I don't know about you, but pretty soon here (in Minnesota) it is going to get outrageously cold outside. January is notorious for its stinging, cutting, numbing, eyelash freezing, breathtaking (literally), bitter cold temperatures. By "cold" I mean -20 degrees F for weeks at a time. That kind of cold makes it difficult to want to go outside to grab the mail let alone go out for a nature walk.
So here we are. With questionable weather and winter break on the horizon, parents and educators are going to be scrambling for some fun, stimulating indoor activities. STEM is the way to go. If you're an educator just trying to survive until winter break, try some of these STEM challenges. These activities are fun, they will occupy the antsy kiddos that are hopped up on holiday madness and break anticipation, and they are educational. STEM is a great way to learn content knowledge and build essential 21st-century skills.
The STEM challenges below are great for beginner STEM educators who might feel a tad intimidated by the prospect. I know the feeling. These activities are also adaptable for all ages and skill levels. I have done the sled challenge mentioned below with my 5 and 3-year-old, as well as with my high school students, I modify my facilitation method, level of involvement, and expectations of my learners. Tips provided below! If you're not quite sure what STEM is, head to these posts on STEM 101.
Below you'll find challenges that can be done using standard household/classroom items, trash, or recyclables. These activities are also highly flexible. If you don't have a "bigfoot" toy, for example, use something else! If you don't have a sledding hill, make one! Don't spend money, be open-minded, let kids get creative, and have fun!
1. Animal Rescue
The goal of this STEM challenge is to "rescue" an "animal" by engineering a contraption that will bring the "animal" to "safety". In other words, learners will design and build a tool that will bring a toy animal from point A to point B. I place the animal at point A, walk about 15 feet, and place a strip of electrical tape on the floor marking point B. Students cannot step over this line to rescue their animal.
I have done this activity with my own young children as well as my high school students. My children did exactly what I described above, only I added a little background story to make it more interesting - the animal was trapped on an island surrounded by lava. My high schoolers did the same activity except I used this challenge as a way to simulate adaptations and variability as they relate to natural selection. I threw a pile of paper clips on the floor (bugs), made a large circle around the paper clips using electrical tape, and asked students to make contraptions (birds) with the goal of collecting the most paper clips (bugs) from the center of the circle. The students gained content knowledge AND skills in a fun, interesting, and relevant way; my goal for any learning experience.
2. Yeti Escape
Students will make a "yeti" out of basic household/classroom materials and recyclables that will be placed on top of Sphero, like a cover. As Sphero moves, the "yeti" moves with it. The challenge is to create the fastest "yeti". If this isn't making sense, check out the pictures below. Hopefully they will clarify some things!
If you have used a Sphero you know that they are not very powerful because they are round and made of smooth plastic; they slip easily. The covers, then, need to be engineered in a way that promote quick movement, as the goal is for students to create a yeti that makes the fastest escape. My kindergartener did this challenge and had to modify his design many times playing around with yeti weight, materials, and weight distribution. Older students could design and conduct their own experiments around the same idea. They could also play around with coding Sphero. They could create a maze and code Sphero (and Yeti) to move through it. Get creative! Or give learners the freedom to lead their own learning experience using Sphero.
If you like this challenge but don't have Sphero, don't go out and buy one! Just alter the mode of transportation. A balloon car is a good option that would demonstrate similar concepts and offer the same skill building opportunities.
3. Lego Float
This is a favorite because my child initiated the experience. He was playing around with a helium balloon that he got from a birthday party. I noticed him tying LEGO figures to the balloon string. Then he began to add and remove LEGO accessories to the LEGO figure tied to the balloon. He continued to do this until the balloon hovered at a level that was within his reach. He basically eliminated the need to hop on a chair to retrieve his balloon. Problem-solving at it's finest, and completely self-led.
For children his age, then, a great activity would be to design a balloon weight using whatever materials available to keep the balloon within reach. LEGO's were great, but so are toothpicks, paperclips, cotton balls, and more. Tie this experience to lessons about mass, gravity, gas and so on, or just let kids enjoy the experience of working with their hands and solving a problem as a team. Older students could take it up a notch by, again, designing their own experiments and conducting them. This is scientific open-inquiry; a student-led scientific inquiry investigation. Click here for a scientific open-inquiry tool kit
4. Sled Race
Learners design and engineer a mini-sled with the goal of winning a sled race. This is a fun way to introduce Newton's Laws of Motion. Students take many factors into consideration including sled material, track material (you do not NEED an actual sledding hill for this experience), angle of the track, weight distribution, etc. They also practice many of the skills already mentioned that STEM challenges have to offer. I have done this with my children and my high school students. Although the outcomes were different between the age groups, the process was the same. Both groups are encouraged to fail, identify solutions, modify the design, try again, fail, and so and so on.
I recently started a STEM Challenge product line in my store, and STEM Challenge: The Great Sled Race is the first resource in the line! It includes all of the materials to guide you and your students through the experience seamlessly from start to finish.
5. Obstacle Course
This is a great one for those stir-crazy youngsters that are trapped indoors, during break, for example. This is best suited for younger children, as space is a factor. I told my children to make an obstacle course in our basement using only items that were within sight. They propped couch cushions against each other to make tunnels, placed pillows on the floor to use as stepping stones, and even added rules and a background story creating a full-blown adventure.
This may sound fairly basic, and it is. But it's one of the reasons why I love this activity. It's easy to get started, it's child-led, it involves play and make-believe, it gives kids an opportunity to practice social-emotional skills, and so on. It is even a good way to introduce some math and science concepts. For example, my 5-year-old propped two couch cushions against each other to create an A-frame to crawl through. Every time he crawled through the A-frame it would topple over. He played around with it, adjusted the angle, explored propping the pillows on different planes, and more.
6. Winter Shelter
This is another challenge that can be done across age groups and skills levels. I did this challenge with my toddler! The challenge is to build a shelter that can withstand cold temperatures using any materials that you have on hand (tin foil, styrofoam, play dough, clay, egg cartons, cardboard, etc. - one of my high school students even used snow). The goal is to build the warmest shelter. Have learners build their shelters, place a chunk of banana in their shelters, put their shelters in a freezer or outside if it's cold enough, and let them sit there for at least one hour. Take the shelters out of the cold and check the banana's temperature in each shelter using a candy thermometer.
This is a fun way to play around with the concept of heat transfer. Older students could do this exact same experiment, and mine have. They could also design and conduct their own open-inquiry investigations around this same idea. Head back up for the link to my inquiry tool kit.
7. Ski Lift
This challenge involves getting a skier (a LEGO figure is one option) to the top of a ski hill (actual snow hill or ramp of any kind) using a simple machine or a combination of simple machines. In other words, students cannot move the skier to the top of the hill with their hands. They will design and build a pulley, lever, wheel and axle, etc., that will do the job for them. Students could get as elaborate as they would like with their systems, using a combination of machines. There is no limit to ingenuity!
8. Zip Line
This is such a fun and easy challenge. It is exactly how it sounds, and is a common introductory STEM activity. My 5-year-old did this a few months ago. The goal was to get his Batman LEGO figure from one end of the room to the other by making a zip line. The number of factors to mull over in this challenge is high, including the zip line material, angle of the line, weight of the rider, friction between the line and the glider, and so on. Use this activity to teach about angles, gravity, motion, friction, and more.
