The boisterous Rio Vista Middle School classroom Jason Horsman and I visited one morning during the 20-day immersive session exemplifies what STEM classes are all about. The project-based learning encourages kids to work together to solve real-world problems. In this course, titled “Central Space Academy: A MakerSpace Experience,” students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade engaged in a design challenge using STEM applications. They graphed x- and y-coordinates (plotted on a large plane drawn on the classroom floor) to navigate a Mars landscape and developed rover transport systems for collecting artifacts. The “cadets” created ideas in a “Captain's Log” and worked collaboratively in pairs to solve complex problems related to space exploration. It’s a unique opportunity most students don't get in a regular classroom setting, and teachers Kody Donnelly and Grant Bedrosian both emphasized the power of this type of classroom environment to support deeper learning.
“Students being able to engage in hands-on activities takes them out of their seat where they would normally just be taking notes. By focusing on engagement, those students who might normally have discipline problems can thrive. One student who struggled to sit through notes was the first one to develop the rover path,” Mr. Donnelly said. It was originally his idea to move beyond traditional graphing paper and plot the coordinates on the classroom floor for a more realistic, engaging experience.
“I love the design process. Making it move around the map and trying multiple times before I get it right makes it a challenge. I like the engineering ideas and how they mix science and math,” Alvaro Lazaro Carillo said.
I’adore Sweet explained how she used Google to research design tips and ideas on her Chromebook. She and her partner were struggling to get their Sphero robot to drag the chariot they designed. The problem was weight. “One of the wheels was dragging and creating too much friction, so we’ve been experimenting with different axle designs,” she said.
Across the room, Moses Johnson was taking charge of the programming. His Sphero was shooting this way and that with the multiple lines of code he and his partner had written. He said they found that too much speed made their Sphero lose traction and go off course. He had an “aha moment” when he discovered that if he counted the number of blocks plotted on the floor he could calculate the corresponding number of seconds.
Mr. Bedrosian, a teacher at River Bluff Elementary during the regular school year, said that project-based learning is all about mindset. If students can take themselves out of the normal classroom and imagine they were really going to Mars, they can then explore the questions.
“What would you need if you were going someplace new? How are these challenges really opportunities for the design approach? They must learn to think outside of the box. Or, in this case, outside of Earth,” Mr. Bedrosian said just before one student asked for more glue sticks. Mr. Bedrosian reminded him that on Mars, you can’t always just grab more supplies when you run out; you have to improvise and use what you have.
Mr. Bedrosian added, “Sometimes the kids, when given a goal, want results right away or want me to tell them what to do or how to do it. It can be a new process for them to experience trial and error and fail not just once, but over and over again. They’re learning about engineering and design in a very real way and this form of hands-on learning really takes things to the next level.”