Project based learning, a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge about a subject, is one of many approaches that our classroom teachers use at Prospect Sierra. But what does project based learning actually look like in the classroom? And how specifically is it employed in a middle school classroom?
Every year 7th grade science teach Hannah Grimm teaches a unit on paper circuits. She recently documented her thinking and teaching process for this project for fellow educators, and by sharing this with us is able to show us how PBL comes to life in 7th grade.
Typically Hannah spends twelve days of class time on the paper circuit project, two days of introductory lessons and ten days of project time, and her goals for her students during the project are as follows:
- Learn how electricity moves through a circuit
- Learn how loose connections and short circuits can cause circuitry to fail
- Learn to solder
- Practice prototyping
- Practice troubleshooting problems
- Meld art and science
Hannah begins with a basic introduction to circuits, how electricity moves through them, and how buttons and switches work. Students practice working with the materials to get a pair of LEDs to light up using prototyping tools (scotch taping them down instead of soldering). Then, each student gets a soldering lesson and works on the design stage of their circuit. Next, they diagram their circuit. Each student draws a first draft in red (for the positive line) and black (for the negative) of their circuit. Hannah makes some suggestions to this draft, and then they do a second draft to scale on the actual paper they’re planning to use.
Once they’ve drawn out the second draft, they’ll cover their lines up with copper tape; this ultimately becomes the final project. They’ll first use prototyping tools (scotch tape) to make sure the different parts of the circuit work, and perhaps most importantly, here they learn how to troubleshoot. They’re given troubleshooting steps on paper and on the board that are accessible throughout the project, and Hannah helps them to understand that their circuit not working is an expected and important part of the process.
Once they’re sure their design makes sense, they begin soldering on lights and adding artwork. The first few lights test their manual dexterity, but during this stage they quickly move from nervous, shaky-handed solderers to confident adepts.
Here are some examples of how a concept translates from a diagram to the actual circuitry to a piece of art.
In addition to the goals set forth for this project, Hannah notes that this project lends itself especially well to differentiation. For example, one of the finished cards has six LEDs, the other has nearly 100. But if we go back and look at those learning objectives, both kids have succeeded! Both kids understand how electricity runs through a circuit. Each designed and prototyped their card. They both learned to solder, and had to deal w/problems in their circuitry and troubleshoot. Both integrate their circuitry with art. Most important, both are proud of what they accomplished.
The baseline for this project is doable for all students: 5 LEDs in a parallel circuit as part of a piece of art. Hannah knows that every student will hit that goal post and that most will vastly exceed it and seek ways to extend it: adding buttons, switches, origami, pop-up art, arduino microcontrollers, and more. Her advice to fellow educators seeking to create this kind of “low floor/high ceiling” activity: never forget what your goals are for the students, and make sure there is a way of reaching those goals that is accessible to every single student. From there, allowing kids the freedom to experiment and try new things is critical. Hannah often finds that students will essentially design their own extensions for this project, and many of her favorite techniques, like these animated slide buttons, were actually invented by students!
Thank you Hannah for sharing your work with the PS community and beyond so that we can deepen our own understanding of project based learning in the middle school classroom.