Making in Middle School Science


by Christa Flores -

In 2011, I became the 5th and 6th grade science teacher at the Hillbrook School. That same year the school undertook an audit of the science program for areas of strength, as well as areas for improvement. Simultaneously, the Next Generation Science Standards, emphasizing problem solving and engineering, had just been released, and that spring (2012), I attended my first Bay Area Maker Faire. After reviewing the available research on teaching and learning, attending workshops such as FabLearn at Stanford, and the Innovative Learning conference at the Nueva School, I was inspired to bring more engineering and design into the science curriculum. To learn how to do this well, I consulted with experts, such as Ed Carryer of Stanford’s Smart Product Design Lab (learn more about SPDL in Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators), to learn more about the use of prompts for semester long engineering projects. By the 2012 school year, I felt ready to prototype the new 5/6th grade science curriculum, now renamed Problem based Science. Problem based science (PbS) encourages students to gain a love of scientific thinking, applied math, and the creative use of technology, while learning through the lens of invention, design thinking, fixing and tinkering. Now in its fourth year of researched-based development, this blog describes how problem based science differs from traditional middle school science classes (i.e., how I used to teach) and lists the four core units of the curriculum. While these units currently make up only the 5th grade science curriculum at Hillbrook, the units are designed to be open ended enough to be applied to any age/grade level with varying degrees of content detail, technology integration, and design challenge difficulty.


How is PbS Different from the Science Classes We Took in School?

Most likely the science classes you experienced in school were loosely based on a real approach to science called the scientific method. In science class, you were tasked with “rediscovering” well established phenomena, such as density or double replacement reactions, via carefully scripted demonstrations or lab experiments. Although you were going through the steps of the scientific process, you were arriving at a predetermined outcome created by your teacher, far in advance of you existing in her classroom. You may have had a textbook explaining a lot of concepts, and tests that measured your knowledge on those concepts. For deeper evaluation of your work, you were expected to follow a rigid lab report format, mirroring those found in academic journals, that did little to assess your personal level of problem-solving, adaptability, creativity or essential understanding of the concepts involved. In short, you most likely consumed your science education, rather than constructed it. If you were lucky, or attended a progressive school, your science teacher knew how to orchestrate science classes around the authentic inquiries of students, allowing you to be creative and to make mistakes while you learned (driving principles #2,4). The rest of us, however experienced a version more like the first.

In comparison to a one-size-fits all curriculum, Problem based Science, reunites students with the complexity, richness and fun of science. Learning through inventing and problem solving - while using the latest in fabrication technology, like 3D printers and laser cutters, as well as more traditional making skills, like electronics, robotics, sewing and carpentry - immerses students in the messy, iterative nature of real science and engineering.

In essence, PbS allows students to create their science literacy, by behaving like a real scientist or engineer. David Perkin's, author of the book Make Learning Whole, likens this model of learning as providing students with “threshold experiences, that stimulate curiosity, discovery, imagination, camaraderie and creativity.” In PbS, students will make mistakes, encounter obstacles, and experience failure. If a student can not solve a problem due to a lack of knowledge or skill, that student must chose between constructing new literacy, or choosing a more accessible solution, based on their available literacy. Rather than shy away from failure in PbS, we embrace and redefine it as a crucial step in the learning and design process (driving principle #4).   

How is a Problem Given or Decided On in Science?

In Problem based Science lessons are best likened to a game. In the game, there are rules that make learning purposeful, safe and fun. We call the rules of the game prompts (4,8). Using prompts, rather than a linear set of instructions, is an open-ended approach to learning that affords students choice and voice, which promotes confidence, engagement and self-esteem (12). An example of a prompt might be;

A) design and build a structure that can support 100 grams   B) using only 10 straws and a yard of tape.


A) make something that makes art

Once given the “game-like” rules to follow, students are given weeks, or months (driving principle #1) to brainstorm, form teams based on passion and/or skill sets, then test and iterate on various solutions. No solution will look the same, allowing for a highly differentiated learning experience for each student. The open-endedness of prompts provides students with control over the “why, how and what” of their learning journey (driving principle #3), while promoting a growth mindset.

What do Students Learn in PbS?

