Do what has to be done
Monday, July 20, 2020
In “Make something good happen,” we looked at how the BBC series My Perfect Country can work in conjunction with project-based learning activities to nurture students’ critical analysis and inventiveness in service of ameliorating or eliminating manageable problems that affect them. Now, let’s look at another BBC series, “People Fixing the World,” and focus on the episodes “Kids Fixing the World” and “New Uses for Old Solutions” so we can encourage and assist students to do what has to be done.
“Kids Fixing the World” features four young inventors who created solutions to problems they identified. One inventor created an app that prevents drivers from missing road signs. Another created a robot that responds when a person falls. A third inventor made a device to aid fire departments predict wildfires, and finally, a young inventor designed how to double the purpose of a fish tank by using it as an environment in which to grow microgreens.
After students listen to “Kids Fixing the World” and the accompanying video, they’ll work in pairs or small groups to debrief what they learned. What motivated the young inventors? What was their process in identifying a problem to solve? What did they do when they ran into difficulties? Create a mindmap on the board that includes all students’ responses. Next, have students listen to one of the keenest topics is “New Uses for Old Solutions,” which I find an accessible starting point for students because it provides them with models and scaffolding.
What did they identify as solution to what had been problems? Certainly, the cell and/or mobile phone will be a common response. Have students identify 10.
Here’s my list: vaccines; toilet/indoor plumbing; printing press; indoor (electric) refrigeration; gas/electric stove-oven; indoor gas or electric heating-cooling-lighting; automobiles; washing machines; computers (all variations); mobile cellphones. Each of mine has deep historical roots and builds on existing solutions. For those in tropical countries, especially those who live on islands, desalination technology may be on the list. In Alaska, where much of intra-state travel relies on air transportation, planes and seaplanes may be on the list.
Ask students: Why did you choose the 10 inventions you chose? Have students explain their choices to their partners/groups. Then, have the pairs/groups make a common list of five existing solutions. Guiding questions for them to consider are: Why did you eliminate the solutions you did? What process did you use to eliminate solutions? Why did you keep the solutions you did? What process did you use to keep the solutions? Students write their responses and share them with the class at large.
As a class or as pairs or small groups, have students choose one solution to design a new use for. As they work on designing the new use, guiding questions to consider are: What can this solution also be used for? Consider, for examples, plastic trash turned into benches or shoes. What can’t it be used for and/or what new use creates more problems than solutions? Consider the clever absurdity of the Rube Goldberg cartoon, “How to Get Rid of a Mouse,” which led to the popular children’s game Mousetrap. If possible, use the game Mousetrap in class because it provides an outstanding and amusing visual demonstration. Problems to consider are often not amusing as has been the case with using ethanol instead of or in a mix of gasoline.
Help students identify the materials, resources, and time and space they need to design and implement their invention. Help them make a completion matrix so that they can check off each step as they go, and help them develop an assessment rubric so that they know what their work must demonstrate. For me, a working prototype of their invention is not necessary; the emphasis is on the process, the critical analysis and creative thinking students used, and how they dealt with frustrations and disappointments; before they begin working on the repurposed invention project, ask them what frustrations and disappointments they anticipate encountering and how they expect to address them. There should be no assumption that there is one thing that frustrates and disappoints us all or a singular way of dealing with our frustrations and disappointments.
Students present their final projects to the class. They explain each of the project steps, beginning with their original list of 10 and how they winnowed to the one they chose; what they decided they needed to complete the project; what they expected to frustrate and disappoint them and why and what actually did frustrate and disappoint them and how they addressed it; and finally, what they repurposed the solution in order to do. If students have a prototype, they can demonstrate it.
I’ve found that older students, hampered by the loss of their brimming innocence, are often stymied when asked to think creatively while children, whose innocence is uncontained, have grand and uncensored ideas, as Kenneth Koch and his students demonstrated. For those working with older students — high school and above — who feel inventively blocked, you may want to introduce them to Koch’s work and to jumpstart their imagination by using some of the videos at https://www.rubegoldberg.com/rube-tube/.
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