For student engagement, drop a challenge and get out of the way

My bio classes just wrapped up one of my favorite projects.  As part of our unit on structure and function (physiology), I have students create a functional prototype for a replacement limb organ.  As part of the project, students also present an 8 min TED talk where they must 1) build empathy for a particular user or set of users 2) describe a problem with existing solutions 3) demonstrate their own prototype.

I’ve blogged about this project before, but this year was a little bit of a different experience.  I introduced the project much later in the school year than in the past and within days of attending my 5th TEDx conference.  Experiencing TED in person reminded me to spend more time in class on presentation skills.  So, we watched about 8 TED talks – including Mike Ebeling (below), Dean Kamen, Tom Chi, Anthony Atala – over the course of the project and discussed as a class how effective the talks were and for what reasons. 

The class concluded that talks with a real user (ie. empathy was developed) as well as those that demonstrated some product were their favorites.  This was apparent in their own talks as students did a great job of generating empathy, highlighting a problem, and story telling how their prototype could make a difference.

The second change this year was that I was behind the eight ball in terms of trying to cram this project in before exams.  It was not an ideal scenario, but I felt the experience for students was worth it.  In fact, I did not even grade the project as I felt it was too close to exam time for a large project grade to go in (I did, however provided feedback to students).  What was crazy was how engaged students were in the process.  At a time of year where it can be hard to capture the attention of students who are looking forward to summer break as well as being bombarded with other school stress, I took special note of students’ willingness to work when confronted with real and tangible problems.  Students brought in materials and tools from home.  They suggested improvements to other groups’ prototypes.  They (apparently) rapidly iterated ideas at a weekend sleep over.  They wowed each other with their stories and working models.  This was with much less direct instruction and guidance than in years past.  All I had to do was get out of the way…..

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One Comment on “For student engagement, drop a challenge and get out of the way”

  1. […] For student engagement, drop a challenge and get out of the way → […]


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