The start of a new school year is fast approaching and as we begin to plan for our first days back with students I thought I’d share one of my favorite first day activities.
One of the most important components to a successful modeling classroom is the classroom culture. Modeling teachers need to build the kind of classroom environment where students respect the process of investigation and understand that the process of science learning is as important as arriving at correct answers. We want our students to see value in learning from each other and recognizing it’s okay to not have the best answer the first time you attempt something. In an attempt to instill these ideas from the first day of class I have my students build boats on day one.
That’s right, we build boats.
Here’s how the activity breaks down:
First, students are arranged in their whiteboarding groups, I usually try to put four students to a group, but three also works well. The students are given a challenge (figure 1).
They are instructed to build a boat using the materials I provide (figure 2). Each piece of material is associated with a cost. Aluminum foil? That’s $0.20 for every square centimeter. Duct tape? It will put you back $0.75 for every centimeter you take. Once they build their boats, they will float the boat in water and place pennies, one at a time, onto the boat until the boat sinks.
The winner is the group who builds the boat with the best building cost to pennies floated ratio: total cost/number of pennies (figure 3).
What do my students take away from this activity? First of all, they have to keep track of all the supply costs. They have to review how to use a ruler and what a square centimeter even is. They also have to present the data in a clear and easy-to-read way to rest of the class. As an added bonus, students start to notice that not all measurements are equal – some groups will report using whole numbers, some with one and some with two numbers after a decimal. Which is the best way? How can we be consistent and fair when taking measurements? What if one group reported their ratio as $3.9 for every penny and another group reported $3.92 for every penny? Who would win? What if someone reported $3.9245678 for every penny? Does that value even make sense? If ONLY WE HAD A SYSTEM OF MEASUREMENT THAT HELPED US DECIDE! Can you see where this discussion is headed? This is also the first time I introduce the idea of “for every statements”. This purposeful choice of wording helps my students conceptualize the mathematical relationships we report throughout the year. (Learn more about “for every” statements by reading Gary Abud Jr.’s ChemEd X article: The Two Words Every Chemistry Student Needs to Learn.)
Finally, the kids have fun. They hypothesize, investigate, test, and troubleshoot on day one. They get to experience science. At the end of the activity I ask two questions.
“How many of you built the best boat you could have today?”
No one raises a hand.
“After watching your classmates, and observing the best parts of their designs, how many of you could build a better boat now?”
Everyone raises a hand.
This is the point.
We will learn from each other in this class, we won’t always get the best answer the first time, but that’s okay, we get to come back and improve on our work later. You know, like scientists.
This activity was adapted with the help of Ryan Bruick at Noblesville High School in Noblesville, IN. We built on an activity shared at a modeling workshop led by Dr. Levi Torrison.
You will find a Google Slide presentation with an outline of the activity and a list of materials with associated costs we have found to be useful here:
Also read Erica's post, Teaching Kids to Fail.
See a follow up blog post, Build a Boat Collaboration, written by Kristin Gregory pertaining to teacher collaboration through Twitter.