9. Stuffed Animal Hotel
Again, this is exactly how it sounds! Learners build a stuffed animal hotel using cardboard as their basic framework. For younger students like my 5-year-old, building a stationary hotel is a challenge in itself. Building stairs was a hard concept to grasp as was keeping a ramp from caving in. This is a great activity for younger children to learn some geometry concepts such as shapes and angles.
Older students could add to the challenge by including several moving parts such as an elevator, lift, garage opener, etc. And rather than create a hotel for stuffed animals, toys that they most likely lost interest in long ago, have them create something more relevant to their lives such as their dream home or school. They could even extend this experience into a full-blown project-based learning experience. Check out the many posts that I have written on project-based learning for details and implementation tips by clicking on PBL in the archives. You can also head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for project-based learning resources.
10. Bigfoot Trap
My child has been on a bigfoot kick for years, so I only use bigfoot as the subject here because I have many bigfoot figurines in my house, AND, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that a "bigfoot hunt" has become a winter family tradition. However, you do not NEED to use a bigfoot toy for this fun challenge. Use anything!
Students will design and make a trap for bigfoot using a hodgepodge of whatever supplies are available and trap it! Placing the bigfoot or other object on a target will trigger an action that will trap bigfoot. Kids will draw from observations and experiences, test their traps, make adjustments, try again, and so on until they have created an effective bigfoot trap!
So there you have it. STEM is such a fantastic way to encourage discovery through observation, questioning, failure, and problem-solving. It organically integrates subject matter and provides opportunities to practice and build important skills. All great things. Why learn about natural selection or Newton's Laws of Motion by reading about them in textbooks when kids can learn about these concepts with hands-on experience?
What are some STEM activities that you do with your kids or students? If you try any of the STEM activities I mentioned above, I'd love a report on the experience. Let me know how it goes! Have a great break, everyone!
I have been writing this blog for a little over one year. I have spent a lot energy in that time reading books on education, talking with educators, researching pedagogy, and simply observing common trends. This post includes trends that fit my philosophy. My list of top educational trends of 2019 comes from observation and experience. I have not run any fancy analytics programs or produced any actual data. So do with that what you will. You can take it as a grain of salt, or you can try some of the trends on my list and see for yourself.
Many of the trends I list below are not new. The philosophy of the school where I have spent 12 years of my life is structured around many of these trends. These trends have had such a strong presence in the educational scene within the last couple of years because we know they work for 21st-century students. They are based on the rapidly evolving world we find ourselves in. What used to make sense or what we used to do just doesn’t make sense anymore. With the world changing as quickly as it is, we are forced to really consider these ideas. Social media and other forms of technology have completely altered the way we communicate and learn.
Notice patterns as you read the list. A few themes that I have identified include student-centered learning, hands-on learning, inquiry-based learning, connecting content with real-world issues, relationship building, student choice and voice, and technology and innovation. The overarching theme is a student-centered model necessary in developing the skills needed in the 21st-century. Therefore, I don't see these trends going anywhere. But we shall see!
Note: All resources on Experiential Learning Depot on TpT are up to 25% off until midnight tonight.
Top Educational Trends of 2019
1) Social-Emotional Learning -
"Social emotional skills" is a buzz phrase in education now because those are the skills students need in the workforce today, arguably more so than content knowledge.
2) 21st Century Skills -
This one is highly interconnected to the other trends listed here. The others provide learning opportunities that develop the essential skills needed in the 21st century. Some examples include problem-solving skills, communication, creativity, technical literacy, and critical thinking, among others. Looking over my archives of posts, you'll find that MOST of my them are related to skill-building in some way or another. Click on the link in my archives titled "21st-century skills" for specifics. You can also check out my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio resource in my store.
3) STEM/STEAM -
STEM and STEAM are hot right now. No pun intended! - STEAM...;) Both strengthen many of the 21st century skills mentioned above. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEAM is the same but includes art. Look back at my guest posts on STEM and STEAM for details, and stay-tuned for future posts and resources on practical STEM applications.
4) Maker Education -
Maker education is a student-centered learning model that emphasizes design thinking. Learners identify everyday problems, brainstorm solutions that they can "make". They ideate, make a prototype, test their product on an authentic audience, make adjustments, and so on. This instructional approach is highly student-centered and helps learners build important skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. "Failure" is not only acceptable, but encouraged. It deepens the learning experience. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT to check out my maker resources. You can also head to the archives and click on "Maker Education" for posts.
5) College and Career Readiness -
This is an important aspect of any secondary learning environment. Authentic experiences MUST be a priority. My coworker is a genius at this. She started something called a "life plan" that all students must have in order to graduate. I have a few college and career readiness resources in my store, one of which is my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio, which I already mentioned. This is a GREAT way for students to build skills and add authentic experiences to their college and career portfolios. You can also check out my project-based learning resource, Career Exploration.
6) Blended Learning -
From my understanding, blended learning is a combination of classic schooling with online learning. I'm realizing, however, that it's not that simple. I think people that practice true blended learning have a precise understanding of a much more complex picture than just a mix of tech and teacher. I think there is a little personal learning thrown in there as well, among other principles that are still a bit of an enigma to me.
7) Project-Based Learning -
My pride and joy. My entire career has been dedicated to project-based learning. Check out the blog posts I've done on PBL for details (links to some below) and check out my project-based learning resources on TpT.
8) Genius Hour/Passion Projects -
Genius hour and passion projects are two very different things. I lumped them together because students direct the experience in both. The learning experiences are interest-driven. Genius hour, for example, gives students one hour to dive deeply into one topic of their choice. I love the idea, but would love to see it change to genius day. An hour is not enough. Passion projects are similar in that students choose one topic to research. Rather than spending one hour on the topic, the students spend a significant amount of time on this project.
9) Brain-Based Learning -
The point of brain-based learning is to teach in a way or provide a learning environment that supports the brain and cognitive development. This comes up often in the debate about whether kindergarteners need to be or should be learning to read and write. It also includes the very popular whole-brain teaching strategy. Brain-based learning means taking into consideration what the brain needs (safety, camaraderie, enrichment) and what it doesn't need (shaming, humiliation). The philosophy of my school is based on the child's brain and cognitive development, which is why we take an experiential approach.
10) Trauma Informed Practices -
I don't know enough about trauma informed practices, unfortunately. I have worked with at-risk students for almost 12 years. Every one of them has experienced one or more traumatic experiences in their lives, yet I'm still ill-equipped to help. Number 9 and trauma informed practices are interconnected; they go hand-in-hand. Understanding how trauma impacts the brain is essential. If you're interested in trauma informed teaching, ACES is a great place to start. I also recommend reading the book "Eyes are Never Quiet". If you have any resource or training suggestions that are about trauma informed teaching, leave it in the comments!
11) Alternative Grading Systems -
This concept is simple. Some schools are starting to move away from A-F grading systems. Many combine letter grades with portfolios. Others have eliminated grades all together and complete narratives for each student instead. Others combine the two. The purpose is to reduce academic related stressors. Check out my post on colleges that have moved to alternative grading systems.
12) Personal Learning -
Personal learning focuses on the student. It addresses student needs and skill levels in addition to backgrounds, homelife, learning styles, intelligences, and most importantly in my opinion, INTERESTS. Students are designing their own educational journey with teachers there to facilitate. Check out my posts on personal learning for details.
13) Problem-Based Learning -
Rather than students receiving a lecture with numbers and stats on an assigned issue, students identity real-world issues that are relevant to their own interests and realities, they learn about the issue by making their own observations, they ask questions, explore the issue, brainstorm solutions and propose the solution to an authentic audience. The number of 21st-century skills developed in problem-based learning is astounding. Head to my store for problem-based learning resources, including my student-directed tool kit.
