Celebrate Student Successes and Failures

For nearly a generation, the 5th grade at The Ensworth School has competed in one of the most iconic physics projects around — the “Egg Drop Lunar Lander”. This project was the culmination of their physics unit. Students were asked to build a device that would protect an egg when it was dropped from the roof of the science building.

However this year, the 5th grade built two different “Egg Drop Lunar Landers” or prototypes. The second prototype would have to survive a fall from a greater height than the first prototype. Additionally, students presented their respective findings from their two prototypes at a showcase relative to good helmet design. At the showcase, students shared their findings with their peers and a group of scientists, engineers, and athletic trainers.

In years past, much of the Egg Drop Project focused on the survival of the egg. Students viewed the success of the project solely on not breaking the egg. I disagree with the focus as it goes against the nature of science. No scientist ever achieves complete success on his or her first experiment. I consistently tell my students that after we fail then learning can really begin. According to the Buck Institute of Education (B.I.E) Project Based Teaching Practices, critique and revision, and reflection are the principle aspects of the Gold Standard of PBL.

During the design process, the small groups presented their designs to their peers. The audience shared their ideas for improving designs using “I like”, “I wonder”, “I have feedback”.

This critique session early in students design process allowed groups to hear aspects of their design that were working, as well as have suggestions on how to improve their designs. Additionally, feedback early-on during the design stage means groups have not invested days and days building their prototype and becoming reluctant to incorporate necessary design changes because they feel they have invested too much time and effort into their prototypes.

Students working in small groups used their revised designs to build their prototypes. After three days of building, students dropped their prototypes from a 15-foot balcony near my classroom.

As expected, many eggs did not survive the fall. Traditionally, this would be the end of the project and students would receive a grade based upon whether their egg survived or not. However, from this moment on, deeper learning could now begin. Students jumped at the chance to build a second prototype. Students reflected on how to apply the knowledge learned from their first prototype and the close observation of other group’s successful and unsuccessful prototypes.

In the end, students used this reflection to help build a more successful prototype. This kind of reflection has meaning and purpose because it helps students apply their learning to new problem that is relevant to the current topic of study.

In order to push the second prototype beyond the first prototype, I increased the drop height to 4o feet and brought in a local expert. Valerie Wallace, the athletic trainer at my school, talked to students about the dangers of concussions and the forces related to concussions.

The conversations with Miss Valerie lead to two discoveries:

1. Rotational force has a greater likelihood of causing concussions then a more direct impact.

2. Inside the skull, cerebral spinal fluid acts as a layer of protection and as a shock absorber that helps separate the brain from the inside of the skull.

The day after Miss Valerie’s visit, several groups approached me to ask if they could use water or fluid in their next prototype. I had banned liquids in the first prototype, simply because I did not want to deal with the mess it could create in my classroom. I was so impressed by their application of their new knowledge that I allowed students to include liquids in their second prototype. Each group that chose to include liquid went about it differently. Some students used small Ziploc bags of water attached to the outside of their prototype; others added small bath beads on the inside of the prototype.

Reflection allowed students to think about the application of their knowledge in new and unexpected ways. As the teacher, all I needed to do was get out of the way of my students and allow them the freedom to take their learning as far as they could.

I had hoped that more prototypes would survive the second drop. As it was, more prototypes failed than before. However, the survival of the egg was not the driving force of this PBL. The purpose of this PBL was the learning connected with the building of the two prototypes. To help students see the importance of the process over the survival of the egg, groups shared their successes and their failures in designing and building two Egg Drop prototypes in a 5th grade showcase.

Additionally, groups were asked to connect their learning to good helmet characteristics that could help prevent concussions. Showcases are powerful tools for student learning because students are able to share their ideas in a non- judgmental environment, while embracing their failure as part of the learning process. In addition, several 5th grade parents were invited. These parents were scientists, athletic trainers, and medial doctors. It is important that showcase presentations involve their peers, as well as “real scientists”. These special guests helped celebrate the students’ successes and failures while asking thoughtful questions about their process.

Incorporating a cycle of critique and revision helped push prototype design well beyond the original ideas and allowed students to learn from each other in a positive environment. This placed students at the center of learning rather than the teacher. And reflection allowed students to be thoughtful about what they learned and how it applied to the task at hand. Students are better able to digest new information if they understand how new information connects to previous learning. As an educator, I too must use critique and revision in my lesson designs if I want to push the lesson beyond the routine and expected. Discussing project ideas with a fellow teacher, even if they teach a different subject, can offer a chance for critique and revision. Reflection during and after the unit captures insights and lessons learned before we launch into the next unit. Having those reflections will help ensure that future PBL will improve.

During this journey, I not only rejoiced in the great success of the students, but also my own success, and I reminded myself and the students to celebrate their failures because that is where learning begins.

Special Thanks: I would like to thank Tiffany Dale, 5th grade science and math teacher, for her help, guidance and patience during this journey.

— Jonathan Reveal, Grade 5 Science Teacher and Virtual Teacher Institute Participant, The Ensworth School