Learning Physics by Creating Structures

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Students will be able to use recycled materials to collaboratively create emergency shelters similar to those in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya.

Big Idea

Revising models over time is a key part of the process of learning and doing physics.


10 minutes

As students enter the room, they take their seats according to a seating chart that I have projected on the Promethean board. Students sit in groups of four at lab stations.  During the first five minutes of class, I collect their learning agreements and then hand out a See Think Wonder Activity (adapted from Harvard's Visible Thinking Project) to each student. Then, I project a pair of images on the Promethean board and ask students to write down as many observations that they can based on the images, to make inferences and to identify their reasoning and any remaining conceptual puzzles. At the end of five minutes, I ask to student to share their response with their elbow partners while I circulate and ask students clarifying questions and take note of student responses. I have the same activity projected on the Promethean board so that I write down student responses as they are shared. 

After we discuss the similarities and differences between the two structures, I introduce the idea that revising models based on interactions with real systems is a major part of learning and doing physics. I want students to become comfortable creating and revising models to solve problems in physics. With this in mind, during the next part of this lesson, I ask students to create and refine a procedure to design an emergency shelter prototype.

During this portion of the lesson, I make clear that students have to raise their hands, then state their name and responses to each section of the activity while maintaining the one-mic policy of respecting everyone's voice.  I primarily chose this activity because teamwork is an essential skill for actively learning physics.

Introduction to Engineering Design

15 minutes

During the introduction to engineering design, I distribute whiteboards and inform the students that we will be working on a set of design challenges during this portion of the lesson. Then, I ask students in mixed ability teams of four (based on the results of their Physics Content Skills Baseline and Physics Study Skills Baseline results from Lesson 1) to create a procedure for determining the area of their lab stations; with annotations, diagrams and units clearly displayed.  

I use the results of student baselines to identify student strengths and challenges and then I create a four student team balance based on student results. I distribute the students with strong study skills and content knowledge so that there is at least one strong student per group, then I keep distributing students in rounds on a spectrum of strongest to not ready until I have groups of four created. I want each group to have at least one student with strong content knowledge and one student with good study skills because these students act as anchors to provide support for students who have not yet acquired strong study skills or depth of understanding. My students are familiar with our a school-wide system of Student Roles which are posted in every classroom. The roles are voluntary and cyclical, where each team member switches roles every time there is a hands on activity that is introduced within a lesson. 

Initially I give students 5 minutes to create a procedure to determine the area of their lab stations. Next, I ask for a volunteer to give a report to the class on their procedure; then ask the class to ask questions and make suggestions to make the procedure more effective. After the 5 minutes have elapsed, I pose a challenge on the Promethean board which asks students to design a procedure that determines the area of a lab station without using a ruler, meter stick or measuring tape to directly measure the table's length or width (SP2). Then, I circulate and ask each team clarifying questions and ask the team to redesign their procedures based on their answers to my questions. This redesign takes about five to ten minutes. They are expected to write the procedure in their notebooks.  

After the redesign has happened, I tease out the idea of engineering design involving identifying a problem, creating a prototype to meet the demands of the problem, testing a prototype's limits, and redesigning a prototype to better meet the constraints of the system. After our discussion on revising their procedure, I ask students to create a prototype similar to the Dadaab shelter based on the earlier portions of the lesson. 

Design Challenge

40 minutes

This lesson focuses on creating a model by breaking the problem into smaller more manageable tasks in order to solve a complex problem within a set of given constraints. During the design challenge, I ask students to think back to the images from the beginning of class and to use their recent experience of refining a prototype in the lab station area measuring activity in order to create an emergency shelter (SP6). A scenario is posted on the Promethean board informing students that they are members of the Peace Corps and are tasked with creating an emergency shelter prototype for displaced Somalians in the Dadaab camp in Northern Kenya (HS.ETS1-2). 

I have four person student teams use handheld whiteboards to create and document a procedure for making emergency shelters. The students test their procedure and use their experiences to revise their procedures until they consider the procedures to be robust. This process involves making use of a set of recycled materials and creating a procedure for other members of the Peace Corps to easily follow and reproduce. The materials I typically distribute include 1m of string, 20 newspapers and 1 roll of duct tape to each team. However, the materials may also include remnants of card stock and bulletin board paper from our class recycling bin. Students use their whiteboards to brainstorm a set of instructions for creating their structures.

I inform students that they will have a five minute planning stage where they can verbally communicate with their team members. Next,  I ask students to spend the next 30 minutes working in silence to implement their agreed upon procedure to emphasize how important the clarity of written communication of ideas to effectively practicing physics. Initially, student work follows our school wide norms on student roles. The resource manager will gather and keep track of all of the materials that I earlier distributed. The facilitator will keep everyone on the same page. The reporter will record team ideas on the provided whiteboards. While the task manager will assign tasks to the other student team members to implement their plan.

As the students progress through the challenge, students may deviate from their chosen roles as needed. For example, if an initial structure fails, student team members will lend a hand help each other rebuild the part which is failing. After 30 minutes have elapsed, I ask students to stop working and to have at least one team member get inside their shelters while I circulate to take a photo of their final product, collect their procedures to be assessed. I ask students to spend the last five minutes writing down warm and cool feedback about this section of the lesson in their notebooks. 







10 minutes

Once students are done creating their emergency shelter prototypes, I ask students to add their names to the prototypes and to place them on the resource table. Then, I ask students to recycle any excess materials and clear their immediate area before the next class begins. After students have tidied up their collaboration space, I hand out an Exit Slip in which students express their current understanding of the important portions of today's lesson. For the last five to seven minutes of class, students complete and turn in the exit slip.  I collect the exit slips so that I can grade and return them during the beginning of the next lesson. Then, I ask students to state a single word to describe today's lesson when I call on them.