14) Lifelong Learning -
Lifelong learning encompasses all of the trends listed here in one. It is having the tools to learn long after "schooling" is over. College and career readiness, 21st-century skill building, social-emotional learning, brain-based learning, etc. all instill a passion for learning. When students WANT to learn, when they KNOW HOW TO learn, they will continue to learn throughout their lives.
15) Growth Mindset -
There is a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A growth mindset acknowledges that skills can come through hard work and determination vs. fixed mindset which is the opposite. Promoting and encouraging a growth mindset with students is a major trend right now, and I can see why.
16) Self-Assessments -
This is when students take an active role in a learning outcome. Students grow by periodically self-assessing. They learn how to fail, pick themselves back up, go back to the drawing board, modify and try again. To take it a step further, students can even create their own assessments. I have my students create their own project rubrics. That rubric template is available in my TpT store. Check it out here - Student-Generated Project Rubric.
17) Authentic Learning -
I've already mentioned authentic learning several times in this post because so many of the trends that I've listed here depend on them. Authentic learning experiences are those that are relevant to the topic and the student. Project-based learning can be distinguished from other approaches to learning by its emphasis on authentic experiences.
18) Homeschooling, Worldschooling, Outschooling, Road Schooling, Unschooling!
I have always been curious about homeschooling. I left my full-time teaching job three years ago to be home with my kids. I started this blog, started an Experiential Learning Depot Instagram account, and was instantly blown away by the homeschooling presence on Instagram. Of course, homeschooling is not a novel concept, but I do think it is becoming more common, and access to social media outlets make it apparent just how popular home education has become. The variety of homeschooling styles is vast, and almost all of those styles encompass the experiential philosophy, of which I am, of course, a huge fan. I am so fascinated by worldschooling right now and hope to worldschool my own children someday. For now I will continue to live vicariously through the hundreds of thousands of worldschoolers and other home educators on Instagram! ;)
19) Student Leadership
This post is an updated version of last years post, "Educational Trends of 2018". A reader commented last year that I should add student leadership when it comes to school improvement. My response to him at the time was that I wasn't sure if student leadership trended in 2018, but I wished that it would in 2019. Personally, I don't see students taking the lead when it comes to school improvement as a common occurrence. It doesn't mean that it's not happening. If you know of cases, schools, instances, where students are taking leadership roles in school improvement, I would love to hear more about that. Drop your comments.
There are, of course, more trends in education than what I listed here. The ones that I listed are my favorites and those that I believe are worth nurturing and fortifying. What are your favorite education trends of 2019?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
Happy New Year, Everyone!
As someone with a background in biology, the first place I would think to go for scientific inquiry experiences is outside. The second would be the kitchen. Winter weather in Minnesota can get extreme and those extremes tend to last awhile. Cooking is an indoor activity that is loaded with learning opportunities, particularly in science. It's also prime season for baking!
Scientific inquiry is a method of gathering information and gaining scientific knowledge by making observations, asking questions, making predictions, and experimentation. It is a student-centered way for learners to make discoveries about the world in their own way. They are not handed information. They are not given "correct" answers. They play around with ideas, draw on background knowledge to predict outcomes, experience the concepts through hands-on and authentic learning experiences, challenge prior thinking, and adjust that thinking upon the advent of new and unexpected information.
And, as I've already said, the kitchen is a great place to start! Below is a list of winter-inspired dessert ideas for students to bake while learning about kitchen science through the process of inquiry. My recommendation is to have students conduct open inquiry. The student directs the inquiry investigation, starting with their own question, designing an experiment to test that question, and conducting the experiment. I have a scientific inquiry tool kit in my store that is perfect for open inquiry. It includes all of the guiding materials for child-led inquiry experimentation.
Another option is to have students investigate the specific question that I pose for each recipe in this post. The same inquiry tool kit can be used for that. A final option is to just cook the food, make observations, ask questions together as you go, research the answers using a variety of resources from books to experts, and have fun with it. That is also inquiry-based learning. Just because it does not involve a scientific experiment, doesn't mean it's not inquiry. This approach is usually what I do with my own children, a preschooler and kindergarten. My high school students conduct open inquiry experiments based on their own observations and questions.
Enjoy the following winter-inspired kitchen science ideas! I have done all of these projects with either my own kids (pre-k) or my students (8-12 graders). Each is fun and doable. Happy holidays, everyone!
Oh! Check out my new maker project, "Dinner Party on a Budget", and Inquiry Bingo: Food Theme, both fun resources for the holiday season stir-craziness. For resource updates, follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
The Question: Does speed at which eggs are added to the hot milk effect texture of eggnog?
In other words, how do I make chunkless eggnog? ;) My children and I made homemade eggnog. It wasn't good. My kids despise it in general, but our final result was scrambled, so I certainly wasn't going to convince them to like it that day! The fun in this activity it the trial and error.
The Science: In order to make smooth eggnog, you have to temper the mixture, controlled heating and cooling. Pouring the eggs into the hot milk mixture too quickly is not controlled. Heat coagulates the proteins in the eggs, so adding the eggs to the heat too quickly causes them to scramble. Tempering, slowly controlling temperature, keeps the protein structure at bay.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making eggnog. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. Click here for the recipe that we used. Or they experiment with the question posed here, trying and experimenting with different methods.
2. Tye-Dye Sponge Roll Cake
The Question: Which ingredients prevent a "roll cake" from crumbling when rolled?
This was such a fun recipe to make with kids. My kiddos made two different types of cake to see how particular ingredients (or lack thereof) might impact the cake texture, making it more or less suitable for rolling without cracking. We made a roll cake and a regular white cake.
The Science: A mixture of eggs and sugar provide structure, in part by trapping air bubbles during the whipping process. In addition, adding baking powder causes a chemical reaction resulting in carbon dioxide, increasing the amount of bubbles in the batter. Proteins and starch in the flour add stability to the air bubbles, but the high ratio of sugar to flour gives it that flexibility that roll cakes require.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making roll cakes. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. They can make a variety of different types of cakes, experiment with baking powder, eliminate an ingredient from a standard roll cake recipe to see what happens, etc. I used this recipe for the roll cake.
3. Pie Crust
The Question: Which fat makes a flakier pie crust, butter or lard?
My high school advisory students started an annual holiday pie fundraiser many years ago, and part of the planning process was creating the BEST pie to sell. We asked around, talked with professional chefs, they surveyed consumers, perused caking blogs, etc. The ultimate influence was my grandmother! She said the secret to her flaky pie crust is animal lard. So we tested it.
The Science: Lard is fat. Period. Butter on the other hand, is fat plus some water. Lard has a higher melting point than butter, making it easier to handle in the making process. Lard also results in flakier crust because the 100% fat in the lard solidifies into crystals, separating the dough into layers, creating that flakiness we were testing for.
Inquiry Activity: Whether flakiness is desired is a matter of opinion. But we did find that lard, in fact, does make pie crust flakier, whether we prefer that texture or not. Learners can investigate their own questions about variables that inspire or interest them. They might investigate why pie crust recipes usually ask for cold water versus hot or room temperature water. Students might experiment with different types of flour such as whole wheat, all-purpose, and pastry flour. Students could play around with crust width, baking temperature, fillings, glazes, vents created for baking, and so on and so on. Find any number of pie crust recipes on Google.
