primary spaces. "Making" is well on it's way to being simply fully integrated into the subject area classes at Marymount, and it shows.

Ann Richards and ECC both have clearly designated makerspaces, with Ann Richards' more clearly matching much of the layout I've seen at other schools and ECC's much closer to a traditional machine shop with some awesome new elements (3D printing).

Pegboards and clear bins were particularly prevalent, as I've often found. We're leaning very heavily towards the pegboard-with-sharpie-outlines model of tool storage, hoping for very easy cleanup even for our pre-reader little makers.

Marymount's bins and pegboard
One thing I particularly like about Jaymes's bins at Marymount is the organization according to type of activity... Rather than "electronics" and "sewing," Jaymes has his shelves arranged by "Invent Something" or "Prototype Something."

Ann Richards' pegboards

ECC's pegboard specifically for cardboard cutters. I'm totally getting some of these.

ECC also had some very heavy-duty rolling tool chests, and they used their vacuum former to create custom trays for their different tools. They also used both photos and text labels, resulting in some of the same visual organization that clear bins offers.


Ann Richards was the only school with a brainstorming space within the makerspace itself. It was a spot of color and comfyness in the otherwise industrial space. We're planning to have a small cafe/library space for brainstorming and reading idea books, and this is a nice model.

Another great element from Ann Richards was their homemade drill and glue gun organization systems. I've been wanting some sort of glue gun rack for several years now, and am fully planning to steal this idea the second our laser cutter is set up.

Kat was much less excited about her in-progress student project organization... This is not far from my student project organization system in my science classroom right now, and I definitely don't recommend it.  Perhaps a different style of bins, to differentiate from materials and allow students to keep their pieces contained?


I can't believe I haven't had a dedicated section for this before... I was really impressed with the safety structures in place at Ann Richards. They have hearing protection prominently displayed with other tools, student-created safety signs like the "Sharp Object Protection" example here, and - my favorite - simple graphics accompanying each piece of equipment to show what you need to be able to operate that tool: eye, ear, and/or pony.


The piece of furniture I was most excited about was the sound booth at Marymount. My students are constantly complaining about the difficulty of creating audio recordings - for videos, for animations, for podcasts, for world language assignments - and this simple booth would get heavy use... We're currently planning to buy/build two for our Lab.

In general, both Ann Richards and Marymount have heavy wood lab benches with some storage underneath, and basic metal stools. ECC uses their rolling tool chests also as workbenches, and has no stools - since their actual work spaces are separate, they find no need for seating.

Ann Richards' main space.

Student Projects

Marymount had some really wonderful student projects on display, including a functional 3D-printed robot that a high school engineering class was working on, recycled fashion, robots programmed to perform a ballet, and a challenge project resulting in prosthetic hands able to hold and tilt a can of soda.

Ann Richards didn't have very many projects on display, but several examples of neat signage made by the students. Kat commented that a couple of the signs were made with inappropriate materials, like the very nice particleboard for the JUSTICE sign when cardboard would have done just fine. I anticipate that being a challenge for us as well... Already, my students use leather sheers to cut cardboard and wire strippers to cut chicken wire. *sigh* More training will help.

Ann Richards' truly spectacular project, however, is their Project Ventura camping trailer renovation, a multi-year project undertaken by several different classes every year. I have just a few pictures here, but visit their blog for more details.

(a photo of a "before" image displayed in the trailer, and an actual photo of the same spot at the time of my visit)

I really only have one project from ECC to show: this vacuum-formed podium. I expressed some skepticism that a vacuum former is a really useful tool, and Ross and his lab manager Justin jumped to show me some examples. Their students regularly use their CNC mill to cut foam into the desired shape, vacuum form a mold from the foam, then use the vacuum-formed mold to make the final product out of plastics, concrete, or whatever material. I'm sort of convinced... I think our admissions and development offices would REALLY enjoy making some custom-molded chocolates for school events.

Fun Toys

3D printers:
- The MakerBot Replicator 2 had a pretty poor review, especially that the cartridge clogged often.
- The Lulzbot TAZ got a good review... easier and more reliable than the MakerBot. However, the guys at ECC pointed out that the TAZ software is pretty non-friendly and doesn't automate scaffolding.
- The Polar3D is brand-new, so they haven't used it yet... But a new style of 3D printer with a rotary plate (a "polar coordinate" printer)
- The uPrint got a great review, but far too expensive for our needs
- The Formlabs got probably the best review of all of them, with high reliability and friendly software where you can even adjust the supports.

Kat keeps a quick model of different printing densities next to their TAZ for reference:

CNC routers:
The gigantic CNC router at ECC is a heavily-used tool, and a very large tool. Marymount barely uses their CNC, but when it works, it can make some neat products like the custom-etched hair bow below. Ann Richards had *just* set up their CNC when we visited, and hadn't used it yet.

Marymount's mini CNC

ECC's maxi CNC

Laser Cutters:
Both Marymount and Ann Richards have the universal Epilog cutter, but ECC has a Universal laser cutter, which I'd never seen before (I'm going to go ahead and leave that poor wording, because I think it's funny). The pros that Ross and Justin shared with us for their Universal are 1) multiple laser heads for different energy needs, and a much wider and feed-through bed for very large cuts.

Other little things:
I've always been sort of skeptical of conductive fabric, but Jaymes has this very cute technique for using conductive fabric to create a battery-holder pocket.

ECC has pneumatic orbital sanders, and the full compressed-air system throughout their space to run them... They feel strongly that an compressed-air system is a vital component of a makerspace, but I'm still not sure... I see the value of both pneumatic tools and having air to clean dust off woodworking machinery (I remember using the heck out of that in wood shop in junior high). But I don't know... still up for discussion.

Just one last thing, because I have a picture of it... While in New York visiting Marymount, I had the most insane meal: foie gras bonbons! Combined with an incredible bourbon cocktail, it was an amazing treat!