How difficult is it to keep time with nothing but cups, straws, popsicle sticks, etc?
That's the question we asked our 9th grade class in a design challenge we have dubbed "A Timer is Bourn". Over four sessions during EOP (extended opportunity period), our freshmen girls were charged with finding a way to keep time for 5 minutes using a standard kit of parts, some common materials like sand, water, capacitors and batteries from their physics lab supplies, and above all, their imagination.
Unbeknownst to the girls, this activity has actually been in the works since even before they arrived on campus. Towards the end of summer, a group of teachers from various departments met to brainstorm interdisciplinary activities that would give the students a taste of design and building while connecting with some of the concepts covered in history, physics, and math. After discussing a few potential topics, we eventually settled on timekeeping.
From the history side, timekeeping is a key topic that sets the stage for learning about the age of scientific discovery. In physics, the measurement of time is critical to many of the experiments students perform in the lab, yet more often than not, we take the measurement of time itself for granted. Like all other measurements, of course, how time is measured affects its accuracy and precision. With all these links to the 9th grade curriculum, timekeeping seemed like a prime topic upon which to develop an interdisciplinary activity. And when the Bourn Lab gets involved, you can count on us to bring a building/design component to it! ;)
In the first session, held on 9/26, students were given an introduction to the importance of timekeeping. History teachers Peggy McKee and Christy Story talked with the girls about timekeeping in the historical context. Then students dispersed into various classrooms where there were models of historical clocks, like Galileo's pendulum clock and clepsydra (water clock), as well as electronic resources to explore timekeeping (e.g. the super accurate clocks of the Olympics). The main goal of this session was to give the girls some ideas for how to keep time and seed them with inspirations for their deisgn challenge.
The second session, held on 10/10, kicked off the project with a video starring our head of school, where the timing challenge was presented. Each pair of girls were then given a Ziploc bag containing assorted supplies. With only that little bit of instructions, the girls were off! Some headed straight for the sink to try out water clock ideas; others saw the buckets of sand and started experimenting with hourglasses. A few groups spied the boxes of capacitors, batteries, and light bulbs and decided to try out what they learned in physics class to build timing devices out of electronic components. The wide array of approaches that the girls took to solving this challenge was absolutely astounding! At some point, one group even asked me if they can use the Ziploc bag as part of their clock - talk about innovative thinking!
After two one-hour build sessions, the end was upon us before we know it. In the final session, we gathered all the groups in one room and allowed them some time to finish/refine their clocks before asking them to take the timing challenge. Timer stations were set up at one end of the room - Diego and I had worked together to make some timer boxes using giant red buttons hooked up to GoGoBoards. (Why? Because giant red buttons are so much fun to push, of course!) To keep the excitement level high, as groups got tested, we projected the live tally of results on the projector so everyone could see the current standings. In the end, the group that got closest to 5 minutes came in at 4 minutes and 59 seconds! Each of the departments involved also gave out awards. Bourn Lab, for example, gave out an award for the most thoughtful design.
Since this was the first time we teachers ran this activity, a lot of lessons were learned and we already have a long list of ideas for improvements next time, including everything from how much build time to allot, how to redesign the first session to run more smoothly, other items to include in the kits, etc. But all in all, the activity was a rousing success! And the best part? It wasn't just us teachers who thought so. We asked students to complete a survey the day after the activity ended and the comments we received were generally quite positive. "It was cool when you were able to successfully overcome a problem you encountered," one student wrote.
Now, how cool is that?
(Many thanks to all the teachers who were involved in this activity - Peggy McKee, Christy Story, Eugenie Paick, Jon Rockman, Bryan Valek, Jean Adams, Kim Knapp, Josh Genauer - as well as all the many many people who provided various support along the way, from the kitchen staff who allowed us to use the dining room right after lunch to our maintenance crew who helped us even with strange requests like "please take down all visible clocks in the dining room". While all Bourn projects are team efforts by nature, this one was way more so than all the others.)