From Makers to Model Citizens

Spotlight on Rube Goldberg projects
Here at Parker, we follow a progressive model of education designed to scaffold independence, motivation, and risk-taking in developmentally appropriate ways for each grade. Educators are constantly aiming to hit that sweet spot between teacher-directed instruction and student-led exploration. It is in this happy middle that our students find their zone of proximal development, a learning space that balances what students can do on their own with what they can achieve under the guidance of adults or more capable peers. Working on challenging tasks that fall within this range promotes maximum cognitive growth, building both skills and confidence for our learners.
One outstanding example of this type of learning are the Rube Goldberg Projects that were showcased by our 7th and 8th graders at assembly this morning. For the past month, these two classes have been hard at work tinkering, creating, experimenting and building to fashion these complex machines designed to complete a simple task. Under the guidance of our middle school science teacher, John Sherry, and middle school math teacher, Paul Rix, 7th and 8th graders were thoughtfully paired in teams of two or three, with consideration given to each student’s strengths and potential for growth. As Paul explained, “It is a life skill to learn how to work outside your own bubble, brainstorm with others, and take an idea from paper to realization in a way that effectively communicates your needs.”
Working together, these teams literally designed their projects from the ground up, utilizing our wood shop, spare robotics equipment, loose parts, and even learning materials (like textbook dominos:). Today, each team presented their final working prototype, much to the awe and delight of our PreK-6th graders and faculty.
John Sherry (MS Science) reflected on the importance of this project saying, “I’ve seen these kids do so much problem-solving in thinking of creative ways to make something out of nothing. They know they have to make it work, and they design it, but then it doesn’t work at all. Like, literally nothing does what it is supposed to do. And they are devastated. But every single time they pick themselves up, put it back together, and they realize which little thing needs an adjustment, or which little tweak has to go where. In the beginning, they needed a lot of little nudges or suggestions from me, but after doing this for weeks now they are on autopilot. They recognize on their own the best way to solve an issue. So much independence is built behind the scenes on a project like this.”
A few of our middle schoolers reflected on their experiences as well. One student shared, “I already knew that the first time wasn’t going to be perfect, but for me the hardest part was troubleshooting all the little things. We had to keep running it again and again and again to find exactly where our alterations needed to go. Often it was just the difference between putting an extra piece of tape here or a little dot of hot glue there, but figuring it out was the hard part.” 
Another student added, “In my group, I was very focused on designing our project. Another of my team members was interested in building it, and our third person really cared about making it beautiful. I thought that was a really nice mix. If we all wanted to do the same thing, our ideas would clash…but this way we were all able to contribute in a meaningful way.”
A third student also reflected on what they had learned, saying “The hardest part was that some parts of our design took literally a week to figure out how to do it right. Working with a team was useful because other people can show their strengths when you’re having a hard time showing yours. I found myself getting distracted and frustrated a lot, and my team was patient and always found an interesting way to bring me back to the project. I learned that teamwork always gets things done. No matter what you do, you’re always going to make mistakes, but you don’t give up.”
Our 7th and 8th grade teachers, John and Paul, also shared from their perspectives as lead guides for this project. As Paul explained, “We are such an instant gratification culture. To have a task that requires planning and consistent work to reach a completion goal that is way out in the distance is so abstract for a middle schooler. Then add to that the fact that time after time, what you do doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work. This experience really teaches them to pick up their chins and try again. That is such a great growth edge for these kids. Instead of a bunch of small, daily assignments, experiences like these also teach grit and resilience.”
John concluded, adding “Most 7th and 8th graders have the academic and manual skill level for projects like this. However, socially, the communication skills they need to be successful in high school are still developing. I think that deep down that is the most impactful learning in a project like this. Students should be able to work with a group that was thoughtfully chosen for them. They should be able to work together towards a long term goal, run into these pitfalls, and help each other out…pick each other up. Over the course of this project, I’ve seen students learn to tell their teammates what they are thinking, lean on their partners, and think of themselves less as independent operators and more as citizens in a society. There is a shift from “want to do it” to “We are going to do it.” If we can send our 7th and 8th graders into the world thinking like that, that is a pivotal accomplishment for our little school.”