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Maine School Engages Kids With Relevant Problem-Solving Challenges

May 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on a public middle school in Portland, Maine that is taking a different approach to teaching students. Teachers have swapped traditional curriculum for an unusually comprehensive science curriculum that emphasizes problem-solving, with a little help from some robots.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: how one public school in New England is taking a different approach to teaching, immersing students in an unusually comprehensive science curriculum that emphasizes problem-solving.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour, has our story.

JOHN TULENKO: On a crisp fall morning last October, King Middle School in Portland, Maine, invited eighth graders to what it calls a kickoff, the unveiling of an in-depth project that would be at the center of nearly all the students’ courses for the next four months.

PETER HILL, King Middle School: So, I want to direct your attention to this slide. This is called earth at night.

JOHN TULENKO: Science teacher Peter Hill set the stage.

PETER HILL: There are certain parts of the world that use a ton of energy. Along with that, 25 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have electricity in their home. But enough solar energy hits the Earth every hour to supply the entire world’s energy needs for a year.

So we need to design tools that can capture all that sunlight that’s hitting our Earth or capture all that wind power that’s sitting out in the Gulf of Maine. We need to — wait for it — revolt.

JOHN TULENKO: Hill handed the students an ambitious assignment to fulfill by the end of the project.

PETER HILL: You’re going to create a device that captures natural energy and transforms it into something that’s useful for people in some part of the world.

LIVA PIERCE, King Middle School: I was like, I can’t do that.

JOHN TULENKO: Taking all this in was Liva Pierce.

LIVA PIERCE: That’s — that’s way too much. I don’t know the first thing about electricity. I don’t know the first thing about windmills. I am totally going to fail. I was like, there’s no way that’s going to happen.

JOHN TULENKO: Emma Schwartz:

EMMA SCHWARTZ, King Middle School: First of all, I can’t build anything, and I have never handled a screwdriver in my entire life or an electric drill. Like, this isn’t going to work.

MAN: So I want you to think about the big picture here.

JOHN TULENKO: Projects that take students into uncharted territory are at the heart of teaching and learning at King. Though it’s a regular public school, this approach, called expeditionary learning, is unusual, but could be just the kind of education students need in a rapidly changing world.

This expedition began with a design challenge.

NAT YOUNGRIN, King Middle School: We’re building robots that are made to collect resources, which are Ping-Pong balls.

JOHN TULENKO: Nat Youngrin and his classmates were building their robots from kits that allow for an almost infinite number of possibilities.

NAT YOUNGRIN: You can do whatever you want to make them do this, but they have to be able to go out, get Ping-Pong balls, and bring them back. I made mine completely sound-controlled. And you can control it to turn and move back to your base.

STUDENT: This one has to be much longer.

JOHN TULENKO: Working in teams, students spent four weeks perfecting their robots in a class called tech-ed.

Gus Goodwin is the teacher.

GUS GOODWIN, King Middle School: This kind of really hones in on engineering. What is the design process? They have to program a robot, build it, tinker with it, and get it to work.

JOHN TULENKO: Liva Pierce, who at the kickoff had feared failing, seemed to embrace robotics.

LIVA PIERCE: We made this wide thing that, when it goes forward, will catch the balls. It’s pretty hard.

STUDENTS: Let’s go, chipmunks! Let’s go! Let’s go, chipmunks! Let’s go!

JOHN TULENKO: Just before Thanksgiving, students put their creations to the test at a school competition dubbed Robo-Wars.

Nat Youngrin’s robot started well enough and stalled. The room was too noisy for its sound controls.

NAT YOUNGRIN: Oh, my God.

JOHN TULENKO: As for Liva Pierce, her team finished second.

The objective for all the students was that this activity would somehow bring them closer to designing an energy-generating device of their own.

MAN: The robot competition was really successful.

PETER HILL: Kids are really — I think they have internalized the design process. They know it’s an ongoing process. They know they need to engineer their designs and constantly revise and get feedback. And so we’re on our way.

JOHN TULENKO: By early December, students were on to the second leg of their journey: learning the science and social issues that would be at the heart of their invention.

And the path teachers choose to take students there? An eight-week-long interdisciplinary study of wind power.

Science teacher Peter Hill:

PETER HILL: We started with the wind turbine. How do these things create electricity? And we took apart a motor and we said, well, there’s magnets and wires in here. How do magnets and wires interact to generate electricity?

JOHN TULENKO: To make the learning go deeper, in tech-ed class, students built working model wind turbines.

GUS GOODWIN: The criteria for this project is a wind turbine that is stable and sturdy. It has to generate at least one volt of electricity, and the other piece is we want it to be creative, outrageous, ingenious, and inspirational.

JOHN TULENKO: The politics of wind power was the subject in social studies.

Emma Schwartz:

EMMA SCHWARTZ: The point is to find a place where it would be good or possible to have a wind turbine, to see what the environmental impacts might be if there’s a bunch of huge like turbines in the area.

