STEM Blitzes 2019-20
What They Are -- School-wide challenges that take 1-2 hours to complete, and that embody basic STEM knowledge and skills that are essential to every student. STEM Blitzes are not announced in advance, but on the day of a Blitz students are likely to see Blitz Banners, and teachers may be wearing Blitz Hardhats, just in case!
STEM Blitz #1 -- Our first STEM Blitz for this year happened on Friday, August 30. Groups of students in all grades received 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. Their challenge was to build a freestanding tower that supports a marshmallow as high as possible above the height of the table. Groups had 15 minutes to complete the construction.
Our goal was to emphasize the Engineering Design Process as a go-to tool for solving problems, and to reinforce norms for collaboration, expectation of iteration (revision, multiple drafts, etc), and how to learn from failure.
Background About this Challenge – The Marshmallow Challenge has been done thousands of times, with groups ranging from kindergarteners to professional architects. Some of the worst performances are among recent business school graduates, because they tend to cheat and get distracted. They try to find the single correct plan and then attempt to execute that. They run out of time and when they put the marshmallow on top, it’s a crisis. Some of the best performers are kindergarten kids. Why? First, none of the kids spend time trying to become CEO of Spaghetti Inc.! More importantly, they usually start with the marshmallow and then build successive prototypes, all the time keeping the marshmallow on top until they find a solution that works. Kindergarten kids prototype and refine. They adopt an iterative, collaborative process and get instant feedback on what does and doesn’t work.
Key Points from this Blitz –
- Experimenting, prototyping, and iteration are essential to success; planning is fine, but thinking can only get you so far -- you need to try. If you spend most of your time planning and very little time testing, you risk having your prototype fail too late to make needed changes.
- Expect to fail & learn from failure; It’s OK to fail as long as you fail forward
STEM Blitz #2 -- Our second STEM Blitz took place on December 12. This time, we used an activity from NASA in which students were challenged to design and build a robotic arm that can lift a cup off a table. Working with pre-cut cardboard strips, brass fasteners, drinking straws, string, and paper clips, students devised a variety of devices that completed the task. We also watched videos about the robotic arm carried aboard the Mars Curiosity rover, and a NASA engineer who works on humanoid robots.
Our goal for this Blitz was to have a more purposeful challenge with clear connections to the real world, as well as to launch a series of activities to acquaint students with the work of engineers. Students were also able to use basic concepts about simple machines, including how levers convert a little effort into a lot of force, or a little movement into a large movement; and how tension and compression forces make materials such as string and cardboard useful for control cables and lever arms.