Kids These Days!
For more than 15 years, my sixth grade science-teaching colleagues and I have presented a Mag-Lev (Magnetic Levitation) activity to our students at the end of our magnetism unit. This project challenges students to cut a piece of cardboard to fit between parallel aluminum rails. Students select different numbers and varieties of magnets and tape these to the cardboard. The magnets should rest over strips of magnets on the Mag-Lev track so that they repel from the track’s magnets.
This has always been a highly engaging project for students, but each year students seem to struggle with it more and more. Our rubrics have not changed, so we really are comparing “apples to apples”.
Why the Struggle? (Initial Theory):
Why has this activity become more challenging for students each succeeding year? One theory we’ve come up with is that students’ measurement and cutting skills are eroding. So much of today’s world is virtual our reasoning goes (especially for children), that students rarely create things that require measurement or cutting. Choosing proper magnets won’t help if the cardboard pieces don’t fit neatly between the aluminum rails. To test this theory I invented the Cardboard Ski Jumper activity. Careful measurement and cutting of cardboard is its primary focus. The added complexity of the magnets is removed. The Ski Jumper features a pair of parallel wooden rails that angle down at a 45-degrees. On the inside surfaces of these rails are saw-cut grooves. Students must measure the distance between these grooves, and cut a piece of cardboard to fit into them.
This cardboard needs to slide down the Ski Jump without jamming or falling out. As shown in the photograph, there is a wide spot part way down that students must account for.
Students are allowed to use a ruler to measure as many times as they like, but they cannot bring their cardboard to the Ski Jumper unless it is to test it. Grading is as follows:
A: First piece of cardboard slides all the way down the ramp.
B: Second piece of cardboard slides all the way down the ramp.
C: Third piece of cardboard slides all the way down the ramp.
D: More than three pieces of cardboard are cut before one slides all the way down the ramp.
F: No pieces of cardboard are tested in the entire period.
For five years we have been doing this activity, the results have been amazingly consistent—no clear decline in grades. (Approximately 1/3 A’s, 1/3 B’s, and 1/3 C’s and D’s combined.) According to the data, the majority of students can measure and cut cardboard accurately on their first or second attempt.
How Important are these Skills?:
The Cardboard Ski Jumper data indicates measurement and cutting skills are not the main problem during Mag-Levs. On the other hand, many students test multiple Mag-Levs that do not come close to fitting properly between the aluminum rails (I’ll ignore the magnet choices—these are additional problems!). Hmmm.
Two questions: Measurement and cutting. Are these important 21st century skills? How much time should we spend helping middle school students develop these skills? I asked several friends if they regularly use these skills in their occupation. Most told me that accurate cutting wasn’t a commonly used skill, but measurement was. When I pressed for examples of measurement on the job, most gave examples related to hobbies, not occupations. Does this mean careful cutting and accurate measuring are obsolete skills? Is the Mag-Lev an activity worthy of student time and effort? I will sidestep these questions and make a different point. I believe the Mag-Lev activity is less about cutting and measurement and more about something entirely different!
Students must carefully observe what is happening with their Mag-Levs. Is it jammed between the rails? Is it so narrow that it can repel and twist out from between the rails? Are magnets arranged so that one side attracts to the track? Are the cardboard’s magnets right over the track’s magnets? Presented with so many variables, many students become overwhelmed. Their Mag-Lev is not working, but they are unable to identify the problem. They must reflect on their product, and make adjustments. Once adjustments are made, they must again observe and reflect. Such reflection of work is most definitely a 21st century skill. Students may not design Mag-Levs for a living, but they will work on tasks that require their careful reflection. Did I word this memo clearly? Is this the fairest allocation of resources? Did this advertising campaign produce enough additional sales? What is the best design for the bridge in terms of cost, longevity, and aesthetics?
In order to create a successful Mag-Lev, students must carefully observe what is happening with their product and reflect upon their designs. Why does my Mag-Lev appear to attract to the rails even though the rails are aluminum? Why is it always stopping at that spot? Why does my Mag-Lev repel from one side of the track and attract to the other side, even when I flip the magnets over? Authentic practice with reflection, as well as work with cutting and measurement, makes Mag-Levs an absolutely relevant activity for 21st century learners.
