Thursday, 19 January 2017

Mousetrap - Teacher Reflection

Prior to the Christmas break, the boys in Fusion completed their second iteration of a mousetrap vehicle challenge.It was interesting to see how the thought process evolved over the course of that project. It was as much an exploration of the Design Thinking Process as it was a look at the transfer of potential energy into kinetic energy. It was as interesting to see how effective the project addressed the anticipated learning as it was to see what was learned that we did not expect.
Over the course of the project and term, I started to break down our learning into some broad categories. They became Engineering/Making Hard Skills such as designing and building models using 2D and 3D CAD and CAM tools, the use of the Design Thinking Model itself, Communication Skills that focus on how a student clearly articulates their thinking in a number of ways, Analytical Thinking Skills that focus on how a student breaks down a problem in order to solve it, and Collaborative Skills that look at how groups of students work together to accomplish a task.
Generally speaking, the students came to a clear understanding of what the Design Thinking model is and how to leverage it in group problem-solving. Probably the biggest realisation was that the model itself is not linear. While we talk about five stages which do progress in a sequential fashion, there are often times where it is appropriate to move from stage to stage in other orders. Probably the most common issue this way is in the prototyping phase. Many students discovered that as they got a prototype built or partly built and significant issues arose. Those that felt confined by the Design Thinking model didn't go back to the ideation phase or at least the ideas that they'd come up within that phase. They would typically get stuck or obsess about a small issue that might not even be solvable rather than stepping back, looking at the other options that they'd already partly explored and use that thinking to inform their design. Over time, they became more adept at using the model and recognised that each phase was a way of thinking through the problem and that sometimes moving across the model to leverage those different ways of thinking was more effective. Rather than being confined by the model, they used the model to their best advantage.
The hard skills wound up being a real issue with some. We have very much been operating from a philosophy of "just in time learning" where we wait for a real problem to arise before teaching the skills to address it. This makes the learning of these skills more relevant and efficient because the skills have direct application. It is common to teach STEM kids to solder, but if the student doesn't know what a circuit is and why they might want to build one to address a problem, the learning becomes fairly hypothetical. The downside to "just in time learning" is that you don't know what you have to learn before you have to learn it. When students come up with different solutions to a problem, the skills that they need to solve it are different. Some students deal with what they don't know by avoiding learning a skill and finding another way around the problem. Others dig in a get their feet wet. The biggest danger, of course, is that they don't know what they don't know and if they don't know that something is possible, then they won't think to explore it.
A big area of emphasis for me in the second iteration of this project was in the use of communication skills. This is where the blogs were most effective and if you are a regular reader of the student blogs (look to the right of this screen), then you will have noted many conversations where I was pushing the students to clearly articulate their thinking. There were many issues with communication from laziness and bad grammar to simply not having thought through a design or a problem clearly and thus not being able to articulate their ideas. The communication struggles would cause issues with final presentations and reflections, but would also result in miscommunication between team members as they would misunderstand each other and be thinking about their work differently. This is an area that we will continue to push as I truly believe that the clear articulation of an idea is the best evidence of clarity of thinking.
While communicating ideas was important in the way a group was able to work together, there were other aspects of communication that affected how effective a group was in their work. Some groups were very deliberate with how they set up their online communication tools, how they divided responsibilities, and what their expectations of each other were. There was a direct correlation between those groups that took the time to organise themselves in these ways prior to getting down to the work of solving the problem and those that felt that the process was successful. Those that simply started in on the problem and never talked about their group dynamics reported more frustration with how the group progress throughout the challenge. The learnings here have been taken to heart and are being leveraged in the current design challenge.
The final key learning in our mousetrap vehicle project came through our discussion of what it means to be successful in these challenges. Clearly, in the work world, success is completely dependent on the end product. Rarely do companies care how a job gets done (apart from harmful workplace politics or processes that cost too much money). They care more about delivering a product to the customer in a timely fashion that generates a profit for the company. We have the luxury in education about not worrying about the bottom line and this frees us up to care more about the process and less about the product. Having said this, I was curious to know if the students saw things the same way. Do they really on care about making their vehicle going further or faster than the other teams'? Do they care only about getting a better mark than their classmate? If so, then the discussion around what one learns from a "failed" attempt is much less effective. I was encouraged to see that these students were generally able to step back from the product and look at what they had learned from the process. If iteration two didn't grow in some way on iteration one, it was generally seen as a failure. If iteration two took some risks and resulted in new learning, regardless of whether the actual vehicle moved at all, it was generally seen as a success. In my mind, this is exactly as it should be even if it doesn't result in replicating the "real-world" environment. In our business, the product is the learning and everything else is simply a demonstration of that learning. I was quite pleased to read the students' blogs and find out that many of us are on the same page!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Week 10

