We recently had a chance to do something pretty unusual - have the students work with kits (we usually have the students build/design their models from scratch with no prepared materials). We got the BP A+ for Energy Grant to do the Energy City Project with two 6th grade classrooms. We did a Family Science Course on Renewable Energy and a bunch of in-class sessions on wind turbines and then we bought some Powerhouse kits for students to mess around with. The kits are amazing and you can build a house with a wind turbine, a solar collector, an oil press, an electric car and motor amongst zillion other experiments. We photocopied all the directions for each experiment, separated the components into ziplock bags for each experiment and divided the students into pairs and small groups.
I was very curious to see how the students would react to the kits and having to decipher and follow instructions and troubleshoot on their own. We had two volunteering engineers Ralph Lewis and Tiago Wright help the students out.
I had anticipated that very few of the experiments would actually work as students generally lacked the essential troubleshooting confidence and experience. But what surprised me was how quickly and easily students gave up trying. They asked for help almost before they started to work on anything. We asked one of the classes to fill out some reflection questions on what they found difficult and how they thought an engineer would approach the problem. What was most surprising was that almost everyone knew the theoretical steps involved in troubleshooting, "read directions, look for mistakes, keep trying etc etc", but only 10% of students actually put them into practice.
Some potential explanations are:
- The students we work with will probably never have had access to sophisticated kits, lego sets etc and thus lack the self-directed experience of following directions and troubleshooting. Overall these students just do not have enough experiences where they experience the tangible rewards of designing, building, testing and tinkering. That is our mission to provide these formative experiences to students, but the big question remains: "how many such experiences are needed before it is internalized into a student's psyche?"
- This maybe a contentious explanation, but I almost think that students (and many teachers) are too quick to ask for help. Of course you want students to not struggle on their own futilely, but I almost think that we may have taken this a bit too far and now most students just lack the persistence to try things on their own. And this may explain why students know the theoretical steps to problem solving but are unable to actually solve any problems.