Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When the Internet is Down....Get Chopped

The first thing I noticed when I unloaded my laptop and iPad today was that Internet connectivity was having all kinds of difficulties. Instead of fighting through a very web-dependent exercise with third and fourth grade STEM classes, we turned to the Food Network.

Based on a cook's ability to innovate and adapt, Chopped makes contestants create gourmet dishes with some of the most random ingredients like candy bars and pickled eggs. The adaptability and innovation are the same skills we teach daily as we help kids develop into creative problem solvers.

Here's how Chopped in the STEM classroom works.
  • After dividing the class into five groups of four or five students, each group is given 10 wooden blocks, a small caddy of random Legos, and 4 marbles. All blocks have to be part of the final product as well as at least 1 marble and 1 Lego.
  • Next, give the groups a task. This varies by age group. For Kindergarten, groups simply have to build something they can tell a story about. Third and fourth graders have to create a device that can keep marbles (any number of the 4 may be used) moving the longest.
  • Once kids begin working I keep to the following timing intervals.
    • After five minutes I stop the building and ask each group to articulate its shared plan. If a group can't articulate a shared plan, then I have them move away from its workspace and sit together on the floor. Once they have it figured out and share it with me, they are permitted to return to work. It's amazing how quickly a plan can come together after a minute or two away from the materials. 
    • While constantly circulating to make sure everyone is engaged and included in the building process, I usually give about 25 minutes more of work time. Setting a visual timer  is extra helpful. I make it clear that by the end of the 25 minutes, the prototype needs to be as close to complete as possible.
    • At the end of the 25 minutes we stop and talk about how designers and engineers go through the refinement process of constantly testing and tweaking. I give 5 more dedicated minutes for this. When that is up, each group has 2 minutes to clean up any unused supplies.
  • To wrap up the activity I ask all of the kids to the front of the room and then we do a gallery walk to each table and have groups explain what they built. For the marble devices we give each group a chance to show it in action and time (usually with a smart phone) how well each functions. 
What is most amazing for me to see is how by nature each group always begins with individuals withdrawn and operating in each's own space but eventually (if properly coached) begin to focus on the shared task. Not all groups though successfully make this transition to group productivity. On 9 out of 10 times it is due to dysfunction within the group. The key teaching point when this happens is that the quality of teamwork is directly related to the quality of performance.

The biggest reward is seeing kids go from a natural tendency to stay in their own spaces to truly collaborating on one task

Give kids many opportunities to complete the same task. Watch to see how the dynamics change from one repetition to the next. 

Students who demonstrate understanding can:
3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

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