This week, my students and I completed a unit on newton’s laws, momentum and car safety. The ultimate goal of the units was to have students design and build

at least 3 safety features for a passenger (an egg) in a model car (lab cart), test it (hopefully surviving the crash), and then use their understanding of physics to explain how each feature intended to increase safety and reduce harm, and perform calculations that provide further evidence of their claims.

 

The unit began with a simple question:

“What do you think would be most harmful to a person’s body, a rear end collision or a head on collision? Why?”

This sparked a class discussion that generated a series of factors that they thought should be considered:

  1. How fast you are going
  2. Position
  3. How heavy the car is (how much mass)
  4. Force
  5. If you are moving or standing still

This list became the catalyst for most lessons. Each lesson was aimed at addressing each area of the list while learning the necessary skills to perform in the final assessment. Students used carts to model newton’s laws and staged collisions to model conservation of momentum and impulse (along with all necessary calculations).

As the unit progressed students got to build on their understanding and practice explanations and calculations necessary for the final projects. Students were pushed hard to use the language of physics in their explanations and received multiple rounds of feedback to help get them there.

 

In the end students turned in strong performances in their design and written reports. Students had a blast and were thoroughly engaged just about the entire unit. The unit went EXACTLY AS I PLANNED IT. Sounds awesome so far right?!?!

As I read the reports I am noticing that there are pieces missing in many student explanations. The language is not quite there yet. They are close but still not there. I was fortunate enough to have a feedback session with an expert in unit design and as we discussed the unit (without me even telling her my concerns), that there might not be enough opportunities for students to practice using the language in the context of collisions….so what happened? The unit went EXACTLY AS I PLANNED IT, without enough opportunities for students to practice a skill that was important to the final assessment. So what do I do? Plan it again, and make sure that the same is not true of the next units.

I choose this description as my first blog post because this semester, I am teaching a course called “Implementing innovation”, but innovation implementation does not happen by accident. Implementing innovation is preceded by innovative design. Designing a unit as the one described above requires

  1. Mastery if your content area
  2. Knowledge and experience with a wide range of instructional strategies and learning theory
  3. Risk taking i.e. being a little crazy
  4. Being willing and able to change everything and start over if necessary

These are skills that don’t necessarily come naturally (at least to some of us). They require practice, feedback and being in a constant state of learning. All of these will be part of our course. So get ready, because we have a lot of learning, designing, feedback giving and revising to do before we actually get to do any innovating. Our units will go EXACTLY AS WE PLAN them, so let’s plan for innovation!