How a Build-Off Builds 21st Century Skills

Caught reading in the PFTSTA library
Lately, I seem to write more in this blog about makerspaces in the library over books and reading. Yet, reading is still a focus in my library. You can catch pictures of students reading in the PFTSTA library by visiting the library on Facebook or Instagram and please follow us, too, so you don't miss any of the action. Back to the makerspace--it is so engaging, and if it is the robots, Lego, and a 3D pen that draws the students into the library, then I am all for it.

The three teams early in the creative process
About a week and a half ago, some 7th grade boys came to me and said that they wanted to do a Build-Off. Never heard of it, I told them. They wanted to create teams and have each team build a structure and then have me and a couple of 6th graders serve as judges to determine a winner. Okay, I thought this was a great idea. I suggested that they come up with a set of guidelines for the structures and rubric for the judging. Three teams were formed with two students on each team. They would each build a catapult that was going to be judged on structure (did it hold together after firing), style (how did it look), and distance (which catapult sent the ammunition the farthest). These catapults were built using Lego. The students worked during their lunch period only and had a week for construction. Last Friday was the day set for the competition. On Thursday, one of the team's catapults fell apart. That team could not rebuild fast enough to make the competition on Friday. On Friday, we selected two 6th graders at random and set up the arena for the competition. One team had it on style, but the other team shot their ammunition further which got them the win.

The two catapults right before competition
What I thought students learned during the Build-Off are the 21st century skills that are so critical for these students' future success. First was collaboration. The team members had to work together as they were allowed only one entry into the competition. The team that did not compete had some collaboration issues which prevented them from rebuilding their broken catapult with speed. The second skill was critical thinking. I watched as one team added an archway that allowed their catapult to launch with more force, but every time they tested the catapult the arch would break apart. It took days, but they finally found a way to make it stay together. Problem solving was also needed to figure out how to make the arch stay in tact, but each team had many other problems to solve along the way before the actual competition. Work ethic is a skill that the teachers assess for all students in our school. For this competition, the students had to eat lunch quickly in the cafeteria so that they could have 30 minutes in the library to work. Every day for a week, they ran into the library grabbed the materials and were on their way. I love seeing this dedication to getting a project complete. I see them as future engineers and know that work ethic will be essential for them to succeed. Creativity is another 21st century skill that was utilized in this activity, and each of the three catapults had a different look which illustrated the creative minds of these students. 

I know that future ready skills is the new buzz word and that 21st century skills is a term that has become passé. However, with either term, the essential meaning is that educators are helping to train and teach students for careers and jobs that might not yet exist. It is our job to assure that students will be ready for whatever comes their way once they graduate and move on. In the library at lunch, even though the students might not be engaged in a formal lesson presented by a teacher, there can be many different kinds of learning happening every day. 

The boys who designed the Build-Off think the next step is to have 6th graders make something that they will judge. So far, the decision was for the new teams to design some form of transportation with wheels that will be judged on style, speed, and distance moved. No one has yet stepped up to join a team, but I don't doubt that it will happen. What makes this activity super cool to me is the fact that it was totally student instigated and student led, and the students were so totally engaged. Really my only purpose was to serve as a judge which really wasn't necessary because other students could have taken on that role.
They may have come in second, but they had a blast while competing


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