Chutes, Ladders, and Chain Reactions

Danny Stock
Active Learning Precipitates

Now that nearly all of our students are learning on campus, teachers are making the most of opportunities for hands-on learning. We’re lifting up three recent and ongoing projects—two in 8th grade (history and science) and one in High School (chemistry)—to highlight a few of the ways students are engaged in active, experiential learning. 

Reconstruction Chutes and Ladders

Eighth grade history teachers Perry Degener and Rachel Johnson conceived of a collaborative culminating board game project that would represent both the abolitionist steps forward and backsliding away from an equitable society during Reconstruction. Students studied the time period in depth—the negotiations between the North and South, the 13th-15th amendments, The Freedmen's Bureau, the Black Codes—and analyzed the financial trajectory, primary source documents, and contemporary opinion pieces in order to gather data to inform their game board design . As they began to build their games in review of their study, ladders represented jumps toward freedom and equality (e.g., The Reconstruction Act of 1867), while chutes represented backsliding away from freedom and equality (e.g., the election of Andrew Johnson). They included explanations of each situation or event, relevant timeline details, their thinking behind the length of the chute or ladder, and how the event fit into the larger narrative/origin story of Reconstruction.

Conversation about Reconstruction continued organically as students discussed the layout of their boards and once complete, the games proved challenging! “Students found it difficult to win the game—to reach a utopian goal of an anti-racist society—when even today we don’t have an equitable society,” Rachel said. The illustration of how easily anti-racist progress can be stalled by racist setbacks was not lost on the students.

“The project helped me understand how certain events in history can push forward or set back progress towards equality,” Jaya ’25 said.  

“It was fun to connect my past experience playing the game when I was younger to learning about history,” Izzie ’25 added. “It was really creative and helped me learn a lot.”

Rube Goldberg Machines

Now an annual tradition in 8th grade science, students construct contraptions inspired by Rube Goldberg in culmination of their study of simple machines. The project requires that students demonstrate understanding of systems as organized groups of related objects or components, and their completed contraptions must demonstrate the co-builders’ ability to predict the behavior of those systems. Working together, sometimes with simple tools students had never picked up before, students fabricated unique sequences of ramps, levers, and pulleys with all sorts of clever objects. Due to the great size of the contraptions, “the biggest challenge is to construct and deconstruct them each day,” said MS science teacher Michael Desautels.

As they construct and deconstruct, under Michael’s and MS science teacher Amanda Long’s guidance, students learn to interpret the conditions that affect stability and the durability of their setup. Additionally, they develop an increased awareness of the factors that control rates of change in both designed (e.g., ramp angle) and natural systems (e.g., elevating increases potential energy). Interestingly, the students’ study of simple machines focused on how they make work easier, while a Rube Goldberg machine is characterized by the overcomplication of a single, simple task. 

“What I love best about the project,” Michael said, “is to overhear the comments students are making as they build together. ‘The lever arm needs to be longer. We need more mechanical advantage.’ Or ‘There is not enough potential energy/mass in this system.’ The project challenges them to work together through the problems they will inevitably encounter.” 

When they get it right, the only things to overhear are exclamations of triumph. Then they take it all apart and try again the next day.

Precipitation Lab

High School science teachers Chris Oster and Cori Coats welcomed chemistry students in for the first hands-on, in-person lab of the year for the department. Students worked their way through a precipitation lab—not rainfall but rather determining if a precipitate would form in solution. Before donning aprons and masks, students worked through the double replacement reactions to see what products would form. Next, they used solubility rules to predict if a precipitate would form. Once in the lab with their predictions in hand, students got to test each of the combinations to see if they were correct. Seeing calcium sulfate precipitate before your own eyes as you add four-five drops of solution is invaluable learning. Even as students were confirming their expectations about the reactions, they were also learning valuable lessons about handling the materials in a lab and managing the area surrounding their workstation.

Learning actively puts students in a broader path of learning, encompassing far more than a single concept. In some ways, the hands-on, collaborative components of experiential learning add value in the same way an extra lever or pulley might in a Rube Goldberg machine: they place seemingly simple moments in the greater context of the various systems that proceed, follow, and surround them.