Thursday, May 21, 2009

Physical Learning

Last night I attended the “energy expo” at my son’s charter school. All of the children in grades 3-5 displayed and demonstrated projects centered on energy. There were water, wind, electric, solar, and biofuel projects.

Everything these students have done during this trimester has focused on energy. That includes their reading, writing, math, science, and every other subject. There have been multiple expeditions to explore various sources and uses of energy. This school does a lot of hands-on learning.

We never had science fairs when I was in elementary school. This expo was different than any science fair that I have attended. Instead of being a calm and orderly affair with projects neatly lined up along tables that form long aisles, these projects were scattered helter-skelter throughout classrooms and around the front lawn. And it was noisy.

There was a method to all of the madness. Children were encouraged to develop interactive projects. Some crews had students work in pairs, while others had students work individually. (They call them crews rather than classes at this school because being a crew member denotes having active responsibility rather than just being a ‘passenger.’) Students didn’t just stand idly by their projects. They were tasked with developing and delivering an oral presentation and demonstration that lasted 1-3 minutes. They were to solicit and be ready to answer questions about their subject.

The expo was well attended by family members, including plenty of grandparents. I was rather surprised at the presentation made by my son and his partner. These two little boys were pros. They had their lines well organized and practiced. They took turns enthusiastically delivering parts of their spiel, but the climax was when they demonstrated their project that they labeled ‘squirt finger,’ based on an idea they found in an old book.

The boys took turns wearing a belt to which was strapped two 6v batteries and a plastic water container. At the bottom of the container was a small pump. From the pump came a clear plastic tube and a push button electric switch (backed by a circuit breaker fuse). The boys passed out small Dixie cups to their audience and walked around dispensing water from their contraption into the cups. They then took questions. I was amazed at their ability to answer some of the questions posed by adults.

After perusing the numerous projects, I discerned that my son’s project was among those that had a pretty high ‘coolness’ factor. There’s something about a kid wearing an odd (and maybe even dangerous) looking device that squirts water. It was far different than the half dozen windmills that each lit up a tiny light. The project was so popular that my son and his partner didn’t get a break from presenting the entire evening. I was very proud of them.

Early in the evening, my son and his partner were interviewed by a reporter from the local newspaper. A photographer took many pictures of them and their project. I explained to my son that they will interview many students and take many pictures. It is likely that only one of those many photos will end up in the newspaper and that only a few students will be mentioned by name. I was trying to help my son not to get his hopes for fame up too high.

Another very cool project was done by a boy that had built an actual biofuel still. Unfortunately, the fuel produced from vegetable matter produced a vinegar scented substance that caused the combustion engine he had to choke. But it was an amazing project for a 5th grader.

There were water wheels, windmills, a model of a nuclear energy plant, solar ovens, solar powered radios, models of coal mining operations, a working model of an electrical transmission line, an underwater sound wave unit, and many other projects. You could tell that some had been developed with a lot of parental support, while others had had very little adult intervention.

My son was very pleased with himself and with his project as we carried stuff to the car at the end of the program. I felt that he had good reason to feel a sense of accomplishment. Ditto for most of the other students at the expo. Students at my son’s school are being trained to dig into their academic pursuits in a physical manner. Judging by the energy expo, at least some of the results of this approach are quite impressive.

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