by Stefanie Nguyen
Teacher, St. Gabriel’s Catholic School, Austin, Texas
I have always been a bookworm and have found that at each school I worked at, I spend a lot of time in the school library checking out books and asking for recommendations from the librarian. In May of last year, my librarian introduced me to a book by Peter Brown called The Wild Robot, a survival story of how a robot adapts to living on an island. Robots? Talking animals? Survival? I was hooked. I stopped by the local bookstore on the way home from work and spent the weekend reading the book while filling the margins with project ideas and curriculum connections, social-emotional learning ideas, and opportunities for incorporating STEAM education.
When the weekend was over, I brought the book to school, nerded out with some of my coworkers, and convinced them to borrow my book and jot down their ideas. The next week, we met and chatted about how Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) could be weaved into a project from beginning to end. We made connections about being the new student at school, first days, friendships, disagreements, perseverance, collaboration, self-awareness, self-management, and problem solving. We shared academic connections such as adaptations (when the robot’s leg breaks and all the animals work together to design and build a new leg), habitats and measurement (when they need to build a home for the robot and duck to live in), buoyancy (when the baby duck gets stuck in the middle of the lake), and other great examples. This book was rich with ideas; I just needed to find the curricular connections.
I used The Wild Robot and our curriculum to create as many connections as possible, which validated my project, and even rearranged the order of some of my units. I had connections to not only science and social studies, but also to language arts and math. Students would be learning geometry, decimals, and spatial reasoning through 3D design while also learning persuasive writing through their business pitches for the “Shark Tank” portion of the project. The project idea of student-designed prosthetics to be donated took shape during our PBL 101 professional development course.
3D Printed Prosthetic Hands
Once I had the connections and ideas down, I met with our school’s STEAM director and he suggested working with e-Nable, a non-profit company that works to provide 3D printed prosthetic hands to people in need. Essentially, our students would learn 3D design on Tinkercad and be able to print these hands at school! The PBL plan was in place and the project launched once we finished the book. The students were tasked with this driving question: How can we design tools that will assist people who have lost a body part? Students were asked to use the engineering design process to make a prosthetic that we could donate to someone in need while also expressing their creativity through modified designs that reflected their personal interests.
After reading the book, I taught students the anatomy of a hand, and then constructed a prototype using straws, tape, floss, and washers so that they would understand the mechanics behind hand function. I flipped a lot of my lessons by posting tutorials and ideas on Seesaw or Google Classroom so the students could watch videos the night before, use them as references the day of, or to guide students who had been absent in class. These flips allowed my students to have more time to create in the classroom.
After the students had a solid grasp of how hands worked, we started getting creative. This next part of our project allowed for student voice and choice. Students paired up and began sketching a “dream” prosthetic hand of their choosing. Students came up with a floating fin hand, a baking hand that had an eggbeater attachment, and many more. Some students even created prosthetics for animals! The room was abuzz with excitement as students discussed the types of materials to use, how to attach ligaments, etc.
Making the Work Public
During reflection time at the end of class, students requested that we speak to a professional so I used Nepris to schedule a video conference with a prosthetist. Students asked many questions and were inspired to revise their designs. At our next meeting, I showed students a clip from the TV show “Shark Tank” and had them make their own scripts for their business pitches on Seesaw. I told them that if they wanted funding for their invention they needed to be able to convince the “Sharks” (investors) to purchase materials for their inventions. The goal of this exercise was for students to design dream hands that would be prototyped, 3D designed, printed, and donated to those in need along with the e-Nable hands.
Students learned 3D design on Tinkercad while they waited for the “Sharks” to give them feedback. We also had some wonderful biomechanical and biomedical engineering students from The University of Texas and volunteers from e-Nable come do an engineering workshop on 3D design and prosthetics. Afterwards, students received feedback and revised throughout the next few weeks via email. We showcased our progress at our School Maker Faire and Maker Faire Austin, where we taught others how to assemble these hands.
The PBL planning process and curriculum guided me to choose my driving question and narrow down the plethora of project ideas. STEAM allowed me to teach the curriculum through hands-on learning and intertwine SEL throughout the project with authentic service learning. There were times when things got messy and deadlines needed to be extended, but through reflection, the students and I were able to refocus on the learning instead of the product. Students will continue to research, ask for feedback, and revise their prototypes through these last two weeks of school (or possibly longer…). At the end of the day, we must remember that it’s all about the process.
Follow Stephanie on Twitter @stef_nguyen