For grade 5/6 math students at Community Christian School in Metcalfe, small desks with little to no storage space added up to a unique learning opportunity this winter.
Their teacher, Rick Dykstra, found a creative way to integrate the functional, but less-than-ideal desks into a fun, student driven challenge: He invited each member of the class to step beyond text book learning and design a bigger and more comfortable desk prototype.
“We were about to venture into a geometry unit—and I had never been happy with how students remember geometry concepts,” said Dykstra. “So I thought, let’s try something different.”
Not only did his desk project ask students to engage with geometry in a fresh, hands-on way, it addressed three important learning goals he had in mind: Dykstra wanted students to take ownership of their own learning, embrace hard work without too much prompting from their teacher, and come up with a beautiful product at the end of the assignment.
He and his staff members had just finished studying Carol Dweck’s “growth mindsets” approach to education—out of that exploration came conversations about the importance of creating classrooms where students are comfortable making mistakes and confident enough to revisit and even improve upon those mistakes in their daily work.
Knowing that his project would lend itself to such learning experiences, Dykstra gave each student in his math class from December to the first half of February to create a cohesive desk design.
Students first had to sketch orthographic views of their desk prototype, and show what their structure would look like from a variety of angles. After that, they needed to create 3D pencil drawings, along with 3D renderings of their prototypes using a computer program called Sketchup.
Measuring was important too. Each designer would have to ensure that 20 of their desks could (hypothetically) fit inside their classroom. They also had to price out their materials, and be able to tell how much their desk would cost to build when they were finished.
It was a labour intensive process that required patience and careful planning—but students were more than willing to take on the challenge. “When I first introduced it to them they loved the idea,” said Dykstra. “And they couldn’t wait to get going on it.”
Much to his delight, the excitement of students wasn’t short-lived. In fact, during the months that followed Dykstra was frequently told by their homeroom teachers that “they couldn’t get enough of it”.
“Anytime they had a spare minute they asked if they could work on their project,” he recalled.
He explained that students were “kind of creating their own little business” —designing their own logos and creating portfolios; listening to construction experts from the local high school, and learning about the Sketchup program from seasoned landscapers who came in to visit the class. When it came time for students to present their desk prototypes to the school’s Board of Directors and Facilities Committee, it was clear they had made the most of these learning opportunities. Their excellent work was proof.
Melodie, a student in the class, chose to include pencil holders in her prototype design—a small but practical answer to the storage problem.
“Also for storage I did slots beneath the desks,” she said. “It’s about 10 centimeters wide so you could fit binders, pencils and agendas.”
She explained that her friend, Sophie, designed a desk with a surface that tilts upwards. “It’s so that when you’re working your neck wouldn’t get sore. So your papers wouldn’t slip down, she had a ledge at the bottom. It was a really good idea.”
Both Melodie and Sophie would be thrilled to see 20 versions of the desks they designed fill a classroom. True, there’s no guarantee that will happen, but Dykstra hasn’t ruled it out either.
“Everything’s possible,” he said.