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Teaching Tips for PEN lessons

Overcoming rote-learning

Most students are used to a very strict approach to learning - to do well, a student is expected to memorise facts and repeat them back during tests. Questions usually only have one answer, problems have one solution and if the student doesn't give the right answer they are punished.

While this is a good way to learn some things (like correct spelling or times tables), students learn science and design much better when they are taught in a hands-on way that allows them to be creative and think independently.

Most PEN lessons are structured to try to discourage rote-learning and memorisation and instead encourage a more open way of learning. However, it is sometimes difficult for students (and teachers!) to get used to this way of teaching, and students are sometimes afraid of speaking up in case they are 'wrong'. Some tips to overcome this:

  • DON'T punish a student or laugh at a club member for getting the wrong answer, otherwise they might be afraid to speak up again.
  • If someone gets a wrong answer, don't just correct them. Try to ask questions (to the class, if you like) to get them to figure out WHY they are wrong. If possible, ask more questions or try to get them in the right direction to arrive at the answer themselves
  • Encourage students to ask questions. Though it can be difficult, resist giving answers right away - make it clear that you're not going to give any answers if the students don't ask questions
  • Encourage group discussions, and brainstorming (see below). Students should be able to talk without raising their hands, and everyone in the room should have a chance to talk, not just the teacher or club leader.
  • Don't worry if a student asks you a question you don't know the answer to - that's not a problem! It's better to set them a challenge to find out the answer themselves than to guess and tell them something that might be wrong.

Brainstorming/Discussion Techniques

One of the most important activities you can do to encourage students to think for themselves and break out of a rote-learning mindset is to hold 'brainstorms' and group discussions.

  • Brainstorming is basically the process of coming up with ideas (for a design, or for the answer to a question) in a group, by coming up with as many suggestions as possible. It is best done with a blackboard or a large piece of paper so that you can write down suggestions as you go.
  • Present the question or design challenge, and ask the class or club to shout out suggestions. Write ALL suggestions up on the board, even those that seem far too crazy or are meant as jokes. Even if they don't work, crazy suggestions can provoke a good idea! It also helps to start off with some *really* crazy suggestions of your own, so students know that they can shout out anything.
  • If the class is too large to have an effective group discussion, split it into small groups and have the students discuss ideas amongst themselves (ask them to come up with 10 or 20 ideas). Then get a representative from each group to present the group's ideas, and write them up on the main board.

Encouraging Design

Encouraging students to understand hands-on science is hard, but encouraging them to come up with their own designs is even harder!

  • In design, there is NO RIGHT ANSWER. There is no such thing as the “perfect design” for a device - only good designs and bad designs. Two different students in a class might come up with two completely different designs for a device that are both good designs. Make sure that students know this!
  • Try not to show any pre-made examples of your own designs. These might be taken to be the “right answer” and you might end up with a class full of replicas of your designs! Instead, draw pictures on the board or use simple physical examples to illustrate concepts. For example, if your class are designing anemometers (wind wheels), don't show a real anemometer as an example - instead you could describe how they need cups or curved surfaces to “catch the wind” and demonstrate with drawings or by bending a sheet of paper.
  • Encourage students to follow a 'design process', e.g.

1. Brainstorm ideas in a group or by writing lots down on a piece of paper

2. Come up with 'design criteria' - what are some things your design has to do? (e.g. “cost than $10”, “charge the battery with a 3A current”, “be durable”)

3. Roughly sketch out your favourite designs and figure out which of them best fits the design criteria

4. Do an in-depth sketch of your chosen design and work out how you want to construct it

Tips for Hands-on Experiments

Teaching a class full of students all doing their own (independent) hands-on experiments can be daunting, especially if they are exploring and doing their own experiments rather than following set instructions.

  • ALWAYS do experiments yourself before you teach the class, so you are prepared for what kind of things can go wrong
  • Even if each student is doing their own experiment, separate the class into small groups so that students can help each other with their experiments (note: emphasize to the class that helping each other is allowed, it is not 'cheating'!). This will encourage discussion, as well as mean students can work out small problems without having to ask you.
  • So that students can explore their own ways of doing experiments, give the class a certain amount of time to complete the experiment instead of taking it through them step-by-step as a class - choose a few points where you can stop and discuss as a class what results you are getting so far. Either get each student to stand up and say what they've been finding, or
  • If possible, try to get one teaching assistant (even an older student who has done the experiment before) to help you so that both of you can move around groups and give assistance if needed.
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