This weekend, my 8th grade son and I worked on a project for his science class he’s been planning for over a month. In March I asked him to record a short podcast we posted over on our family learning blog, “Draft Design for a Complex Machine to Generate Electricity from Water Power.” This was his initial design:

Complex Machine Design (original)

After actually building his planned design and working with different materials (largely scrap wood from our local Lowe’s hardware store and various bits of hardware pieced together with a drill and Gorilla Glue) we finally created a product which resembles this design, which he drew tonight.

Revised Design

Last night, he recorded a three minute video explaining his design and what we’d changed from the original plans.

Today, he actually tested the design and we recorded two videos I combined into one: A preliminary failure and a second successful test.

Overall science class this year for him has been (I think) largely a disappointment and a big frustration on several fronts. I won’t elaborate here in detail, but it’s been a case as a parent where I dearly wished there were more opportunities for both student and parental feedback to be integrated into the formal teacher evaluation process. Those frustrations aside, I want to observe that good things can come from projects and specifically engineering challenges which students are given. We spend far too LITTLE time in school and outside of class actually BUILDING THINGS we design and tweaking those models until “they work.” Alexander’s project isn’t likely to win any STEM awards and I’m not even sure what his grade on the project or in his class will be… but those things really don’t matter much. What matters is this science and engineering project gave him a chance to design and build something he imagined in his mind. It gave us a chance to work on building his design together. It was fun, and I think we both learned some new things as well as creating something we’re proud of and will remember for a long time.

He takes his project to school tomorrow to show his teacher and his class what he made and what he learned. “Success in learning,” however, has already been achieved and we don’t need a teacher’s grade or evaluation to know it. We DID, however, need a teacher to assign this project and thereby provide a catalyst for designing and building together. For that I am thankful both to his teacher and his wonderful school, Classen School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Long live science and engineering projects for students which require creativity, imagination, and really “making stuff!”

Compound Machine (unpainted)

Final Compound Machine (painted)

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Made with Love in Oklahoma City