CA Curious

If at first you don’t succeed…

February 17, 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of a good design challenge—one that taps into students’ intrinsic motivation, encourages experimentation and problem-solving and treats failure as an essential part of the path to success.

The wheels started turning for me (literally) at the recent ISEEN Winter Institute in Arizona, where I had the opportunity to step out of the teacher role and experience a design challenge as a learner. The project:  to build a rocket car that would be launched at high velocity directly into a wall but allow its passenger, a raw egg, to survive the impact. Judging from the scorch marks on the chassis my partner and I were given to begin the task, there were going to be actual flames shooting out the back of this vehicle.  And judging from the yellowish goo dried to the wall that was our target, there were going to be some spectacular fails in this process. I was hooked!

My partner and I took about an hour to design and build our first prototype, and with our aerodynamic egg basket secured to our chassis, we hoped that we had that ideal combination of speed, aim, and cushioning to protect our egg and win the race.

Alas, we did not. 

The speed was good, the aim was decent, but poor little Eggbert suffered a serious shell fracture. No yolk splattered on the wall, but still, not the outcome we wanted for our fragile passenger.

If this had been a one-and-done type project, we might have earned a C+ for the vehicle we created. But because this was framed as a design challenge, we were instead encouraged to reflect upon our results, make changes, and try again. And that’s where the learning process really took off.

My partner and I began our reflection by reviewing a video of our launch, using the hash marks on the ground and the video’s frame rate to calculate our average speed and our acceleration, and from there, we were able to approximate our speed at impact. This led to conversations about air friction, kinetic energy, potential spring energy, and heat. In short, all kinds of concepts from math and physics were coming to life as we considered ways to maintain our speed, improve our aim, and perhaps most importantly, better protect our little albumen friend.  Not only was I totally engaged by this activity, but I find that I am still able to recall most of what I learned that day precisely because it was anchored in such a memorable hands-on experience.

A couple of weeks after the rocket car challenge, I came to campus on a Saturday to help out with the USA Young Physicists Tournament. It was a busy weekend at CA, not only for our USAYPT group but also for our Science Olympiad and robotics teams in both Middle and Upper School. Everywhere I looked in the CMS, there were kids building and testing, calculating and troubleshooting, rebuilding, and refining, much the same way I had done in the rocket car challenge.  These students could not have been more engaged in what they were doing as they designed to learn.   

The USAYPT group spent the day on the NCSU campus, presenting and defending their results in four college-level physics challenges.  The biggest surprise for me, though, came not during the tournament itself, but at the end of the day, when I arrived in a Charger bus to transport one of the visiting teams from the tournament venue back to the hotel.   As the students boarded the bus for “home,” they were still excitedly talking about the relative merits of the solutions that had been shared and batting around ideas for improvements.  I actually had to interrupt them when we pulled up to the hotel to tell them that we had arrived and that it was time to get off the bus.   Riding in a vehicle covered with question marks, these students just couldn’t stop iterating, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Yet another opportunity to observe the magic of a design challenge came my way last Wednesday, when I had a chance to watch some of our 8th-grade science students tackle a problem related to our current supply chain woes–a topic that the students could certainly relate to after the long delay in receiving their new computers.   Their challenge:  to design a floating storage device (barge) that might help relieve some of the congestion at our ports.   The 8th graders built prototypes of their devices from designs they had sketched, and then tested those prototypes in large tubs of water, making design changes as they discovered through a process of trial and error which barge shapes could hold the most weight and what materials would be most buoyant.  It was wonderful to hear the language of discovery, innovation, and collaboration in action as the students constructed, tested and refined:   “What if we…?” | “Why did it..?”  | “How could we…?” | “Do you think…?” | “I wonder…”  | “Oops!”  | “Let’s try ….”    As with the rocket car challenge, the physics tournament, the Science Olympiad projects, and the robots, here, too, the emphasis was on doing, reflecting, and trying again.