Note: Lard is not required to make pie crust! Learn about your students and be sensitive to their needs. Allergies, food sensitivities, religious food practices, etc. need to be considered and respected.
4. Whipped Cream
The Question: Which milk product will result in the foamiest texture - skim milk, whole milk, or heavy whipping cream?
The Science: The heavy whipping cream turned out to be incredibly important. No matter how long we blended the skim milk and whole milk mixtures, they never became frothy. The fat in the heavy whipping cream envelopes air bubbles added from the whipping process, creating a network that stiffens the mixture. So, fat is what gives it the foamy texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making whipped cream. They can make observations, ask their own questions, and design their own experiments. This is open inquiry. Or they can design an experiment that tests the question I asked above. Click here for the recipe that we used. I let my littles played around with coloring the whipped cream as well (with food coloring).
5. Cream Puffs
The Question: Does the number of eggs affect the structure of cream puffs?
My kids and I have made many bread-type recipes, but this one called for an unusual number of eggs. We made three batches of cream puffs, some with the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, one with half of the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, and one with no eggs at all. The batch without eggs collapsed completely.
The Science: Cream puffs also have a lot of fat, so the egg protein is necessary to keep the structure. Eggs also act as a leavening agent and an emulsifier for a smooth and light final texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making cream puffs. There is so much science involved in these little desserts! For this reason, I would encourage open inquiry. Otherwise you can offer up a specific question, such as the one above. I found there to be a few unusual cooking methods in this recipe as well, such as melting the butter in boiling water and milk first. Those types of investigations are fun as well. Try this recipe. Combine this cooking activity with the whipped cream inquiry above for a really tasty treat!
6. Hard Candy
The Question: Does the temperature of the sugar mixture when removed from the heat source impact the hardness of the final product?
This is a question that my high school students and I investigate every year. I am hesitant to make hard candy with my own children, who are 3 and 5, because of the burning risk. I burned myself making this candy three days before my wedding and it wasn't cool! This recipe is probably more appropriate for older learners, but regardless of age, safety should be a priority and taken seriously.
The Science: Hard candy ingredients include only sugar and water (and flavor extracts and food coloring if you wish). You combine the sugars and water and boil the mixture until it reaches 300° F (hard crack). Boiling the mixture to this specific temperature results in the evaporation of most of the liquid, leaving behind a lot of sugar, thus it sets as hard candy. If the mixture only reaches 250° F, in contrast, not enough water will have evaporated to harden the sugar, leaving a softer consistency such as that of toffee (hard ball), or 270° yielding a taffy-like consistency (soft crack). If the mixture over-evaporates, reaching 320° F, for example, the liquid sugar will caramelize. Temp is critical, and evaporation is the reason for that.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore different evaporation times (cooking temperatures) to test the question that I mentioned above. They could also investigate their own questions and experiment with variables other than temperature such as ingredient quantities or types of sugar (raw sugar vs. white, glucose syrup vs. corn syrup, etc.) Click here for the recipe that we use. I always add flavor extracts to get into the winter spirit, such as peppermint and cinnamon.
7. Gingerbread Cookies
The Question: Does the amount of time that the cookie dough chills in the refrigerator impact the shape and texture of the cookies?
This was a question asked by my kindergartener, only it was more like, "why do we have to put this cookie dough in the refrigerator, I want to make them now!" We were able to explore this question together with my assistance. We simply made two batches of cookies, one with dough that we didn't chill and one with dough that was refrigerated for two hours. It would have been better if we added a couple more batches, one chilled for 20 minutes and one for 12 hours, for example.
The Science: Turns out that the fats in the butter solidify when chilled, giving it more structure. This was important to keep its shape during the rolling, cookie cutting, and the baking processes. You can see an obvious difference between the cookies that were chilled and those that were not. The non-chilled cookie dough cookies were essentially shapeless blobs. It also takes longer for the butter fat to melt in the chilled cookie during the baking process, making the final product slightly chewier and softer.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of gingerbread cookies. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments to test the questions. Click here for the recipe that we used.
The Question: What gives marshmallows their smooth, foamy, stretchy consistency?
Making marshmallows came up once by accident while my students and I were making hard candy (mentioned above). Our candy thermometer was broken. We significantly underestimated the temperature of the sugar/water mixture when removed from the heat source, which resulted in a squishy, stretchy substance comparable to marshmallows. After some investigating, students discovered that marshmallows have a key ingredient, however, that other types of candies lack.
The Science: That ingredient is gelatin. Water, sugar, and corn syrup are heated on the stove. Some of the liquid evaporates. The remaining sugar/water combo is removed from heat, slowly added to a gelatin/water mixture, and beaten, which adds air bubbles to the mixture. As this blended foam cools, the corn syrup prevents crystallization and the gelatin turns from a liquid to a gel, trapping bubbles inside. This special and specific combo of ingredients and cooking method gives marshmallows their structure and consistency.
Inquiry Activity: Students can ask their own questions about marshmallows and conduct open inquiry experiments. Or they could explore something specific such as the importance of temperature, sugar quantity, gelatin quantity, the timing of adding gelatin in the making process, the type of sugar used, and more. They can even experiment with marshmallows that they have already made, such as the hot chocolate temperature required to melt a marshmallow, or how the amount of time in a microwave affects the shape and consistency of a marshmallow. Click here for the recipe that we used. There are many others!
The Question: Does the the blending speed impact the stiffness of meringue peaks?
My students and I discovered the answer to this question by pure accident. My high school advisory students participated in a school pie-baking contest. They decided on lemon meringue, but we didn't have a blender on hand. We hand-whisked the egg white mixture. It took a very, very, very long time, but we did eventually get those peaks. But I wouldn't call them stiff. I have made many meringues since, but used a blender. I highly recommend it.
The Science: As you blend egg whites, air bubbles form. The proteins from the egg whites break up from the blending and rearrange themselves, surrounding the air bubbles and securing them, leaving a foamy consistency. By blending too slowly or weakly, the proteins will not "denature", and thus will not incorporate the scaffolding necessary to keep air bubbles in place. Or by whisking limply, you may not be adding any air bubbles to the mixture at all! You can absolutely hand-whisk very quickly, but expect a labor of love!
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of meringue (cookies, pies, etc.) They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments, such as why sugar is added slowly, the result of overwhipping, using whole eggs instead of egg whites, leaving out cream of tartar, the ideal baking temperature, etc. Click here for the recipe that we used.
10. Chocolate Dessert Bowl
The Question: Does the quality of the chocolate affect the texture after it has been tempered and hardened?
My own children and I tried to make a chocolate bowl using a Pinterest recipe, and it didn't work out. At all. We wondered where we went wrong, and if the type of chocolate matters.
The Science: There is cocoa butter in chocolate, which is fat. The fat forms crystals when the chocolate is tempered (controlled heating and cooling of the chocolate). Tempering chocolate breaks up crystals made from the fat and creates a new, more orderly crystalline structure, giving it a glossy look in the end. We wondered if a higher quality chocolate, one with better or different amounts of cocoa butter would make a difference.
Inquiry Activity: We never tested our question, but think it would be a great way to start kitchen inquiry, especially for beginners. For those that have more experience with inquiry science, encourage open inquiry investigations. Ask students to explore chocolate in general, not necessarily a specific recipe. What gives it its shape? What is the difference between chocolate syrup and the chocolate on a candy bar? How is chocolate made?
I mentioned on Instagram that I would be adding ice cream inquiry to this post. I decided against it because it is just not wintery! I'll save that for summer-inspired kitchen inquiry in a few months! Well, nine months ;) Happy holidays, all!
