The classic “gotcha” assignment for students is to write step-by-step instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich. Educators select student instructions to share with the class that inevitably have major missteps such as forgetting to open the peanut butter container or not selecting a tool for retrieving or spreading the peanut butter. This is a good discrepant event in that it surely gets the attention of students and can be the start of a good thought provoking discussion about why it is important to write complete step-by-step procedures. But what happens next to help our students develop the skill set needed to write precise step-by-step instructions for their science fair project?
The Purpose of the Procedure
Scientific experiments must be written in such a way that they results can be duplicated exactly. But why is this important? When other scientists replicate results there is assurance that the experimental findings are correct. In the real world, scientists do not replicate all experiments. They do replicate experiments with unexpected results or new discoveries. Our goal for students is not to simply teach them the facts but also how to think like a scientist.
Beyond the Peanut Butter Sandwich Procedures
Try the Science Olympiad event Write-It, Do-It in your classroom. Write-It, Do-It is a technical writing challenge. Students write a description of a contraption provided by the event coordinator. The step-by-step instructions are then given to a teammate to recreate the contraption. The team with the most accurate recreation wins the event.
This activity can easily be modified to fit the time and resources in any classroom.
I introduce Write-It, Do-It as a formal lesson the first time; explaining the rules, and modeling how to write instructions. For students to learn to be successful, this activity must be repeated throughout the school year. Think about those times your class period is shortened due to a convocation or weather delay. These are great opportunities for a short Write-It, Do-It practice session. The contraptions do not have to be overly complicated. The emphasis should be on the accuracy and details of the step-by-step instructions and the ability to replicate the original contraption.
Use materials you may already have in your classroom or can acquire inexpensively through donations or garage sale finds such as K’NEX, Tinker Toys, Legos, stickers, beads or even a collection of buttons.
The Science Olympiad event Write-It, Do-It has a specific set of rules regarding the use of abbreviations, and drawings. You can even purchase Rules Manuals from the Science Olympiad Store However you can use the basic idea and design your own rules that meet the needs of your students and the time you have allotted for practice in the classroom. You can use as many or as few pieces as you like. Choose the materials that best suit the time slot you have available. The contraptions do not have to be complicated.
Best of All
Students enjoy the activity. I find my students like a bit of competition now and then. They love tackling problems and solving them. You are helping students build the habit of persistence of problem solving, giving them a practical forum for the use of domain specific vocabulary (especially math) and developing technical writing skills. Practicing the art of writing step-by-step instructions in class tells your students that this is an important skill to learn. They will thank you for making writing fun!
An introductory Lesson Idea
Review a pre-made contraption with your students. Ask for ideas about how they would describe the pieces used to make the contraption. You can either provide students with a list of useful vocabulary or brainstorm a list of vocabulary that could be used to describe the contraption and the materials used to create it.
Adjacent, Plane, Square, Rectangle, Alternating, Acute, Obtuse, Angle, Underneath, Circular, Triangle, Right Angle, Perpendicular, Symmetrical, Parallel, Base, Bridge, Isolated, Cylinder, Pyramid
Work collaboratively with students to write step-by-step instructions so someone else can put the contraption together. If you teach middle school and have multiple classes each day, you might consider having one class write instructions for another class to use the next day.
If you are using this activity with multiple classes, work collaboratively with students to assemble the contraption based on the instructions provided. Compare the completed contraption with the original to see if they match. Talk about which instructions worked and which instructions could use some tweaking. Ask students to suggest ideas for improving the instructions.
Before class, design two contraptions for student practice. Divide the class into two groups. Each group will be writing step-by-step instructions to assemble one of the designs. I have students work with a partner to write instructions during this first practice. Be sure to keep the groups separated so they cannot see the contraption the other group is writing about.
Give the students a fixed number of minutes to write their instructions. The time provide really depends how complicated the contraptions are to build. For the first time or two we do this activity in class, I typically use no more than 10 pieces and give the students about 15 minutes to write instructions.
When the writing time is up, remove the contraptions from view. Give each partner group instructions and assembly pieces to make the contraption they did not write about. Tell the students how much time they will have to assemble the contraption and check their work. Usually, this is the same amount of time as the writing.
When students are finished bring out the original contraption and have them check their work.
The first time I use this activity in class, I treat it as a formative assessment asking myself what instructional support do students need to be successful when tackling this task in the future?
It is important that students be given additional opportunities throughout the year to practice Write-It, Do-It.
When students become proficient writing instructions from teacher created contraptions, I have them make their own and write instructions to challenge others. Some of my students love to design contraptions and write instructions for their classmates. They often make several and store them for others to access when time permits.
When students create their own you may want to give them some parameters for their design. For example, ask students to use 7 – 10 pieces to create a symmetrical design. When creating their own design, students need to make sure that they have sufficient materials to create two contraptions – the one they are making and the materials for the student reading their instructions to make. The maker should be able to compare his/her contraption to the original.