Design a Pen Challenge

First weeks into Future Lab and things are – well, things are chugging along. Feel like I need to meet with these kids daily to do everything I want to do. We need to go over safety protocols, learn how to use tools, learn what you can do with all the supplies. Then of course is the time we have to dedicate to building. After all the reading I’ve done, I keep coming back to two major ideas.

One is to just step way back and let kids figure it out. Let them ask each other for help. This seems simple but if I had a dollar for every time I want to just tell them how to do it…

The second take away is pretty big. Make time to have a second, third build. The timeline should look like this:

Step One: Let students explore. Give them the challenge, don’t be surprised when it goes off the rails. Failure is an important part of this journey!

Step Two: Teach the explicit skills necessary for the challenge. This may be related to using a certain tool a certain way, or learning a science process skill, incorporating simple machine understandings, etc.

Step Three: Let children build again. If they can go back to their first experience, and use what they know now, how can they improve their iteration?

Prior wondering/experimentation + new knowledge = possible success.

I wish I remembered the author of one very important article I read, but he said something crucial. The last step usually gets lost in Makerspace rooms because teachers get so co concerned with time. They want to jump to the next thing. The challenge step at the end is when the students really learn and grow the most. They are more likely to be successful in this next iteration.

Must remind myself to go SLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW.

I am trying to do this with our first challenge: Build a pen. I got the idea for the first part from Sarah Margalus. She is a mom who is homeschooling her children and she’s got some great resources.

As an introduction to the challenge, we opened with the following question: What is a system? We discussed different systems and how some are very complex while others are simple. A pencil can be an example of a simple system. We went over the different parts of a pencil and what their jobs are. We then repeated the process for markers and crayons. Again, I got this idea from

Then came the challenge:

Build a better pen. Students had to only work with:

  • popsicle sticks
  • plastic cutlery
  • rubber bands
  • toothpicks
  • straws

They also had to draw sketches of their plans. This is an important step in the process. Have. a. plan.

It was amazing to see how students worked together and solved problems. It was also interesting to learn how many students can’t use rubber bands. Have you ever taught a child to use a rubber band? It’s not easy. My co-teacher and I spent so much time working with some of the boys on this simple task I take for granted.

Here are some of the pens:

Some pens were very successful, including caps. Very comfortable and functional. Others though, were just nibs. Total fails. No problem, kids, we got another shot.

For the skills portion, I wanted to focus on empathy. Students had a worksheet in which they could write down what they wanted in a pen. Then we decided on interview questions. For this round, they got to pick the person they wanted to build a pen for and find out what they thought was important in a pen. They also got a whole new supply table full of bling AND they could now use glue and tape as needed.

It was pretty awesome to watch students change course. A little boy said he wanted rubber bands as part of the grip. His partner said, “I can’t do that. Could you help me with that part?”

Then children got to remake their pen to give it to someone else. For someone who wanted the same kind of pen, this showed to be easy, but if you wanted a completely different design it turned into a challenge. I heard so many good conversations, so many helpful comments. At the very end of a fifth grade class, one student put it best by saying:

“It was so much easier this time. The pen took so long to make the first time. My partner and I decided to not be picky. We didn’t want to make the pen harder to build, we wanted to make the process easier for the other person.”

THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED!!!! It’s actually more than empathy. It’s compassion. If you have ever worked in any service industry job, it stays with you for life. You can always try to make life easier for another person.

The final pens look amazing and I would love to have any of them in my collection.

Author: Sonia Chapman

I am an art teacher, living in the Middle East, following my passion for art, teaching little children about the finer things in life, and loving every bit of it.

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