Saving the world one student at a time

When I arrived at UNT, one of the projects already underway in the research center where I work was MSOSW (Middle Schoolers Out to Save the World). The focus of this project is to increase middle school students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math through a problem-based unit focused on energy conservation. The students participating in this project, which included schools from Texas, Louisiana, Maine and Vermont, use Watts Up? devices to measure the amount of vampire energy used by the electronic devices in their homes. This project involves a lot of in-depth learning about energy consumption, carbon emissions, measurement units for energy and power, energy costs, carbon footprint, stand-by power and product design. In addition to these concepts, the students are required to do a lot of math for conversions, and they must use a spreadsheet.

Because I see such value in these types of projects, I wanted my pre-service teachers to experience firsthand what it looks like to complete a problem-based unit from beginning to end. I observed this unit being taught last year at Good Shepherd Episcopal School, but I had never actually planned and taught it myself. Let me tell you, the planning was much more time intensive than I had assumed, and I ended up staying up late one night to get all of the materials ready.

The first thing I did was put my students into groups of 2. I normally let them pick their own partners, but they have gotten, how shall we say, comfortable this semester, and I wanted to break them out of their apathetic little comfort zone. The next thing I did was set up a Google Presentation for each group. I wanted them to see how this tool worked, so I created one for each group and set them up so anyone could edit. The next thing I did was lay out the project on Glogster. I was never really happy with how this turned out, but you can see it here. The process of setting up this glog (their term, not mine) required me to go find all of the resources I wanted them to have for the project. This included a carbon footprint calculator, a vampire energy calculator, a graph maker, a couple of videos and a spreadsheet for entering some data. As the pre-service teachers went through this project, I had them report their information in the Google Presentation along the way. I also brought a few Watts Up? devices to the lab and hooked them up to a monitor, a CPU tower, the printer and the document projector. I wanted them to do the math required to calculate how much energy the lab uses in a 24 hour period. Overall, they did a really nice job and completed the whole activity, even though it was not for a grade (I will grade it in the future, I think).

Here are a few lessons learned from this tech-rich problem-based unit:

  1. Pre-service teachers actually like this kind of work. I have to say, this was hard and the students really struggled with some of the math and science concepts. But they stuck with it and took the topic seriously. I would even go so far as to say they learned something about energy conservation from doing this. I also hope they learned something about using this teaching strategy with students
  2. Glogster is kind of cool, but it has been extremely unstable and unreliable lately. On several occasions I have logged on and gotten some sort of “We will be down for the next 36 hours, but we are adding some really awesome new features!” Well, when I go to retrieve my work from a Web tool and it is not there, I’m done with that tool. That is a total deal breaker for me. So, Glogster, I am sure your new design is really awesome, but you let me down on several occasions and I’m done. I will also not be pointing my students to this tool because it let many of them down too.
  3. When you set up a Google Presentation to be edited by anyone with the link, it will not let you import images. The students made a graph that was exported as a JPEG, and I wanted them to import it into a slide. Google Presentation wouldn’t let them do it, so we found a very bothersome work-around. If we pasted the image in a PPT slide, we could copy and paste the graph into the Google Presentation (but only if we use CTRL-V, not the mouse). I don’t know if this was a bug in the new re-design of Google Presentation, or if they have this feature disabled for when anonymous users are editing a document. Either way, it was annoying and slowed the process down temporarily. In a K-12 classroom, this could mean the difference between a project going well and the whole thing crumbling in your hands. I do have to own this one, though, because I never tried to edit a presentation or insert an image as an anonymous user. I should have done this beforehand, but I just took for granted that it would work.
  4. Google Spreadsheet worked like a champ, and I will definitely use it in the future for activities like this. I have used this tool for years, but I had never seen multiple people entering in data at once. The students also thought this was really cool.
  5. The Vampire Energy Calculator is very cool, and I think this is what really brought the project home for the students. Even the act of physically dragging electronics into different rooms made this more like a simulation than a calculator. It’s a very well-designed tool.

So, that is my first attempt at teaching the MSOSW unit, but it will not be my last. I already have some ideas for how to make it better next time, and I hope this is serves as a catalyst for some students to begin envisioning this type of instruction in their own classrooms.