Monday, May 26, 2008

Storm Surge!

Every teacher knows that one of the hardest times to live through (and maintain some semblance of sanity) is that period of time in between The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests and the Very Last Day of School. The kids have shut down. They are done, done, done! It doesn't matter that there are still a few weeks to go, a final chance to bring up that grade point average, and grades being taken. They. Just. Don't. Care.

So here's the dilemma. How to keep these hormonal seventh graders busy and occupied and actually learning something?

Mrs. Eagle and I have pondered this on and off all year. We had four weeks to keep them busy, and we wanted something that wouldn't drive us completely over the bend. We did have one final (non-tested) standard to teach - severe weather, so we knew we'd do something with that. And thank our lucky stars we found something in one of the NSTA publications we get (that membership is worth its weight in gold), modified it to fit our situation and came up with the Natural Disaster Construction Assignment.

This was a group project, and that in itself created a lot of entertainment. We have our kids work in groups all year but this was the one time they got to chose their groups. The natural tendency of seventh graders is to want to work with their friends - even if their friends are a bunch of brain-dead slackers who won't lift a finger to help. When they realized that part of this assignment involved grading each other, some of them reevaluated who they wanted to work with. Others decided half way through that they wanted to fire their teammates and change teams because the teammates weren't doing their share. I heard more complaining and whining about people not doing their jobs than I'd heard the entire year prior. It was, in short, a real learning experience in working with (and getting along with) others.

The goal of this project, besides learning to work with others and to meet deadlines, was to research the most common natural disasters in the U.S., and to build a prototype city that could withstand these. We showed a few videos on hurricanes and tornadoes that had a lot of information on building construction, safe houses, and warning systems. The students also had to write an evacuation plan for their city as well, which was a real struggle for some of them. Thank goodness much of this research could be done quite easily on line as our library was in the process of shutting down for the year.

But the most fun was actually building the city.

They had to supply all the materials, and were to turn in a design plan which had to be approved before they could begin construction. In short, if they hit the assignment deadlines, they would have plenty of time to build. If they didn't, they spent the rest of their time playing catch up. They didn't particularly like the deadlines - this is a group, after all, that isn't real big on turning in assignments on time, and still freaks out when they don't get credit for late work (apparently they do in elementary school). However, as I explained to them, in the Real World, when you hae a job, you need to meet deadlines.

Some of them have decided that the Real World, in their words, "sucks".

Yeah, well, welcome to it.

The models themselves ranged all over the map - we had domed buildings, buildings that were shaped like pyramids so the wind would blow up and over them, models with storm walls, cities with extensive basement shelters, and more. It was awesome hearing the kids discuss (and argue) the various merits of the ideas they were tossing out. Kids talking science...gotta love it.

In any case, we had set aside time to test our models on Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week. We were going use some box fans to blow wind at the models, then a watering can with water, and last, but not least, a bucket of water to simulate storm surge. Mr. Enforcer got wind of our project and arranged for maintenance to bring us one of Those Really Big Fans that they use when carpets flood to help dry them off - the kind of fan that can knock a kid off his feet, given the opportunity. We were also going to throw pennies at the model to simulate flying debris, but someone else was using the goggles from the science lab, so we bagged that idea.

Mrs. Eagle's classroom has a back door that opens to a grassy area, with a drainage ditch behind it. It slopes, so it was the perfect spot to use to test our models. She also has sinks with water in her room (I don't) so we had a ready source of water. We got an extension cord, hooked up the Really Big Fan, had the watering can filled, a couple of buckets filled, and were ready to go.

The kids could hardly stand it.

We put the first model on the ground in front of the fan. The kids were lined up along each side, all eyes on the model. We started the fan on low speed.

The model didn't move.

We moved to high speed.

The buildings on the model began to bend a bit in the wind. A toy car went flying.

We began pouring water out of the watering can which blew against the model like a driving rain.

Some of the buildings began to sway a bit more and the streets begin to flood.

After the watering can was emptied came the bucket of water.

"Storm Surge!" they all yelled, and we threw the bucket of water onto the model.

A few buildings toppled. More cars went flying. Trees bent and buckled under the weight of the wind and water.

The kids SCREAMED.

But...amazingly...a few buildings were still standing!

The kids screamed some more, and then we did the next model. And the next. And the next. And we all had a fantastic time.

Nothing like a bit of water, sun, and destruction to make a seventh grader's day!

The best part was, later in the post-destruction class discussion, they actually discussed what worked and what wouldn't. Despite having to deal with teammates that were slugs, having to meet deadlines, having to write an evacuation plan, and all the real work that went into this project, they actually learned something.

And they all said it was the most fun they'd had in a long time.


The Bus Driver said...

Thats absolutely brilliant!!! You should bring a video camera to class when you do these projects. I could just feel the excitement of the kids as the "storm" mounted!

Karen said...

That sound very cool! Our state tests were in MARCH! but these past few weeks the kids have checked OUT - and so have I! 8 more teaching days (but I'm taking THREE of those days off!)

Kelly N said...

I am a 6th grade science teacher in Missouri, and after teaching 5th grade for 7 years, I am looking for new hands-on projects I can incorporate into my new curriculum. This project sounds just like what I am looking for. I would understand if you don't want to, but if you wouldn't mind sharing, I would love to see your project plan and the name of the NSTA book it came from. Thanks so much in advance. You can reach me at the address attached. It looks like you had a great time! What a way to end the school year.

Principal said...

What a great idea. Our teachers have been struggling to find things to do since our state test which was the first 2 weeks in April.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

The NSTA magazine we modified this from was Science Scope which is the middle school magazine. The article was, I think, Weather Tamers. You can get it from the website if you're a member and if you aren't a member - join! It was the best investment I made a few years ago. As for the project plan...that's locked up in my file cabinet in my classroom for the summer...if I remember (yeah, right) I can dig it out again when school starts back up in August!

Sarah said...

That sounds like fun!!

kaolin fire said...

That's really. Really. Awesome. :D

j m holland said...

Your writing reminds me of Tracy Kidder, the way you describe the classroom is poetic.
I wish I was in your class when I was in school.

Ruth said...

This sounds fantastic.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

J. M. Holland, thank you for the very, very kind comment. I've never thought of myself as poetic.