Pentathlon Day!

I’ve written about Flex Friday before. It’s the day of the week when we don’t have classes. Instead, students work on their own long-term projects. It’s our attempt to teach them those valuable, but intangible skills around autonomy: time management, self-direction, interpersonal relationships, problem solving, resilience, and so on. It’s been going fairly well, but we felt that we could improve the experience. So this year we designed an experience to orient our 9th graders to what Flex Friday is all about. It was called the Flex Friday Pentathlon.

How it Worked

Our 9th graders were randomly assigned to 11 teams of 8-10 students. Each team was presented with five challenges:

  • Tug of War robot Challenge
  • Autonomous Robot Maze Challenge
  • Scientific Inquiry of Mysterious Liquids
  • Media Madness
  • Art of the Pitch

Each team was to decide how many of the challenges to tackle and who was to work on which challenge. Teams were allowed to work on as many of the five challenges as they wanted, and they were encouraged to tackle at least two of them.

What Happened Next

Teams were assigned on our the first Friday of school, September 11, and were introduced to the Pentathlon concept and the specific challenges. They spent the next couple of Fridays deciding which challenges to work on and creating their Gantt charts to help with organization and planning.

Robot-based teams chomped at the bit for their parts so they could start building – something. Young scientists began researching the types of tests they could perform to distinguish one liquid from another. Media types brainstormed the type of message they could produce with 1 minute of video. No one wanted to pitch anything.

Teams worked together – or they didn’t. Each team had a project manager and struggled with leadership, to some extent. Some of the upperclass students observed difficulties and stepped in to mentor the leaders. We (the adults) created afternoon workshops about how to research, edit video, design and build stuff, at the request of the 9th graders, to help them out.

The Final Friday

Their last day to work together as a team was November 20, two weeks before Pentathlon Day. Some teams were on track, while others were falling apart. My Media Madness team finally filmed their story. Now they had two weeks to edit it into a final cut. My Mysterious Liquids team had done all the research they could – they tested liquids using probeware, they researched characteristics, they asked for test liquids and analyzed them. They were ready. I also had two robot teams – one Tug of War and one Maze Runner. The tug of war team was falling apart, and there wasn’t anything that I could do to help them. There was plenty of frustration and blame to go around. One member of the team was absent. The other two were frantically trying to make a working robot.

On the Maze Runner team, it was all about programming. In all, there were three Maze Runners across all the teams. They were struggling with the programming. Two teams joined forces to try to learn together and help each other out. They shared code. They taught each other how to program an arduino, the processor that ran the robot. Just before lunch I heard, “We quit!” It wasn’t working. They had poured 10 weeks into the thing and couldn’t get it to do what they wanted. They were spent. I told them to take the afternoon off (there were other activities available). They went to lunch, and when they returned they asked if they could keep working on the robot – they’d had an idea!

Pentathlon Day, December 4

The Pentathlon ran from 10:30 until 1:30 on Friday, December 4. We all (9th graders and their project advisors) arrived at the Maine Irish Heritage Center (which feels like our partner campus – we can’t fit the school in our own space anymore) to witness the results of our 12 weeks of hard work. There were robots tugging war (eventually), robots running a maze (eventually), minutes of media madness, scientists investigating mysterious liquids, and, eventually, one pitch. It was a day where I worried that students would not have enough to keep them occupied – and they did run out of steam as the day wore on – but, overall, they rose to the challenge.

So, What Happened?

My Maze Runner team was up first, with no other events happening, so I was able to catch them on video. It was about what they had expected: They were stumped at how to program the robot to make a decision about turning left or turning right. As a result, they programmed it to always turn right. Here’s what happened:

I was on duty at the Tug of War Robot station. There were 7 robots at the beginning of the day. The first two robots to battle didn’t do much once the power switches were thrown. That caused the other teams to rethink about what they had created. We had a series of non-battles. In the meantime, that Maze Runner team from the video asked if they could enter their robot in the tug of war challenge. They were given permission to adapt their robot, but it had to take its power the same way that the other robots did – meaning that they had to redesign the power supply (from a 9 volt battery to direct input) and reprogram the robot. I have to say that I was impressed with what they accomplished in such a short amount of time. They were able to field a tug of war robot that did pretty well against the robots that didn’t move – but not so well against those that did move. After all, it wasn’t designed to pull anything. Here’s what happened in a rematch (that’s the little Maze Runner at the top of the frame):

Was it Worth it?

I mean, was it worth segregating the 9th graders from the rest of the school during these 12 weeks. Was it worth making them work on these challenges designed by adults, instead of letting them propose and work on their own project ideas? Was it worth trying to teach them some foundations of project management and project planning? Ultimately, the answers to these questions won’t be known until the end of the year. We will have to see how these 9th graders integrate themselves into the existing projects, or how successful they are at proposing and completing their own projects, or how they are able to continue with teacher-designed challenges. Are there things that I would do differently? Of course there are. This is the first time we’ve done this. Iteration and improvement is what Baxter is all about. Am I proud of what I saw the 9th graders do on December 4? Yes. I was skeptical – I’ve been teaching for a long time, after all – but, yes, as a group, they rose to the challenge. They might have slacked off earlier during the term. But when it mattered most, they worked hard – and continued working hard – until the last moment. And they learned about themselves from this experience.

That’s the point of Flex Friday.

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