Choreographer or Teacher? by Larisa Pender-Healy

Guest post by Larisa Pender-Healy, Middle School Faculty at MVPS. This is post #3 in a series about 7th graders engaging in a design project as biomedical engineers. 


Choreographer or Teacher?

I always struggle with how the beginning of a PBL is supposed to go. I have been under the assumption that the mark of a good PBL is when an entry event naturally leads students to the driving question. I agree with 50% of this statement. In my opinion, you do need a strong entry event that evokes a personal connection from students. Otherwise it will feel like another project to them devoid of their own passion and curiosity. I do not agree that the entry event will naturally lead students to the driving question. My students skirted around the driving question as we talked about their speaker, but they did not hit the nail on the head. I provided the driving question at the end of the guest speaker day and let students stew on it for the next 48 hours until we reconvened.

Below are the driving questions that were created for this unit. Each question was accompanied with a unique set of design parameters that the final prototype must meet.

How can we, as biomedical engineers, …


redesign valve sutures to ensure the valve can stay in place for as long as needed?


design a method for removing plaque from an artery without cutting or damaging the artery?


design a low cost mechanical prosthetic hand?


design a low cost shock absorbing helmet?


design a new type of working mechanical heart valve?


Students returned to class energized and anxiously awaiting to hear about their unit. First things first, we reviewed the story of their specific guest speaker like a doctor would review the medical history of a particular patient. Instead of treating them like a checklist of broken parts, we tried to re-tell their story as a human being. I asked students pointed questions such as who was that person? How would their friends and family describe them? Did they have a choice in their medical plan? What were some difficulties that person went through? How are their lives today? How can we improve their lives? This exercise served as a fantastic formative assessment on listening attentively. My mind was blown away with the level of detail they could recall about each speaker. Immediately I knew that the entry event was a success and that they had bought into the project.

Student team begins to prototype.

Now that they were focused on empathy, I could introduce their project. I decided the best flow of events would be to assemble the groups, then introduce the details of their project, and then introduce them via Skype to their biomedical engineer expert.

I had a major fail up moment with creating groups. My intent was to assemble groups with a diverse array of strengths. My first hypothesis was to lead with student choice to form groups and then determine strength roles within a group. The first two class periods experienced this scenario and it was a complete failure. Students chose the group they wanted to work with based on friendships, which brought up  suppressed emotions by several students. I went back to the drawing board and reflected on how to improve creating groups. Round 2 with the remaining class periods went much better! Initial groups formed based on shared strengths and then final groups were formed based on including students of different strengths. Individual roles within a group were inspired by roles within startup companies because they work on a lean mindset that I am always aspiring to live out. The student roles were the chief executive officer, chief operations officer, chief technical officer, and chief engineer and artist. I didn’t want the stigma of each role to carry any weight in the decision by students as to which role they best embodied. So I removed the labels all together and had them choose based on personality traits that each role typically exhibits. In short, each group had a CEO, COO, CTO and either one or two CEA’s.

Now that the students were in their defined groups, it was time to unveil the nuts and bolts of the challenge. I created a project proposal document that was just a single sheet of information about the project. This document included a brief summary of the real world connection, the design challenge, design parameters, details of the three deliverables or checkpoints, and expectations for their final products. I also provided them with a proposed schedule* that detailed important events such as Skype time with their external expert and due dates for deliverables and the final product.

We scrolled to the bottom of the proposed schedule. I was drumming an imaginary drum roll in my head and I read to them the grand prize for winnings teams… a spot to showcase your work at the largest biomedical engineering expo for middle and high school students in the United States called Buzz on Biotech at Georgia Tech! There was a chorus of what? Are you serious? That is so scary! Some students were already jokingly coming up with excuses as to why they would be sick that day. Some teachers might have immediately interpreted their reaction as a complete disinterest in the final activity. I could smell the fear from each student and I knew they were stoked.

Class wasn’t over yet! Groups had an opportunity to meet their biomedical engineer expert that would be mentoring them along the way. We Skyped as a class for the remaining 15 to 20 minutes. Each expert shared their journey of how they became interested in their career, their current research, and clarified some questions about their specific design challenge. At the end of class I felt like I could take a huge sigh of relief. I had choreographed a beautiful beginning of a PBL that each student could connect to and feel a sense of curiosity and passion. Now that I can reflect back on this day, I felt more like a choreographer than a teacher. Not once did I create a traditional lesson with worksheets. My job was to create an experience for them to naturally evoke these empathetic emotions and actions of engagement. With a little more guidance from a driving question, project proposal and a schedule, they were on their way to design with empathy!

*Disclaimer! I would normally not provide a detailed daily schedule for a PBL. This unit was allocated only 12 class periods and the external experts had personal schedule conflicts that we had to account for in pre-planning. Hence, this was a more structured PBL. To that note, I wouldn’t have changed this in hindsight. I truly believe in scaffolding students throughout the year with PBL’s increasing in difficulty. This was a great unit to provide some theoretical bumpers as they charged down their learning journey.


Read Post #1 in the series: “Biomedical Engineers in 7th Grade”

Read Post #2 in the series: “Design with Empathy”

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