As teachers, we’re always struggling to create meaningful learning that engages students at deeper levels. How can we find the time to fit it all in? Creating interdisciplinary lessons and units helps us explore problems and show how subjects are connected in real ways. After we struggled to connect historical ideas in a context that students found meaningful, for example, we discovered that students would engage deeply when these ideas were interwoven with science.
We worked on lessons that incorporated design thinking and problem-based learning—in which students work in groups to solve an open-ended problem. They developed a more empathetic lens of history, and explored science in a personally meaningful way.
Identifying the Science in Historical Topics
We did this not by reinventing every lesson but by taking lessons we already had and identifying the science within them. Science is part of everything, and when you start looking for it, you’ll begin seeing it everywhere. We start with a reading about a particular topic, and as we go through we ask:
- What is a problem that I see?
- What do I wonder?
- What would I need to know about science to solve this problem?
For example, we were working with a history teacher who was teaching the Journey to America. Her school wanted her to create more interdisciplinary, problem-based learning, but she couldn’t find the connections.
We started with a reading that described the Pilgrims’ journey to America on the Mayflower. As we reading, we considered the questions above.
What is a problem that I see? After reading the article, we shared with the teacher the following challenges that we picked out of it: The Pilgrims wanted to travel to America, but it was very dangerous—aside from storms, pirates were also a threat. The Pilgrims needed ships that were sturdy enough to withstand storms and survive the long journey. The journey was also uncomfortable because the ships were crowded with passengers, their belongings, and even livestock.
What do I wonder? Reading about these problems, we started wondering how we could build a better boat to make it overcome these challenges. What features does a boat need to be able to safely make a long journey? How does a boat need to be designed to serve that purpose and be comfortable for the passengers, with enough capacity to carry what they need? What elements does a ship need to be able to defend itself against pirates?
What would I need to know about science to solve this problem? How do boats work? What makes a boat float? How can a boat be designed to travel more quickly? What type of weapon from the era could you use to defend yourself against pirates?
We added an element of design thinking by thinking about the user, the Pilgrims, and how we could design an interior that would be comfortable for them, thus guiding the students to empathize with the Pilgrims’ experiences.
Building a Better Mayflower
With all that in mind, we developed a problem-based lesson that led students to use math and science to reinvent the Mayflower. We gave students this task: Design a better boat. Based on the questions we had identified, students needed to design a ship that could:
- be sturdy enough make a long journey and survive storms,
- comfortably carry passengers with space for their belongings and livestock,
- have a defense system against potential pirate attacks and protection against passengers falling overboard, and
- move more quickly to make the journey faster.
We began by engaging students through the article. We guided them to think about what the Pilgrims must have felt: “Imagine that you were going to move to a new country and you could only take one bag, and you had to travel with strangers in a cargo hold the size of this room, with livestock in it. And when a companion ship sprang a leak, you had to add even more people—like having all of the fourth graders from your school in the hold.”
It made them invested in the challenge: How could they re-create the Mayflower to solve these problems?
Students explored types of ships and learned the science behind how specific parts of ships function. We gave a quick lesson on buoyancy, explaining how ships float. We discussed how wind creates resistance against boats, and how different types of sails can harness the wind to make ships move more quickly. We explored examples and shapes of boats that move more and less quickly through the water.
Students then chose one of the four design tasks above to focus on and moved into “expert groups” with other students exploring the same topic. They had a chance to discuss and explore ideas together before moving into “shipbuilding groups,” which included one student from each expert group.
Students worked together as makers designing prototypes. We showed them an example of a cross section of a ship, and they drew their own cross section showing where the passengers, personal possessions, and livestock would be kept. They listed the materials they would need to defend themselves from pirate attacks and where they would be stored on the ship.
We then gave the students a variety of materials—cardboard, foam, duct tape, construction paper, tinfoil, tissue paper, and straws—to build prototypes of their boats. They considered the size, shape, and placement of sails, the overall shape of the boat, and how to carry heavy cargo. Once they had prototypes, we set up rain gutters filled with water and placed fans at the end to test out how quickly the boats could move and harness the wind.
Finally, the groups gathered together for some challenges, racing the ships to see which designs moved most quickly. We added marbles to each boat to represent the weight of passengers and cargo, and raced again to see which boats could handle heavy cargo. We finished with a writing assignment: “Imagine that you are able to talk to the Pilgrims before they start their journey. What would you advise them?”