Let's hack! Wait. Hack what? (DEFINE)

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Students will be able to: 1) connect empathy data to a problem statement; 2) define a problem in the form of "how might we" questions; and 3) communicate collaboratively to refine problem questions.

Big Idea

Empathy helps us to define the problems that we will collaboratively solve in order to co-create classroom structures that optimize student learning outcomes. How might we leverage empathy to refine our understanding of problem areas in the classroom?

FRAME: Helping students to define a problem

What is the teaching and learning philosohphy of this lesson?

The define stage of the engineering design process is very difficult for many students.  First, many students have an impatient hacker mentality-that the best course of action to solving a problem is just to jump in and try anything.  While we do bias action, we want to be sure that actions are aligned to carefully defined problems.  The problem is that defining a problem is actually a very complex task.  How do we know a problem is actually a problem?  

Because this step requires deep thinking, my key teacher move is to provide explicit modeling of problem definition. What this looks like in the classroom is that I will take purposefully create a more teacher-centered classroom.  While the first two lessons were a chance for me to observe my students interacting and collect important baseline data--data related to collaboration styles, preferred seating, personalities, participation rates, science content knowledge, engineering design thinking skills, level of engagement, students' personal experiences, and so on--this lesson is when I deliver my first sustained mini-lesson and have students develop the skill of creating "how might we" questions.

To be clear, I will still purposefully cultivate ambiguity and deflect all students' attempts to establish that an answer is "right."  However, I will balance this disposition with clearer guidelines for students to follow as they attempt to define problems as engineering design thinkers.

Hacking hopes and fears

6 minutes

What do students do?

Displayed at the front of the classroom are the charted hopes and fears from the previous lesson. Students are instructed to answer the following prompts silently in their journals:

  1. What similarities among the hopes and fears do you observe?  Example:  I see that many people are afraid of talking out loud in class.
  2. Do these similarities represent a problem that we might be able to solve?  Example: If many students are afraid to talk in class we will have a problem because talking is a very important part of school.
  3. If you were able to solve this problem, how would you know that you are successful?  Example: I would be successful if everybody wanted to talk.

All students that finish early are encouraged to write a one sentence description of the problem they have identified.

What does the teacher do?

I am looking to see where students begin to show a lack of understanding of the task.  Can students make observations?  Can student synthesize observations?  Can students "backwards design"?

How might we define our problem?

10 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1dHS-ETS1-2

TEACHER RESOURCES:  The two attached pictures might be used during the mini-lesson

How do we transition to the mini-lesson?

First I lead students in a short discussion of their findings from the opening activity.  Students will share out responses through volunteering and cold calls.  I will also probe for understanding when students felt less comfortable about their responses.  Were any of the questions from the opening difficult?  What was unclear?  Which questions were easy to answer? 

Next, I begin my mini-lesson by explaining to the class that hacking something means that we use the engineering design process to solve a problem.  But in order to hack, we need to know what our problem is.  

This is our goal today.  We need to clearly define our problems. We do this by choosing a person, identifying a need and defining benchmarks, our criteria for a successful solution. Our goal is to create a "how might we" problem question.  

What will the teacher do? (Italicized words are representative of teacher talking points.)

For this exercise I am likely to use a classic I-we-you modeling structure.  I will use a couple of classic fairy tales for my "design scenarios."  Here is a link to summaries of fairy tales that might be use in class. My reason for using fairy tales is that in my experience they are almost universally known by students, especially if there is a corresponding Disney movie.

"I" scenario: Cinderella as a design challenge

I will summarize the key plot points of the story up to the point that the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella disappears, and her glass slipper is found. (Note: any number of plot points could work as a stopping point.)    I will then describe the situation from the perspective of the prince using what we know so far of the engineering design process.  

First, we empathize.  The prince is in love. He wants to find Cinderella.  He has very little to work with so he must feel frustrated and helpless.  Cinderella feels helpless and crushed.  She had her chance to escape her life, but now it is gone.  How does this help us identify a problem?

This is where I move to the define stage of the engineering design process.  What is a need we learned about in the empathize stage?  Let's take the prince.  He need to find Cinderella.  And what is our benchmark?  In other words, what would happen if the prince met his need?    A successful solution is for Cinderella and the prince to meet again and live happily ever after.  But how can this happen?  This is where we focus on our problem.  This can happen only if the prince and Cinderella can meet again.  The problem is that Cinderella and the prince want to meet again so that they can live happily ever after.  And here is where we can turn this statement into our engineering design question.  

How might the prince find Cinderella so that both may live happily ever after?  

This is a basic formula for a "how might we" question.  Who needs something?  What does this person need?  What would happen if this need were met?

"We" scenario:  Snow White 

I will repeat the same process with Snow White, eliciting responses from students along the way.  I will stop at the point that the evil queen learns that Snow White is still alive.  We will empathize with the queen and understand one of her needs, describe a successful solution from her perspective, and develop how might we questions.  Through I will instruct students to ask clarifying questions if they do not understand something.  I will also model such questions for students to give them an idea of what this expectation feels like in a classroom.   

"You" scenario:  Students' choice

Students may choose any story they like for this section.  I will suggest superhero movies, Disney and Pixar films, or one of the stories from this link.  You will do the following: choose a story, pick a character, identify a character's need, describe an ideal outcome, and turn these pieces into a single how might we question.  This activity will be described more fully in the next section.

