Getting Our Students to Own Their Educational Experience

Winter 2014

By Raymond W. Cirmo

When I was a new physics teacher, I spent the first few years preparing courses, defining and refining curriculum, creating meaningful labs, generating assessments, and understanding both the art and science of the teaching profession. From that point forward, each year has been a process of continuous improvement, trying to make the classroom experience better and more memorable for my students.

There is no getting around the need for knowledge, and as classroom teachers it is our job to make that knowledge available to our students. But it is also our responsibility to create an environment in which students will want to gain the knowledge presented in the classroom. And therein lies our greatest challenge.

One of the best ways to understand what might get our students deeply engaged in their own learning is to better understand ourselves. Ask yourself when you get the most excited about your job, or when you find yourself doing a job simply because you want to. As you would expect, you are most excited when working on something that interests you, or when you are assigned ownership of a task whose outcome relies on your ability to get the job done based on your knowledge and/or skill sets.

Now think back to when you were in high school and those times when you found yourself wanting to learn. Most likely it was when you were either learning about something you were naturally excited about or when the teacher presented the class with a real-life problem that required you to understand the material, then wrestle with the problem to produce a tangible answer.

If our interest and motivation are piqued when we work on tasks that interest us, that directly involve us, that have outcomes based on our abilities, and that succeed or fail based on our level of understanding, effort, and involvement, then why not apply this same logic to student learning in our classrooms?

To do this, we first need to realize that the students are not in our classroom, we are in their classroom. And the room is not set up for us to teach; it is here for us to be facilitators in the students' learning. We are here for the students, not the other way around. This means that we need to educate them in a fashion that makes sense to them and the world they live in. And the best approach I have found is to assign them tasks involving real-life problems that require hands-on solutions — in other words, learning by creating and doing.

Each year, I assign my AP Physics B class a yearlong project. The project last year was to launch a video camera as high above the Earth's surface as possible and record the journey there and back. I announced to the students that the year's curriculum would be taught as it had always been. However, at the conclusion of each unit, they would need to present to the class how the material they just learned applied to this project. Finally, I told the class that, in order to accomplish the assigned task, they had to actually build and launch the device they designed together.

The hook had been set. The students immediately began talking about outer space and questioning how high into the atmosphere they could actually get a video camera. I presented the material covered in the classroom in such a fashion that it applied to the work they were doing relative to their project, and every class period had time set aside for them to work on their project. The students were clearly interested, motivated, and engaged from the start. Principles, concepts, and equations normally presented as course material were now offered in a context that applied to their real-world problem. The material had a purpose relative to their project, and they needed to learn it and apply it. As ideas and designs for a working device started to come together, the concept of teamwork also began to unfold before the class. They were all in this together.

Not surprisingly, the students struggled throughout the design process to become a cohesive group as they worked toward a solution. But once they got to the point where they needed to turn their answer into a tangible working device, they quickly realized that cooperation would be the only way to complete the work by the end date. Team building, in other words, was a natural outcome of the project. While this was probably the most difficult lesson the students learned, it was also one of the most valuable. Everyone needed to contribute 100 percent all of the time. They quickly learned that each person's role would be critical to the project's outcome. Most difficult for them was the realization that each person's ideas could not be right all of the time. But they readily grasped that everyone had areas of expertise and, if these were used correctly, the team would increase its chances of success.

As their motivation, interest, and commitment kicked in, I suddenly found myself standing on the sideline while the students took over the class. Their level of preparedness was far beyond that of any other class I had taught. They were reading and doing homework assignments on their own. They began wondering how homework questions, if rewritten in terms of their class project, might help them achieve a workable solution. They were meeting in the classroom during free periods and working together to review and understand material in order to allow for more class time on their project.

It was gratifying to watch. Through careful application of physics principles, the students estimated that their platform would reach a height of 120,000 feet (33,000 meters) and that, at that height, they would capture images of the curvature of the Earth. They figured out that they would need to launch and retrieve their platform from sites other than the school campus, with the entire process taking the better part of the academic day. Given their design, they knew they needed to recover the platform in order to retrieve the images of the curvature of the Earth. To recover the platform, in turn, would require them to track a GPS signal, travel across the state, and walk about a mile into the woods after climbing down a ravine. The students were determined to have everything work perfectly — and in the end they accomplished everything they set out to do.

Their excitement level about the project and ensuring its success created the motivation they needed to learn. But learning was now not only for the purpose of taking a test. They also needed to apply it in a tangible fashion. In the end, the students could see that each of them had to be a part of the project to make it succeed. They studied not just for themselves but also for their classmates. And I could tell that they were all proud of the fact that they had a part in the project and that they were each responsible for its success.

The student assessments themselves changed as well. There was the required problem solving, as always, but the nature of the questions was much more interesting to the students. With the project as the focus of their year, their level of comprehension was high. In fact, their ability to integrate the material — from the current and past units of study — enabled them to solve problems at a much higher level than students in years past. Each test also contained questions relating to possible problem scenarios within the project, requiring the students to think in critical ways.

The students were so excited to be working on their chosen project that they told a number of other students and faculty on campus. As each day brought them closer to a solution and a working model, the entire school waited for updates and a launch date. There is nothing like excitement from your peers, plus wanting to succeed for them, to add the strong desire to be the best that you can be. This was their project from start to finish, and that ownership had manifested itself in an unstoppable drive on the part of the class.

Every discipline has its own challenges, but I know there are always opportunities to connect them with life — especially with aspects of life that resonate with students. Our goal is to help students find their own motivation and involvement. Their involvement and engagement come from the opportunity to use their knowledge and create a real-life solution to a problem on their own, to own a problem and its solution from beginning to end, and to be responsible and accountable for their work and its outcome. Most important, their engagement arises from the realization that it is the outcome of their efforts that is the true educational experience — an experience that goes far beyond the basic material to be found in a textbook. Best yet, it's the sort of learning that lasts a lifetime.

So how did the project turn out? I could tell you, but it's best to learn about it from the students. Along with everything else, they created an engaging short documentary, which can be seen at

Raymond W. Cirmo

Raymond W. Cirmo teaches physics at Cheshire Academy (Connecticut) and is vice president of the Connecticut Science Teachers Association.