Improvement time!
So, when I said that I wouldn't likely be able to post every week, I didn't think that I would go this long without updating our main Fusion 10 Blog!  A lot has been happening in the last 7 weeks (seven weeks? - wow!)  We have worked through our first iteration of our mousetrap vehicles, have had an old boy who is currently employed in the bio-medical engineering field come to visit and speak to the boys, and have made a start on personal projects that connect the students to areas of engineering and problems that they are passionate about.

Before I get to catching you up on our journey over the last few weeks,  I should offer a partial explanation for the lack of posts on this blog over that time.  As most who read this blog will know, all assessments have been done in the form of student blog posts this term.  We have had no tests, essays or other more traditional forms of grading.  The reason for this is that the curriculum for the Fusion course (remember that Fusion is a design course within the Fusion program that includes other courses such as Math and Science) is very fluid.  There is no Ministry prescribed list of skills, concepts or facts that students must know.  The students, especially in the first year of the program, come into the course at a wide variety of skill and conceptual levels in a myriad of areas.  It is more effective to have students report and reflect on their learning at various points along the way rather than testing them at the end of a unit.  For the work that we have done so far, these reflections tell me much more about what a student has actually learned than any multiple choice test ever would and is more responsive to the immediate learning that is going on than essay questions as part of a unit test.  The down side to this approach to assessing the boys learning is that it takes more time on an ongoing basis to have these discussions via the blogs.  I comment on most of the blog posts and ask questions that try to get deeper thinking when I can and to clarify understanding (mine and the boys').  I think that the time is well worth it, but it means that this blog drops to a lower priority when I'm spending my time reading and commenting on the students' blogs.

Back to the last seven weeks.

We learned a lot from our first attempt at our mousetrap vehicles.  Besides building strong connections with the physics curriculum in Science, we have learned a lot about the design thinking process.  The process involves a phase of Research where we try to understand what we need to understand in order to address the specific problem at hand.  In this case, much of that research involved understanding physics concepts of potential and kinetic energy as we try to understand how the energy stored in the set mousetrap could be captured and converted into forward motion of some vehicle across a gym floor.  We struggled with the idea of Defining our problem in a succinct manner so that we would have clear direction and something to measure the success of our solutions against.  We got better at Ideating (brainstorming) as many approaches to solving the problem as possible so that we could look at the problem from different angles.  We enjoyed Prototyping our solution by building our design and getting it ready for the final Testing.  We then took our final solutions and tested them by not only measuring the distance that each vehicle traveled but also video recorded the test run in order to be able to measure the acceleration and deceleration of the vehicles so that we could understand how efficient our design actually were.  The entire time, we learned about how we could work best in our teams to accomplish our tasks.

You will see by reading their blog posts (linked on the right of this blog's home page - check for dates around October 1) that each of the boys took away something different from the process.  Some reflected on the need to improve their group's time management skills.  Others noted that there was little connection between phases in the design thinking model.  They brainstormed a number of interesting ideas in the Ideation phase and then forgot them all to make what they could when they looked at the materials in the prototyping box (imagine a junk drawer for prototyping general design problems).  Still others were simply not happy with the actual design of their vehicles and learned much about what doesn't work in terms of fabricating and materials used.

Goals for Iteration 2
From this experience, we distilled our take aways from iteration one to create four goals for iteration two of the same vehicle.  These goals are:

  • Ideation: Think of at least 4 contrasting ideas
  • Communication: Ensure that all group members are on the same page at all times
  • Prototyping: ensure that there is a strong connection between ideation through design to prototyping
  • Time Management: Ensure that time is allocated effectively
The biggest change to the problem between iteration 1 and iteration 2 of the mousetrap vehicle has been that in the second attempt, the boys are allowed to use the digital fabrication tools (3D printers, laser cutter) to create their solutions.  This is helping them to be more deliberate in their actual design and their choices of materials.  As a consequence, there have been many more conversations between the students and between the students and I around the clarity of the ideas that they are working on.  They are being pushed to communicate their ideas through their blog posts more clearly than they have had to previously.  The communication of their ideas through words and visuals has forced them to think their ideas through in more detail than they had done in the past.

