Make Every Day a School Day

21st century skills 5 whys algorithmic thinking authentic bloom's taxonomy critical thinking engineering design process everyday life homeschool logical reasoning problem solving project-based learning real-world teachable moments use case Jan 16, 2024
Mother and daughter using a self-checkout station at a retail store

For homeschool families, school is always in session.  Everyday life is full of teachable moments.  I’ve heard of moms relating a retail purchase to American history.  “That comes to $17.89,” says the store clerk.  “Ooh, what happened in 1789 kids?” says Mom excitedly.  This leads to a conversation about the United States Constitution that can branch off in many directions: the Articles of Confederation, the French Revolution, the structure of our early government compared to today, and so on.  Because homeschool parents tend to be very involved in their students' education, it becomes fairly easy to relate something that occurs during a family outing to a topic they know their kids have recently studied.

Seeing STEM in Real Life

The same can be done with technology and engineering even if you (the parent) are not a computer programmer or engineer yourself.  With these kinds of experiences, though, the answer and ensuing discussion are likely to be less about the recall of factual information and more about exploring how something works, why it works that way, and how it could be improved.  This moves students from the lowest levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy (knowledge and comprehension) to the higher levels (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) where more critical thinking takes place.

Imitation Leads to Innovation

Following these experiences, students could be challenged to design a similar system.  If the student currently has no knowledge of computer programming or electrical or mechanical engineering, then the design could be merely a thought exercise resulting in a sketch, a diagram, or a written explanation of how such a system might work.  Students, though, who do know some programming or who have had some experience building electrical circuits or models could actually construct simplified versions of either the entire system or components within the system.

How? Why?

Here's an example.  You’re with your family at the local grocery store checking out at the self-service kiosk.  You scan an item and are prompted to place it in the bagging area.  The system refuses to scan the next item until the current item has been bagged, and the system will warn you when it detects something in the bag that it thinks hasn’t yet been scanned.  Ask your kids to describe how this system works.  You don't actually have to know how the system works - that isn't the point.  The task is to think of a system that could work, not necessarily one that does work.  What are some ways such a system can know that a scanned item has not yet been bagged or a bagged item has not yet been scanned?  Push them to go beyond a superficial or simplistic response by asking “How?” and “Why?” several times.  (There’s a questioning technique called the 5 Whys that is used in root-cause analysis that might come in handy!)  Later, challenge them to create the plans or a prototype of their system, either on paper, as a computer program, or as a working physical model.  Doing so will likely highlight that there are often more obstacles needing to be overcome even after one has a basic understanding.

Rinse and Repeat

Once they have created a first draft of their design or prototype, look for situations they might have overlooked.  Ask them to consider "What happens if ...."  Have them revisit their project to try to address these missing use cases.  This is a part of the engineering design process, an iterative and cyclic approach to problem solving.  Again, you (the parent) are not responsible for determining "right" or "wrong."  Instead, you use your much broader life experiences to look for the gaps and shortcomings so that they learn to accept, respond to, and address feedback and constructive criticism.

In case you need some more ideas:

  • Self-service ordering at a fast food restaurant
  • Online pizza ordering (particularly with Domino's new Pinpoint Delivery service)
  • The remote control for your television
  • Same day pickup for online retail orders
  • The obstacle detection system in your car
  • E-ZPass-style toll payment systems
  • Any social media platform
  • Online payment systems like Venmo or Zelle
  • And there are so many more!  (The list is literally endless.)

When am I ever going to use this?

Using everyday life as an inspiration for these kinds of authentic projects provides a ready-made answer to “When am I ever going to use this?”  Further, it will help to develop a curious and inquisitive perspective about how the world works that naturally leads to other valuable 21st century skills like problem solving, logical reasoning, and algorithmic thinking.

Peeling Away the Outer Layers

At the Excalibur Solutions STEM Academy, we use things from the real world as the central element for many of our projects.  From video games to web pages to the three-way light bulb in your family room, we attempt to peel back the outermost layers to expose how these things work.  Often all that’s required are some inexpensive components (which can sometimes be virtualized for free!), a little bit of know-how, and a large dose of creativity.  Our goal is to help prepare students for a future full of gadgets and gizmos and to help them move from simply being technology consumers towards being those who create innovative solutions to tomorrow's problems.  Be sure to check out our subscription program for more ways to bring STEM education to your children!

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