In 5th grade, emphasis is placed on practicing the kinds of thinking routines and process skills that real engineers and scientists use, such as working in a self-directed space, to solve problems collaboratively. These core process skills include:

  • Identifying problems and needs, independently or with others (diagnosis, empathy, listening, observation)
  • Identifying the parts, purposes and complexity of structures and systems (observation, analysis, inductive reasoning)
  • Testing ideas and prototypes (using the scientific method)
  • Gaining literacy from various available sources (active and passive research)
  • Taking responsible risks to learn new skills, tools, share ideas or show leadership (risk taking)
  • Effective partnering with peers, adult mentors, and experts to give and receive feedback on work (communication/collaboration)
  • Iterating on ideas, designs and solutions based on feedback and research (listening, iteration)
  • Documentation of work (self-reflection, documentation)
  • Forming claims and conclusions based on evidence (evidence based reasoning)
  • Setting learning goals and making daily agendas (executive functioning, self-direction)

In addition to process skills, concepts that students are exposed to in PbS include; measurement, types of patterns, forces and energy, basic electronics, three dimensional geometry, and more (see tables below for a more detailed list of core concepts). More importantly perhaps, each student’s curriculum will consist of what he or she is passionate about, or what ever inspires their designs. To make a unit more interdisciplinary, simply add a prompt to encourage historical research, interviewing, art work or writing. Below is a list of the core questions, concepts and skills students explore during each unit, along with sample prompts or challenges I have used in the past for each unit.

How is Student Work Assessed?  

Due to the student-centered nature of this course, assessment is based on several different modes to allow each student to share and demonstrate their growth and understanding in authentic and empowering ways. The following list consists of ways to blend formative and summative assessments, to help students make their learning visible in a classroom that centers on inventing and problem solving. While I do not use rubrics, many of my colleagues do. Check out the Edutopia article on Creating an Authentic Maker Education Rubric, for more on rubrics.

  • Design or Daily Log Entries (journal to record ideas, blueprints, and progress on a problem/product)
  • Building and Making (all hands on work, pass/fail)
  • Product Design Reports (like a lab report, using concepts in graphic design to detail original student designs)
  • Check-Ins (like quizzes)
  • Self Assessments (student argues a grade of passing or failing, based on evidence and reasoning) See examples of that here: video logs, written claims to justify a pass/fail
  • Peer Critiques, or The “Crit” (sharing work with peers for feedback) See examples of formal and informal critiques here: Formal,  Informal
  • Public Showcasing of Work (sharing work outside of the classroom) This can be done at all school showcases or Maker Faire style.

If you are curious about what PbS looks like, here is a 3 minute video made by Hillbrook parent Amy Atkins. Ms. Atkins graciously spent many hours during the 2014/15 school year interviewing me on what Problem based Science has taught me about teaching and learning. I am eternally grateful to her for helping me to tell the story.

References and Inspiration

  1. 50 Dangerours Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) by Gever Tulley of SF Brightworks and creator of the Arc of Learning Model 
  2. Alternative Assessments and Feedback in a MakerEd Classroom” by Christa Flores
  3. A Whole New Mind  by Daniel H. Pink
  4. The Art and Craft of Science: Science discovery and innovation can depend on engaging more students in arts.” by Robert Root-Bernstein and Michele Root Bernstein.  Educational Leadership, February 2013
  5. “Make something that can jump” Interview with Ed. Carryer, Director of the Smart Product Design Laboratory (SPDL) in the Design Division of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. October 2012
  6. Creating Innovators  by Tony Wagner
  7. Change by Design  by Tim Brown
  8. Digital Fabrication and ‘Making’ in Education: The Democratization of Invention” by Paulo Blikstein, 2013
  9. Game Storming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo
  10. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager
  11. Parts, Purpose, Complexity” by Agency by Design, Project Zero, Harvard
  12. Self-Directed Learning: Lessons from the Maker Movement in Education” by Christa Flores for the Winter Issue of Independent School Magazine 2014
  13. The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior”  by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan
  14. The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning” by Philip M. Sadler & Eddie Good, 2006. Educational Assessment Volume 11, Issue 1
  15. The Underrepresentation of Females and Minorities in Science” by Christa Flores, Master’s Thesis 2005, Teachers College Columbia University