By MARC CHABOT
My favorite lesson plan occurs on the first day of the last quarter in my Physics class. The class, populated largely by high school seniors, has just finished building Rube Goldberg machines, and is ready to slack off during the approaching warm spring days before graduation. Over the course of about three days, I open them up to a new kind of problem solving, and a new kind of problem.
Once I have completed my lesson — Introduction to Engineering Problem Solving — the warm spring days will have to wait, for there is compelling work to do, and never enough time to do all that they would like to accomplish. At the end of three days, I want my students to have a basic understanding of the steps that engineers use to solve problems, develop a sense of comfort in the venue in which they will solve their problems, and find empathy, compassion, and the dawning of some affection for the students with whom they will work. For many, this is their final high school science experience, and after they have solved many paper-and-pencil problems, and built simple devices with constraints, I want them to work toward solving a complex real-world problem
On the first day of the lesson I invite two young women with intensive special needs into my classroom, along with their teachers. One girl is confined to a wheelchair and has very little physical mobility. Her cognitive function is largely unknown. The other young woman displays the symptoms of autism; she is very social, but she, too, cannot speak, and she lacks the social skills to function in the regular classroom setting. The young women are students at our school, but they are strangers to my Physics students, who have rarely interacted with them. Their teachers introduce the young women, and describe what physical and social difficulties they experience. My students ask questions, but mostly they are struck silent with the magnitude of the problems they see. After the half-hour visit, I introduce the steps to engineering problem solving, using a video prepared at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, stopping it frequently to inject my own explanations.
On the second day of the lesson the Physics students visit the special needs classroom where the two young women spend most of their school day. My students are invited to look around, examine the technology, the tools and the toys that are used to teach the young women. They ask more questions, and interact with the girls for the first time. Then they return to our regular classroom to brainstorm ideas for possible problems that they will want to work on. Their goal: to build a working prototype device that will in some way solve a problem experienced by one of the two students.
The third and final day of my introduction involves inviting a guest into my classroom, an adult woman with cerebral palsy who is trained to teach students about including handicapped students in the regular classroom. She vividly describes growing up in New England in a world of prejudice and low expectations for the handicapped. She allows them to ask any question, and she answers them truthfully and passionately. She reminds them that she will be back later in the month to help them fine tune their ideas.
At the end of the three day introduction, my students feel familiar enough with what they are expected to do, comfortable with the young women students enough to ask what they need to know, and impassioned about the project enough to motivate them to work hard during the time that follows.
About the Author Marc Chabot is an award winning STEM teacher at Thetford Academy in Vermont. His project, this one and others related to Physics Problem Solving, have evolved now for over two decades.
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