What will student be doing?

During the "I" segment students are actively taking notes.  During the "We" section, students are actively taking notes, participating in the thought process, and posing clarifying questions. During the "You" students will construct their own question as I circulate to provide individual and group assistance.

"You": How might we

15 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1dHS-ETS1-2, SP1

What will students be doing?

To practice developing "how might we" problem questions, students will work collaboratively in their groups.  On a single poster paper, groups will complete the following steps:

  1. Choose a story.  This might be a fairly tale, or it might be from a movie, a television program, or a song.
  2. Conduct a brief empathy inventory of the story.  What are the characters' feelings and motivations?
  3. Use the empathy inventory to identify a need.  This step reveals the problem area.
  4. Describe what would happen if this need were met.  This step reveals a possible solution.
  5. Rewrite steps 2-4 as a specific problem statement with the successful solution as the goal. Example: The problem for the prince is that he wants to find Cinderalla so that he can live happily ever after.
  6. Create a "how might" question from the specific problem statement. 

Posters will contain the following items: the story, the identified need, the possible solution, the problem statement, and a "how might we" question.  Posters will also contain a drawing that reflects these ideas.

What will the teacher do?

My primary function is to push students to identify needs and ways that needs might be met.  I will not tell students that a response is correct.  If students are struggling with choosing a story, I will choose one for them.  Finally, I am assessing students' pain points.  What do students understand?  What are students able to do?  What seems to be preventing some students from proficiently completing this task?

Plus and delta

8 minutes

Standards: W.11-12.1, SP8

How will we transition into a peer-review of our work?

I will stop groups at 15 minutes.  Most are likely to want more time.  I will explain that the work of designers is to come up with ideas quickly and that it is actually good to feel unfinished, because our goal is to look at a lot of ideas before we try to perfect any one idea.

What will students do?

Each group will rotate to each poster in the room to provide feedback in a gallery walk.  Feedback will be a "plus" and a "delta."  A plus is a brief description of what the group has done well.  A delta is a brief description of what might need to be changed.  These are written directly on each poster or on Post-its attached to posters.  Groups may check a plus or a delta to agree with it, but each group must write at least one unique plus or delta.  Each group has a unique writing color for feedback.

When a group has finished providing feedback, they go through another round and note similarities in the feedback given to all groups.

What will the teacher do? 

I will preface this activity by proving an example of well-developed feedback by differentiating between a statement such as "Your picked a good need" and "I like how the need you picked is directly related to your solution idea."  During the gallery walk I will push students to provide more rigorous comments when necessary.

Sample student work

Process reflection: tips for writing "how might" engineering design questions

6 minutes

Standard: SL.11-12.1d

How will the teacher structure this discussion?

We will have a short whole class discussion in which we share out our noticings from the previous activity.  Prompting questions might include:

  • Are there common pluses and deltas?  
  • Are there areas of confusion?  
  • Where do we feel the most confident?  
  • Why is empathy an important part of this process?

What are the goals of this discussion?

For students, the primary goal is to use evidence from classroom activities to self-assess understanding of the "how might" structure by speaking in front of the whole group

For the teacher, the goal is to gain valuable formative assessment data.  What are the speaking and listening abilities of the group?  What are the concepts that are best understood?  Why?  What is not understood well?  Why?

Individual reflection

5 minutes

Standard: SP1

What will students do?

Students will answer these questions:

1) What is the procedure that we use to develop a "how might" problem question.  Describe using examples from this class.

2) What would be the how might we question for the Marshmallow Challenge?

Students will have up to five minutes to describe their understanding of how to develop a problem question in their science and design journals.

What will the teacher do?

I will be circulating and actively giving encouragement and/or strategies to students struggling with writing for the whole time.


Teacher design challenge: attitudes towards engineering and science

5 minutes

TEACHER RESOURCES: The two attached resources are posted for review.  They offer insight into how the Scientific Attitude Inventory was created as well as the connection between student attitudes about science and rethinking students' experiences of science classrooms.

What is my design challenge?

I have been assessing students’ scientific attitudes for the last few years to better understand their personal feelings related to STEM.  These surveys have helped me focus on a problem area: most students enter my class without positive attitudes related to STEM.  Positive attitudes drive interest, performance, and independent practice.  Every year I notice a spike in work completion, classroom participation, and independent exploration of STEM topics when I develop learning experiences that students actually like.

My question, then, is how might I create a learning environment that most effectively develops the positive student attitudes related to STEM that drive a lifelong interest in STEM practices?

I will narrate my motivation to my students and explain that this is a new course that I am hoping is a valuable, positive learning experience.  

To do this as best as I can, I gave an empathy tool called the "Scientific Attitude Inventory" that will help me better understand how to define the problems we might face this year as "how might we" questions.  I appreciate you helping me out, and I am excited to learn more about you!  

This survey assesses students’ baseline attitudes towards STEM practices, attitude towards scientists, attitudes about the importance of science in everyday life, and so on. 

How will I collect data? 

This tool is available for download here.  I like to distribute this survey as a Google form so that I automatically have a record of student responses and so that I can review aggregate data from this form with my students.  As students continue to design elements of the classroom experience for the year, we will incorporate data from these surveys as evidence of constraints, definitions of success, or outcomes to measure.