While all of this mousetrap vehicle stuff has been going on (we are planning to put a wrap on this in the next two weeks) the students have also been working to define a personal project that they will pursue through the remainder of the year.  Some are looking at projects that are big enough that they will be able to get a start on this year, but will not likely finish and others are biting off small projects that will, no doubt, lead to second or even third project in our time together.  It has been fascinating to watch some dive right in being excited by the opportunity to work on something that they are passionate about while others struggle to find their passion.  We've only had two class sessions on personal projects as of yet, but I'm encouraged by the regular requests for time to pursue them.  More details can again be found on the students' blogs.  

Finally, we had an opportunity to bring in an old-boy who is currently active in bio-medical engineering and working with a company developing technology for strengthening arteries in the brain after aneurysms.  It was great for the boys to hear his path from his grade 10 year through his University of Victoria engineering experience and into the field that he is currently employed.  He gave his ideas on their mousetrap vehicles and explained what he felt the most important skills that the boys needed to develop were in anticipation of a post-secondary engineering path.  

It's been busy times and we have much more to look forward to in the coming months.  The year end trip seems to be coming together and I hope to be able to announce something soon.  We are planning the next design challenge that will pull in some significant mathematical acrobatics as well as bring some chemistry ideas to the fore.  And we hope to have some fun with short challenges before we break for Christmas!  

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Week 3

While we only had two classes this week, a lot of progress was made.  We moved from our iteration phase, where we brainstormed ideas about how we might solve the problem that we defined in our definition phase, to prototyping.  This is where the fun, for most of the boys, began.  They got to get their hands dirty and try out some of the ideas that they'd thought up during previous phases of the design process. 

It was fascinating to watch as they began trying out different concepts, quickly rejecting some and building on others.  There were many failures, but each failure seemed to generate some valuable learning that propelled them toward a better solution.  It was also very interesting to see how deliberate some groups and individuals were with the process.  A thought process might have gone something like:
  • We'd originally thought that string would be the best material to use between our mousetrap and wheel.  
  • I wonder if the elasticity of rubber bands would propel the vehicle further
  • Let's try the rubber bands
  • That was/was not more effective.  Why?  Is it the rubber band or is it the way we are using it?
Other observations that I'm taking away from the process include:
  • Is the connection between the ideation phase and the prototyping phase strong?
    Are the boys actually taking an idea that they had during the ideation phase and prototyping it?  Or are they starting somewhat fresh in the prototyping phase?
  • Are the groups being purposeful with their materials? 
    Only one group brought in their own materials.  The others went to the prototyping kit (a couple of tubs filled with materials that might be used for prototyping) and used whatever they could find.  These designs ended up changing to suite the materials available to them.  I'm unsure how much of an effort was made to stick to the original idea and find materials that suited the design.
  • The group dynamics were distinctly different between groups.
    Some groups functioned well as a unit while others made the decision early to separate into smaller entities from the beginning (pairs or individuals).  Still others seemed to have leaders who did much of the work while others observed and commented.  
There will be much to work with coming out of this first design challenge and I'm eager to see what lessons are truly learned and carried forward.  I'm really not concerned about how successful the actual vehicles are as long as the students are reflective about the process and can carry forward their learning.

Next week will give them an opportunity to finish their vehicles and test them.  This will take two of their four classes.  We will be trying out an app from Vernier to take video of the actual test runs and analyze their results.  This will carry over into the Math and Science classes where they can look at the results and make observations that will inform the students understanding of how the vehicles performed from a physics standpoint and give them some information to help them with their next iteration of the vehicle.  As we've not used this tool before, we are testing it as much as we are testing the vehicles at this point.

Finally, we will be tearing apart the process in order to understand how we can use the design thinking model better the next time around.  We will also make sure that we look at the products themselves to see what kinds of design improvements we need to make as well as investigating how effective our group dynamic was in tackling the problem.  Expect lengthy posts in the come week from the boys!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Week 2

Zach and Tony exploring the mousetrap
It was an interesting week in Fusionland with the beginning of our first true design challenge.  As you can read in the student blogs, they were tasked with designing a mousetrap vehicle.  The only real restriction in this process is that they are not going to be using our new digital fabrication tools for any aspect of the construction of the vehicles.  It has been interesting to see what questions come up in the process from the definition of the word vehicle to wondering if the mousetrap had to actually remain intact and be used as designed.  As a teacher working through this assignment for the first time, I intentionally left things pretty open-ended (as I am prone to do).  While this can make things messy as we work through ideas that I might not have considered and potentially having to re-clarify the assignment as we go, it opens up the process to all sorts of thinking and questioning.  The alternative would be to restrict the design with so many constraints that the resulting vehicles are independently designed copies of the same thing. 

