Entry 06 – Projects In Class

We have wrapped up week 6 of school.  Here is the prompt that several teachers and I reflected on this week:

How do you incorporate project-based learning into your class?

This depends on which class I’m teaching.  Robotics is basically all project-based while in math I’ve really only done one or two projects in the last couple of years.

ROBOTICS PROJECTS

I don’t really know how robotics can be anything but a project-based class…unless we just took a bunch of notes on how the robot works without actually building the robots.  I’m in my fourth semester of teaching robotics (it’s a semester-long elective for middle schoolers).  In the beginning, most of my projects were to have students build a robot that completed a very specific task (see yellow paper on a table, tell a joke using the text and sound features, etc).  Each semester, I’ve ended with their final project where they build whatever they want.  This has actually been where I’ve seen the most creative and impressive work every semester.  Students making robot arms that make tacos, students building sumo bots controlled by PS3 remotes, students building SCARA arms that are capable or drawing circles and lines, and more.  So instead of just having 5 really specific projects and one open ended project, I’m trying to combine the two a bit more.  I want to make open-ended projects that complete a specific task.

This semester, I’m trying a new project where students have to build a robot that can move, but they can’t use wheels.  There will be a race and grades will be determined by winners of the race.  If students pass the finish line, they still get a 95.  I asked students for feedback on this and they were actually OK with it.  I also assigned partners for this project and told them they would be able to pick partners for their next project.  This semester, I’m also going to have everyone create a sumo bot (robot you build with the intention of being able to push another robot off the table).  In the past, students only did this if they wanted to do it for their final project.  Again, very open ended in how they build and program but very specific task.

The biggest challenge I have in these projects is accountability and deadlines.  If they had two weeks to do something, it was hard for them to really maintain any sense of urgency to continue focused work.  Typically with projects you have smaller deadlines for students to meet (draft due, revisions due, final draft due, etc), but with everyone building a completely different type of bot, some focused more on the engineering/building aspect while others focusing more on complex programming, it’s hard to say ‘everyone be at this point by next class period.’  Additionally, our school’s previous reassessment policy really allowed students to complete work late and still get full credit.  Not much incentive to meet deadlines.  It’s been revised so that late/reassess work can only get up to an 80%.  I think that will help, or at least put a bit more emphasis on the importance of meeting deadlines.

With group work, students typically write up their own reflection on the project in the form of a blog, and even have separate presentations if it’s the final project.  That helps more accurately assess individual student work and processes instead of just giving a blanket grade for both students.

Here’s a video I made at the end of last year where students reflected on the project-based nature of our classroom.

MATH PROJECTS (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

The difficulty in math projects is that I always have a pretty hard time finding projects that really line up with the exact learning goal(s) I want students to master.  In my first year of teaching 6th grade math, we did this scale project where they drew a life-size version of a Barbie doll as if the Barbie were their height.  They would see how the proportions would be completely off.  Students were to make all the measurements of themselves and of their doll and then find the scale factor; how much taller were they than their doll.  Students found the scale factor and multiplied all the other proportions by that scale factor and drew the result.  It took two weeks.  2015-05-07-15-24-04At the end of the project, I asked a few students ‘so how did you find the scale factor’ and the most common response was ‘what’s that?’  For many of them, that was one small step in the beginning that they may not have realized was kind of the main idea of the project.

The project was fun, they did a little math, but in the end, I didn’t feel it was worth the time that went into it.  I know it can be done well and I’ve seen other teachers online do this same project in a fraction of the time with a real emphasis on the learning goal.  I didn’t do it last year just because I still had a bad taste in my mouth about it but may give it another shot this year.

That’s really the extent of my math projects I’ve attempted in the past few years.  I’ve had one ‘project’ in pre-algebra on solving two-step equations but it was really just an elaborate worksheet that they could work on together and it was a test grade.  I think it was a meaningful activity, but not a project.  Perhaps I shall try and find at least one legit pre-algebra project to do this year.

THIS PAST WEEK

This past week I had one those classes where I really though ‘man…this is super boring.’  It was in my 6th grade math class where we were learning about multiplying decimals.  I’m trying to avoid just teaching the rules.  I opted to use partial product area models to try and help students connect those with the standard algorithm.  The first class was a bit more into it and had some literal ‘aha!’ moments.  My second class though had quite a few faces glaze over.  It was an hour and a half of walking through an area model, looking at the standard algorithm, connecting the two, and then doing that three more times.  I did the first two with whole numbers and the second two with decimals to try to gradually help them see the connections.  On top of that, that AC in my room has been a bit wonky so add a nice fat layer of stuffiness and it was a recipe for wanting to just close up the math journals and take a nap.  They’ll work on practice problems tomorrow so we’ll see if anything stuck in the midsts of that really slow lesson.

Thanks for reading and hope your week goes well 🙂

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