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Make an Impact:
Challenging students to solve a local water shortage

B Coburn Observor Images B Coburn Observor Images 2

Bryan Coburn, Rock Hill, SC

South Carolina is at risk of a water shortage. With $500,000 in grants available for innovative conservation projects, it was up to students in Bryan Coburn’s engineering course at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina to devise solutions. 

This scenario or “mission” presented to Bryan Coburn’s Introduction to Engineering students was only part historical fiction, based on the community’s very real drought, a drought so bad that cars could only be washed on specific days. South Carolina is not alone: approximately one-third of the US is at high risk for water shortage.

Bryan’s students spent much of a semester on this hypothetical challenge. By the project’s end, they had created elaborate online portfolios showcasing their research, 3D designs, and multimedia presentations marketing their designs. Proposals included documentation of each stage of the design process, a design brief, decision matrix, a prototype using Autodesk Inventor 3D professional modeling tool, and a final presentation where they pitched their proposed solution to a grant review committee consisting of local engineers from the community, the city water manager and the school’s principal. The pressure was on. 

Water Ninja Turtles
Team Water Ninja Turtles designed a dog water bowl to “redefine the way you give water to your pets by automatically giving them rainwater from a gutter.” This screenshot from their online portfolio shows the final product and an initial prototype. 
Team Water Ninja Turtle’s full presentation can be viewed here:

Students said they never felt so enthralled by schoolwork. Some were inspired to become engineers. “It made the class much more amazing,” Parker, one of Bryan’s students, said. “We didn’t just sit there and learn. We actually did fun and involving work. You wanted to be there.” And that’s the kind of school experience Bryan and the Model Classroom want to replicate. Lakasha, another student, was so inspired by the project that she spent a weekend learning to write HTML code to enhance her group’s Weebly website. She added “It would be great if it [these hands-on real world projects] could be spread around to other classes.” 

Coburn has long shunned rote learning in favor of hands-on projects. He prefers to teach fundamentals, then turn teens loose to learn on their own. Coburn said, “When it comes to definitions, which is more valuable: having them memorize a definition, or know how to use the word?” 

Bryan and his principal worked with a local reporter on an article that received prominent visibility in the Charlotte Observer on Super Bowl Sunday. As a result, the press coverage had some constructive impact. Rock Hill School District entrusted Bryan to explore professional development opportunities. In an age where schools tread cautiously with technology, Bryan worked with the Rock Hill district to open up a safe and secure way for educators to have more control of district technology filters, allowing them to bypass YouTube, Weebly, or Polleverywhere. The University of South Carolina Education Department reached out to Bryan to encourage other teachers to utilize technology in their classroom. They asked him to present, not only about the project, but how he integrated several technologies to engage students in their learning. They recognized that many times teachers and districts allow their apprehension about using technology to impede or entirely deny students an opportunity to develop the 21st century skills needed in a rapidly changing global economy. 

Bryan’s “Make an Impact” project illustrates the power of integrating real issues and challenges into the curriculum. By entrusting students to make difference they discover how school work can have an impact in the real world. Beyond his classroom, Bryan is building a coalition of change agents- other teachers and administrators across the state- who are embracing the value and possibilities of challenge-based learning. 

Class Website: 

Press from Make an Impact:  eSchool News (February 6th, 2012)
National project aims to inspire the ‘model classroom’

“The fact that Bryan is now having his kids think of the world around them as their classroom, while not new, is really at the center of what we’re trying to do with this program and with the New Learning Institute generally. And frankly, it has less to do with technology or digital media per se and more to do about a mindset. The list of digital tools they used is not nearly as impressive as the fact that they want to make an impact on the city water situation in their community.”

- Steve Brown, General Manager, New Learning Institute

Bryan Coburn attended both 2011 and 2012 “Mission Possible” Summer Institute at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. 
Posted on 11/26/2012