Another interesting concept that popped up this week came through the students' introductory blog posts.  It became clear that there was a wide range in the sense of purpose that students were bringing to Fusion.  Some have very clear, long-standing passions that they felt Fusion might help them explore.  Others are more vague and feel that they are "mathy" or "sciency" and that Fusion might be a fun place to hang out.  The ultimate goal of Fusion is for the students to be able to identify problems worth solving and to use their STEM skills to solve those problems.  To be able to identify problems worth solving, the students need to have some sense of what areas of the STEM world they are excited about.  It becomes really interesting to explore ideas that cross what would be considered hard boundaries from a high school subject standpoint. 

We took advantage of an opportunity that surfaced when a Science class became available.  We used this class to introduce the idea of 80/20 time.  Students were asked to spend much of this "extra" period to explore ideas in the STEM world that might appeal to them, to identify projects that they might want to explore, or to to simply get better grounded in what fields of interest might appeal to them.  We hope to be able to take some time every week or two (roughly once every five classes) to explore personally relevant topics and perhaps work on personally-driven projects.  The aim would be to have the design and fabrication skills along with the science and math content knowledge develop in parallel to the realization of personal passions so that much more time could be devoted to working on those real-world problems worth solving that have personal meaning to each student.  Every student should leave Fusion with an idea of what direction they might want to head in the Grade 11 & 12 years and on into university.  Better yet, they might already be developing ideas and pursuing projects that lead them in exciting and innovative directions.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Week 1

I doubt that I will be disciplined enough to write a post every week, and more than likely, there will be some weeks where we plod along and get stuff done, but there is little new to report.  In some respects, week 1 is just one of those weeks.  After such a great start to the year at our retreat last week (week 0?), week 1 simply seemed like an "OK, let's get to work" kind of week, with little time to actually get much work done.  All three teachers, Ms. Holmen, Mr Forseth and myself noticed a strong sense of team and positive outlook from the group.  This underlined the need for some sort of retreat with a strong emphasis on getting to know each other for future years.

In Math and Science, the boys were hit with their first assessment.  The purpose of this assessment is to get a read on what they already know in relation to the curriculum that they are supposed to address through the year.  Our hope is that there will be some areas that will need little time to address, other areas that will serve our purpose to go much deeper than the prescribed curriculum and yet others that will need to be addressed at a level comparable to any other course at the same level.  Theses assessments are not for marks and it is expected that every student will not be able to complete aspects of them.  It is simply for them and us to get an accurate read on their starting point.

In Fusion, we completed a survey debrief on the retreat and began to build our eportfolios.  Once the last of the surveys is completed, I can report out the general observations on the strengths and weaknesses of that experiences.  The discussion around eportfolios started with a brief discussion about the concept of academic rigour and thus, the need to document process and reflection throughout the year.  You will see a list of the student portfolios on the right sidebar of the home page of this blog.  There are many reasons for having students document their work publicly.  Some of them include:
  • the potential for connection with others doing similar work, whether that be other students or experts in the field around the world.
  • the ability for parents, teachers, and other students to follow the progress and thinking of each student.
  • the production of an eportfolio/online resume that will help with future university and job applications
We're hoping that anyone that is interested in reading the posts in the general Fusion blog will follow up and start dialogues with the students in their own spaces.

The final thing that has been fun to watch is the students who are starting to build their skills on our digital fabrication/prototyping machines.  While many of the things that are being made right now are simple, seemingly inconsequential and sometimes downright silly, the fact that they are getting their feet wet and building skills will pay off in spades when their assignments ask them to put these tools to a more practical use.  All students should be encouraged to play at this point!

Monday, 5 September 2016

Retreat Reflection

The retreat for our first Fusion cohort is now behind us and we have all returned home to dry out, warm up and rest prior to our first official day back at school next week.  We spent 3 days and 3 nights at the Sasamat Outdoor Centre on Sasamat Lake just outside of Port Moody with the goals of getting to know each other, dusting off some of our math and science skills, learning about and practising design thinking and getting our feet wet with some digital fabrication concepts.

