On a table next to me is a fan whooshing air. A few students are waiting in line to see if a design of a pinwheel windmill they made out of thin wooden rods, rubber bands, scotch tape , twine, corks, and glue will twirl its blades as it holds a cup of at least eight pennies. I watch as the teams of two to three students stand in front of the fan to see if their design works.
I am observing an integrated science class at MetWest taught by Jake Puzycki.* He is wearing a Lehigh College T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. As students entered the class, Jake held a basket into which each student dropped his or her cell phone. There are 18 students sitting in a horseshoe arrangements of desks–one side of horseshoe facing the other side–with a large open space with the teacher’s desk at the front near a large whiteboard. Next to one wall is a table holding raw materials for the pinwheel including a bucket of pennies and a fan blowing air.
On one wall of the spacious classroom is a poster:
Norms of Engagement
* I can participate fully
* I can honor my experience and the experiences of others
* I am Science-able and I can celebrate failure and learn from it
* I can create the environment I need to be successful
Previous lessons worked on the design and all of the variables that go into make a simple wind turbine that can carry weight. Today is the test of the turbine and the completion of a worksheet. Photo below illustrates one kind of prototype. Also see YouTube segments of students trying out his creation in other science classes
The design, building, and testing out the prototype is part of a unit on energy. The class had built a small steam engine, studied fossil fuels, and made an electric motor. Now they are working on a wind turbine. Figuring out all of the different variables that go into constructing a light-weight pinwheel with blades that turn easily and can carry the weight of pennies in a cup has challenged this class. The enthusiasm over testing out the design they constructed with the fan and seeing how many pennies can be put in the cup beyond eight led to a highly competitive contest between a few of the teams–I describe that below.
The lesson involved students finishing up the manufacturing phase of completing their prototype and then trying it out. Groups of students at their tables were at different stages of building prototype. If the pinwheels or blades did not turn, then teams returned to their tables to jigger which of the variables (e.g., curvature of the blades, string, wooden rods, cork) had to be re-done. When reconfigured, team woul return to fans (there were two in the room) and then try again.
So there was a lot of movement, lot of engaged noise in the room as Jake (students call their Teacher/Advisor by first names at the school) moved around the room asking and answering questions and taking notes on his clipboard about what each team was doing.
As I scanned the room, most of the class was thoroughly engaged in the tasks. I did note that some team members had done the lion share of the design and testing leaving the team-mate uninvolved or doing minor work. A few students to my left were talking and off-task but Jake’s wending here and there throughout the large room brought those students back into their teams and focus on the overall task. The three dropped in and out of the class flow on testing their windmills.
What becomes clear as time passes is that particular teams were competing to see how much weight in pennies could be carried in the cup hanging from their pinwheel. At one point, Jake says aloud to the class: “We got a windmill with nine pennies here.” The team next to me is led by Tony. He asks Bryan, a student across the room, how many pennies he has in the cup. Bryan tells him 12. Tony and his team-mate confer and team-mate grabs more pennies from the class bucket to put in the cup.
Tony tries out the windmill and blades do not turn with more pennies in cup. He returns to his desk and fiddles with blades, takes off scotch tape on a few and adjusts length of string and tries again. Jake says to class: Y’all have 15 minutes left.”
I had asked Tony about the point of building a windmill and he explained to me the unit on energy. He understood the steam engine but when Jake told class that they would build a prototype wind turbine with an attached cup holding eight pennies, Tony said to me:” I didn’t think it would pick up any weight at all.”
Competition grows heated between at least four teams. Calls of “we have 14 pennies.” Bryan gets up to 15 and then Tony’s cup has 20 in it. Much laughter at exchanges. Intensity increases as various teams strive to add pennies and still have the pinwheel blades rotate.
Jake asks a student near me: “What did you learn from the taped blades?” Student responded (I could not hear what he said). Jake tells student to look again at the worksheet on designing and constructing the windmill.
Rivalries grow heated between teams. In one instance, a team member near me uses the F-word in frustration and exchanges of F-words follow. Jake hears it and says: “language, language, please.” I hear no more swear words from that team.
I turn to another team and ask two students what the point was of building a wind turbine. One knew and the other did not.
Jake announces that it is clean up time and that each student had to complete the worksheet before leaving class. A few students say “no, let’s keep working on it.”
By this time, Bryan’s team had nearly 30 pennies in cup with blades turning while Tony’s team amassed over 40 pennies and, sure enough, when he put the prototype windmill that he had continued to rejigger as the cup weighed more and more, the blades rotated albeit slowly.
Jake comes over to Tony’s desk after he had yelled out that they had 47 pennies in the cup. Tony’s team-mate tells Jake that all of what they doing is like a propeller on one of those early planes lifting the weight of the wooden plane off the ground–like the Wright brothers did. Jake nods.
Most of the students are now writing on their worksheets. The three students near me who were dipping in and out of the task during the competition are still chatting with one another.
Jake tells class, “no clean up,” no cell phones.” Students clear desks, return materials to side of room, and toss out waste. Jake returns phones after inspecting desks. Class leaves and new bunch of students enter integrated science.
*A few MetWest teachers focus on content subjects and are not advisors who meet with students and their mentors in the community. Jake Puzycki is one such teacher.