The classic “gotcha” assignment for students is to write step-by-step instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich. Educators select student instructions to share with the class that inevitably have major missteps such as forgetting to open the peanut butter container or not selecting a tool for retrieving or spreading the peanut butter.
This is a good discrepant event in that it surely gets the attention of students and can be the start of a good thought provoking discussion about why it is important to write complete step-by-step procedures. But what happens next to help our students develop the skill set needed to write precise step-by-step instructions for their science fair project?
Being able to read, interpret, and produce scientific and technical text are fundamental practices of science and engineering, as is the ability to communicate clearly. When students engage in science fairs, they present their findings as scientists which includes the detailed procedures followed in their experiments. These detailed procedure allow other scientists to duplicate tests when the findings are unexpected. (SP8 - Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.)
In this lesson students will practice Write-It, Do-It, the writing of detailed procedures by preparing models, then using their observation skills, describing patterns another student scientists can use to create their own copy of the model.
This lesson introduces students to the cross-cutting concepts of models and patterns.
I begin by telling students that scientific experiments must be written in such a way that they results can be duplicated exactly. But why is this important? When other scientists replicate results there is assurance that the experimental findings are correct. In the real world, scientists do not replicate all experiments. They do replicate experiments with unexpected results or new discoveries. Our goal is not to simply teach them the facts but also how to think like a scientist.
I introduce Write-It, Do-It (A Science Olympiad Event) as a formal lesson the first time; explaining the rules, and modeling how to write instructions.
I review a prepared contraption with my students. I ask for ideas about how they would describe the pieces used to make the contraption. We make a list of useful vocabulary that could be used to describe the contraption and the materials used to create it.
Some of our useful vocabulary includes:
Adjacent, Plane, Square, Rectangle, Alternating, Acute, Obtuse, Angle, Underneath, Circular, Triangle, Right Angle, Perpendicular, Symmetrical, Parallel, Base, Bridge, Isolated, Cylinder, Pyramid, Colors
For the first example, I work collaboratively with students to write step-by-step instructions so someone else can put the contraption together to model how to write details that can easily be duplicated. I solicit student input for each instruction. Students offer revisions as needed. There are rules for the writing. We cannot draw a picture of the completed contraption and there are no measuring tools. We can only use symbols, letters and numbers found on a standard computer keyboard.
Since I am working collaboratively with students to write instructions, I present the instructions to the next class. We assemble the contraption based on the instructions provided. We compare the completed contraption with the original to see if they match. We also talk about which instructions worked and which instructions could use some tweaking. I ask students to suggest ideas for improving the instructions. We then build and write a piece for the next class.
On day 2, I let each student select 5 - 7 pieces to assemble and write instructions for duplicating. They can choose from any building materials as long as they have 2 complete sets. I have students on each side of the room sit so they are facing in opposite directions.
When the writing time is up, about 20 minutes, I remove the contraptions from view. Give each partner group instructions and assembly pieces to make the contraption they did not write about. I tell the students how much time they will have to assemble the contraption and check their work. Again about 20 minutes, usually, this is the same amount of time as the writing.
At the end of class, we bring together the authors and the assemblers to see how closely the completed contraptions resemble each other. The goal, of course, is for the two contraptions to be exactly the same. I do not grade the first attempts. It would be easy to grade by counting the number of errors found in the assembly.
The first time I use this activity in class, I treat it as a formative assessment asking myself what instructional support do students need to be successful when tackling this task in the future?
For students to learn to be successful, this activity must be repeated throughout the school year. Think about those times your class period is shortened due to a convocation or weather delay. These are great opportunities for a short Write-It, Do-It practice session. The contraptions do not have to be overly complicated. The emphasis should be on the accuracy and details of the step-by-step instructions and the ability to replicate the original contraption.
We use materials you may already have in your classroom or can acquire inexpensively through donations or garage sale finds such as building toys, stickers, beads or even a collection of buttons.
The Science Olympiad event Write-It, Do-It has a specific set of rules regarding the use of abbreviations, and drawings. You can even purchase Rules Manuals from the Science Olympiad Store However you can use the basic idea and design your own rules that meet the needs of your students and the time you have allotted for practice in the classroom. You can use as many or as few pieces as you like. Choose the materials that best suit the time slot you have available. The contraptions do not have to be complicated.
Students enjoy the activity. I find my students like a bit of competition now and then. They love tackling problems and solving them. You are helping students build the habit of persistence of problem solving, giving them a practical forum for the use of domain specific vocabulary (especially math) and developing technical writing skills. Practicing the art of writing step-by-step instructions in class tells your students that this is an important skill to learn. They will thank you for making writing fun!
Keep a supply of materials handy to use when needed. I collect materials all year long, especially building materials from garage sales and stickers from the after holiday sales to make Write-It, Do-It activities for students. Many students find Write-It, Do-It to be a fun activity to tackle when they finish early.
In this view, I take a look at a sample first student attempt at Write-It, Do-It and explain what are next steps will be to help students master the art of writing detailed procedures.
The next day I take a look at some sample Write-It, Do-It projects with the entire class.
We look at the instructions and the compare the writer's and builder's contraptions noting the differences.
We interview the writer, where did the builder misunderstand your instructions? Why do you think that happened?
Next we interview the builder, where did you misunderstand the instructions? How do you think the instructions can be improved so that other builders are successful?
Then as a class we modify the instructions. This models for students how to improve their own detailed instructions.
Write-It, Do-It is a project that needs to be repeated throughout the school year for students to be able to obtain mastery.