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Turning the Unknown into Your Own

By Kate Shapero

As a relatively new mom returning to teaching, I thought this would be the year that I leaned heavily on all of my previous work as I figured out how to juggle responsibilities at home and wholeheartedly engage with children during the school day.  I imagined implementing trusted curriculum that I had struggled with and refined through previous experimentation.  The plan was to conserve intellectual energy (a.k.a. brain power) while still delivering the goods.  I found out that it doesn’t work that way–energy and enthusiasm are not things to be hoarded for later use; instead, they are continually generated through the process of creative problem solving.  Immersing myself in the development of new curriculum and responding to student interests was invigorating!  Problem solving actually provided the energy that I had originally planned to squirrel away by sticking with the known.

This personal lesson has dramatically affected the way that I interact with students this year.  I have come to see how much value and excitement there is for students in creating the thing that is not yet known. Todd Menadier, a teacher at The Workshop School in West Philadelphia, beautifully illustrated this point at a conference I attended this summer.  In his session, he emphasized learning through problem solving by having teachers work in teams to create a flashlight from basic circuitry components and recycling bin scraps.  Todd provided parameters for our outputs and just enough information to get us started.  Every team worked intensely for the twenty minutes we were allowed, experimenting, testing, making adjustments, testing again, sometimes starting over and eventually coming up with something.  Everyone wanted more time to continue working on their ideas and we needed three or four reminders to finally put the materials down.  We happily shared our creations and pointed out their unique functions, as well as the difficulties we encountered along the way.  As a science teacher, this process was very fun, but not new or especially mind blowing; then Todd related two ideas that really clarified why problem based learning is such an essential teaching tool.

The first was a recognition that we were all very enthusiastic about what we had made.  He said that indeed, we had constructed a few cool and semi-functional flashlights, but they weren’t really all that great compared to what we could purchase for a few bucks at Staples. Todd whipped out a small pen that contained a flashlight and laser pointer, demonstrated its superior performance and asked if we were just as excited about it.  Of course, no one drooled over his pen.  We were animated about what we had made precisely because we had made it.  It didn’t matter if our flashlight only worked when you turned the paper towel tube just so, we were willing to keep improving the design because it came from our imaginations.  By creating and troubleshooting a functional machine, we had invested our ideas, our time, and most importantly, ourselves into the process and product.  The learning that occurred was internalized because our brain power was necessary to make something real happen.

The second idea he mentioned was a crucial observation about how people react to different learning experiences.  Todd explained that sometimes he does the flashlight building activity with students but gives half of the groups an additional sheet of step-by-step instructions about how to assemble the circuitry components.  He has consistently noticed that the groups given the extra instructions follow the steps necessary to complete the assigned task and then begin talking about things unrelated to the class for the remainder of the period.  By comparison, the groups that are given minimal information and required to problem solve do so for the entire time and continue to think about the challenge after the working time has ended.  The not knowing is often what keeps our brains engaged; it makes learning an ever expanding puzzle that, above all, needs someone curious enough to pick up the pieces and simply keep at it.

Curious and persistent are two adjectives I could use to describe most of our students.  Personally, I think that these attitudes are innate but require nurturing to be sustained.  As a teacher, the tricky part is creating experiences that help different kinds of learners flourish in the problem solving process–balancing the needs of students who may desire more guidance to feel confident with those who really just need you to get out of their way.  This winter I adopted a “Workshop Approach” during science.  Instead of fretting about potentially wasted class time, I opened myself up to the essential value in messing around.  I introduced new materials with brief mini-lessons, proposed possible challenges and then handed over the reins.  This structured release of control actually resulted in increased responsibility for students.  They took on much more challenging and personally relevant projects than I could have assigned to the group.  Children worked at their own pace and focused on what they needed to understand most to move ahead.  When one student was feeling unsure about how to proceed, I heard another say, “It’s workshop time, just try something.”  During these classes, every single child experienced frustrations and setbacks, but they figured out how to keep moving forward.

This approach to teaching is not groundbreaking.  Problem based learning has been used for years in many progressive and some traditional schools.  It is also not the only approach used in the science room.  Questions arose from our work that were best addressed through reading research, direct instruction and the scientific process.  However, the engineering involved in a “workshop approach” adds another layer of complexity to the program and fosters a different kind of engagement from experimenting only to understand because it is experimenting to create.


What does creative problem solving look like at Miquon?



Lighting up ideas:  Fifth and sixth grade students were immersed in Circuitry Workshop for the month of December.  They learned the basics of electrical circuits through ten minute mini-lessons that were presented as “design challenges.”  Students hunted for conductors and insulators, built switches and tested series and parallel arrangements.  After each investigation, they applied their new skills to personal projects.  



