PBLs: Engineering Experiences

As we head in to Joshua's last 9 week of high school, I find myself reflecting on the projects that he really connected with and enjoyed during his days, months and years at Friendswood High School. 

Hands down our favorite from junior year is when he built this boat. 
With these two teammates. 
From cardboard. 
And clear packing tape.

Photo courtesy of FISD
I know it made a splash with Joshua because he chose to write about it for his college and scholarship essays.

After seeing this picture on Twitter and curious about this project-based learning experience, high school teacher & blogger Brian Sztabnik asked to interview Joshua. Here's what our son had to say.

1. What was the assignment? In a team of three or four students, build a boat (designed to withstand the weight of two high school students crossing the school's pool) out of only cardboard and clear packing tape.

2. What unit was the assignment situated in? AP Physics - the Archimedes Principle.

3. What permissions, clearance, scheduling, etc was needed to complete this activity? The teachers had to schedule time in the natatorium for the boating race. We students had to schedule weekend meetings to build our boats from cardboard boxes.
4. What instructions were provided to the students? Click {here}.

5. What content-area learning occurred during this activity? Testing the Archimedes Principle (buoyancy). 

From Mr. McGowan, the Physics teacher: Boats come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. And, some have trouble going the same direction as others. Have you ever wondered how a large supertanker filled with oil can float? Objects submerged in a fluid such as water appear to weigh less than they do when they are not in the water. The liquid exerts a buoyant force on the object. Archimedes is credited with discovering that the buoyant force on an object is equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. He is said to have discovered this principle in his bath while trying to think of a way to determine whether the king's new crown was gold or a fake. Legend says that he ran naked through the streets shouting, "Eureka." Archimedes Principle also applies to floating objects. An object floats on a liquid if its density is less than that of the fluid. For our supertanker to float it must displace a volume of water equal to its weight.

6. What soft skills did students demonstrate during this activity? We had to work together to make calculations, design and draw their boats. After we submitted the initial report and boat design, we had to talk to each other to plan and then schedule work dates. We had to cooperate and be flexible, working around other school projects, activities like band and cross country, and work schedules. The process of building the boat took negotiation and teamwork, for sure. When one of the four members failed to show up, the three of us who did all of the work had to discuss what, if anything, we needed to do about that. 

From Barbara: When I, as the mom of the student who hosted the boat-building sessions, asked the senior in the group how this project has been for him, he answered, "It's been fun; it helps that I have some nice guys to work with." The other teammate, a junior, responded, "Joshua's sometimes in a big hurry and we have to slow him down, but other than that, it's been good."    

7. What does project-based learning mean to you? It's kind of fun to do the projects, but it's the reflection piece that really stretches us to extend our learning, to think more deeply about it, to grow from it. There's also an assessment piece that forces us to take a critical look at our work.

For example, we had four boys, but only 3 showed up. Ever. Except for to the actual race. In the report, we had to grade ourselves. We gave ourselves each a 10 but when we gave the teammate who never showed up a 2, it dropped our scores to an 8 each, even though we showed up every time and did all of the work. (If we would have given him a 1, our scores would have dropped to a 7.5) So we really learned the importance of showing up and being a responsible team member. 

8. Could this learning have occurred in other ways? What was gained in the process? What was lost? We really didn't think our boat would make it across the natatorium pool. At all. We worked really hard to give it a good try, but we remained skeptical. Then on Sunday when we checked our boats in and saw ours compared to others, we thought we'd done a pretty decent job building it anyway. We were pleasantly surprised that our boat made it across in 38 seconds and could have gone back and forth a few more times. We ended up in 7th place out of 50 boats. I was disappointed we didn't land in the top five, because then we'd have gotten extra credit, but being in the first heat, we just didn't know how fast we'd have to paddle to get a competitive time.

9. How time consuming is it to do activities like this in class? We spent about 21 hours of out-of-class time on this project, which counted as a major test grade.

10. What other project-based learning do you do? We haven't really had a lot of these in school; I'd say Science Fair is another significant project-based learning I've done. Senior year we did a Poetry Museum in AP English IV. We had to research a poet, study one of his poems, find complementary artwork and music, analyze the poem, make a brochure and a visual presentation, recite the poem, and present our research in class and at Poetry Museum Night to an audience.

We are so grateful to the passionate educators who engineer experiences for our kids to encourage them to think and grow outside of the {cardboard} box.

What project-based learning experiences do you offer at your school?

1 comment

  1. greaat story! i'm actually teaching two pbl classes this year and love it!


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