Over the past month, teachers at BFA-Fairfax Middle School have been attempting to redefine students’ Initiative Time (or Supported Study) experience to be more student-driven, with the purpose of helping students develop 21st-century skills like self-direction, creativity, leadership, and problem-solving. Last month, for instance, students in Mr. Psaros’ (8th-grade social studies) Initiative Time visited Lake Champlain Chocolates to learn about chocolate production, then donated homemade chocolate to the St. Albans Rehabilitation Center as an act of service to the Franklin County community. Similarly, students in Mrs. Messier’s (7th-grade science) Supported Study are choosing to participate in one of four project-based learning units over the course of the next several weeks.
While considering ways to bring together science and math principles from their respective curricula and pose a challenging, authentic problem for students to take the lead in solving, Mrs. Hamm (8th-grade math) and Mrs. Barnes-Cota (8th-grade science) had an idea. Over the past 10 school days, students in their Initiative Time groups have been immersed in an engineering design process, building and racing two different types of lego-like cars: solar-powered and battery-operated. Students have worked in groups of four or five, building their cars in preparation for a race against other teams of students with the same type of car. Students have been extremely engaged, and the air of competition is palpable. Mrs. Barnes-Cota reports that students have built cars, recognized design flaws, collaborated with their teammates to fix those flaws, and rebuilt their cars to optimize performance.
An interesting twist: this experience is the first of three. This time, students are following the directions that come with the car kits. Next, students will be free to modify and adapt the cars they have built to improve speed and distance. Finally, in the third iteration, students will be given a pile of parts and just one simple direction: “Build!” After each round of designing, building, and revising, students will be assessed (and will self-assess) on four of the five Vermont Transferable Skills:
- Clear and Effective Communication
- Creative and Practical Problem Solving
- Responsible and Involved Citizenship
- Informed and Integrative Thinking
Students must demonstrate evidence of these transferable skills in order to graduate from high school. These Transferable Skills are also the infrastructure for goal-setting within their Personalized Learning Plans, both in middle school and in high school. Perhaps most important to note about this learning experience is that students are in the driver’s seat (pun intended) when it comes to their learning.