Students began working with motors by designing a jitterbug machine like the one featured here.  They then expanded this basic idea to create games, vehicles and night lights.  The robot above contained a motor that jiggled when you fed it.  “Chewing” completed the circuit by bridging the conductive eyes with an aluminum foil mouth.  




Our electrical work led to an interest in squishy circuits.  Students prepared insulating (sugar based) and conductive (salt based) play doughs that were used in new creations.  It was easy to prepare and helped students think more carefully about the properties of different materials, click here for the recipes.  


Helping through design:  Nursery and kindergarten students read stories about animals or people overcoming problems through design.  They then tried out their own ideas to come up with creative solutions for the problems posed in each book.  After reading the Three Little Javelinas students built safe homes for the hairy little pigs.  They chose to build with cactus sticks (wooden boards) or adobe bricks (mega blocks) and tested their designs for strength against a howling coyote (a strong fan).  



The book Iggy Peck, Architect was read by kindergarten students.  The main character, Iggy, saves his class by building a bridge out of shoelaces, fruit roll ups and underwear when they are stranded on an island during a field trip.  Miquon students practiced with K’NEX to build bridges over lakes filled with tickling seahorses, turtles that sing annoying songs and brain-biting sharks.  They used the materials in surprising ways and were able to build bridges that spanned increasingly long distances.



Gaining skills: Second and third grade students learned basic woodworking skills through two construction projects this year.  They created rain sticks from recycled cardboard tubes and three dimensional boxes from wooden dowels.  The projects were not open ended in nature, each class provided instruction and time to practice specific skills like measuring, clamping, sawing and using a sander.  Many students chose to continue working or begin their own projects during science lunch choice.




Computer science and orange cats:  In January, fifth and sixth graders in Lynn and Jeri’s group were introduced to basic coding and computer science principles through an online course offered by  These free lessons exposed students to a wide variety of people in computer science and sequentially taught key operations necessary for programming.  Once the group was comfortable manipulating the “Blockly” language featured in, students were able to create their own programs in SCRATCH


SCRATCH was developed at MIT to make programming accessible for young people.  Miquon students practiced using it to make games and animations.  One of the best parts of SCRATCH is the ability to share programs and view their code.   Students were encouraged to visit and “remix” other programs to learn how they were made.  I plan to use SCRATCH in future classes as another way for students to communicate their learning to others.  

Below are a few of the first programs made by students.  We are having difficulty sharing all of the projects and will add more of the completed ones when they become available.  

(You may need to click the green flag and then hit the space bar for certain animations to begin.)

Woof Arf Ruff

Mini Game Awesomeness

Gobo Color Change



Spontaneous collaboration:  First grade students really enjoyed testing see saws during a study of balance.  As they worked, the class starting combining materials to create giant see saws and then someone suggested building a table.  Soon, everyone was on board (groan) to make it work.  After a few topples and a lot of excited idea swapping, the table stood on its own.  They made sure I got a group photo to capture their creation.


Improving designs through systematic testing: 

 Fourth grade students built a standardized popsicle stick catapult from a sample they were shown and then tested how the angle of launch affected the distance traveled.  Through analyzing the results, students learned how difficult it is to isolate only one variable and create a truly fair test.  We discussed which angle seemed more effective for distance throwing and they used their new knowledge to create catapults of their own design.  (If you’re wondering about the launch angle, there is no single best answer.  45 degrees is considered ideal in a vacuum, but not all science happens in a vacuum.  Click here for an interesting post on pumpkin chucking.)




Addressing user needs:  This January, fifth and sixth grade students from Diane and Jeri’s group participated in a series of design studios geared to help them think about designing for the needs of others.  They worked with a partner to understand a problem or situation that their partner experienced.  Through a series of exercises, they asked clarifying questions, brainstormed several possible innovations, gathered feedback on which solutions would be most helpful, refined their ideas and developed a prototype that was presented to their  partner.

The framework for these experiences came from Standford’s and a virtual course in design thinking that Julia hosted for Miquon staff members during our fall inservice.  Miquon has a rich tradition of learning through doing and the nationwide groundswell of interest in “tinkering” and “maker culture” has made it easier than ever to find great teaching resources. 

Our design studies were complemented by a visit from Kate’s friends, David Callison and Rita Roquette.  They live in northern Portugal where they designed and built a series of small homes and gardens by hand.  David and Rita emphasized evaluating the site, thinking carefully about how to meet multiple needs and using available resources to minimize environmental impacts.  Students were very interested in their minimalist approach and impressed by the effort they put into construction.  You can find out more about their home in Portugal by clicking here.  (The post showing a tiny model of their home is especially fun to see.)

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