The retreat kicked off with our school's resident Improv Theatre guru, Ember Konopaki.   It was great to see the boys, many of whom knew each other fairly tangentially, jump in with both feet, take risks and laugh in the face of potential embarrassment.  Besides being an outstanding ice-breaker for the retreat, the boys practised thinking on their feet and learned about the power of suspending judgement and adding to the ideas of others.  The evening's activities really did do a great job of setting the stage for the rest of our days together and the year in general.

The next morning began with a Setting Agreements protocol that allowed us all to have a frank discussion about how we want our cohort to operate throughout the year.  The discussion surfaced the priorities of all of the members of the community (students and teachers) as we looked at what we valued and how those values would serve the work that we are about to set out to do.  As a teacher, I've done this protocol with a number of different groups and it was interesting to see how our Fusion cohort compared to previous groups.  The agreement "Have fun" almost always comes up and there is inevitably a discussion about whether having fun is something that we need to have in a list of agreements that we make with each other.  New for this group was a discussion of setting the group agenda ahead of the individual's and the idea of adopting a "Yes, and..." approach to everything.  The discussions around these agreements was enlightening and very productive!

Our illustrious Math teacher and avid board gamer, Jordan Forseth then took the group through a math-based challenge that had the boys brushing off previous year's math concepts, extending some new ones, running around the camp looking for clues and even, in true Die Hard fashion, "defusing a bomb."  It was a truly fun way of flexing the math muscles!  This was followed by an afternoon of low-ropes activities, swimming, archery and other outdoor games, all done under cloud cover and light rain (but no damp spirits!)

Catherine Holmen, our braniac astrophysicist/science teacher took the boys through a challenge in the evening that some of the boys just didn't want to stop working on.  The premise was that groups of the boys were stuck inside a space station (on one side of a bench.)  Using only three boards of various dimensions, and a length of rope, they were to retrieve a bowling ball from a milk crate a set distance away from the bench.  Of course, taking a "space walk" was not permitted, so they had to build some sort of structure that would allow them to accomplish their task.  We'd split the full group in two and both groups came to a simple, if not risky and inelegant solution relatively quickly.  They were then told that this was not the solution that the creators of the problem had come up with and they dove into trying to find a different solution.  Eventually, both groups did come up with the suggested solution, and one of the groups decided that they wanted to keep going to see if there were other solutions that might work!  The debrief after the exercise revealed a wealth of interesting ideas from how the physics of the suggested solution actually worked to what kinds of processes were used (or not used) to get each group to any solution.  It set the stage beautifully for the discussion of a design thinking model the next day.

The second full day was all about design thinking.  After looking at what worked and didn't work in the process of the previous evening's Space Arm challenge, we discussed a design thinking model and put it to work designing a new school cafeteria.  While none of the solutions revolutionized the way the world will look at student dining, the exercise and debrief was a great way to walk through and start to understand the step to coming up with a solutions to real problems.

The next challenge involved building aluminum foil boats that would hold a certain amount of weight.  This challenge was all about prototyping ideas and the concept that rarely is the first attempt at solving a problem the best one.  We also looked at what we learned from our failed attempts and how these failures accelerated our progress in coming to our final solution.

The final challenge of the day was the most defined with largest number of constraints.  The boys had to build a water tower that met a certain set of specifications.  While nobody met all of the constraints and one could argue that none of the solutions were "successful," the process was great fodder for a discussion about constraints, time management (one of the constraints) and how design/engineering work might look in real life. Of course, the day was also interspersed with recreation opportunities for the boys, in various configurations simply got to hang out with each other and get to know each other better.

The last day of the retreat was an earlier wake up as we had to get ourselves fed and out the door to a day at Makerlabs where we learned to use some of the digital fabrication tools that we have at our disposal now at the school.  The boys explored 2D design through Inkscape, 3D design through 123D Design, 3D printing and laser cutting.  This, coupled with a tour of the Makerlabs space to see what other fabrication tools could be accessed on future visits got the boys' imaginations flowing as they started to understand how different tools might be used to create different things over the course of the year.  All the folks at Makerlabs were fantastic and special thanks go to Maryam and Scott for working with the boys. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016