Hands-on happiness at iSchool programs

One of our operating principles is to make each of our learning opportunities as hands-on as possible.  Research backing the benefits of hands-on learning are voluminous and well-supported. (For a sampling, check out this Top 5 benefits list, a discussion of hands-on methods in math, and this scholarly summary.)  What I would add is that it leads to happy students and happy classrooms.

Our last few iSchool classes have had many hands-on experiences, all unique to our students.  They gained all the benefits of learning STEM through the hands-on methods, plus they had eye-opening and mind-opening experiences.

Innovation Lab – 5/15/2014:  Two sessions ago we used some interesting technology to study energy.  This lesson was closely modeled on a lesson I learned about from the Tiger Woods Foundation at the 2014 STEM Festival. It is also well documented on this video from The Teaching Channel. In our shorter and modified class, students worked either alone or in teams to build a house.  The only requirement was that it had to have a door and some windows.  I provided large Popsicle sticks, masking tape, glue, and recycled white paper.

Building their houses

Students then placed their houses over a light source and used a “Thermal” imaging app on the iPad to take pictures of energy loss from the house.  I purposefully had not told the students to close gaps, cover windows, or fill holes.  Thus the photos showed quite clearly that those areas were letting a lot of light energy out of the houses.

Using the iPad to take pictures of energy loss from the house.

Then, it was back to the design table.  Students were free to use any number of insulating material – from cotton balls to felt to tape – to reduce the amount of light energy lost from the houses. Look at the three photos below: the one on the left is the before shot, with red in the middle showing where lots of light energy was escaping. The next photo shows the house after adding insulation – in this case thicker walls – and the middle is blue and green. To the right is the student who made this house.

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Science Magic – 5/19/2014: In Science Magic class this week we examined how plants breathe and we saw that failure is not always a bad thing.  We talked about how plants breathe oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. For the older students it was a quick review of photosynthesis and respiration.  Then we went outside to view breathing plants for ourselves.  Each student selected a plant and we zipped on Ziploc bags over a few of its leaves.  We left them for about 30 minutes.  Each student also picked a leaf to manipulate.  We tried a variety of treatments on the leaves – placing them in sugar water, drinking water, or soapy water, or coating them with glue or vaseline.  This was a bit of an open-ended experiment – we just wanted to see what would happen, and whether we could see any evidence of plants breathing in or out. We also let those leaves sit for the same time.

Looking at the leaf treatments – drinking, soapy, and sugar water.

While we waited we played a little game that was a mix of an idea-thon (inspired by this article about exercising your brain) and a newly-developed iSchool exclusive lesson to show students the power of failure.  It was set up as a game. During each round  each student came up with an idea, and everyone voted for their favorite ideas.  Winners no longer had to come up with new ideas.  By the end of the game, it was pretty clear that the people who had failed the most were winners in a different way – they had the most ideas (and the most candy consolation prizes). As with our other offerings, this one had a memorable hands-on element, with pieces of colored paper and candy making it interesting.

Keeping track of winning and losing ideas

Then it was back to see our leaves.  Students saw that even in the short time we were away plants breathe.  Many of the bags had large droplets of water in them.  The other experiments – in the cups – didn’t work so well. One of the most memorable parts of the day was in bringing together the lesson on leaves and the lesson on failure.  One student had placed her bag on the tip of a plant that had only baby leaves.  Her bag had no water droplets.  She thought she had failed – until we realized that her failure had actually given us more information than we would have had otherwise – perhaps baby leaves respire less.

Leaf bag with water droplets inside

Innovation Lab – 5/22/2014: On Wednesday evening of this week (5/21/2014) there was a 3.2 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter near Richmond.  So during class students built a structure and tested it in an earthquake. Students used any of the materials and principles we have learned so far – such as the strength of triangles and circular columns.  They were free to use spaghetti and marshmallows, toothpicks and jellybeans, or note cards and tape to build their structure.  Then, they placed their structure into an earthquake simulator – a bin with water in it – and observed how well it stood up to the shaking.  Then, it was back to the design table.  Students either fixed their structure so it would not crumble and fall, or they improved them by making them taller and bigger. Check out pictures of the tests and structures below.

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In preparation for an upcoming activity students also started working on rockets.  Two teams started bottle rockets to be powered by baking soda and vinegar.  They used empty bottles, cardboard, and tape.  This part of the day was as much about teamwork and cooperation as it was about the rockets – and we had to spend some time remembering the best ways to deal with conflict while showing respect to others.

Working together on a bottle rocket

We also tried out some really simple rockets – film canisters and a mixture of baking soda and vinegar or Alka Seltzer and water.  We learned very quickly that using the baking soda and vinegar the way we did – by packing the lids with baking soda – wasn’t going to work for us.  The younger students had a lot of trouble getting the lids closed tightly enough.  We had a lot of success with Alka Seltzer rockets.  One student was so interested in the activity that she even stayed after class. She figured out the right combination of water height, tablet pieces, and timing to get her rockets to fly up higher than the school!  Some of the students also tried putting nose cones on the film canisters, but they didn’t see any differences in flight.

Exchanging ideas about film canister rockets
Exchanging ideas about film canister rockets

Check out the video of the high-flying canister below!