When you realize you could have done things different

My seventh graders have been working through NGSS PS3-3 where they design and construct a device that minimizes/maximize thermal energy transfer. In years past I have worked through the “Save the Penguin” activities and really struggled through it. I have felt like there are too many variables and students do not ultimately understand what aspect of their design truly affects heat transfer. We decided to do things a little different this year and gave students can that they had to insulate and keep water hot. From start to finish this has gone well and students really used data to support their decisions/modifications. As we finished this part of the unit I felt as though I wasted their time and an opportunity.
Now my students have learned about thermal energy transfer and were able to communicate this through their writing and redesigns, but why do they care? I mean why would my students care about keeping a liquid hot or cold in a can. It is a goal of mine to get my students to care about their learning not because I say so but because they see a real use for the information and skills. I had a unique opportunity to do my student teaching in Cape Town, South Africa at Grove Primary School. This was an experience of a lifetime and one that I communicate with my students every year. This year it came at the perfect time.

I looked around my classroom at the posters that my students had made and a common theme was, family. My students will do anything for their family. How can I use this to help them see the purpose of understanding heat transfer? Then it clicked, South Africa. While teaching at Grove, I got to visit one of the townships just outside the city. This was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I got to share with my 7th graders some of the histories of South Africa and the Apartheid government. (This resonated with my students). When I showed them pictures of the condition of the homes no one said a word. (My school is surrounded by government housing and many of my students have very difficult home lives) They began to realize that although they have it rough, they are living large compared to MANY people around the world. I asked them to come up with ways they could help these families stay warm through the winter using their understanding of heat transfer. They worked so hard and came up with some amazing ideas. While they were sharing, I realized I had done it “wrong”.
Maybe it was not wrong but I missed an opportunity to make this unit something they could really care about and help them take action with the needy in our community and around the world. See what I want to do is have them build a shack using basic materials like cardboard, plastic bags, and wood. I would like to bring in some guest speakers that share first-hand experience with them about these living conditions and help them design their shacks. Ultimately, I would want them to construct them and stay in them overnight on the school grounds. I want my students to understand that in homes like these minimizing heat transfer could be the difference of life and death. I want them to see those in our community that live on the streets and find ways of helping them stay warm through the winter. I want my kids to be able to apply the content and skills in order to help others.

So now I must decide, do I try and make this work right now or do I plan to make this the focus of next year? I am not sure, but I hope that I can continue to find ways that make learning relevant for my students.

I would love for you to share how you get your students to buy into their learning or any feedback on my experience.