The scariest part of PBL: Build Days (with the Solar Oven example)

September 16, 2015 at 1:45 PM Leave a comment

I was anxious about this departure from the more directed labs I’ve done in the past. Kids running rampant with spray paint, box cutters, glue and cardboard. PBL as Dangerous Chaos… Or is it? I had to trust students, hope I would have enough materials for all 6 classes and be nimble enough to make adjustments as I observe problems. Oh, I guess just like they are supposed to be learning. Good to realize that this approach can feel scary to some students too.

The first build day started with the design requirements, the time line (3 build days then the test it day followed by an assessment (which I’ll share later),a tour of available materials, how to use some of the more dangerous and messy items. And then they are off, using their design sketches or just figuring out as they go. I circulate, ask questions, mostly listen in and admire what they are doing.


It was an amazingly focused, calm and productive day with (almost) zero discipline problems and one tiny scissor cut. And the second day the same. I can’t believe how engaged they are. I do hear them talking physics to each other, and also observe some infections misconceptions such as spraying everything black will capture more heat. (Spray paint in class, so fun.)

Each build day was started with re-focusing students on their design requirements AND on the “Norms for Innovative Groups” we gleaned (and modified a bit) from IDEO. I added “YOU are responsible for finding something useful to do.” as a way to deal with the frequent problem of having one student in a group sitting it out.

Materials We Provided In Class:

Aluminum foil, mylar survival ‘blankets’, saran wrap, plastic bags, small beakers or graduated cylinders for measuring the water, card stock,black paper, black material, white glue, rubber cement, foam board/cardboard, black spray paint, black plastic, jam jars, tin cans of various sizes (cat food cans are best), pipe cleaners, florist wire, duct tape, masking tape, cheap lenses (we got credit-card sized Fresnel lenses from Amazon). Then anything else, students can bring from home.

Tools: box cutters (with safety demo and guidelines), tin snips, scissors inc. cheap scissors for cutting wire and foil, screwdriver, brushes for glue and paint, clean up area, thermometers. I keep expensive/possibly dangerous stuff at the front:

IMG_2776 Here’s how we stored projects:IMG_0007

For more specific advice to run safe, fun and engaging build days here are 26 tips.

At the end of each build day, I am VERY careful to allow enough clean up time (about 5 minutes) and a couple of minutes to congratulate them on anything cool that I saw or heard. I also ask ‘Who had to re-design something?’, ‘Who had to start over?’ Congratulations! Creating the innovative atmosphere that celebrates learning from failure will take lots more of this. I can feel the atmosphere in the whole school changing as the NGSS and CCSS take effect. It’s a powerful good thing. Our students are more imaginative than a couple of years ago, more persistent, more adaptable and better with figuring stuff out for themselves. And way more motivated. I am so happy to have taken the plunge.

Add your own concerns, questions and advice for the this scariest part of PBL in the comments below.

Entry filed under: Build a Better Solar Oven, Class Management, Creativity, Design Challenges. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Build a Better Solar Oven: Investigate Optics! PBL: From Tinkering to Thinking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 229 other followers

%d bloggers like this: