Challenge, Collaborate, & Create in Chartiers Valley

Chartiers Valley Middle School students dismantle their childhood toys and create something new to find out how simple circuits really work.

The latest in our occasional series of guest posts from Remake Learning Network members sharing stories of their work in the field.

Walking past Chartiers Valley sixth grade science classes during the month of May is always an adventure. You’ll hear a lot of buzzing. You’ll see a lot of lights flashing. You may even smell the remnants of a recent spark in the air.

It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s learning in action.

Each year, Chartiers Valley Middle School students take their understanding of circuits to the next level with an engaging hand-on approach. They begin with an introductory unit on the basics of circuits. Then, equipped with a basic understanding of how circuits work, they roll up their sleeves, grab a screw driver and get to work.

Every student has a different toy or electronic. Some are their own personal belongings, while others have been donated to the project. Either way, students are working with something that interests them.

It’s that connection to something personal or of interest that really drives an inquiry based lesson. Students begin the project full of questions. As they dismantle their toy, they explore, research, discuss and reflect until they find the answers to their questions. Or, in most cases, begin to pose even deeper, more scientific questions.

It all began when Ms. Sara Benis, Chartiers Valley Middle School Gifted Coordinator, and her students took a trip to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh where they participated in a workshop that focused on taking things apart in order to get a better understanding of how they work.

“It didn’t take long to realize that we could run a similar project at our school and reach all of our sixth graders, instead of just a handful of students,” said Ms. Benis, who connected with sixth grade science teachers Ms. Allison Machusko and Mr. Ron Moreschi to turn her vision into a reality.

Another bonus to doing the project at Chartiers Valley? More time. The lesson takes place over several weeks instead of one day, which enables students to dig deeper and take ownership of their learning.

“The expectation is that students will really develop their projects,” said. Ms. Benis. “Not only are they learning the inward workings of their childhood toys, they are creatively designing usable products out of recycled parts.”

Dismantling toys is just the beginning. Once students have a collection of parts, they are tasked with creating something new.

“Students are in complete control of the outcome,” explained Ms. Machusko. “From taking apart their childhood toys to designing – and rewiring – something new, students quickly become invested in their learning.”

This year, Chartiers Valley Middle School Art Teacher, Ms. Sharlynn Mavrich, is involved to help take the project to the next level. Ms. Mavrich will give the students a few tips for creating aesthetically pleasing products.

“The world isn’t magical,” said Ms. Benis. “Through this project, students begin to really recognize that basic science is everywhere.”

The main academic learning revolves around understanding simple circuits. However, this project goes so much deeper. Students learn how to motivate themselves. They learn how to collaborate. And they learn how to create.

“I hope the students learn how to challenge themselves through this project,” said Ms. Machusko. “We provide them with basic instruction to circuits and then it’s up to them to take charge of their own learning through hands-on exploration.”

Students are engaged from the moment they walk through the door each day. They come to class armed with new ideas they are eager to try. They work diligently throughout the entire period. Some days the bell will ring at the end of class and nobody moves toward the door. They want to be right here. In class. Learning.

“There is never a dull moment from the start to the completion of this project,” added Ms. Machusko. “But my favorite part is the excitement you can see on their faces when they make the final connection and their new creation works!”

Published May 27, 2016