Teacher Innovator Institute Day 3: Wed., July 17, 2019
On our third full day of the Teacher Innovator Institute we were at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center again near Dulles International Airport. We spent the morning completing two team building design challenges and the afternoon in breakout sessions including one on STEAM activities and another on coding resources. We also heard a panel discussion by two World War II veteran airmen, including one of the Tuskegee airmen.
Launching a Project with a Driving Question
A 13-year CTE teacher from Loudoun County Schools led a discussion on how to kick off a PBL experience with a driving question. The question, properly formulated and driven by the students, forms the structure around which learning occurs in a project. He pitched the driving question for us: How can we, as aerospace engineers, construct a structure that is portable, strong, easy to assemble in a short amount of time, and that can withstand the environment of Mars?
This driving question should be broad enough and deep enough to lead to other, more detailed questions, such as: What kind of structure (size, shape, etc.)? What do we mean by portable? How strong does it have to be? What kinds of materials do we have to work with? How easy to assemble does it need to be, and in what amount of time? And, of course, what is the environment of Mars like?
Each of these sub-questions can be further divided, and more details added. Do we want the structure to be above or below ground? What is its purpose? Do we only have the materials available on Mars to work with, or do we bring the parts with use? How light does it have to be, and does it need to be something one person can carry, or can it be transported by a rover or other vehicle? How do we enter and exit it without letting air out (or Mars atmosphere or dust in), and do our spacesuits have to come inside or stay outside? Under the environmental conditions on Mars, what is the temperature range it will have to withstand, and the wind conditions, and the radiation environment? The answers to these questions provide the constraints, or specifications, of the engineering project.
Josh made a point that as teachers, we should NOT tell our students what the questions are or the answers. As they formulate both the questions and look up information to answer them, they will be doing the learning on their own in a student-centered fashion without us doing more than acting as guides on the side. The point is to let the students figure out what they need to know to be successful. We need to stand back and let them learn. Too often as teachers we get in the way of student learning.
Often to help students formulate questions, it can be important to have them construct a simple initial prototype to get a feel for the problems they face. To this end, Josh was joined by Mike Speidel, also with Loudon County Schools assigned to teach at the Udvar-Hazy Center, to show us a construction system called StrawBees. They are a series of vinyl plastic connectors that can be cut using a Cricut machine or 3D printed and which attach drinking straws together to make structures. He handed out kits to each table of teachers and asked us to create a prototype habitat that would be tested by sticking a balloon inside, then blowing it up until something broke.
I suggested an octahedral shape, which we tried, but it failed. We eventually succeeded with a more flexible structure that would give when the balloon inflated. Other teams got there first, but we did get there before the time was up.
Geodesic Dome Emergency Shelter on Mars
Now it was time to build the larger structure, which would be a geodesic dome made from large PVC pieces and custom connectors from a Do-It-Yourself furniture company. While the team leader volunteers planned, I took some stairs up to the second floor where I could overlook the Discovery shuttle. Through a back window I saw the restoration area of the Center, where they are refurbishing and repairing a World War II bomber called Flack Bait. I took a panoramic shot of this and the shuttle, and a model of the Pathfinder mission.
As the entire 30-person 2019 group began to assemble the dome, I found myself volunteering for the role of observer and photographer. This is partly because I had a good camera, but also because of my training in organizational behavior and management, which is my masters degree. I am used to running team-building activities as an observer and it is hard to break myself out of that role. So as the assembly started, I took many photos and video clips as the structure rose from the concrete floor behind the shuttle. It progressed well, but I could see a coming problem – the dome was too big to easily reach the top for construction and there were no ladders to stand on. One of the teachers was a cheerleader coach and suggested building a human pyramid, but that wouldn’t fly (not with a concrete floor). Eventually a solution was found: Build the top of the dome on the side, then move it in place and flip it over onto the top and bolt it down. We managed to build the whole dome and get everyone inside with 20 seconds to spare on the hour time limit.
We returned to the classroom and debriefed. Josh spoke of how to effectively journal an experience so that optimum student learning can occur. As I reflected, I had to think of why I tend to take the observer role. What do I fear about getting into the thick of things in a group activity? I fear not being listened to, which tends to happen when I am forced into a group situation. I don’t advocate for myself very well. Or I go too far and come off as the know-it-all (like when I play Trivial Pursuit with friends), then wind up being wrong. I hate being wrong in front of a group, so I stand aside and let others make decisions or I disengage and become the observer to avoid being put in that position.
Well, enough self-assessment and pop psychology.
After lunch we broke in to sessions and I choose to stay in the main classroom to hear Tina, Betty Joe, Jen (from Utah), and Brinley of the 2018 cohort present on STEAM activities. I tried to take notes, but it was a fire hose of information and my notes are fragmentary at best. Hopefully I will have time to go through the online group folder where all of these lesson plans are located. I do see how a Cricut machine could come in handy. Jen talked about taking plain colored T-shirts and laying out vinyl shapes, then spraying the shirt with bleach to make a white area around the shapes. This is the opposite of using shapes to block the light for a blueprint T-shirt like we did last week in my STEAM class. We did do one activity as a group to take a clear plastic plate and paint it with Sharpie markets, then use heat guns to make Shrinky Dinks out of them. I’ve done this before using plastic cups melted in a toaster oven, but I like the larger size of the plates.
During the second breakout session I went to the other room to hear Scott, Beth, and Christina talk about video editing tools and coding resources. I wrote down a lot of sites for teaching beginning coding, even to lower elementary students. They also talked about using Minecraft, Arduinos, and Raspberry Pis. Again, I took as many notes as I could and hope to have time to check everything out before school starts up again.
A Tuskegee Airman
We walked out into the main hangar area to hear two World War II veteran aviators speak of their experiences. One was Colonel Charles McGee, who was trained as a pilot at Tuskegee, Alabama and is the only known pilot to fly over 100 combat missions in each of three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam for over 500 total missions. It was inspiring to hear him speak – he is going to be 100 years old this year.
The other speaker, whose name I did not write down, was a pilot of a B-24 bomber shot down over Germany. He survived when the rest of his crewmates did not. He had been wearing a parachute because he was too short to reach the airplane control pedals and the chute helped push him forward in his seat. When is plane was shot down and broke in two, he was the only one wearing a chute.
Upon returning to American University, we rested for an hour or so and then a group of us ordered several Ubers and we ate at an Italian restaurant in Georgetown. It was a fun group and I enjoyed getting to know the other teachers better. I never did finish my leftovers.