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Build, Test, Revise- Quick Builds and Problem Solving

One of the rules of teaching is to make your expectations as clear as possible to your students. 

“We’re going into the MakerSpace,” I said to my fifth-graders. “Using only the materials you can find in that room, each partnership is going to build a wind-powered car. This is all the description I’m giving you. You have an hour. Go.”
Teaching is also about bending the rules.

Winter break was long and we needed something to get the juices flowing again. Something active and creative and a little off the wall. So I booked an hour fifteen in the MakerSpace and went looking for a quick project to do in there.  A few Google and Pintrest links later and I found some lessons about building wind-powered cars. As is my whim, I took the part of that plan I liked (the final product) and tossed what didn’t work for me (everything else). And thus our Quick Build was born.

What I wrote above is exactly what I said to my kids before we went in. My student teachers created groups of two and three, students got into their groups, and in we went.

I like contracted time frames for projects. Jon Corippo describes lessons as being like a gas- they expand to fill the space they’re given. Give students three days to build wind-powered cars and most groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Give them an hour and the same groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Plus it’s fun to watch them plan, design, build, test, and revise as quickly as possible. Teaches efficiency and creativity.

It was interesting to see what students went for. A bunch started cutting Styrofoam into circles for wheels. Others found the Lego sets and pilfered wheels from there. Some found cardboard or wooden circles. This is where most ran into their first, and biggest, problem. Almost to a group they fixed their wheels to an axle and then fixed the axle to their car’s body. But they did it with tape, or by putting a hole in the body. And when they tried to make their car roll nothing happened. NOW the learning really starts. What’s the problem? The axle isn’t letting the wheels spin.  How do we troubleshoot this? Bigger hole? Rubber bands? There were all kinds of solutions. Only one or two groups used the straws they found as the fixed axle which attached to the car body, and put toothpicks they’d glued together inside the straw, connected to each wheel, allowing the wheel to spin freely. Most groups just made the holes bigger or figured out a way to get the wheels on the axle loosely enough that they’d spin but not come off. Hey, they solved their problem. Without me. Most groups didn’t even look at me for help. They saw their problem, got their heads down, and tried again. The solutions weren’t elegant. But I didn’t say the car had to be elegant. You’re not getting elegant in an hour. You’re getting working.

The next major problem was the wind power. Once the wheels where on I caught a bunch of groups laying on the ground blowing as hard as they could on the back of their car, trying to make it go. In a moment right out of MEN IN BLACK one group finally noticed the fan sitting unused, plugged it in, and stopped hyperventilating. The others came over quickly, “Can we get in on that?” But they still just turned the fan on the backs of their cars. I did a little prodding, “Why do you think it’s not working? Can you think of something else that is wind powered? What’s that have that yours doesn’t?” “A SAIL!” one group exclaims. Soon the idea to mount a sail spread across the room, as good ideas often do.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Testing continued and, “Our sail isn’t working, Mr Robertson.” “Hmm, turn the fan on it again. What are you seeing it do?” Some sails became flags, others were too tight. One-by-one groups realized their sails weren’t catching any wind and they started testing ways to keep the sail from being a flag and ways to catch more wind. Curved sails began to appear. But none looked like another. Rectangles, triangles, big, small, paper, fabric, tin foil. Every car was different.

At the end of the hour, and I want to stress again that all of the above design, building, testing, revision was done in under 60 minutes, we sat and watched each group go, marveling at the breadth of the creativity in the room. Two groups were unsuccessful in their builds, but they knew why and were on the right track. With a little more time they also would have had working builds. Some cars only rolled a few feet. One tipped onto its nose immediately and fell over, but the group noted that the Lego man they put in the front was throwing the weight off, removed him, and had a successful second run. And two or three rolled impressively far.

“Why does it have a spoiler?”
“Spoilers are cool.”

“We call it the Egg Roll.”

Afterward, back in class, we wrote reflections, talking about the process, struggles, successes, and reasoning behind the choices made.

This is a project that I could go back to if I wanted to. We kept the cars, I’m going to display them in a case at the front of the school reserved for projects. We could continue to revise. But I like having proof of what’s possible in a short amount of time. I can use that lesson in class for other things.

Designing, building, testing, and revising– isn’t that the learning process for everything we do? Isn’t that how we want our students to approach problems of all shapes? Make that process concrete. Make it fun. Let them surprise you, and themselves.

Here’s the video of the final products rolling along.


Doug Robertson is the CUE Blog Editor and an eleventh-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education, He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), one novel, The Unforgiving Road, and is an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words).  Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST.

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