Monday, June 9, 2014

What Apollo 13 can teach us about project-based, collaborative learning

Educators with an eye on helping students succeed in the future recognize that collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking/problem solving are the skills of the future. I learned about the 4 C's of 21st Century Learning at (

But I would suggest that these skills aren't newly important. People have been using these skills to solve some of the most pressing problems of humankind throughout history. In 1970, the Apollo 13 mission suffered a catastrophic failure when an oxygen tank exploded. It left the crew to endure incredible hardships because of limited power, heat loss, and a critical need to repair the carbon dioxide removal system. Back on the ground, NASA was scrambling to support the mission and ensure the crew returned safely to Earth. This video clip exemplifies how the NASA team used "project-based" skills to begin the problem solving.


As I think about the types of problems that will fully engage and empower students, instead of asking questions that have predetermined right answers, why not ask questions and present scenarios that could have multiple right answers and require student creativity and critical thinking.

If I was preparing students to successfully bring Apollo 13 back safely, what would my students need to know? If teachers can design projects, or cooperative learning experience that replicate some or all of these characteristics, student learning will be empowering and of lasting value.

1. Sense of purpose--team members are working towards a common goal that has significant meaning beyond the self-interests of the team members.
2. Shared goals--the team is striving to achieve specific goals.
3. Interdependence--team members rely on each other for the success of the entire team. Everyone recognizes the contributions of each member are valuable for team success.
4. Risk of failure--success is not guaranteed and the team recognizes that it's best ideas are required to succeed.
5. No box thinking--it's required to think "outside the box." We can't rely on patterns or models of what's been done before. We need to think of new possibilities even in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances.
6. Extensive discussion--everyone provides input, even introverts, to make sure that all possible solutions are considered.

I think one of the best ways to facilitate this type of teamwork and problem-solving in the classroom is to have students working on real problems in your school, community, or broader context. There are plenty of compelling problems in our world that would bring instant relevance to the learning experience. Students want to solve real problems.

In the end, thanks to a brilliant team effort from those on the ground and in orbit, the crew of Apollo 13 was successful in rigging a carbon dioxide removal system created with items aboard the spacecraft. As a result, we know this story had a happy ending and the astronauts returned safely to Earth.

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