When Students Are Given Choice, Craftsmanship Follows

Being based out of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, MVIFI has the privilege of seeing Design Thinking and Student Agency happening all around us. We recently published a story before the winter holidays regarding work being done on the Glenn Campus that involved humanities students being given a large amount of freedom in empathy based PBL (project based learning). Today, we want to turn our focus to the Founders Campus students and a multi-week project being done in the grade 5 math classes that continues to highlight the buy-in and craftsmanship that can happen when students are given freedom and choice.  

Next week we’ll conclude this in-depth classroom series as we look at how Darlington School has begun to implement Design Thinking in multiple areas of their school.

Inspired by Passions and Choice, Students Turn Prisms into 3D sculptures

This is an edited and expanded cross-post from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s blog. Original post can be found here.

When students in Ben Hendry’s and Margaret Gunter’s grade 5 math classes were asked to create 3-dimensional models related to something about which they were passionate, they weren’t yet sure how it would relate to math. The only stipulation for the project was that the final piece was to be comprised of rectangular prisms. Since choice was a major component of the assignment, students were encouraged to be creative when exploring inspiration for their individual models.

How Choice Leads to Craftsmanship

According to Mr. Hendry, the students were surprised by just how much choice they were allowed. When interviewing the students about their work, it became clear that with choice came investment and craftsmanship; nearly every hand rose when asked who wanted to share the details of their work and the excitement shown when presenting and discussing why a subject was chosen was immense. Learning outcomes were based in understanding mathematical concepts but what the students presented was ultimately up to them. The majority of students created their final projects using graph and grid paper, but one student, in particular, decided to work with 3-d modeling software. (Concepts included: factoring the area of each face, formulating the total surface area, and determining the volume. In addition to the numerical values discovered for each project, students communicated the background for their interest, descriptions of their mathematical notations, and specific step-by-step plans, should anyone want to recreate the item.)

Final project topics included pollution (oil to water dilution), favorite books, athletics (football field representation), house modeling, and forestry. See below for a sampling of the projects and student reflections.

Implementing Choice in Math and Sciences

We often hear that math and science classes are the hardest to implement design thinking and student agency. The work is often expressed as needing to be formulaic and having to include certain pre-requisites to establish baselines of understanding, there are just things you have to know to move to higher disciplines. The deeper question is how we create those building blocks and how we lay those foundations. We have to recognize that when students are engaged, and when students are exploring their interests and passions, the work will reflect the buy-in. Even small amounts of choice can help push the needle and create an environment that leads to higher levels of learning.

Related Articles 

Establishing Student Agency – How to Recognize Roles, Set Expectations, and Let Go in Inquiry Based Learning

Lesson on Craftsmanship – Lesson 3 of our online course, Build in Progress

A Teachers Reflection on Courageous Conversations PBL

Student Work

Polluting Water, by Mollie M
I wanted to find a way to show people the effects of dumping oil into sewers

I am doing something that has to do with pollution. I’m showing 2 figures that show how much oil can pollute how much drinking water. I chose polluting water because I know that polluting our water with bad things can ruin it. I want to tell people that by dumping oils into sewers will pollute their own drinking water, and now people have to work to clean the water.  According to my research dumping, just a gallon of oil into our watershed can contaminate more than 48,000 gallons of water.

It is important that people know that dumping oil into sewers is polluting their own drinking water, and I think people should really stop. Plastic too, People leave litter everywhere. So please, never pass a piece of trash, please just pick up the trash you find on the ground so it doesn’t pollute our drinking water.



A House for Anyone, By Asher F
I created a 3D digital model of a modular home that can accommodate 3 persons Inspired by work in grade 4 using 3D modeling software to design dorm rooms

My project is a model of the ideal house/ apartment that everyone could have. It can fit together as if it can be an apartment but it’s big enough to be considered a house! It can house up to 3 people, and it has a solar-powered generator that can store energy for up to a week.
This house can save you thousands of dollars in resources and it won’t pollute the earth. It can be revolutionary but you never know.



How Football Changed My Life, by Gavin K
Construction of a field and the elements of the game to show why playing football this year was so important

Football changed my life this fall. First of all, it helped me get into shape. I was running and exercising a lot more than I was before. This was a great thing for my health and heart. Second of all, it helped me meet a lot of boys in my grade. This was good because I was new to the school. Last of all gave me something to work for and think about. It made me really think about should I do this or that. Some decisions were really hard especially even playing football. These are the reasons why football changed my life.

I used NFL goal posts to show these rectangular prisms. I used four pairs of #15 standard prism and two pairs of #9 standard prism. The fifteen’s Surface Area is 4 (3×7) + 2 (3×3) which is 102 square units. The volume for the fifteen’s is a (3×3) x 7 which the volume is 63 cubic units. The surface area the sixes is 384 square units or (8×8) x 6. The volume is 512 cubic units or (8×8) x 8. Those are my calculations.



Deforestation, by Allie S
Compared Georgia’s forest density in 1972 and 2014. Connected to work being done in humanities class.

This year, I have learned a lot about how deforestation is affecting the world. However, the news is not all bad everywhere. These 3-D figures represent the volume in cubic feet of timberland in Georgia comparing the years 1972 and 2014. Keep in mind that one cube represents one billion cubic feet of trees.

As you can see, the smaller model represents 28,000,000,000 cubic feet of timberland, which is shown as the volume of trees surveyed in 1972. Then the bigger model represents 43,000,000,000 cubic feet of timberland, which was the volume of trees surveyed in 2014. This is 56% more timberland in 2014 in Georgia than in 1972. The source of my information is in the document next to this museum card.

Usually, people cut down trees to make buildings and houses. Yet they leave the soil in case a reforestation company wanted to re-plant there, they would only have to plant the seeds. Deforestation has actually changed climates because of evaporation of water from leaves makes up as much as ⅔ of the rain that falls in some forests.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, by Jenna R
A love of animals drives the creation of a model to represent a patch of plastic waste twice the size of Texas

My project is a 3D prism that represents a garbage patch in the Pacific, that is twice the size of Texas, and another prism that represents a person. I did this because pollution is killing many, many animals. This has been going on for years. I chose this because I love animals and this is very important to me.

The dimensions of my project is (5×10)x10. This is to represent the amount of trash each person. According to a service helping this problem, 1.8 billion pieces are floating in the patch which is equal to every human in this world, 250 plastic pieces. The dimensions of the person is (1×1)x1. This is showing a dramatic difference in the two. The surface area is 250u2, and the volume is also 250.

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