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Student-directed learning is largely interest-driven. A couple of weeks ago I published a post on the common challenges that student-directed project-based educators face, one of which is apathetic students. It's generally not enough to say, "Hey, pull out a project proposal, write one up, and get started", or even to sit down with a student one-on-one and say, "What are you interested in?" A common answer is "nothing", especially from learners that are new to student-directed learning and are accustomed to having their learning experiences neatly designed by someone else and placed before them.
How do you change that answer from "nothing", to an enthusiastic laundry list of interests? You do it by throwing "sparks" out there. I don't know if that is a commonly used word in the world of education, but it is a word I have used for 12 years because that is what my boss called them, so i'll continue to use that word here. A "spark" is really exactly what it sounds like. It is a "thing" that sparks the interest of a student. A "spark" could be a speaker, a movie, a current event, a magazine article, a billboard, a post on social media, or even something you said in casual conversation. It is a "thing", anything, that gets a student's attention, elicits questions, and causes a deep down yearning to learn more about this "thing".
Some "sparks" happen organically. A student might be researching information on one topic and fortuitously come across an idea that creates that spark. It is the job, however, of a student-directed educator to facilitate learning experiences, and part of that duty is creating opportunities for sparks. There is so much going on in the world, so much knowledge at our fingertips, and because of that, a student settling on one topic to learn about can be daunting and overwhelming. There is also an exorbitant amount of topics that students aren't aware of...at all. Exposure to these foreign concepts is important in order to broaden the scope of learning possibilities.
Organizing "sparks" is a regular part of my job at this point. I've come to love this part of my role as an educator. That one kid that gets excited about a topic that you introduce makes it entirely worth the commitment. Here are some ways that I help learners find that spark; that interest that they are searching for as the starting-off point for student-directed learning experiences:
How to Spark Student-Led Learning Experiences
1. Group Share:
One way to inspire project ideas is to have students share their projects with one another. Student A might have done a project on their heritage, for example, inspiring Student B to learn about their own family history. If you are a homeschooler or have the flexibility at your school, consider tracking down some community presentations for learners to observe such as a local science fair or a convention where people are demonstrating some kind of final product. These experiences might inspire project ideas.
2. Share Your Life:
Many of my students' projects have launched because of a story of mine or a project that I had going on at home. My students were always fascinated by stories of my life when I worked in the field as a wildlife ecologist. At my school, a staff member presents on a "project" that they themselves are working on in their own lives such as a rebuilding their deck, reading books on a particular topic, participating in community events, volunteering, writing poetry, etc. We present on our own life projects for a couple of reasons, one of which is to demonstrate lifelong learning, and the other is to help inspire student project ideas.
3. Casual Conversation:
Many educators fill every minute of the day with academic rigor, from the second the students walk into the door to the second a bell rings. I won't go into detail on my views on that today, but I will say that by doing miss out on some pretty amazing learning potential, those learning experiences that are authentic and have personal meaning to the learner. You also miss out on the very important relationship building piece. Student-led learning requires relationship building. Period. It's mandatory. One of the best ways to do that is to simply chat with learners. It doesn't have to be about something specific or with the intention of developing a project. Casual conversation brings up interesting topics organically. Take the time to chat with your students. You won't regret it!
4. TED Talks:
TED Talks are great "sparks"; the talks are an easy, convenient, and free way to discover topic ideas of interest. If a student is struggling to find interest in anything, have them hop on TED.com and peruse the talks to find something that evokes some excitement.
I have a FREE project topic brainstorming activity in my TpT store that includes TED Talks. This is great for student-directed project-based learning and passion projects.
I keep a stack of magazines in my room at all times, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated. When I have a student that claims that they don't have any interests, I will sometimes send them to the pile to peruse magazines for topic ideas.
6. Volunteering/Community Involvement:
My students do a lot of service learning, which typically organized by me. Students eventually take the reigns. Quite often students will feel really inspired by the experience and branch out with their own projects. I call these projects "Community Action Projects".
7. Group/Class Projects:
Sometimes group projects can help provoke interest in a learning topic. I have my advisory do one large group project every quarter. If you are homeschooler, try to organize a project that includes all of the siblings and you, a small group of community members, or a group of learners from a homeschool coop. My children do projects with their neighborhood friends all of the time. Beginners self-directed learners aren't going to know what to do right away. A group project helps them gain confidence, better understand the process, and provides exposure to new topics.
One of the coolest group projects that we did was on the Syrian refugee crisis. My PBL students learned about the issue and decided to organize a holiday pie fundraiser to raise money for refugee aid. This project helped learners develop essential skills such as critical thinking, empathy, creativity, teamwork and so on. They gained content knowledge from a variety of disciplines. The experience was authentic. But, as it relates to this post, one of the coolest outcomes of this project was the number of student-directed project spin-offs emerged from this experience.
8. Community Events:
Help learners develop topics of interest by engaging with their community. They might attend a city council meeting, participate in a march, check out a variety of cultural events around the city, meet with community experts, check out local speakers, and more.
9. Interest Survey:
Sometimes you'll get a student that says that they don't have any interests. They very likely do have interests, but are not skilled enough at this point to recognize them or might simply struggle with communication. An interest survey is a great way to pull out those underlying sparks AND gives you a chance to get to know your students.
10. Current Events:
I set aside time everyday to discuss current events with my PBL students. Talking about what is going on in the world not only encourages informed, responsible citizenship, but also provides exposure and inspires questions. I like to do Vice News with my high school students because it's gritty. So many projects have come out of watching these episodes. Check out my Vice episode worksheets and extension activities.
We have book clubs at our school, which in itself has inspired so many student-led projects. One of the most dramatic projects that I've seen in my career came out of a young adult novel that I read with my students called "Sold". This book is about human trafficking. Several students were inspired to do an elaborate project on women's issues. My students invited a self-defense instructor to come to our school to give an introductory course. These students connected with a local sex trafficking shelter and invited a survivor to come speak to students. They organized a food and clothing drive for the organization. They started an awareness campaign to bring the very real (and relatable for some of my students) issue to light. It was a year-long service learning project that started with a novel.
Sometimes when my students tell me they don't have any interests I have them conduct interviews. I tell them to write questions that would pull out the stories of someone's life. They then go interview a neighbor, grandma, a friend, a teacher, their parent, etc. The stories they uncover are fascinating, and those stories often lead to project topics. Students can also attempt to uncover their interests by writing down their own stories. It might be the story of their life or a particular moment or even that they want to tell. Storytelling not only helps bring potential project interests to the surface, but also helps learners develop a health self-concept and interpersonal skills.
Start a speaker series at your school or simply organize speakers that you believe could be relevant and interesting to your students. We have had a Holocaust survivor and artist, the Chief of Police, a vermiculturist, a horticulturist, an HIV researcher from the U of M, an educator from a local animal shelter, a biotechnologist, a neurologist, a counselor from an eating disorder clinic, a volunteer coordinator from a domestic violence shelter, a magician, a sculpturist, dancers, local legislators, and so many more. Even if one speaker inspires one student, that's great!
14. Field Trips:
Field trips really spark interests, bottom line. If you can't get learners to a museum, a nature center, a zoo, etc., at least take them outside to observe the world around them. Sometimes a little observation and inquiry is all it takes to stir up some topic ideas. Homeschoolers, take advantage of your flexibility! Hop online and look for free outings in your neck of the woods. You might literally find yourself in the woods, and woods have so much learning potential!
