“Real” Fires!

Unfortunately, the Zombies broke into our camps and contaminated our water supply! Everyone knows you can’t survive long without good, clean water! Our top priority this week was to purify the water supply we have to make it drinkable again! We had to make a plan to build a fire with supplies found in our area in hopes of boiling the contaminated supply.

I presented this challenge to my classes midway through class on Thursday this week, giving them minimal time to make a plan for Friday’s fire-building challenge. After reviewing the challenge that would be carried out on the following day, without fail, multiple students in every single class asked, “Wait, are we ACTUALLY going to build REAL fires??? Like … actually?”

The immediate concentration and excitement that exploded throughout the room is why I love project-based learning so much. Student groups physically leaned in closer to each other. Hands reached for pencils and crayons to represent sticks and logs while they discussed design plans. “I’m a Boy Scout!” was said in at least two classes.

We could have pretended this was a real challenge. We could have just drawn it out and talked through it. That certainly would have contained the volume and energy level in the room. I would not have achieved the same level of engagement, though, and furthermore, I would like to point out the biggest reason I believe authenticity matters.

For the past few weeks, our students have been learning about atoms, molecules, and states of matter. Part of their skill check a week ago was to draw what happens to molecules when they change from a solid to a liquid to a gas and back again. When they were initially presented with the fire-building challenge on Thursday, part of their design-approval included a labeled drawing that depicted and described what would be happening to the liquid molecules as they changed to gas molecules.

Many students were not sure what I expected to see in their drawings at first. When I said, “You’ve been learning about this downstairs,” the lightbulbs suddenly went off.

“Oh! I know what happens!!”

Nearly every student was able to explain the process to me once they made the realization that what they had been learning about in class with Mr. Brown was being applied to a real-life situation they could wrap their minds around in this class. That connection needed to be made, though. How often do students ask, “When will I ever need to know this??” Application of knowledge to authentic scenarios allows students to recognize the value of what they are learning. And when we do our final application checkpoint next week to assess their understanding of the changing states of matter, our fire-building challenge will be an unforgettable experience they can use on which to reflect and explain their understanding.

Plus, it’s important to note – all groups who were successful in boiling their water for at least one minute acquired the first clue in locating the Zombie’s home base, bringing us one step closer to overcoming this impending-apocalypse!!

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