CSTA Classroom Science

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

By Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible.

Engineering in the classroom can be a valuable vehicle for student learning. Its contribution to student buy-in, lesson purpose, and content augmentation is substantial. Engineering allows our students to become problems solvers applying scientific concepts they learn and evidence that they gather. Science and Engineering go hand in hand as the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP’s) of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) identify. Students not only need to gather information to make sense of the world around them, they need to use this information to present possible solutions to problems. This partnership between science and engineering increases the rigor by connecting to real-world problems for students to work on.

Before the NGSS, I incorporated engineering tasks in my 8th-grade class at Aspire’s Vanguard College Preparatory Academy, but they were often stand-alone activities that were fun but had only a weak connection to the concepts my students were learning. I tended to use these tasks as beginning and/or end of year activities. Now, using the California Science Framework, I can see the connections between engineering and science via the Performance Expectations (PE’s) and Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI’s). The Engineering, Technology, and Science Performance Expectations (ETS) can be seamlessly incorporated into the DCI’s to engage my students and enrich their learning experience throughout the year.

At the start of a learning sequence, my students are challenged to solve a problem and asked what knowledge they need to learn in order to find a solution to the stated problem. This gives my students a stake in what they are learning and a purpose that drives them. This has triggered a big shift in my teacher-student classroom relationships. Instead of me driving the instruction, now my students drive the learning sequence by asking questions and organizing their ideas. The classroom relationship has become a partnership where I am now the facilitator of the learning experiences.

In an 8th grade sequence on forces and interactions, my students are challenged to design an effective helmet that will protect the wearer from injuries caused by forces. I asked the students what they would need to know in order to tackle this design challenge and explain the science behind their innovations. They came up with a list of questions that they needed answers to be able to complete the engineering task. Their questions included;
•    What is a force?
•    How do you measure force?
•    How can you calculate the forces?
•    When does a force become dangerous?
•    How can we reduce the injuries caused by these forces?
•    Does the mass of the person affect how well the helmet will protect them? How?
•    What material will make the helmet safer? How can we test this?

My students were excited that the lessons were driven by their questions. They were invested in what we were doing because they had a purpose for learning the content thanks to the engineering task. I was thrilled beyond belief to find that the question, “Why do I need to learn this?”, (the bane of my teaching life) faded away. Students knew why they were learning, what they were learning, and they were eager to do so!

Centering my lessons on engineering tasks has not only benefited my students but has also improved my instructional practice. When planning my lessons now, I look at the big picture and find the story that connects the concepts that I am teaching. An engineering task allows me to see those connections and present them to my students in a coherent and interesting way. It has challenged me to be thoughtful and reflective in my teaching and has also challenged my students to problem solve as engineers while thinking like scientists.

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Huda Ali Gubary works for Aspire’s secondary school, Vanguard College Preparatory Academy and teaches integrated science-8, High School Chemistry, and High School Physics, a teacher leader for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA. Her e-mail address is ali.gubary@aspirepublicschools.org

Susheela Nath works for Aspire Public Schools as the multi-regional science director, is a project director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation, and a member of CSTA. Her e-mail address is susheela.nath@aspirepublicschools.org



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