So many interests, questions, and topic ideas come out of my students' (and own children's) travel experiences. There is no other way that I can think of that provides the same level of exposure to new concepts and ideas. I have my students keep a journal when they travel, which serves two purposes: 1) They reflect on each day, 2) They jot down questions, interests, and project topic ideas as emerge throughout the adventure. They typically head home with a few dozen project ideas.
16. Theme Projects
Again with "exposure". Sometimes newbies need a little guidance. It doesn't make them poor self-directed learners. They just require some basic training before they can be expected to dive in head first. Beginner student-directed/interest led educators benefit from the same sort of gradual transition. I often start student-led learning with theme projects, those that have a general topic and guiding templates. I have many project-based learning resources like this in my store. Check those out here. I also have a PBL bundle with twenty theme projects that offer students choice on many levels, and help students and educators make the transition from teacher-directed to student-directed learning experiences.
In an ideal world, all learners would have the wherewithal to guide the learning experience from start to finish. But the fact of the matter is that most learners are not trained to do this. In fact, by the time they get to high school - to me - they have become so habituated to taking a back seat in the learning process, that directing their own learning experiences makes them uncomfortable. Help them get to a point where they are eager to take on their own projects by providing exposure and authentic learning experiences. That is the role of an educator in a student-directed learning environment; the role is facilitator. So get out there and facilitate, starting with creating "sparks" for students.
For more tips and tricks on student-directed learning, click here.
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Every season is prime time for experiential learning, but fall is one of my favorites. Fall is unique in so many ways. The weather begins to change, wildlife prepares for winter, many farmers harvest their crops, seasonal illnesses begin to creep in (not my favorite), kids gear up for winter sports, fall flavors make a brief appearance, and the holiday season comes on strong.
There is so much to learn and an unlimited amount of questions to ask. Experiential learners are self-directed. That is one characteristic of experiential learning that sets it apart from other approaches to learning. They direct the experience by asking their own questions, they choose how and where to gather information, they get involved in learning by organizing authentic experiences, they choose an innovative way to demonstrate learning, and they reflect on the experience.
Although I would prefer to have all learning experiences outdoors, that isn't always an option. For some, it's never an option. As I've said before, experiential learning doesn't have to be "teambuilding" or "outdoor education", two common misconceptions. Experiential education is learning through experience, indoors or outdoors. It is inquiry-based, hands-on, child-led, and reflective. As wonderful as it would be to grab your kids and head out into the community to shadow climate scientists, study the animal behaviors associated with the changing seasons firsthand, and visit farms to participate in fall harvest (I think you should do all of these things if you can, by the way), there are other options for those that have less flexibility.
Check out some indoor and outdoor experiential learning resources below from Experiential Learning Depot that are perfect for fall. You can either take the ideas and roll with them or head to the links provided for a ready-to-go resource.
Head to earlier posts on experiential learning for more details about the method.
Fall Experiential Learning Resources for Secondary Students
Enjoy the last of the fall colors and mildish temperatures with these projects. Again, if you're not able to purchase the resources, head to my store to check out the freebies, and/or use the basic ideas and run with them. Experiential learning is child-led, so the resources help you facilitate those experiences. Happy autumn!
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I have received comments lately from other parents and educators that follow Experiential Learning Depot, that I appear so collected and have everything together all of the time. I assure you that I'm not, and I don't, especially when it comes to my own children. Kids will always throw us curve balls. They're wired to do so!
The same goes for my students. My educational approach is experiential education, thus, child-led learning. I blog about project-based learning more than any other experiential learning activity because it is where I have the most experience and I've seen powerful outcomes. But it's not perfect. That is the reality. As with any pedagogy, there will be snags at times, mishaps, challenges, and disappointments, but I try to look at those setbacks as opportunities - for students AND educators - in disguise. What feels like defeat just may be an opportunity for learning and growth.
For those of you that are transitioning to project-based learning either on your own or with my Project-Based Learning Bundle and Implementation Guide, you have likely come across some pitfalls. I've listed some challenges below that come up the most often in my learning environment, and I hope to shed some light on the "why" and "what to do".
Common Project-Based Learning Challenges and Troubleshooting Tips
Student-directed learning activities give students choice in process and outcome. When it comes to student-directed PBL the hope is that students choose to do projects on topics of interest. That becomes challenging when students tell you that they don't have any interests. This problem comes up often, and it is truly painful at times for everyone involved, including the student. Don't take it personally and don't give up! There is hope!
Everyone has interests. If you have a student saying they don't have any, start digging around for the source of this declaration. If the student is new, they might not feel comfortable with you yet. Other students might have interests but don't have the skills to identify them (yet). Others may bring personal struggles through the door. Before labeling your students as apathetic, first try to understand the source of their disinterest. Sit down and talk to them. Learn about them. Relationship-building is the key to this problem. By knowing each student on a personal level you can help them figure out the struggle, set personal goals, AND identify their interests and skills for potential projects.
2. Low Productivity
This is one of the most common problems with anything that is student-directed. You are giving them choice and freedom, which is wonderful in so many ways. Having choice and autonomy is empowering, but students may not know what to do with this freedom, especially if they are new to student-directed PBL. They often, then, choose not to do anything with it.
This is another challenge that can be largely resolved with relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates them and what does not. Students new to PBL may be unproductive because they simply do not know what to do. Student-directed project-based learning is child-led, yes, but it's also structured. Your job is to provide them with the tools to direct the experience. Give them the appropriate templates, implement consistent checkpoints, and provide feedback often. Another student might have all of the tools and experience, and still be unproductive. Do some observing and digging. Are they easily distracted? Are they overwhelmed with tasks? Are they exhausted? Work with students one-on-one to determine the source of low-productivity. Once the source has been identified, tweak expectations and/or help students create relevant and attainable goals.
3. Poor Quality Projects
Pretty simple. Students produce projects that are well below their capabilities. There are many problems with that and if you recognize it as a pattern in a student or two, nip it in the bud quickly.
I wrote an entire blog post a while ago about how to boost PBL project quality, so I won't get into too much here. Check out the link for specific tips and tricks. But generally, if students are producing poor quality work, the root of the problem is likely you. It took me years to understand this, and my students still test my boundaries and expectations. As my post emphasizes, establishing a culture of quality work from the start is critical, and that is on you.
4. Burning Bridges
Project-based learning is different than a standard project for several reasons, one of which is the use of community experts. Students rely on the community as a critical source of information. Occasionally a student doesn't show up for a meeting with a community expert that you organized. Regardless of the reason, it reflects poorly on you and bridges are burned.
The solution? Don't stop trying. It can be frustrating, but guiding meaningful connections between students and community members is part of your job as a facilitator. You can also ask that the student deliver an apology letter and write a personal reflection, depending on the situation. Help the child empathize. You can also ask that the student arrange their own community experts for a while. Let them take ownership.
5. Shortage of Willing Community Participants
Cooperation between students and community members is not always seamless and is not entirely on the shoulders of the students. Occasionally, students or myself will get rejected by a community expert when asked to get involved in a student's project. One of my favorite local artists flat out said "I don't work with teeangers."
At first I was furious with this artist, feeling very defensive of my students. Everyone has a right to their opinion, however, and in some situations, all you can really do is move on. You might also consider pushing a little more by tactfully helping them see that children bring something to the table. Organize collaborations with community members that are mutually beneficial. Give AND take is essential for building strong community connections.
