Using Problem-Based learning and Design-thinking to “Reinvent the Mayflower”
What do Pilgrims, Pirates, and Science all have in common?
“You mean pilgrims had to fight pirates?” One student shouts excitedly. “Maybe. One danger of these long voyages was that ships could be attacked and taken over by pirates. They also had to prepare for huge storms that might destroy their ship. People were even being swept overboard”. I walk across the room as 29 eyes follow expectantly. “See, the Mayflower wasn’t actually meant to carry people. It used to be a cargo ship and it sailed around Europe carrying wine and cloth. Have you seen how people travel on cruise ships?” Several students nod. “The Mayflower was nothing like this. When the Pilgrims made their journey, they didn’t have separate rooms. They all had to live in this lower-deck open area without walls that wasn’t meant for people. There were no windows. It was cold, damp, and only about this big”. I sweep my hands to show a space 58 by 24 feet. “They had to cram 102 people, plus their belongings, into this space. That’s like living together with the entire 5th grade in this small space for over 2 months!”. The students laugh. “Plus, there might be some farm animals down there”. “Why didn’t they just get a better boat?” a student asks. Hearing this is when I know we have them hooked.
As teachers, we are always struggling to create meaningful learning that engages students at deeper levels. But how can we find the time to fit it all in? Creating inter-curricular, problem-based learning helps us use all the subject areas to deeply explore problem.
Using STEAM to “Reinvent the Mayflower” A 5th grade teacher here in Chicago was teaching the Journey to America. When she taught it in the past, she struggled to have students empathize and understand the bravery involved in taking this journey. She was also interested in exploring inter-curricular connections, specifically STEAM.
We designed a lesson integrating STEAM and design-thinking to bring history to life by “Reinventing the Mayflower”. This lesson allowed students to empathize with the pilgrims’ experiences while applying math and science to problem-solve. Students were tasked to “Design a Better Boat”. How could we create a ship that could: 1) Be sturdy enough make a long journey and survive storms 2) Comfortably carry passengers with space for their belongings and livestock 3) Have a defense system against potential pirate attacks and falling overboard 4) Move more quickly to make the journey faster
We began by engaging students through the story. Relating it to the students’ own lives helped them experience the fear and bravery the Pilgrims must have felt. It made them invested in the challenge: how could they re-create the Mayflower to solve these problems?
Students were excited to learn more about basics of ships so they could start on their problem. Students explored types of ships and learned the science behind how specific parts of ships functioned. We gave a quick lesson on buoyancy explaining how ships floated in water. We discussed how wind creates a resistance against boats, and how different types of sails can harness the wind to make the ships move more quickly. We explored examples and shapes of boats that move more quickly through the water.
Students then chose one of tasks to focus on, and they moved into “expert groups” with other students exploring this same topic. Students had a chance to discuss and explore ideas together before moving into their “shipbuilding groups”. The “shipbuilding groups” included 1 student from each “expert group”.
Students worked together as Makers designing prototype ships. We showed students a sample of a cross section of a ship and they drew their own cross-section showing where the passengers, personal possessions, and livestock would be kept. They included the materials they would need to defend themselves from pirate attacks and where it would be stored and located on the ship. Students were given a variety of materials: cardboard, foam, duct tape, construction paper, tinfoil, tissue paper, and straws to build prototypes of their boats. Students considered how to create floating bases for their ship, the size, shape, and placement of sails, the overall shape of the boat to make it move more quickly, and how to carry heavy cargo. We set up rain gutters filled with water, and placed fans at the end, to test out how quickly our boats could move and harness the wind.
Students had a set amount of time to build, test out and rebuild their ships. We then gathered the groups together for some challenges. We raced the ships to see which designs moved most quickly. We added marbles to each boat, to symbolize the weight of cargo, and raced again to see which boats could handle heavy cargo. We found the ideas and final designs of the ships were all different.
We completed the ideation and initial prototypes as a 2.5 hour workshop, though there are more inter-curricular extensions we would add with more time. The students thought like engineers and used the design-thinking process to solve an authentic problem. As one student said: “Wait, we were doing science stuff?”