Guest Spot

Be all we can be

By Ms. Riemer

Imagine the finest specimen of Cambridge engineering: sleek, Spartan lines, unbridled power, and unparalleled speed. Gentlemen and gentlewomen, start your engine-less vehicles. Tasked with creating a vehicle powered solely by a 2” x 4” mousetrap, the brave sophomores in Honors Physics rose to the two-week design challenge.

Teams of three to four students toiled over mousetrap car designs. The teams were responsible for several deliverables, including vehicles that had to travel a minimum of five meters in three separate trials, a poster, and a team presentation to the Jedi council of Mr. Strodel, Mr. Willey, and Ms. Riemer. Historically, the mousetrap car project has been a highlight for many students—especially for the students who relish working in a group context.

The drama erupted well in advance of the checkered flag. Herein was where the reality show started. I had the honor of dangling the bittersweet, golden carrot: “Your mousetrap project will count as an exam grade.” The gears spun immediately, followed shortly by the woodsy smell of smoke wafting through the lab. Several hands shot up. “Ms. Riemer, will we be graded as a group or as individuals?”

Let’s face it. The idea of group projects rarely evokes a celebration of fist pumps and bumps, so the thought of two weeks of unadulterated building and tinkering seems like a silly, perhaps even romantic notion. Group work causes anxiety. Graded group work—in this case, exam-worthy graded group work—induces widespread panic.

The thought-bubble in headline font was as clear as it was large. “What if my partners don’t pull their weight?” “What if I am partnered with someone who isn’t as smart as I am or doesn’t know that much physics?” These were all fair reactions. If it’s any consolation, we teachers struggle with the graded group component as well. We are more than aware of the modus operandi and the daily context and environment. If we start with the answer and back solve, the math isn’t difficult. Colleges, elite institutions of higher learning, demand a deep, diverse, and impeccable portfolio. Grades and scores unfortunately matter. The goal of learning for learning’s sake is totally undermined by the dreaded, graded deliverable. How do we then cultivate a passion for learning in spite of those odds?

Students connect to physics through hands-on laboratory work and get to experience real-time problem solving. The larger goal of the mousetrap project was to have students navigate through the challenges of working on a team and to learn through discourse and dialogue.

The benefits of working on a team are softer metrics that aren’t as easily measured. There seems to be diminishing opportunities for healthy, non-social media, collaborative interplay. Ideas infect other ideas and spawn new strains of thought. Each student leaves a unique intellectual fingerprint, and the brain unknowingly engineers an experience born of the natural heat and excitement that comes with discoveries and failures.

The entropy of the group’s dynamics is just as important as the dialogue itself. Learning how to navigate interpersonal challenges is a lesson best experienced with real people and not through a webinar, download, or a sterile chapter in a management book. The students often referred to the challenges of working in a group with such sweet affection. Some groups really struggled to communicate effectively; they learned that dealing with their peers was more difficult than calculating the static friction to move the car forward. By the end of the project, the groups that struggled admitted with pride that they were able to get past their differences and move toward accomplishing their shared goals not only respectfully but in a manner that espoused the spirit of the school’s motto. Go Knights!

My favorite times in class were watching our students as passionate teachers, teaching one another with care and sincerity. The students viewed the problems with new and exciting lenses; they used examples that I never considered. I also found that students listened more actively and participated more readily when working with a peer. Students graciously credited their partners and peers for teaching them something new.

We came full circle. I asked my students after they completed their projects, but before they received their grades, that if they could do the project over, would they want to work in a group or as an individual. Overwhelmingly, but not surprisingly, they responded collectively. Group work, yes! I then asked if they would accept being graded as an individual or as a group. Drum roll, please. Group grade, yes! One student summed it all up: “It’s definitely a confidence-booster if you were supported by people who wanted to help you out, and I think we were able to complete a really great project by feeding off of each others’ ideas. We all contributed something different but equally important.”

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