When placed in the hands of our fourth-grade students, mini-golf was reinvented. It was no longer just a fun activity but an opportunity to design and build their own mini-golf courses. What began as a creative way for students to combine their learning of science, mathematics, writing, and design into a Project Based Learning experience (PBL) took on a life of its own in our room and became so much more. Initially, students were asked, “How can we use what we’ve learned about energy and the transfer of energy to help us design engaging mini-golf experiences?” While the guiding question steered the students to what we’ve been learning in science, students had to use geometry, engineering, design/art skills, and simple physics to ultimately construct their courses.
Going into this PBL, I imagined that the glowing moments would be watching and hearing my students make connections with their content knowledge. While that was a fantastic thing to bear witness to, it was not the highlight for me as their teacher. The most amazing piece of this activity was its connection with PNA’s devotion to teaching 21st-century skills, like collaborating, communicating, problem-solving, and working well with others.
First, students learned that their audience would be the other students at PNA. Therefore, to make this experience authentic, fourth-graders surveyed the other classes to learn what they knew and liked about mini-golf and their interests so they could tailor the courses to the needs/wants of their future consumers. Students were randomly broken into two companies, and they needed to discuss their findings based on the survey results. From here, the birth of their companies really happened. Company names, logos, slogans, and budgets were agreed upon through conversations, collaboration, cooperation, and a little compromise. Students worked to “build” a back-of-house system for their company by agreeing on what supplies they needed, how their budget should be used, and even designing what an app for their company would look like. It was in these very first moments that I discovered a major outcome of this PBL – the focus on working as a team, learning to speak up, and also learning to listen. While I was in awe of the blooming creativity right out of the gate, I often found myself smiling as I heard quiet, “go with the flow” students sticking up for what they thought their business needed and using solid reasoning to make their partners see their point of view. Finding one’s voice was not a side effect I had seen coming, but it was amazing to see this watch grow once it was there.
In the second phase of this project, students began the construction of their mini-golf holes that they had previously mapped out and planned. At this point, I had wrongly assumed that the students would work mostly independently – focused on their own building. Yet again, I found those 21-st century skills creeping in. The classroom was filled with students problem-solving with each other, giving advice, and offering an extra hand on the most difficult parts of engineering. I enjoyed that throughout the school day, I would overhear conversations where students discussed an obstacle they wanted to include but were also asking for input from company partners. There seemed to be a constant hum in the room about this PBL project and a level of communication and collaboration that was a new high for the students. What had begun to me as a science, math, writing, and design project, while still holding those skills in high importance, allowed my students to grow in ways I hadn’t predicted. And I guess the expression that a teacher is a lifelong learner was never more true, as my students taught me even more about them in these moments than I had anticipated.
Photos during the building process:
Photos of our completed courses being played:
(There were truly so many pictures, this is just a small sampling. It was a great event!)