I’m walking through the halls at school one day and a three-legged dog runs past me. A lot of out of the ordinary things happen at Compass Academy, all in the name of project-based learning, but a dog like this deserves a second look. I follow the dog, Sage, a few feet and realize she’s a student’s companion for the day so she could introduce Sage to her Anatomy and Physiology class. The class will be trying to create an artificial leg for her.

My colleague, Darcy Aspinall, is the facilitator for this project, which the students have named Robo Dog. I’ve been watching from afar as she and her students have explored the question:  How do prosthetics improve lives? Secondarily, they’re asking themselves, “How do we, as anatomy and physiology students, create a functional prosthetic leg so that Sage (the dog) can have a better quality of life?” But the questions don’t stop there.

How do prosthetics replace natural limbs?

How can you achieve the same functionality of a natural limb with a prosthetic?

How do you design something for an animal with different bone and muscle structure than a human?

How do you make a prototype?

Who knows about this stuff and are they willing to come help us?

Each day this project brings up new questions. Each day this project brings up new challenges.  And each day, these students are diving deeper and deeper into the content. This would indicate that the students are engaged and that they are interested in this subject.

Many educators across the country probably have file folders full of anecdotal evidence to help support the claim that students will go deeper into the content and keep asking questions when they care. And surely, that’s enough to, day after day and year after year, design projects and assignments around things kids actually care about. But recently, we have some scientific evidence to back it up as well. Neuroscientist, and former seventh-grade science teacher, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, used functional MRI scans to realize that “when students are emotionally engaged, we see activations all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory, and meaning-making, and even all the way down into the brain stem.”

So we know that when our students care about something, they will engage in deeper learning. Period. But a mystery still exists. Why do they care? Many times, when we see students getting engaged in a topic, it’s obvious that those students have a natural interest. We all have natural interests, things that, for whatever reason, strike a chord with us. So that’s the simple answer to the question. But if we stop there, then we’re saying that every single student in Mrs. Aspinall’s Anatomy and Physiology class must have a natural interest in the workings of the human body or dogs or prosthetics. Chances are that this is unlikely. Students in our classrooms are too diverse to have a single project or single subject adequately engage them all. So why do they care about this project to supply a dog with a prosthetic?

My thought is because this is a real problem. This is not a theoretical animal who needs a prosthetic. This is not a word problem, flat and disconnected from the world, on a piece of paper. There is a real dog who is really missing one of her legs and her life is really impacted by this disability. Perhaps the key to engaging more of our students, to the point that they are willing to fall down the rabbit hole of deeper learning, is that we have to find real problems and then let them solve those problems in a real way.

Be forewarned, though. Here’s what real will get you.

You’ll have real, fulfilling successes. You’ll also have real, disappointing failures. You’ll have real stress. You’ll have real, authentic discussions. You’ll have real community connections and definitely real impact. You’ll have a real need to learn things so you can achieve your solution.

Mrs. Aspinall’s class is realizing that in order to engineer an artificial limb for a dog, they will need to understand how the skeletal structure works within our bodies. They will have to apply how muscles move to the way the prosthetic might move. They will have to learn how it all connects together with nerves and tendons and how that translates into something artificial. They will have to analyze different structures and then create something new with that knowledge. They will have to determine how to work 3D modeling software and learn how to create a prototype with a 3D printer. They will have to ask experts to come in to teach them and provide feedback and guidance. They will have to make prototype after prototype, evaluate each one, and then go back to the drawing board until something, hopefully, works. And they will do all of these “have tos” because the learning and the desire to solve this problem is what drives them. Notice the progression toward Bloom’s higher levels of thinking?

So for the Robo Dog project, students dive deep into anatomy and physiology and 3D printers and lots of other things as they uncover everything they need to know to complete this project.  While those students dive deep into those things, Mrs. Aspinall sees her students practicing skills like explaining, summarizing, analyzing, evaluating, discovering, creating and connecting. These skills will translate into any kind future these students create for themselves.

We know we need our students to care in order to achieve deeper learning. Realizing why our students can lead us to the conclusion that we need to pull back the barrier between our students and the real world and say, “Go ahead, jump in!”

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