Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Computer Science Day 7 - Paper Airplanes

Things are getting a bit crazy now - we're continuing through modified curricula from CS Unplugged, code.org, and Scratch. Classes are at different points, but I've been able to head into two classes so far to continue our work on algorithms online and on paper.

Today, fifth graders worked with cut-up directions for how to make a paper airplane. I'm not too thrilled with how this lesson has gone.

I began with code.org's Real Life Algorithms: Paper Airplanes lesson. However, it looked way too simple for the fifth graders with whom I'm working. The original lesson required students to sequence six steps for how to make a simple paper airplane, identifying three superfluous steps along the way.

Instead, I drew from an article I saw a while ago - "How to Make the World's Best Paper Airplanes" on artofmanliness.com. These instructions were much more complex, and I felt they offered a richer opportunity for student discussion and persistence. I copied the directions into Word and re-formatted them to easily be cut.

In class, I introduced the topic by reviewing what we'd discussed previously about algorithms. We reviewed what the word means, along with a few examples of algorithms they've seen in their daily lives. Then, I issued the challenge: to work as a team to identify the correct sequencing of a jumbled algorithms. Students had to collaborate in groups of five to figure out the right order and glue them on a sheet of paper. Then, once groups finished, they turned them in and tested another group's algorithm.

With three different airplane designs, students were testing designs they hadn't seen before. This prevented them from just following their own directions.

Here's what's bugging me about this lesson: management is difficult (airplanes flying all over the class), the content isn't front and center, the lesson is missed if there's no debrief, and I'm not entirely sure kids need the extra practice.

First of all, it's tough to manage student behavior during this lesson. Really, they just want to get the most out of this excuse to make paper airplanes in class. Students were making their own designs, decorating their planes, flying them all over the place, you name it. Some classes were more difficult than others, but I found in every case that it was just a ton of effort to keep kids focused.

It was also way too easy for kids to just get fixated on building paper airplanes and miss the whole point: that appropriate sequencing is important in order for the project to turn out the way it's supposed to! A different lesson that may make this more explicit is the good ol' Peanut Butter & Jelly Lesson, where students write instructions for how to make a PB&J and then I model in front, following their directions explicitly. Heck, I may even pull from code.org's K-8 Course to use tangram pictures the students need to direct me to make! Either one of these choices, I think, does a better job of making this content clear.

This was most true in classes when I ran out of time and we didn't have a chance to debrief. In those classes, the end of the class was pretty much, "Okay, kids, let's test your planes! Oh, that didn't work too well? That plane came apart? Your design crashed and burned? Hmm...well, gotta go!" Nothing stuck in those classes.

All of this may be moot, however - I'm not sure kids really needed this extra practice with algorithms. They were already on code.org creating their own algorithms, finding out in real time that their sequencing wasn't correct. It was much clearer to see the bird just bump into TNT or a wall, than it was to pick apart someone else's airplane directions.

I have three more classes to go with this lesson - I need to make a quick decision about what I'm going to do with them tomorrow. I'm leaning toward something more straight-forward, like the PB&J lesson. This would have the added bonus of allowing more time on code.org to get further into the stages. That's the other issue: kids are at very different places online. I'm hoping that it all just works out as we get further along, but I'm also trying to come up with Plan B for kids who breeze through this stuff.
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