MAN: You get those discussions around, what is a sense of place, and what is scenic beauty, and how do you alleviate that issue?

JOHN TULENKO: Next, Mark Gervais’ students will argue for their turbine in a persuasive essay addressed to local officials. But for their life-improving invention, students would need to know about faraway places. In English class, they read “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the autobiography of William Kamkwamba of Malawi, Africa.

STUDENT: He managed to build a wind turbine, power his house, and he did it with, like, a book and some trash.

EMMA SCHWARTZ: They went through this awful famine, and that was really shocking to me that he can go through all that and still have hope.

STUDENT: That was — that was a really big theme in the book, like, if you really just try and you don’t really stop, no matter kind of what’s in your way, you will just — you will eventually get there.

JOHN TULENKO: Inspired by the book, students like Liva Pierce pushed ahead with their own model wind turbines.

LIVA PIERCE: I had a lot of struggles with my turbine. And I said, you know what? I’m going to make this generate more than a volt. So I made a whole new set of blades. That worked a lot better. But then I heard about other people that were getting — like, I hear you got six volts. And I was like, oh, I have got to get more than that.

JOHN TULENKO: After eight weeks and three new sets of blades, Liva and her classmates’ wind turbines were finally ready. And King Middle School staged another competition.

LIVA PIERCE: The more I got into it, the more I just couldn’t stop. I was steadily increasing, which is really, really good.

JOHN TULENKO: Each turbine’s electrical output was captured by a computer. Liva’s topped out at 5.9 volts.

PETER HILL: In the team competition …

JOHN TULENKO: And when the final tallies were announced?

PETER HILL: Give it up for the winners: Lobsters.

JOHN TULENKO: Her team finished first.

By February, students had reached the final stage of the project: creating an energy-generating device that improves people’s lives.

PETER HILL: As a team of teachers, we brainstormed, what are 10 things that really need to get solved in the world? We came up with purify water, light a room at night, charge a cell phone, stuff like that, just to kind of get kids rolling, just give them a little push to get the creative juices flowing.

JOHN TULENKO: The assignment was to create a technical drawing. Emma Schwartz designed a light.

EMMA SCHWARTZ: I call it the Rub-a-Dub Scrub. It’s a sponge that generates light, which you might think, oh, my God, everyone is going to get electrocuted. But, no, I’m going to make sure no one gets electrocuted. As you can see, there’s like a little dome with lights at the top. There’s scrubbers on the bottom.

The scrubbers are attached to magnets, which spin around wires. When you rotate it on dishes, the scrubbers rotate. That creates the electrons to flow. And that generates electricity.

JOHN TULENKO: Liva Pierce created a crank flashlight.

LIVA PIERCE: It will have UVB, UVC, and a regular light. UVC kills bacteria in water.

JOHN TULENKO: Her UVB light in supposed to draw insects away from people.

LIVA PIERCE: And it will have off, regular, water, bugs. And I’m calling it the EcoBright.

JOHN TULENKO: For the final event of the project, parents were invited in to hear all about the students’ inventions.

EMMA SCHWARTZ: The Rub-A-Dub Scrub takes the usually wasted rotational kinetic energy of washing dishes.

This is, like, live showing what you’re learning to other people, which kind of gives you something more back, I think.

LIVA PIERCE: And you have to be clear and concise. Giving presentations is so important, because it really arms you with skills that you will need later in life.

EMMA SCHWARTZ: Just think if washing dishes could be fun.

JOHN TULENKO: Like Emma’s invention, the students’ creations will go no farther than the drawing board. What’s more, as they move on to new subjects and new grades, they may forget the particulars of amps and electrons. But some things, they will remember.

EMMA SCHWARTZ: Through this expedition, I have learned how to communicate with other people to make something happen. And I think that’s what changed me most.

LIVA PIERCE: Before this expedition, I kind of always thought of myself as, I’m good at writing and I’m good at reading, and that’s what I’m good at.

This expedition has completely changed my idea of science. Science is doing and science is building, and science is creating.

JOHN TULENKO: What makes this school a success? It’s not because of any charter status. It’s a regular public school. It’s not because it caters to some students over others. It’s diverse with open admission. The secret, as we saw it, was relevance.

LIVA PIERCE: Usually, in school, you learn about things that are happening in the world that are bad. In social studies, you might learn about an earthquake. But I feel that schools shouldn’t just be about learning about problems. I think they should be about solving them, because if you aren’t learning about how to solve problems, then what will you do when you’re out of school?

JOHN TULENKO: The expeditionary learning approach is growing and can be found in 161 schools nationwide.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there’s one for all of you who write in asking for positive stories in our world.

And, tomorrow, we will have another look at new ways to engage students in science and promote problem solving, when Spencer Michels reports on the opening of the Exploratorium in San Francisco.