Tie And Jeans

Design vs. Demonstration

Great makerspace activities students are grounded in a design cycle. I know that’s a loaded phrase and there’s any number of fancy posters that use meticulously groomed verbs to describe the process. (For reference, ours has research/empathize/plan/make/test.)

In every case, the design cycle requires that students have an open-ended goal and the ability to engage in a test/revise/reflect loop. Whatever the task, students need to be able to measure/evaluate their own work against a clear standard or goal, then continually modify their work and test again.

This is different from many scientific inquiry cycles in that students are not generating, isolating, and testing specific hypothesis. I’m obsessing over a clear way to express that distinction, because our fist grade team is about to start a unit about “physical forces,” which basically translates into age-appropriate demonstrations of Newtonian principles. Those labs can be exciting, and teachers are familiar with the powerful “ah-ha!” moments they can inspire in students. While I’m happy to make use of that pedagogical tool in the Makerspace, I need to find a careful/neutral way to express that demonstration labs, in and of themselves, are not design activities.

I’ve tried and failed to make this distinction before, and have instead wound up debating wether all demonstrations need to be “hands on.” There’s plenty of valid reasons for “hands off” demonstrations in science class (Item A: FIRE), although youtube makes very few essential. I can still describe precisely several demonstration heilige JP’s chemistry class and those were as refined specimen of hands-off teacher monologue as I’ve ever witnessed.

The distinction between science labs and #makered doesn’t hinge on whether students remember the science better when they’re building their own baking soda volcanoes or watching a crazy masterpiece, but on how the learning environment constrains or empowers students. Even if students “make” and “test” the transfer of kinetic energy, the results can only be “yep, that’s physics” or “you messed up.” That’s not design.

Demonstration labs are valuable but they don’t allow for broad, self-directed engagement. When students can taking actions and making choices, based on their new/developing understanding of an idea, then you have a powerful learning opportunity. A classic example of this is water bottle rockets. Last year, our 6th grade team built a wind tunnel with a modified scale to measure drag. The wind tunnel opened up a way for students to easily test their plastic and duct-tape creations; one that didm not require adult interference, one that provided clear data, and didn’t end in a high impact collision. Few 6th grade rockets are sturdy enough for multiple launchers. None maintain a consistent aerodynamic profile.

Without the wind tunnel, debates over weight distribution and fin design would end in appeals to external (“Mr. Cook, is this right?”) or personal (“ got a better grade on the science quiz, so my fins are best”) authority. When the wind tunnel was available, those fights only happened while waiting for another group to finish testing their rocket.


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One thought on “Design vs. Demonstration

  1. Cook on said:

    My kids are always right and they let me know it :)

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