Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Our first day in the classroom

The first activity was "A Chair for Mr. Bear", where the kids had to build a chair out of LEGO elements that would hold a small stuffed bear and meet a couple of requirements: sturdy enough to survive a drop to the floor and stable enough to not fall over if you gave it a little shove. The main purpose is to introduce the kids to the parts they'll be using and to teach them a bit about how to build strong structures. (Remember the bridge that didn't fall down?)

A little bit about the classroom...

We have a separate group of volunteers assigned to each of the three fifth-grade classes. The classes have about 30 kids each, with the kids working in pairs. The LEGO Engineering sessions are 90 minutes long, right at the end of the school day. Working in pairs seems to be universally regarded as the right choice for this activity:
  • There's no way to have 30 LEGO kits and enough room to work.
  • Teamwork skills are essential all through life - we may as well start now.
  • Three-person groups do not work at all - one kid will always be sidelined.
Note that this is not a special choice program: all of the kids in the class participate. Pairs are randomly assigned by drawing labeled craft sticks (a.k.a., tongue depressors) out of a "sorting hat" at the beginning of each session.

Back to building chairs...

One thing that I enjoyed pointing out is that the first two engineering steps (identify the need; research the need) were being done for them: We're telling them that the bears have sore feet and that the solution is to build chairs for them. I also point out that a good engineer who did proper research would probably have come to the conclusion that several sacks of leaves might be a better solution.

We showed the kids several deliberately-flawed chairs and let them go at it. On the first day, we realized that most of the kids had no idea what the different LEGO Technic parts did or how they could connect together. On later days, we had them build some simple structures (PDF, 3 pages) as a warm-up exercise. I'm not really sure that that helped, because we got a lot more "successful" chairs on that first day. Go figure.

Once a couple of pairs had chairs built, we had them come up and present their designs. They were not expecting this! However, they were all excited to present their (emphasis on ownership, here) chairs and describe the cool features. They really liked having us take pictures of their chairs. I built a light tent to take the pictures, and am thrilled at how well it worked.

Here are a few bear chairs.

Note: variations in bear-like characteristics should be expected and are a natural consequence of the bears' origins.

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