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Helping Students Problem Solve

Not only does Country Day Upper School teacher Jamie Back lead classes on computer science and the principles of engineering design while also running the school’s Makerspace and advising the school’s Maker Crew this year, but she can also now add Science Friday Educator Collaborator to her title.

Back was selected for the Science Friday Educator Collaborator Program, a competitive publishing program for K-12 educators. She is one of six people from a competitive pool of applicants across the country to join the latest cohort of educators.

Back and the others in her cohort were charged with developing a STEM educational resource. They could pick from any Science Friday piece and develop a resource to align with that story.

Back was inspired by a Science Friday video of popup artist Matthew Reinhart explaining how he creates popup books. And then she did her homework.

“I easily spent over 100 hours experimenting, building, watching videos, and reading books that explain how popups work,” said Back. “Then I came across a book by the artist Duncan Birmingham about the theory of popups and that is when it hit home – I could have the students investigate the math and engineering of popups.”

She then created a resource that guides students through the process to build and explore popup mechanisms and reflect upon the engineering and geometry that makes them "pop."

“The resource had to be a learner-facing lesson, presented in a way that you could read through the activity and be led through the whole thing from start to finish without additional instruction,” explained Back. “It also had to be presented in a way that teachers could take it and turn it into a classroom activity or it could be a project that someone could stumble on and do themselves.” 

And the reward has definitely been worth the work.

“The ohhhs and ahhhs from these high school students working through the resource in my engineering class are amazing to hear,” said Back. “High school students don't often have the opportunity to build stuff creatively; this is a great place to start – with paper, a ruler, a protractor, and a pencil.”

Back chose to start the school year with her resource, which was voted one of the best resources of 2020 by the Science Friday team, because it aligns with the conversation she has with her students at this time about what the future of engineering work and the workplace will look like. “Resiliency, creativity, problem-solving, listening – these are all skills that are critical for an engineer to possess, and the success of this project relies on all of those softer skills.”

She said the resource also provides a foundation for the fine motor skills required for engineering and building.

“This project involves precision, cutting, and connection to the world,” explained Back. “Chances are we’ve all opened a pop-up book but most of us have probably never thought about how it's made.”

And because the project relies on videos and GIFs, it gives students the opportunity to problem solve on their own.

“I try not to give too much help beyond what is provided in the resource. Engineers need to be able to build things to precise instructions and be creative. This project gives kids a chance to explore something they might not have thought of before and the challenge is for them to dig deeper and explore their creativity. Sometimes kids panic because they don’t think they’re creative, but this project gives them a chance to exercise that muscle in a safe place, to build that vision and try.”​

Inspired by her own application process, the final challenge Back gives her engineering class is to choose a story from Science Friday that interests them and to tell a story with their pop-ups. Last year, students created popups on a myriad of topics – from black holes to coral to dinosaurs.

“I was asked once if I thought my students might think that this project was beneath them. My response? Absolutely not,” said Back. “This is something they’ve never done before. Once they do it, they realize what skills are needed and that it’s more precision and work than they ever thought.”

On Friday, September 3, 2021, Back and her cohort were introduced during a Science Friday radio segment. Back is grateful she had the opportunity to participate in this adventure.
“I was really thinking of not applying,” said Back. “I had just taken on the Makerspace and teaching Computer Science here at the Upper School, but my husband encouraged me to go for it. Whenever I create a resource I know it's going to be a lot of work but this was really worth it.”

Science Friday is an award-winning public radio broadcast organization that produces podcasts, digital videos, and educational resources for teachers and informal educators.

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