Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Balloon Car Failure

In project-based learning, as in life, sometimes things don't go as expected.

And sometimes, things just fall apart.

This is the story of one of those times.

SuperSam recently received a set of children's encyclopedia-type books with answers to all kinds of interesting questions. One of the books had an activity outline for making a balloon car, and he really wanted to try it. He asked for several days in a row if we could do it. Finally, one morning when The Sisters took an extra nap, he got his wish.

In the book, the instructions seemed simple. Make a rectangle from construction paper. Tape sections of a plastic drinking straw under the card. Cut circle wheels from cardboard. Put a toothpick through the center of each wheel. Put the toothpick "axles" into the open ends of the drinking straw to attach wheels to the car. Tape a balloon on the back of the car. Inflate the balloon, let it go, and watch the car roll away on its wheels.

It didn't quite go like that.

We modified the materials up front. Even SuperSam knew that construction paper wasn't stiff enough to support two drinking straws, four toothpicks and four circles of cardboard. (Maybe that should have been our first clue that something was awry with these instructions.)

We substituted an index card.  
The wheels all fell off. There was too much space inside the straw to hold the toothpicks straight. 

Car, nicely decorated, on wheels that fell off. Repeatedly.
SuperSam covered the ends of the straws with masking tape and tried again. His fix held until we attached the balloon.

Wheels fell off again when the balloon was inflated.

Persistent boy with car that was constantly falling apart.

We made a series of videos to record our process for posterity. Watched one after the other, they give an idea of the kind of persistence my son has...and they remind me of the utter frustration of trying a project that just seemed doomed.

By my usual definition of success, this was a total bust. We never even got it to do anything but spin in a circle! I was annoyed both at our lack of success and at the stupid book, which led me to believe this would be an easy activity with predictable results. Did the book people ever even try it? Did they just take carefully arranged photos that made it look like it worked? Or did they have special drinking straws and construction paper and balloons that we in the non-book world cannot access? 

To me, this was a complete balloon car fail.

SuperSam didn't see it that way. He wanted to try it over and over and over again. "Don't give up, Mama!" was his refrain. He got to mess around with the design of the car quite a bit. He got to spend time one-on-one with me. He got to be on video, which he loves. And he got to crack up laughing every time the wheels fell off or the car spun out.

That's better than getting frustrated.
I should probably keep hanging out with him and hope he rubs off on me.

If we believe that learning happens in the process of making/doing/watching/trying things, then we have to acknowledge these sorts of projects-gone-wrong as times when great learning could be taking place. What could be better for learning than having to repeat something, trial after trial, continually reevaluating and making changes as we go? This is science, engineering, and Real Life all rolled into one terribly-thought-out activity. As frustrating as it was, I know SuperSam learned some things from tinkering with the car. At the very least, he learned to keep on trying in the face of adversity.

I just wish (still) that we had gotten one successful result from all our work. I like things to work out in the end.

Ever had a project go totally wrong with your kids? How did you handle it?