Walking into Leeann McKay's seventh-grade classroom at Madeira Middle School in Cincinnati, it was immediately apparent that this wasn't a typical classroom. Countertops and shelves were stuffed with remote-control cars, beginner robotics kits and a surplus of craft supplies. The rear of the room was lined with PCs that students can use to conduct research, watch documentaries on YouTube or keep a record of project progress. There was a Ziploc bag full of supplies on each of the four large tables, and a poster on the wall featured the hashtags #WORKHARD and #NOFREEDAYS.
We arrived at Leeann's Makerspace about ten minutes before the bell, but students were already trickling through the door. They were laughing and animatedly discussing the day's goal - finishing up their completed Mars Rover models. Leeann uses teacher-led group work to facilitate projects in this Flight and Space classroom. Students are given a task with set parameters, but have the freedom to execute the task however they choose. In this case, they were given several weeks to create a model that moved on its own, using nothing but straws, Styrofoam, rubber bands, plastic cups, craft sticks and a balloon. As the classroom filled and the kids collected their projects from a counter along the wall, it was clear that each group took a different approach to the Rover. Some Rovers had four wheels, others used three, some were large, others small. "The Rover had to weigh less than an ounce. It had to be made of foam board. It had to fit into a six-inch square box," Leeann told us. The goal was to see whose Rover would travel the farthest distance.
The atmosphere was a combination of old-school shop class and modern tech lab and, perhaps most importantly, it was fun. "Noise is a good thing," Leeann said. "Noise is them working. Noise is them having conversations. If [a traditional classroom] is loud then kids aren't able to quietly process and quietly think. But in this classroom, noise is great. They're thinking and they're having conversations. They're working."
As the students converse, test and make changes to their Rovers, Leeann moves from group to group - sometimes observing, sometimes making suggestions. We watch one group of four students grow increasingly frustrated; their rover is tipping over, falling on its nose. It's not moving at all. They've already tried replacing the wheels, and shrug at each other, stuck. Leeann gets them thinking about the weight of their Rover, and then the lightbulb came on. "Ohhh, we need to add more weight in the back," one boy exclaimed. We asked Leeann about her process. "It's me asking them questions that get them to decide, 'I need to go back and I need to do this.' So I think about what types of questions I'm asking. Getting them to go back [has to be] their idea. I make it their idea. But sometimes I just have to say, 'You need to start again.'"
In Leeann's classroom every single project works like this. The students are divided into groups; sometimes Leeann assigns the groups, and sometimes the students choose their own. It always starts with research. "To solve a problem they need to know everything about that problem," she tells us. Once the research is complete, the students are given a project and a timeline - usually several weeks of 52-minute class periods. "Then," Leeann says, "they start generating concepts; you're going to see things like drawing sketches, having a discourse with their peers about what's happening and how to solve the problem."
The students' enthusiasm was contagious. We found ourselves cheering on a group whose Rover went from moving 23 inches to nearly six feet, once some tweaks were made. Every student was engaged and actively involved. "There are those who lead the projects, and it's great to be a leader, but even if you aren't you can still participate. You still have great ideas," Leeann says. Even the students whose Rovers weren't doing as well were still enthusiastic, trying new ideas and making adjustments right up until the end of the class period. "It's okay not to have the right answer or the perfect project. Trying and putting in as much effort as possible is a great accomplishment. In math class, they have to have an answer-it has to be the right answer. In my class, their design is not going to be the same as another person's design. Getting them to experiment with different things, and understand that it might not work is a pretty big accomplishment."
21st century teachers like Leeann embrace the idea that bringing together technology, creativity and collaboration in the classroom gives young people opportunities to learn practical skills that will remain applicable throughout their lives.