Catapult Lab: Project Based Learning from a Teacher’s Point of View
Project based learning is not just a methodology or set of practices, it is a means for liberating many learners. A student in my class, I will call him “Buddy”, is a delightful and resilient young person with plenty of enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn. Buddy never stops moving and even when sitting still, his whole person seems to cheerfully vibrate. He is an energetic class contributor and frequently asks terrific deep questions about what we are covering, but often gets distracted before the group is done discussing and exploring potential answers. Buddy is a compulsive pencil tapper, chatter, and chair-tipper who frequently takes the longest possible route to the restroom on his half dozen or so daily trips. Like a shark, if Buddy isn’t moving, something isn’t quite right.
For the past several weeks, our class has been researching various designs and constructing catapults as a vehicle for plotting parabolas and determining the quadratic function that describes the parabolic path. After making small binder clips and clothespins catapults and researching a variety of historical catapult designs, in small groups the kids moved on to building bigger units. When Buddy came into classroom on construction day carrying a saw, hammer and a power drill, I started to sweat. Assigning the several parent volunteers present to other groups, I anxiously glued myself to Buddy and his crew. Giving a squirrelly kid a task involving sharp objects and power tools? What was I thinking? With many apocryphal stories and urban legends of Chem lab explosions and woodshop tragedies swirling around in my mind, I watched the group at work.
What unfolded over the course of two day’s construction was both informative and gratifying. As soon as the tools hit his palms, Buddy showed a level of comfort I had never observed before and he began directing his teammates through interpreting the construction diagrams, triple checking and accurately measuring wood to be cut, and later refining the design with additional bungee cords and screws to increase power of the unit and the distance covered. On this authentic and very tangible challenge Buddy w
as a leader, relating what he had been studying in math, (and not always with complete or consistent engagement) to the physical actualization of his group’s catapult.
A few days after our catapult testing, I wandered in to Buddy’s math class and saw him, as usual, cruising around the room and checking out the scene. Before I could bark at him and corral him back to his table, I heard another student call out, “Buddy, when you’re done over there, can you help me with my equations?” I then realized that the class was working on a set of problems related to the height and distance of their recorded catapult launches and Buddy, a competent but never extraordinary math student, was finished with his work and very capably assisting other students.
Project based learning requires a deeper degree of teacher planning and trust, but the payoff can be huge, case in point – Buddy.