6. Incomplete Projects
Projects fizzle out. Students start a project, work diligently on it for all of one day, and never return to it again. Pretty straight-forward.
You may have noticed a theme throughout this post; student-directed project-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all model. One student may ditch a project for an entirely different reason than another student. Handle the issue on an individual basis. Observe their behaviors and ask yourself if lack of project completion is a pattern for the student or an isolated incident. If it's a pattern than they may be struggling with organization, get easily distracted, lose interest easily, or lack specific skills that would normally promote follow-through. Sit down with these students and talk one-on-one. Identify potential sources of the problem and write goals together. Organize regular check-ins and offer consistent feedback.
If a student ditching a project is an isolated incident, however, you might just give them a pass. But you should still sit down and go through the details to understand their motivation. Keep an eye out to ensure that bouncing between 5 projects at a time and not finishing any of them doesn't become the norm. Communication between you and your students is key.
Let’s recap. Yes, PBL is challenging to implement at times, especially if you are a beginner. Even seasoned project-based educators make mistakes. We reflect, grow, and learn just as we ask our students to. The key to troubleshooting is relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates your students. You'll figure it out together.
A while ago I came across a webinar on EdWeb about design thinking in the classroom (check it out - it's free and you get continuing ed credits). I was instantly hooked on the concept; bringing design thinking into my curriculum. I had done a lot of "making" with my students and my own children, but I was missing some critical pieces, one of which was to connect making experiences with real-world problems. The general idea is that learners develop skills and content by observing and identifying problems before them. They then solve these real-world problems by designing and creating solutions.
I am an experiential educator, so every action my students take is a step toward learning experiences that are entirely child-led (look back at some posts from my student-directed learning series for specific details - link in archives). Therefore, I created a "Maker Tool Kit" that combines the principles of self-led design thinking, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. This tool kit is designed to walk learners through a maker project while giving them the freedom to lead the experience. Learners identify a problem and brainstorm innovative solutions. They design and build a prototype, test it, tweak it, and use the refined final outcome to make a positive impact on the community.
So, how to add design thinking to your curriculum? Start by purchasing my maker tool kit . Simply distribute the resource to your students and watch them thrive! This resource has all of the materials to help gradually move students toward self-directed making experiences.
If you and/or your students are new to design thinking as a learning tool, or student-directed learning for that matter, consider starting students off with a specific problem to solve. You present the problem, your students do the rest. Once learners become more comfortable with the process, you can begin to ask them to identify problems around a theme, such as "fall" or "morning routine". If you have the flexibility, students can eventually take the reigns entirely, identifying problems on their own, free from your influence.
OR you can all dive in head first. One of the best things about design thinking, and making in general, is that failure is not only an option, but is encouraged. Let them learn through experience!
How to Add Design Thinking to Your Curriculum
Use the following example, along with my Maker Tool Kit, to help facilitate the experience:
1. Observe and Empathize - In this phase, learners identify a problem and "empathize" with those impacted by the problem. You might present students with a specific problem, or they observe a problem on their own. Either way, this step is intended to help learners better understand the problem by communicating with those directly impacted.
Ex: A student notices decorative pumpkins splattered across roads and sidewalks in her neighborhood.
Check out this free problem identification resource. The purpose is to help beginners observe and identify problems to solve. This is a skill that takes practice and time to develop.
2. Define the Problem - At this point students have discussed the problem with a variety of people, so can hone in on the specifics. They state the problem.
Ex: Squirrels are taking decorative pumpkins from neighbors' doorsteps and eating them.
3. Ideate - This is my favorite part! Students begin to throw out product ideas to solve the problem. They "think outside the box"; they stray from the obvious. Innovative final products are also an important component of project-based learning.
Ex: 1) Create a barrier, 2) Develop a nontoxic, but annoying substance to paint on the pumpkins, 3) Design and create a pumpkin holder or stand that makes it difficult for squirrels to access the pumpkin, etc.
4. Prototype - At this point students draft a design and create their prototype. They go through a series of challenges and obstacles in the design and making phase, work through the issues, and make modifications.
Ex: The student designs a decorative wire pumpkin holder that prevents squirrels from taking off with pumpkins.
5. Test - Now that students have created a prototype, they can test their initial design on a relevant audience. They gather feedback from their test group and refine their product based on suggestions until it effectively solves the problem.
Ex: The student might gather from the test group that their pumpkin holder solves the problem but isn't attractive. They make recommendations and the student makes adjustments.
I highly recommend encouraging students to observe and identify problems on their own, but understand reasons for making a gradual transition to authentic student-directed learning. Some students might feel overwhelmed by this and need a little more scaffolding. I see this often, which is why I have maker project resources in my store that provide specifics and the problem or challenge is outlined for students. You may also be confined to specific topics and/or standards. That is fine. "Making" helps learners visualize abstract concepts.
Consider giving learners a theme to start with. Check out some of the "fall" themed maker project ideas below! Write the problem on the board, distribute the Maker Tool Kit, and watch magic happen!
Fall Inspired Maker Education Activities
This past week my family headed southwest to start our goal of hitting all of the U.S. National Parks before our kids turn 18. It's a lofty goal, I'm discovering. There are many National Parks. But from the viewpoint of an ex-field ecologist and experiential educator, the benefits of providing these opportunities to my children (and students) far outweigh the costs.
Teachers and administrators: Even if your school doesn't have a travel program, or you can't afford to take your kids abroad, you can still travel. Keep it simple and do your research. Put together a proposal for a travel program using the benefits I present here today, and present it to your school board. You can also look back at past posts on travel to fortify your proposal.
Homeschool parents: Consider cheaper options such as arranging exchanges between homeschool families or partaking in WWOOF experiences as a family. WWOOF is free lodging (and often food) for a few hours of your help on an organic farm everyday. Stay-tuned for a post on educational travel on the cheap. Seasoned homeschool travelers, feel free to send me suggestions to post!
Never will my children or my students learn more by sitting in a classroom scrolling through a textbook than they would experiencing the world firsthand. There is so much to gain by seeing the world from a different, unfamiliar perspective. It's not always easy, traveling with kids, but nothing that is easy is worth doing, right? Isn't that a saying? They will thank you later. Travel is educational by nature, so whether you’re taking students on a trip, worldschooling, traveling for fun with family, or even traveling solo, the experience is life-changing. Check out the reasons that I make travel a priority in my family life and school life.
Six Reasons To Include Educational Travel in Your Curriculum
1. Relationship Building:
My students walk away from school organized trips with the most unexpected lifelong relationships with peers, teachers, mentors, locals, and more. My family just returned from Zion, which was an opportunity for my children to spend some badly needed time with their dad, strengthen their relationship with each other, and spend their time with me in a unique and interesting capacity, one where I wasn't frantically scrambling them out the door to be on time for a commitment. The bonding that occurs and the friendships that develop in travel cannot compare to many other life experiences. Human connection is vital for children.
2. Develop a Healthy Self-Concept:
Another benefit to traveling as a young person is developing a healthy self-concept; gaining confidence, finding interests, knowing what you want for yourself, discovering ones values and priorities, testing oneself, observing strengths and weaknesses, and more. This is especially important for tweens and teens.
I spent much of my 20's traveling the globe as a field ecologist. Frankely, that was the most difficult time of my life. I was broke, lonely, and I put my health and life at risk everyday. But looking back I realize that those experiences in my young life paved the way for who I am today. I learned to live minimally, I discovered what I wanted for myself, I gained a confidence that I never knew I had in me, I learned to appreciate the simple things, I took pride in my successes. That last one is a difficult thing for a Minnesotan to do! Traveling builds character in a way that few other life experiences could.
