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STEM Education, Teens, and Team Action Learning


Joseph’s kick-off post for this month’s theme of education describes  

Photo by Lewis Hine, from the NY Public Library Digital Collection.


the alienation that results from the factory model of Western education. According to  John Abbott, Director of The 21st Century Learning Initiative, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the  father of “scientific management” was horrified that the skilled craftsmen in his father’s factory enjoyed their work.   This meant they overlooked efficiency in favor of enjoyment.   

Taylor’s answer?  Study the work process,  break it down into steps, and create rules and regulations, so workers don’t have to think.     

I could share my own story of alienation from formal education,  but I won’t here.   Instead, I’m going to share  how public high school students discovered enjoyment of science, engineering, and technology through a hands-on team learning project.   

 According to this year’s Lemelson-MIT Invention Index1, an annual survey that gauges Americans’ perceptions about invention and innovation, teens are enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with 77 percent interested in pursuing a career in these fields.  

 While teens are enthusiastic about these fields, they prefer non-traditional learning.  Regardless of setting, two-thirds of teens chose hands-on individual projects and hands-on group projects as the types of classroom-based educational methods they enjoy most.  

In my last post, I described how my son’s struggles in a traditional, academically competitive high school led me to become involved with a parent group.  In 10th grade he transferred to Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington, MA, and I became  involved in coaching student teams preparing for a new design challenge sponsored by MIT.   

Called the Windy 500, the competition was part of the first-ever EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of innovation and invention sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Program and held at the Museum of Science in May 2007.  The whole idea of the event is to make science, engineering and innovation appealing to teens.   

Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s Car Talk looks on as Nate Ball, Lemelson-MIT Prize winner and Design Squad host, speaks to the driver of one of the Minuteman High School teams at the 2007 Windy 500.


The three teams were drawn from 9th and 11th grade students enrolled in the Biotechnology, Pre-Engineering, and Robotics vocational programs, and included girls and boys.  (My son was in 10th grade and not eligible.)  The teams gave students hands on experience with science and experience working collaboratively in a team. 

I became involved when two of the teachers coaching the teams (one was my son’s Robotics teacher) asked if I could help them improve how the teams worked together after learning of my work as a consultant with technical teams at the Federal Aviation Administration.  

 I met with the teacher-coaches and learned of their frustrations helping the student teams collaborate.  I offered to design three 1-hour action learning sessions on teaming 1 month before the event, 1 day before the event, and 1 month after the event.  

Students would use insights from their own experiences, along with some suggestions from me, to learn how to improve their collaboration skills.    

Session 1: Create and Test a Team Success Model  

For the first session, one month before the Windy 500, I met with the three student teams in a group action learning session.  I began by asking the students to think of a time they were part of a group or team that they felt was successful or worked well.   

Volunteers provided two examples: being on a soccer team, and organizing a community event to raise money for a Girl Scout trip.    

Next, I asked each volunteer to “tell the story of what happened.”  Then I invited all the students to comment by asking, “What stood out?  What do you notice?”   These  questions prompt reflection, with no right or wrong answers.    

I recorded their answers on a sheet of easel paper, then summarized their answers.  There was a pattern across both stories, I pointed out. In both stories, the teams had:   

  •  Achieved the goal of the team activity (won the game, raised money for the trip).
  • Fun.
  • Drawn contributions from everyone, so everyone on the team felt valued; and the contributions felt fair/equal. 

I suggested that we use these ideas as a kind of “working hypothesis,” or model, about team success.  To test them, we watching two teams competing to build a racing car in an episode of Design Squad, a PBS Kids TV show.   

When the episode ended, I asked the students how well our model of team success held up. Did the two Design Squad teams meet the goal, have fun, and draw valued and fair contributions from everyone?   

Yes, they said.  The Design Squad team that won worked better because the team leader listened to the contributions of all members of the team.   

A girl student amended this by saying, “It was the girls who weren’t being listened to.”      

“What was the impact of that?” I asked.   “The design didn’t work as well,” students said, “The girls’ ideas might have worked, if the leader had listened.”     

“Ok,” I said, “so listening to all team members is important.  Think of a time when you felt your ideas weren’t being listened to.  How did that feel?”    

 “Bad…frustrating,” the students replied.  

I asked the students  to keep the three “success factors” in mind over the next month as they worked in their teams–meet the goal, have fun, and allow everyone to contribute.  

