Three Arkansas middle school students committed to an unusual class project last year: creating an artificial limb for a duck that was hobbling around on one foot.
Their efforts—and hard-won success—illustrate a link between a sense of purpose and meaning in classroom work and student engagement.
It took the 8th graders from the rural community of Armorel 36 prototypes to design and 3D print a prosthetic that fit Peg the duck and allowed him to walk unencumbered. Each attempt presented new challenges. The students had only learned about 3D printing the year before, teaching themselves with YouTube tutorials and experimentation. They worked with a particularly challenging plastic material, and they had to learn to adjust proportions, to adapt their designs to address shortfalls, and to measure in metric units.
But they were willing to persist, motivated by the belief that Peg was dependent on their work, said Alicia Bell, who teaches the students in a project-based-learning class. The woman who found Peg as a duckling suspected a turtle had chewed off his foot, and the remaining part of his leg was scabbed from grazing the ground.
“He’s a living thing, and we got to see his challenges,” Bell said, explaining why students were so drawn to the project. “He had adapted, but he wasn’t living a full life.” Plus, helping Peg meant helping his owner, who’d been searching for a solution to his lopsided gait for months.
Relevance and Meaning
The Arkansas students’ work is a demonstration of a concept that researchers have increasingly explored as they search for ways to more thoroughly incorporate students’ emotions and development into education. Grounding classroom work in a greater sense of purpose and meaning can help engage students in learning new concepts and motivate them to persist through challenges, they say.
The Mindset Scholars Network—a collaborative of researchers who study how students’ beliefs about learning affect their engagement and academic success—call it a mindset of purpose and relevance. That mindset can be engaged by helping students understand how classroom content applies “in the real world,” by allowing them to select assignments that tap into their natural sense of altruism, or by connecting classroom work to student’s long-term or professional goals, researchers say.
“What we find is that meaning is really important to students and, without it, a lot of students will look like they aren’t motivated,” said Chris Hulleman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who studies student motivation.
Rather than “blaming students,” Hulleman and his colleagues are exploring how schools can change the ways they approach content to make it more relevant. For example, one of Hulleman’s research projects found that students who said they didn’t expect to do well in science class performed better overall when they wrote essays throughout the semester, explaining how the content was relevant in their own lives.
A separate study—by researchers from the University of Texas, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania—found that students persisted longer at boring tasks if they had listed a “self-transcendent purpose for learning” as a reason for attending college. For example, a student may want to use a nursing degree to help treat low-income children.
Some schools have worked to build that sense of relevance and meaning by asking students to reflect on their goals, by bringing professionals into the classroom to explain how lessons connect to their work, and by finding opportunities for service learning with outside organizations.
In Eufaula, Ala., career-technology students partnered with a nonprofit to design and build classrooms for Honduran schools using shipping containers that would later be installed in rural areas throughout the Central American country.
“It opens their eyes to what they could do in their hometown,” Michelle Eller, director of secondary education for the Eufaula City Schools, told the Dothan Eagle.
Bell, the Arkansas teacher, partners with local businesses and community members to find technology heavy projects for her students, like designing logos and producing promotional videos.
The class is called Environmental and Spatial Technology, or EAST lab. The EAST Initiative, founded in Arkansas, provides support and training for schools to offer real-world, technological learning experiences for students. And the practical applications help the rural students, many of whom have little previous exposure to technology, to master new concepts, she said.
“I just ask the questions,” Bell said. “They know they have to fix it. You can’t turn in a paper and, OK, you have a C, and that’s it. It’s either it works or it doesn’t.”
To make a foot for Peg, an Indian runner duck, students had to learn about the specific way that breed stands straight up, rather than squatting with knees always bent like other breeds. That meant their original prototype, an actual peg, wouldn’t work because Peg needed to bend his knee when necessary and the strength to stand with his leg fully extended when walking.
They also had to find a fitting to accommodate his back toe and an appropriate shape and size to help him maintain his balance without encumbering his gait.
After refining three final prototypes, the students found one that worked. At the final fitting, Peg took off running.
“They come across a problem, and sometimes it takes a day, or sometimes it takes a month,” Bell said, “but we don’t stop until we figure it out.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Students Thrive When They See Purpose in Their Learning