Getting Started: How We’ll Learn

I don’t remember the first day of most of my high school classes.  They were forgettable.  Teachers gave rules, material lists, syllabi, and sometimes talked about themselves for a while.  And when I started teaching, so did I.  I thought I needed to tell students how they’ll learn in my class.  Now, on Day 1, I show them how we’ll learn. (Yes, that’s the titular line).

Four years ago I sat down with a guy named Levi Torrison, a professor at Estrella Mountain Community College, and asked him what he does the first day of his college chemistry course.  I didn’t expect him to say, “We build boats.”  After his explanation, my students have built boats ever since.

What does boat-building have to do with chemistry?  Nothing.  But it has everything to do with learning.  Here’s how my first 90-minute class goes:

First, I ask my students to form 3-4 person teams, they choose their groups.  Next I explain that today we’re building boats to see how many pennies we can float before the boats sink, and that there are rules to this challenge:

  1. Your boat must fit inside a 4 cm x 6 cm x 10 cm box.
  2. You have to keep a record of how much your boat “costs” based on a materials price list (example provided below).
  3. The boat with the lowest cost for every penny floated wins.
  4. You can’t test your boat before the contest.

Then I project a 20-minute “Countdown to Contest” timer on the screen and students design, discuss (and sometimes argue), and build their boats.

And then we test them.

Next, the groups create and present whiteboards about their boats, including information on cost, pennies floated, cost for every penny floated, things they’d do the same, and things they’ll change if they get to try again.  As a class we discuss each group’s whiteboard, ask questions, and sometimes offer suggestions.

Boat Whiteboards

As each group presents we add them to the leaderboard and eventually determine a “winner”.

Boat Leaderboard

Finally, I ask them to talk in their groups about why I chose to have them build boats in chemistry class, and then I have them tell me what they discussed.  So, “Why do we build boats?” . . .