Session 2: Get Feedback and Improve the Teams  

One day before the Windy 500 I met with the teams to do a “check in” to find out how things were going, identify problems, and solve them.  We would gather feedback, and use it to improve team performance the next day at the Windy 500.  

I began with a brief recap of the first session, reminding them that the last time we:  

  • Identified three success factors using two examples of successful team experiences.
  •  Tested these against two teams competing to build a racing car on an episode of Design Squad to see if they held up.
  • Decided that they did.

 Next, we gathered feedback, using partner interviews.  Students picked a partner from a different team and interviewed their partner, using the  questions below and recording answers anonymously on separate sheets of paper:    

  1. If your team was a TV show or video game, which one would it be? 
  2. Explain how your team is like the TV show or video game.
  3. What do you liked the MOST about your team?
  4. What do you liked the LEAST about your team?
  5. If you could change one thing about your team, what would it be? 

Students handed me their completed feedback sheets and I shuffled them before randomly handing each student a feedback sheet. I asked volunteers to read aloud the answers to the first question.  

The  TV show and video games students compared their teams to provoked a lot of laughter.   “Star Wars,”  “Resident Evil,”  “World of Warcraft,” “The Three Stooges,”   and “The Love Boat” were some of the answers.  

Volunteers continued to read aloud answers until we had enough of a picture of how the teams were getting along.    

Some teams had conflicts over distribution of the work, or team members didn’t feel listened to. Other teams sounded happy.   

“What are you hearing in the feedback?” I asked.   Students came back with, “Some people are trying to impose their ideas on the team,”  “Some people are being lazy and not doing their share,” and “People aren’t listening to each other.”   

“What’s your advice to the teams?”  I asked.  

“Listen to each other and to help each other to solve the problem, ” students said.  

I concluded session 2  with a re-cap of we had learned from the feedback, before adding, “Remember that everyone has something of value they can give.  Sometimes what sounds like a crazy idea can turn out to be a good one.  The main thing is–have FUN tomorrow!”  

Later, when I reviewed the feedback sheets and compared this to what the teacher-coaches were telling me about the teams, I saw a continuum from most satisfied to least satisfied.    

One team seemed to be getting along well. Members felt valued, and thought the distribution of work was fair.  The other two teams weren’t faring as well.  

The Windy 500: Apply the Success Model   

At the competition the next day, which I was not able to attend, teams of 100 students from high schools across Massachusetts were challenged with designing, building, and racing in one morning the fastest a wind-powered vehicle that carried one driver using only the materials provided. The vehicle that traveled the farthest won.   

It was emceed by Ray Magliozzi, one of the Click n’ Clack Brothers of National Public Radio’s CarTalk.  Nate and Deanne from PBS Kids’ Design Squad television program served as Windy 500 hosts.  

Minuteman's Windy 500 Winning Team.


I was delighted when one of the three teams I worked with at Minuteman won the grand prize!    

Interestingly, it was not the team that was happiest, or the one that was most conflict ridden, but the team that was in between.  

Session 3: Debrief  

One month later, I asked students to reflect on their experiences.  It was the last week of school before summer vacation.  “What were your favorite moments?”  I asked.   

“Figuring things out.”  

“Working together and getting the job done.”  


 I concluded by asking if their experience at the Windy 500 supported their team success model–achieve the goal, have fun, and have valued/equal/fair contributions.  They agreed that it did and we went outside for a celebration barbecue.    


Hands-on group learning helps teens experience the intrinsic enjoyment of creative problem solving in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Teaching teens how to collaborate better, beginning with their own successful experiences in teams, and helping them to reflect on this experience and test it through direct application is how action learning can be used to improve satisfaction and the performance of any team.  

Project-based learning, such as at New Technology High School, in Napa, California, takes hand-on learning in teams even further by putting students into a students-as-workers setting where they learn collaboration, critical thinking, written and oral communication, and the values of the work ethic while meeting state or national content standards.  

Students today need a lot more than comprehension of core academic subjects.  In the new concept economy, where combining knowledge and information in new ways is what produces value, teamwork, critical thinking, and communication skills are fundamental.  

Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” revolutionized factory work in the early 1900’s but lead to worker alienation and mindless application of rules and procedures.   Tomorrow’s workers are today’s students.  Enjoyment of satisfying work, work that involves relational as well as cognitive intelligence and creativity is the path to economic and professional growth.  

Next Up:  David Morf describes what it was like attending a socially, ethnically, and economically diverse high school in the 1960’s.  


MIT 2010 Invention Index, and annual survey  

21st Century


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