For our first unit with the 7th & 8th graders, all of the specialists in my building have crafted projects that encourage students to take positive social risks. In STEM class, my project took the from of students coming up with an idea for an invention or product that would help a target user somewhere in the age range of Pre-K to Grade 4.
This project challenged teams of students to identify a meaningful problem that children encounter, develop a viable solution that addresses that problem, create a prototype of the idea, produce a slide deck aimed at persuading an audience to support their product, and presenting their product in a “Shark Tank” style pitch. Oh — and they had only 6 days to complete all of these tasks! It was certainly a heavy lift, but my students more than rose to the occasion.
After having five classes of 7th and 8th graders complete this project, I was blown away by their engagement, passion, and creativity. They have displayed a keen ability to put their fingers on challenges faced by younger students and their products have attempted to help students with problems including making friends, reaching or using things not designed with children of their size in mind, avoiding getting lost, losing things, staying focused and motivated in class, helping when they experience bullying, and encouraging them make healthy food choices at school.
The biggest takeaway for me in this project has been the magical results of allowing students voice and choice in their work. While I provided a frame that included specific “must haves” and a target audience, the assignment left plenty of room for students to develop something that mattered to them. While there was some variance in total effort, all but a tiny handful of my 70+ students clearly cared deeply about their projects and showed determination and perseverance in bringing their ideas to fruition in their prototypes and slide decks. The diversity in the resulting projects also created a lot of “buzz” and excitement in the classroom, as students were also curious about the work being completed by other groups.
The amount of spontaneous exploration and learning that happened due to this project also impressed me — I had groups engage in experimentation with LEDs and circuits, structural integrity when working with cardboard, sewing, programming, working with a saw, and a host of other skills. I am excited to continue to look for ways to allow learning to unfold authentically as it did in this project; my students’ work confirmed what research tells us — that immediately applying skills learned “just in time” leads to more meaningful and durable knowledge-construction.