I feel lucky to work at a school where teachers embrace design thinking and enthusiastically engage students in all kinds of design challenges, not only in classes but also through extracurricular and X-Day activities. Design challenges reflect our belief that learning is an iterative and interdependent process, and they have become a key ingredient in the mission recipe that makes Cary Academy such an exciting place to learn and grow.

Written by Martina Greene, Dean of Faculty

CA Curious

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Putting the pieces together

February 20, 2020

I love putting things together; jigsaw puzzles and LEGO are some of my favorites. Seeing what the end should look like, following the directions, putting it together piece by piece – it always feels like a small accomplishment 

I find comfort in the process; there is a clearly labeled set path to follow and, barring any missing pieces, all should work out as expected. But others, like the Master Builder characters in the LEGO movies, see the possibilities beyond the prescribed plan, the possibilities in disruptive innovation. They use their imagination throughout, even quite purposefully breaking from an intended path. I envy those who live in the happy medium between the two 

The reality is, I grapple with this tension—the desire to create and adhere to a beautifully crafted plan and the reality of the flexibility and creativity required to successfully implement one in an imperfect world. To embrace disruptive innovation for a better result.  

As I have written in a previous post, the nature of technology alone forces me to be malleable in my daytoday work. I can envision a big picture, create a plan to achieve it, but I’m fully aware that there are going to be design revisions, change orders, and mistakes (learning opportunities?) made.  

Like the Master Builder, I have to be willing to break free of the directions, of a prescribed plan—to add elements, to shift course on the fly to fit my needs, to see a project through. (And, of course, that perseverance, flexibility, and resiliency are exactly the skills we hope to impart to our students.) 

Over the past few years, Cary Academy has been working to achieve the four main goals set forth by our current strategic plan: institutional flexibility, authentic engagement, strong connections, and appropriate resources.  

It is a large puzzle. And one that I’ve been thinking about a lot—about how best to support it and how to make it come to life in our spaces and systems.  And, like a puzzle, the whole picture is sometimes hard to envision as you are working it, but, any one piece, when newly put into place, might be the one that starts to bring it into clearer view. 

When Dr. Ehrhardt talks about making learning visible or creating institutional flexibility, I can imagine some of the things he describes – glass walls, moveable furniture, and the like. What I also imagine, though, are the more obscure pieces to the bigger puzzle. 

Some pieces are straightforward and tangible: where should a display and electrical power go if all the walls are glass? Does the network have a strong enough Wi-Fi signal for all the flexible learning spaces?  

Other puzzle pieces are not quite as easy to imagine.   

Institutional flexibility isn’t just about having different types of spaces or a new class schedule. It’s also about having the correct systems in place to support learning initiatives, to allow for as much flexibility as possible.  

Our continued integration of the Blackbaud Education Management System is just one example of a system that allows for institutional flexibility. It represents several pieces of the strategic puzzle. And, while not perfect at this stage, I see how when it is fully implemented it will connect many of our goals together.  

The renovation of the Library and Information Services department are two newly connected pieces to the puzzle that have started to bring the full picture more clearly into view.  

Creating more workspaces for students to work collaboratively or quietly. Relocating the school store Converting the second-floor classroom into another flex space. These are obvious ties back to the strategic plan. The renovation of the Information Services department was an equally thoughtful operationalization of the strategic plan, but it is perhaps a less obvious one 

In addition to renovating the offices, the entire department has been reconfigured with the strategic plan in mind.  

A flexible and visible classroom space was created to house computer science classes, host small events, and provide a space for professional development and training opportunities. A space has been created for future Computer and Network Essentials (CANE) students to provide walk-in support to other students and members of our community allowing for authentic engagement. Right-sizing the data center allowed the department to reclaim much-needed space that houses a flexible workroom for the department to host meetings with vendors, configure new equipment, and potentially be used as another learning space.  

Collectively these projects have been our Master Builder project, creating a set of flexible spaces that meet the needs of a support center, a classroom, and department offices. More importantly, it’s a new, open, visible space that allows for my department members and I to model aspects of the strategic plan with the hope of helping others see the overall plan a little clearer.  

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Technology and Innovation

CA Curious

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