Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Pente Challenge: A STEM activity

Today, I had the privilege to present at the #KeystoneTIC conference, Day 1.  It was a gorgeous day on Upper Iowa University campus in Fayette, IA, and there were teachers there from all over northeast Iowa.  Many of the people in my  Twitter PLN were also there, so it was an exciting day.

My presentation built on an earlier blog post I wrote this year:  STEM:  It's the Process, not the Product.   In that post, I stated my belief that districts need to find ways to integrate STEM without necessarily adopting a canned, expensive program.

Since that time, the National Resource Council Science Framework has been expanded into the Next Generation Science Standards, which are currently in draft form.   Concurrently, funding has been procured six Iowa STEM Hubs have been decided and an Iowa STEM Council has been established as an outreach of the Iowa Math and Science Partnership.  This is a great first step, under the capable leadership of Dr. Jeff Weld.  It will allow for many of the programs that are out there to be built with support from local AEA staff, and will help winnow some of the choices administrators and teachers face when they decide how to spend limited dollars.

Discussion with my peers in elementary and middle school, however, leads me to think we need to look at practices of science and engineering across the curriculum.   In the same way that all teachers must be teaching reading, or literacy strategies, or integrating technology, all teachers will need to be looking at practices of science and engineers.

The group of educators I met with today were up to that challenge.  In it, I outlined the six STEM connections found in the National Resource Council Science Framework, as well as a recent article by Roger Bybee.

  1. Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  2. Developing and Using Models
  3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  5. Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking
  6. Constructing explanations and Designing Solutions
While scientists and engineers both use these process tools, they use them in very different ways.  For example, a scientist might use a hypothesis and control variables to check the validity of an idea, while an engineer might brainstorm many different ways to solve a problem, and use different variables to determine factors such as a durability.  Understanding the difference between the practice of scientific inquiry and the process of engineering design is a critical skill for both teachers and informed citizens.

To check out understandings of the differences, we went on to what I called the PENTE challenge, which is a great way to teach students of all ages the process of engineering design.

Many games in the world are based on the concepts found in the game Pente, which allows a win when you get five in a row.   Can you think of some of them?

Task:  Design a game that builds on the concepts or materials in a Pente board to create a new game that is portable enough to fit into a sandwich-sized plastic bag to be used in a place where no electricity is available for video games.  You will pitch your prototype to others.

Materials:  a bag of odds and ends of pony beads, some assorted foam shapes, 5 balls of various colors of yarn, and a scissors

Process:  Assign a recorder to document your design process and record in a shared google doc.  A second author should record the rules.  After playing your game with others, rate the fun factor of the game and how well it connects to the Pente assignment.

Time Limit:  40 minutes.

THIS WAS AMAZING. Some of the groups designed boards made of yarn.  Others made bracelet-types of structure.  They negotiated rules.  Teamwork was apparent.  Collaboration was necessary to record information in a Google doc.  Presentation skills were used when they shared their ideas.  (Note that acting as a design engineer did not require power tools, but it did require critical thinking, looking for loopholes and a willingness to design for a large variety of age levels. The activity could be shifted in many different directions)

Here's some questions that we discussed that are worth thinking about if you use this activity with your own staff.
  1. Do engineers engage in inquiry, or is design something entirely different?
  2. How much guidance do you give kids in this activity (open vs guided structure)
  3. If the students don't take the time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the project, what  are they really learning?
  4. Is durability (which can be measured in terms of averages, standard deviations, or product fail rates) a measure of mathematics?
  5. Is the process of rule-writing actually science or language arts?
  6. Would the vocabulary of engineers be introduced before or after the activity?
  7. Is this a student-centered teaching activity that teaches universal constructs?  
  8. How can we teach all the standards in the common core, including the upcoming standards, if we don't integrate?
  9. Was this more about science, or engineering, or was it an even split?
A summary of the presentation, as well as links to the games designed can be found here.   I'd love to hear your comments or questions.

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