But this is not the final word. What do you think?
Here is a video of the Cardboard Ski Jumper.
5 thoughts on “Kids These Days”
I think your challenge with student performance speaks to a broad issue regarding creativity and imagination. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to create games and amusements from scratch, or from different use of existing things. I don’t know that this kind of activity exists anymore. Between video games, manufactured toys and helicopter parents, too many kids have neither the need nor the inclination to create. Maybe I am off-base on this, but as an example, think of Legos. Yes, the movie and TV-inspired kits are amazing, but wasn’t there something pretty special about creating something yourself from a pile of rectangles?
The best answer I came up with doesn’t directly answer your question so if this isn’t helpful, my apologies.
The last few years of my career in sales management found our organization “dumbing down” the job our sales reps and local sales managers had to the point where they “merely” executed against detailed prescribed tasks. The job basically “got done” but, “no thinking required”, thank you! While not stated, the underlying objective appeared to me to be where anyone with a pulse could be plugged into a job with minimum capabilities and experience and produce minimum results. What was lost was the “richness” that thinking, engaged people could bring to the job which I believed ultimately led not only to much greater results but also a better overall morale and healthier work environment that the organization enjoyed and benefited from thru much of my time there.
Should time be spent teaching middle schoolers how to cut and measure? I don’t know not understanding the current curriculum demands, but I think it’s unfortunate if those useful skills weren’t introduced at home to pre-schoolers and built on in Kindergarten. I do believe that a basic understanding of how things are fabricated and assembled is valuable to most people as they are asked to work in teams and problem solve on the job. After all, things don’t just happen because we want them to and are directed by the boss to “get it done!”.
Two final thoughts which at first glance will likely appear to be totally irrelevant to your questions and the feedback you were hoping for. In the context of learning in general I think there may be some value. I think many people could benefit from these if they pondered them regularly in their lives and took the ideas seriously. I don’t think middle school is too early for young people to start thinking along these lines.
-What the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve
-We become what we think about
The Mag-Lev project sounds fantastic. I am curious about how the failures have increased over the years, are they mostly due to measurement and cutting issues, and have they changed over the years? Since you mentioned that this project comes at the end of the unit, I assume that students are familiar with the materials and their behavior before they begin, but even so, there’s a chance that the increase in complexity is overwhelming, as you suggest.
Given the iterative nature of the mag-Lev project, it would be interesting to see how students fare at this project as an introduction to the unit. They may have many misconceptions about how their rig will function that are unrelated to their understanding of magnetism. Their improvement over time would also allow you to show how learning about magnetism improved their ability to tackle this problem.
Thanks for sharing!
Lots o’ slipping and sliding on this one! I don’t know if you’ve got and actual apples and apples comparison It is interesting that the grading result has stayed constant on the cardboard slot slide over a 5 year stretch yet you reference an increasing struggle with cutting and measuring skills.
I agree the Mag-Lev involves many more variables with lots of tinkering. Off the top, I don’t think I could make a Mag-Lev from the provided description and my fuzzy memory, but I know it’s a complex device.
The “reward of accomplishment” is likely greater with the increased complexity of the Mag-Lev.
I would love to see both of these projects in operation as embedded comparative movies.
Thanks for sharing!
Charlie, you raise a great point about my concern about cutting and measuring, but see little evidence of it in the Cardboard Ski Jumpers. What I believe is happening is when the task is more complex (Mag-Levs versus Ski Jumpers) students have a hard time identifying the cause of their “failure”. When asked to do little beyond cut and measure accurately, they can for the most part. Throw in the challenge of considering type of magnets, number of magnets, and placement of magnets, and students seem to forget that they must have accurately measured and cut Mag-Lev bodies, or the magnet variables won’t ever work!
I have a video link I will add to the post for Cardboard Ski Jumpers. I don’t believe I’ve made a Mag-Lev video.