- Aquarium net
- Transparent plastic containers
- Plastic buckets
- Golf balls
- Magnifying glass
- Ice cube tray
- Parametric software
- 3-D printers
- Students in Honors 9 Biology, AP Biology, and Principles of Engineering
Put them all together and what do you get?
Except, it wasn’t about the lures.
Teams of students from these three classes at McCutcheon High School joined forces to learn about the fish that swim in Wea Creek, the insects that attract them, and the design process engineers use to create any new product. The standards addressed by this bioengineering module pulled from biology, physics, math, technology literacy, and environmental systems. The students spent time at the creek in waders, capturing and identifying fish through electrofishing techniques guest instructors from Purdue University showed them. They identified aquatic insects–also caught in the creek that runs behind our school–and preserved them in transparent containers to learn about biomimicry. Using a decision matrix to guide their design choices, the student teams created fishing lures that looked and moved like the insects they’d observed. They floated golf balls in tin foil “boats” and used their math skills to determine the buoyancy of their designs. Ultimately, the students used Inventor, a parametric modeling software program, to visualize a prototype. The most promising prototypes were printed using a 3-D printer.
When they weren’t outdoors, the teams met together in the Media Center where large round tables and lots of space facilitated consultation and collaboration. The four teachers, whose schedules had been specifically arranged to accommodate this project-based learning endeavor, floated among the groups. The large space also improved the efficiency of the project. “It was much easier to walk between tables to answer a question than to send an email from one classroom to another,” commented engineering teacher Zach McKeever.
Finally, each team made a PowerPoint presentation of their experience, including a reflection on their performance in terms of communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and computational thinking. An expert angler was present for some of the final presentations and inspected the lures close-up. The students listened intently to his critiques. One group was surprised when he told them, “You could market this if you’d make just this one little change.”
And then, on a warmish October Saturday, they tried out their lures. Total catch: a few nibbles.
But that’s all right. It wasn’t about the lure.
In their wrap-up discussion, students (predictably) commented that they liked going outside and enjoyed the fishing expedition at the end. They wished they’d spent more time at the creek! They appreciated the hands-on learning and real-world application of their learning. They enjoyed the guest lecturers from Purdue who opened their eyes not only to a new way of fishing, but to the presence of specific species of fish as an indication of water cleanliness, to the connection between bioindicators and our own drinking water, and to watershed ecosystems in general.
Some students did say they prefer a more traditional approach to learning: They wanted textbook learning first, then the application. However, the majority of students said they liked putting the pieces together even though they experienced some anxiety at first when they weren’t sure what was going to happen, how they would get from the assignment “Create a Lure” to the final product without the familiar front-loaded vocabulary lessons, textbook assignments, and the quizzes and tests that usually accompany traditional classroom instruction.
Other students had suggestions for their teachers for improving the unit’s design. The project had been set up to differentiate for experience (Honors 9 Bio and AP Bio) and course credit (Engineering vs. Biology). The AP Bio students, for instance, experienced the electrofishing and were responsible for conveying that information to the rest of their team. The engineering students used Inventor–and explained it to the others. The Honors 9 students did the insect study and relayed what they learned to the rest of their team. That structure led to some problems of communication, so the students suggested ways to ensure better communication and more accountability for each team member.
Many students commented at length on the communication and collaboration skills they had needed to develop in order to be successful. Some teams reported, quite frankly, that they hadn’t started out working together well–but they overcame those obstacles because they had to. That admission–and the ultimate resolution of the problem–brought smiles to the faces of the teachers because, of course, learning to work together as a team was one of their goals.
The principles of design apply across the board and collaborative problem-solving among individuals with different areas of expertise and different perspectives will always be the case. For example, Mr. McKeever explained, civil engineers may be commissioned to create a dam. That will certainly disrupt the ecology of a river, so the goal will be to design a structure that minimizes impact but still does the job of holding back the water. Chemical engineers may develop vaccines and the packing materials for those medications. They’ll need to take the impact of chemical emissions, waste, and the product itself into account as they develop the product.
“The biggest takeaway for me,” Mr. McKeever continued, “was the relevancy. The biology part helped the students create lures for a specific fish in a specific environment, making the whole project much more authentic. Without the biology component, the assignment would have been ‘Design a lure you think will catch a fish’.” Not nearly so relevant and not nearly as challenging.
For students who have never experienced project-based learning, the first venture into this way of learning can be intimidating. But in the end, biology teacher Abi Bymaster asserts, “This project forced students to feel uncomfortable, to ‘not know the answer,’ and they couldn’t just look the answers up on Google. However, it is because of this discomfort that they learn; this is what I love about PBL.”
“Learning ‘this way’ made the learning real,” many biology students said in summary. They liked the independence, the taking charge of their own learning, the creativity expected and allowed. The students clearly saw that while the biomimicry and the buoyancy achieved by the unique anatomy of fish were concepts important to understanding predator/prey relationships, understanding the whole ecological system–and the ability to generalize that to other systems–was the greater lesson.
No one misunderstood the real learning goals of this endeavor. It wasn’t about the fishing lures. It was about the interdisciplinary nature of learning and the teamwork needed to pull a project together, hallmarks of project-based learning: authentic experiences that reflect real-life problem-solving and decision-making.
This project-based learning experience has a formal name: Designing Bugs and Innovative Technology (D-Bait). It is one unit in the TRAILS curriculum designed by Jeffrey Holland, Todd R. Kelley, Euisuk Sung, and Nathaniel W. Cool at Purdue University and supported with funding from a National Science Foundation grant. The project was new this year to two of the four collaborating McCutcheon teachers, all of whom were trained during previous summers. All four of the high school teachers are looking forward to doing the project again next year–and implementing lesson design modifications suggested by their students, the bioengineers.