Project-based learning helping students solve future problems now

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Anderson County Middle School students Brendan Klink, Tashawn Graves and Noah Medley work with teacher Natalie Frasure on a class project in their technology program. Photo by Tim Thornberry, Nov. 20, 2014
Anderson County Middle School students Brendan Klink, Tashawn Graves and Noah Medley work with teacher Natalie Frasure on a class project in their technology program.
Photo by Tim Thornberry, Nov. 20, 2014

By Tim Thornberry
tim.thornberry@education.ky.gov

For many young people, the list of the things they need to survive may include computers, smartphones and video games.

But students from Anderson County Middle School (ACMS) have learned what the basic necessities of life really are by way of an innovative classroom project.

The assignment came in their STEM class and was based on Project Lead the Way (PLTW) curricula. The participating students were given a prompt detailing a problem in the future in which the world of plenty as we know it now does not exist. These future scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians, who have been living in a biosphere for the last 20 years, must leave the facility in search of supplies that will be brought back and turned into goods they need to survive.

Natalie Frasure, the ACMS STEM teacher, told her group that the challenge was to create a device that will locate or turn their raw materials into the basic staples of life: food, water and shelter.

“They had to create a model of automation that would pump water, grind food (wheat or grain) and saw lumber,” she said. “They created a robot that basically does all of that.”

Frasure said the Gateway to Technology program, PLTW’s middle school version, began two years ago with a goal of immersing all of the school’s students into STEM as a way to decide whether this was a pathway they wanted to take in high school.

“Through project-based learning, the students gain an understanding by way of real-life application. There are real-world problems I present to my students where they will have to use whatever technology is available to try and solve those problems,” she said. “We basically put the ball back in their court so the students will look for solutions using science, technology, engineering and math.”

This project has been a two-year endeavor. Participating students learned about robotics last year and automation as part of this year’s class, all helping in the design of this futuristic machine that has the capability to move around the biosphere and the mechanization to make all three components work independently and at the same time.

“This is obviously a prototype, but now they understand what the basics of life are,” she said. “When we had this discussion last year and we talked about what you can’t live without, they all said their cell phones.”

In a separate component of the project, students learned to incorporate solar panels onto the biosphere to supply power for the other components.

Tashawn Graves is one of the three 8th-grade ACMS students who helped to create the multipurpose robot. He said the STEM class has probably been his favorite throughout his middle school career.

In solving the problem for the biosphere, Graves said he knew the group had to create a machine that does multiple tasks with one input of energy. The students depended on their previous knowledge gained in class to figure out the gear ratios needed to make all three components work properly.

“I’ve tried to find a solution for any project we do in the class. We have had multiple prompts where we have to think outside the box to answer,” he said. “Being in this class has made me understand more in other classes like math.”

Brendan Klink said he has done well in his science and math classes and that STEM is something he “gets.” In coming up with this idea, he knew the mechanism would have to be mobile and would have to be created without a set of instructions.

“We didn’t really have a guide to go by to know how to build it, but using a hands-on approach worked and works best for me in learning how to do something,” he said.

Participating in the STEM class makes school more fun, said Brendan, who expects to continue his STEM studies in high school.

Nathan Sallee said he really likes to build things, and when he learned of the project, he liked the idea.

“This is the first really in-depth, hands-on project I’ve done. We had to think it through in our minds before we actually started,” he said. “Having been in the STEM class, we were able to take points we had learned to make the process easier. My parents really like where the STEM class has guided me.”

Anderson County Middle School students Tashawn Graves, Nathan Sallee and Brendan Klink look over their STEM project during the 2014 Project Lead the Way Conference held at Elkhorn Crossing School. Photo by Tim Thornberry, Oct. 17, 2014
Anderson County Middle School students Tashawn Graves, Nathan Sallee and Brendan Klink look over their STEM project during the 2014 Project Lead the Way Conference held at Elkhorn Crossing School.
Photo by Tim Thornberry, Oct. 17, 2014

All three students said that if faced with a similar problem in real life, they would be better prepared to handle the situation.

The ACMS students and Frasure displayed the robotic invention during the recent PLTW State Conference held at Elkhorn Crossing School (Scott County). Mark Harrell, PLTW Director of School Engagement, Midwest Region said it’s very important to expose students to STEM careers as early as possible.

“We engage students in math and science and allow them to apply it in a very hands-on approach to learning,” he said. “The students are in control of their learning, as you can tell by Ms. Frasure’s example. They are held accountable to their learning and are given the tools to make them successful to do so.”

STEM and PLTW are being used in and being recognized as part of today’s CTE classroom, helping to blur the lines of what was once thought of as two different types of education.

Frasure said that many of the careers her students will undertake don’t yet exist, so preparing them in areas such as automation, robotics and computer-aided drafting programs (CAD) will set them up for success in those jobs of the future.

“All three of the students that created this project see there is a future career here and what they are learning in class transfers to the real world,” she said. “They see that maybe one of them could be the person who creates the next iPhone … or they could save the world!”

 

MORE INFO …

Natalie Frasure natalie.frasure@anderson.kyschools.us

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