3. Content Knowledge:
With travel comes gaining content knowledge through experience rather than from a desk or out of a textbook. Heading to a new environment out of one’s comfort zone leads to wonder, observation, inquiry, exploration and holds the most relevant experts and resources. Since being in Zion, my little ones have asked me a million questions. I often find myself and my husband saying “I wonder...” How did Zion form? Why are the rocks red? Why is it dry? What drives climate in Zion? What species adaptations have emerged to survive the climate? What is the region’s human history? The list goes on and on. Any number of these questions could be turned into an inquiry investigation or a driving question for a project-based learning experience.
Check out these resources for student-directed learning experiences. They are all open-ended for learners to follow their interests and inquiries before, during, or after travel.
Project-Based Learning Tool Kit
Problem-Based Learning Tool Kit
Community Action Projects
Scientific Inquiry Tool Kit
(also available as a bundle)
4. Mental/Physical Health:
There are so many grim statistics out there about the health of our children. Anxiety and depression is at an all time high among teenagers. Regular outdoor time is a luxury for many schools. Some schools have taken recess away from children entirely. I have seen some really cool and creative ways that educators are addressing physical and mental health, but let's face it. As long as the bulk of a child's day is sitting at a desk or cooped up in an indoor work space, they are not getting the physical and mental outlet that they need. An hour of gym class is simply not enough.
Travel gets kids outside. It removes them from social and academic pressures. If you go to the right place, they can disconnect from the social media drama that suffocates them at home. They move their bodies! Whether they are in New York City or on the cliffs of Zion National Park, they have to move around to get from point A to point B. Travel is an all-inclusive mental and physical health overhaul. Take advantage, even if it means taking your own child on a weekend camping trip to a local state park. It doesn't have to be extravagant to make an impact.
5. 21st-Century Skill Building:
I have done an entire post on how travel helps learners develop essential 21st-century skills, so I won't get into it too much here. It's pretty simple. Removing children from their comfort zones puts them in a position to adapt. When traveling with a group they develop communication and collaboration skills. They learn how to work as a team. Children think critically and creatively when they face inevitable obstacles. They learn to be flexible. The list goes on. When children are in an environment, especially one in which their learning experiences are self-led, they develop those skills naturally. It's not something you need to plan. It just happens.
6. Expand Their Worldview:
In travel children are exposed to new cultures, different ways of doing things, a variety of perspectives and priorities. They develop tolerance and empathy for people from all walks of life. They observe that there is a world outside of their own. This is especially important for teenagers. Children are self-involved by nature. But exposure to the world will not only help them expand their world view, but define it. My travel experiences have absolutely shaped my worldview. This is really important. Ignorance might be bliss, but it is irresponsible. That is blunt, and I apologize if that offends anyone. But above a report card filled with A's, I want my students and own children to be responsible citizens, empathetic and compassionate people, hard-working, and passionate lifelong learners.
What do you want for your children? Of course traveling is not the only way to achieve all of these things. It's one way, but a very powerful way. Take a hard look at how you are providing your students and children with opportunities to expand their worldview, develop a healthy self-concept, gain content knowledge through child-led learning experiences, build deep and meaningful relationships with solid people, and grow up to be healthy, creative and skilled individuals. It's a lot. It's a huge job, I know. But it's worth it.
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My husband recently informed me that he would like to visit all of the National Parks in the United States as a family before our children turn 18. It is an awesome goal, and I'm fully on board. We are, as I write this, in Zion National Park. I am literally typing away as my two exhausted children are passed-out beside me. We will head to Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon later this week. Follow along on our journey at experientiallearningdepot on Instagram.
I have been heavily involved in my school's travel program since I began teaching there 12 years ago. I have taken groups of high school students to California, Hawaii, Colorado, Florida, Texas, New York City, Costa Rica, and more. I prioritize travel with my own family as well because I've seen how travel can impact a person, including a child. Learning, relationship building, character development and more emerge in a way that is entirely unique to travel. There is so much learning that happens naturally while traveling, especially when it comes to skill-building. Opportunities for gaining content knowledge, however, may take a little more effort.
For this reason, especially when traveling with students, I pair the experience with student-led project-based learning. Each learner asks a driving question about their destination and explores that question on the trip. For example, my child asked me why Zion has cacti. As a science and PBL educator my mind immediately went to how this simple question could be turned into a larger project about climate. I would want to research why Zion has the climate that it does, how animals and plants have adapted to survive the climate, and how the climate has shaped the local economy and human culture.
The answers to these questions wouldn't be found by simply visiting Zion. I would have to go out of my way to explore these questions. That is what student-directed project-based learning is all about. Try enhancing the travel experience by combining it with PBL. Start with the following FREE resources. You can also look back at the dozens of educational travel posts right here on this blog by clicking on the "Student Travel" link to your right.
1. Trip Planner
This resource is a guide to planning an educational trip. I work at a school that is student-led and project-based, so our students (with our guidance) often plan the trips. They use this guide to do so. It includes purpose, budget, itinerary, fundraising plans, etc.
2. Trip Project Proposal
A project proposal is a template for designing a project. Students ask a driving question or choose a topic of focus, determine research questions or categories, plan the use of community experts and authentic experiences, choose an innovative way to demonstrate learning, and more.
3. PBL Cheat Sheet
This is a helpful tool for beginner project-based learners. It gives a few ideas for innovative final products and authentic presentations. This is helpful for any project-based learning experience, travel projects included.
4. Community Expert Planner
An important part of project-based learning is connecting with authentic resources. This is especially pertinent when it comes to traveling experiences. It makes learning more meaningful; more personal. A community expert might be an interpreter at a National Park, a museum curator, business owners, or even locals of whatever destination you happen to be visiting. This resource is a guide to help students choose community members from their travel destination that could be a resource for their project.
5. Trip Reflection
This travel resource is one of my favorites. As an experiential educator, I find enormous value in reflecting on learning experiences, especially an experience as profound as traveling.
6. Travel Brochure Mini-Project
this learning activity can be completed at home or at school. It does not require travel. Students create a brochure for one travel destination of interest. The intention is to get students excited about traveling.
7. Ecology Scavenger Hunt
This is another activity that does not require travel, but would be a great supplement to any nature trip, such as this family trip to Zion National Park.
8. Endangered Species Project
Yet another project that doesn't require traveling, but would be an awesome addition to an outdoor travel experience where students can connect with conservationists, naturalists, politicians, landowners, and more to learn about local endangered species and protection efforts. They might even collaborate with local experts. My family and I came across California condors on our hike through Zion National Park today. California condors have a long and complicated history and have been on the endangered species list for decades. If I were doing a project on this endangered species in Zion I could talk to the naturalists, hunters, landowners, park visitors, bird enthusiasts, and more to gather information from various interests.
We don't have condors in Minnesota, so traveling to where they are and studying them in their natural habitat makes the learning experience more meaningul.
9. Graphic Organizer for Student-Led Fundraisers
Get young travelers invested in the experience by asking them to play a role in fundraising. Traveling isn't cheap, which is one of the reasons my travel resources are free! Let students take some ownership by organizing their own fundraisers. They can use this graphic organizer to brainstorm ideas and organize details.
Find many more PBL resources at Experiential Learning Depot as well as my PBL Toolkit with the necessary templates for unlimited student-directed PBL projects in school, in the home, out in the community, on field trips, traveling around the world and much more.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.