Sunday, May 25, 2014

Building Balloon Cars - Ambiguity and Cognitive Dissonance

NOTE: These beginning paragraphs are the "Background" to the what and why I do this activity with my students, you can skip to the lesson link below if you are short on time and want a fun and challenging activity to do with your students the last weeks of school.

 from: Krissy Venosdale:                                                                     
Way back in the summer of 1995, I attended a summer institute on integrating technology into the classroom.  I received a computer with a dedicated phone line for internet access, a stipend, and two weeks of STEM (not called that back then) activities.  There was a cohort of 25 Idaho teachers who would build what we now call a professional learning network.  The expectation was that we would use our computer and dedicated phone line to collaborate and stick together as a group since we taught in different areas of the state.  One of our first activities (and the only one I remember) was experimenting with rubber band cars leading to the building of balloon cars.  It took the entire first week to test the cars, collect data, make observations, and then transfer what we learned to build our own balloon powered car.  Of course we were working in collaborative teams and using the computers to organize data, graph data, and make notes (much more clunky than using Google Docs/Drive).

The University of Idaho science professors who were leading our group used ambiguity to force us out of our comfort zones.  There were no guidelines, just guiding questions.  When they introduced the rubber band cars they handed them out, dumped a pile of rubber bands on each table and we sat in silence for a few minutes thinking and waiting to be told what to do.  As the seconds ticked away, our looks became more perplexed as we continued to wait for instructions.  Finally the professors broke the silence and said "Get to work".  "What are we supposed to do?" one brave student asked.  They answered with two simple and profound words, "Be scientists!"  They gave us the ultimate statement of ambiguity to send us on our thinking way long before #geniushour and #20%time existed.  After continuing to sit with dumbfounded looks on our faces, (we were all very obedient science teachers/students who wait for instructions and procedures) the professors realized they needed to gently nudge us forward.

They began by asking us a question, "What is a scientist and what do scientists do?"  Make a list in your groups, you have 2 minutes to brainstorm.  For the first time that morning the room was a buzz with chatter.  After the brainstorm session, we shared and made a collective list to help us remember our role as active, thinking, tinkering, and information seeking scientists.  The next guiding question the professors asked was, "What are you going to do with the rubber band cars in front of you?"  Again they sent our groups into a brainstorm session and the room was once again a buzz.  We shared with the whole group after 2 minutes and wrote the collective list on the board.  The professors asked one last question, "How many of you have enough information to get started?" All of our hands went up and we spent the rest of the day and the next two days "playing" with rubber band cars in the halls of the science building.  At the end of the three days, we had rubber band car races down the halls.  We used the data and knowledge we gained from tinkering and experimenting with them to find the combination of tweaks that resulted in the fastest car and the farthest car.

Day four began with the professors dumping piles of materials down in front of us and challenging us to use only those materials to build a balloon powered car that would be the fastest and/or the farthest.  We experimented for a day and at the end of day 5 we had balloon car races in the halls of the science building.  The ambiguity and cognitive dissonance was at times extremely frustrating, but it lead to a strong commitment to the process and a willingness to persevere and get it figured out.  And, way back then, we could not Google It.

So, the next school year in my middle school science classes in Twin Falls, Idaho, we played with the rubber band cars and then built balloon cars.  And from that time, the project became a yearly staple in my classroom.  Before I share the lesson plan, I want to share some interesting observations I have noted as my classes have completed the exploration over the years:

  • High achieving students struggle with this process because of the ambiguity - they don't do "play and figure it out" well
  • You will be surprised and inspired by what your students create.
  • Be prepared to provide questions to guide struggling groups so that they do not give up
  • Remind everyone that this learning experience is about the process and that there is no failure 
  • Figure out ways to give the students hints without telling them what to do
Here is a very basic outline of the lesson and supplies you will need: 

I will be going into third grade classrooms this week to have them build balloon cars and I will add pictures here.  You can use the links and information below to have your students explore NASA's Balloon Car Challenge.  I would do this part with middle school students.

  • Pick 8 of the cars, write their name, distance and time.  Then calculate the rate of each one (SPEED).

Have a great end of your school year!

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