I recently visited a Grade 4 class to hear students make presentations about their work on machines they had designed for their Technology Lab class. Using concepts of universal design, students had to design and then build machines that could answer yes or no questions. I had the privilege of being able to speak with the students about their work, and I discovered that our students had a good understanding of universal design, a design that will be readily accessible and comprehensible to as wide an audience as possible. Thus, for these projects, the students designed machines that could signal “yes” or “no” both visually and audibly. Most students chose a harsh-sounding buzzer and a red light for “no” because, as one student explained to me, this is what they use on many game shows, so many people are conditioned to that sound and that color for a negative response; for the same reason, happy, jingling bells and green lights were used to signify “yes.”
Designing the machine involved collaborating with a partner, selecting or combining ideas, and sometimes compromising. This collaborative work itself provides many learning opportunities for the students, who quickly acknowledged both the positive and negative aspects of having to work with another person, concluding overwhelmingly that it is nice to have someone to bounce your ideas off. Students learned about the different ways to get their machines to work: the use of various power sources, inputs, and outputs. They learned both in the abstract and the concrete what an input is (an input controls the flow of energy to generate a particular output; pressing this button causes a red light and buzzer to be activated).
The final element of the project was the presentation to visitors, like me, to the classroom. For this students needed to prepare a set of illustrative slides and a narrative to explain their work and what they learned. Being able to do something is important; being able to explain what you have done to others is an additional and invaluable skill.
This particular hands-on, problem-solving, collaborative design project was just one example of the many ways that Sewickley Academy students are learning by actively engaging in the work at hand, discovering the problems and the solutions to those problems, and thereby gaining a much deeper insight into (in this case) fairly complex concepts than they might have otherwise had if they had just sat for a lecture where a teacher would provide a list of terms and definitions. Of course, some learning, like learning to collaborate, can only take place by doing, and learning to collaborate was certainly a central aspect of what these students got out of this project.
Kudos to Julia Tebbets and her Grade 4 students for their wonderful, engaging, and inspiring work. While participating in the presentations, I witnessed a group of fully engaged, curious, and joyful learners who were clearly invested in their work and excited to share.