For the summer, I am teaching a Physical Science class. This class is remedial in nature. All students are in here to make up credit. Most of them are between their 9th and 10th grade year. I have taught this class for multiple years, usually with poor results. I tended to watch the clock more than the students.
This year, I wanted to take a different approach. I am given a lot of latitude. We only have 6 weeks, so I can't "cover" everything from a semester of Physical Science. That generally isn't my approach anyway. What I have found in the previous years, which isn't much of a revelation, is that these students tend to not like the regular approach to school. My first year, I tried to make the class interactive and fun. The regular class focuses on physics, so I tried to have some different hands on physics projects for students to complete. They balked at the whole idea. I developed a very poor attitude, but kept trying a few different things.
The next few years I focused on "information." I wanted students to gain as much Physical Science information, assuming they simply didn't learn the information from class.
This year I took a different approach. My thinking is that these students see themselves as not capable of doing well. Frankly, I am less concerned with what they learned, instead I want them to see that they CAN learn. I want them to see the process of finding things out. I want them to see that learning science can help us do things, and I want them to know they can do it. My hope is that with some confidence they may be able to do better in their 10th grade Biology class.
So, I need to get them hooked. To do that, we are doing a challenge based approach. I am giving the students a challenge (we are building a mouse trap car right now), they attempt to build it. Typically, the first build is not so good. They go in cold, with little background knowledge. What this first build does is gives them some spark. They are still resistant at first, as many of them don't have an idea as to where to start, but now, we can do some learning. We can look at designs online. We can read out of the book or other places, and talk about the science involved in solving the challenge. From there, we rebuild the challenge. It is really fun to see the improvement from the first project to the second. The neater thing is inbetween the two builds. When you release them to go do research, they stay on task. They find out things, on purpose, about leverage, friction, energy transfer. They argue about what is best and why. Today, I had a few students simply staring at a mouse trap. "How am I going to make this work?" So cool. No behavior problems. No attitude problems. Better attendance than past years.
I started writing this post to talk about assumptions. The interesting thing when we started the mouse trap car. I had done this project before. I realized that you somehow had to connect the moving arm of the mouse trap to an axle. From there, you get to work with leverage on the arm and the size of wheels, think about friction, etc. I only had 1 or 2 students who knew how to work a mouse trap. Only 1 student has connected the arm to the axle. The others have simple put the mouse trap on wheels, set it, and let it go. Hoping to get some movement. I'm not saying this to make fun of these students. Instead, this shows how important it is to give students a chance to tell you what they already know. Sometimes the way they tell you is interesting.