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Science Scope - November 2014

The Justin Time Challenge

Katheryn B. Kennedy & J. Adam Scribner 2014-10-06 10:16:33

Engaging students in both science and engineering practices can be a daunting process. The call to integrate the practices, advocated by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), challenges teachers to promote student analysis and explanation through innovation (NGSS Lead States 2013). Teachers can facilitate student exploration of the NGSS practice of Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions through the use of engineering-design process (EDP) challenges. EDP activities are an effective entry point for engaging students in both science-knowledge content and the engineering-design process (Roehrig et al. 2012; Mentzer 2011). In this article, we discuss the Justin Time Challenge, an EDP activity combined with music that engages students in learning and understanding both content and process. The activity is also an effective way to enhance collaboration and teamwork within the classroom while supporting students’ development of communication skills. Several engineering-design process templates exist for classroom use. We often use one from Design Squad (2014) (Figure 1). We feel this template is grade-appropriate for middle school. Other engineering-design process templates can also be found for free online (see Resources). For students who are new to engaging in engineering in the classroom, it may be beneficial to discuss the steps within the design process prior to starting Justin Time or any other EDP challenge. The discussion provides an opportunity to highlight how the engineering-design process contrasts with science practices. Students often initially struggle to identify how science and engineering are similar and different. An explicit discussion about how science is conducted to produce knowledge and answer questions, while engineering is conducted to solve problems and produce technology, supports the NGSS goal of linking science and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States 2013; see Addressing the Next Generation Science Standards sidebar). In our discussions, we focus on how science and engineering practices can be seen throughout the engineering-design process. The Justin Time Challenge is ideal for use in grade 6. It supports the NGSS science and engineering practice Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, building on students' K–5 experiences (NGSS Lead States 2013). The challenge requires students to apply scientific disciplinary core ideas of force and motion from NGSS standard MS-PS2 to design devices. We recommend placing this lesson at the beginning of a unit on forces and motion. The focus of the lesson is not on developing a deep understanding of periodic motion, but rather on the practices of “fair” design testing and identifying and controlling variables. The data collection within the lesson promotes understanding of the NGSS crosscutting concept Cause and Effect, as the relationships examined are used to predict motion in student designs (NGSS Lead States 2013). Prior knowledge of motion is not needed for the lesson. Challenge The Justin Time design challenge asks teams to create a device that keeps time with a popular song (download the student activity packet online at We use Justin Timberlake’s “Not a Bad Thing” because the song’s clean lyrics and consistent tempo make it a good fit for the task. (We encourage teachers to use the activity as an opportunity to expose students to new and different music or to excite students by using music they like. Teachers can play the music as students enter the classroom. Points to consider for song selection include clean lyrics, consistent tempo throughout the song, a strong downbeat within the song that students can identify, and the popularity of the song. The Billboard Hot 100 chart can provide a starting point.) When introducing the design task, we clarify the challenge’s goal: to design and build a device that keeps time to the beat of Justin Timberlake’s “Not a Bad Thing.” (Note that the term device is used intentionally when discussing the challenge to promote student creativity during the activity. When this challenge was initially piloted, we used the terms pendulum and metronome and found that students were distracted by attempts to understand the definitions of these terms instead of directing their focus to the scientific phenomenon.) A typical device includes string with weight at the end called a bob. The movement of the bob from one location to another and back again is an example of oscillation. Teachers can discuss oscillation during the activity introduction if needed. Safety considerations should be made explicit at the introduction of the challenge. Student groups often will choose to work in an area where they can set up the device between two chairs. Students must make sure no one is standing in the way of the device during testing and that all testing occurs perpendicular to the floor. Students must also wear safety glasses at all times during this activity. (For more tips regarding implementation of this activity, view the teacher notes online at How a team defines the timing of the beat within the song is a group decision that will impact the final design of the device. Teachers may consider this factor when forming student groups. Prior to introducing the lesson, instructors may want to determine how many students participate in a formal or informal music program. If available, students who have a music background should be mixed throughout individual groups of four students to help their groups determine the beat. Formal knowledge of music, however, is not required for the challenge. It is acceptable for groups to focus on the same or different beats. Initially prompting students takes little more than asking them to listen to the song and figure out where the beat is. The downbeat is equal to the strong beat within the measure. To provide more support, the teacher can clap to the various downbeats. With “Not a Bad Thing,” teachers can clap for every measure on the whole note (fourth beat), every half note (every second beat), or every quarter note (four beats per measure). It is important to emphasize that each of these different approaches to counting the beat is correct. The differences in this step will lead to varied solutions in the final version of the device. The provided materials and allotted time for completing the task are discussed as limitations within the challenge. Students can use items such as metal washers, paper clips, paper cups, pennies, scissors, and string, as well as craft sticks, protractors, and tape. Such materials are ideal, as they are easy obtained at local dollar and hardware stores. An assortment of materials provides choice to groups and promotes creativity in their designs. We have seen groups construct the bobs of their devices using paper cups filled with pennies and washers hanging from paper clips. The number of materials should be ample to give groups a wide variety of choices. We suggest having five or more of each item available for each group. Seeing student thinking Worksheets are important tools for capturing student thinking. Worksheet sections that align with the steps of the design process provide natural checkpoints for teachers to confer with groups and discuss their progress. Creating sections keeps students on task and provides a place for them to document their work. The first section of our worksheet (download the student activity packet online at asks students to brainstorm and identify what prior knowledge they can use to solve the task. The next section, about testing and prototype building, is where students make connections to science and use content knowledge to inform design choices. Students draw their designs in this section. Teachers can help students identify variables for future testing by asking them about information they include in the initial design chart. Teachers may prompt students with questions such as “What would happen to the timing of the bob if the length of the string changes?” or “Do you think the weight affects the timing?” Based on student responses, the teacher may choose to have mini-conferences with individual groups or students or a whole-class discussion to clarify variables. Single-variable testing Length and weight are the two most common variables investigated, though students may also choose the angle of release. A common student misconception is that weight affects oscillation. It is important to allow students to investigate this notion through single variable testing to provide them with an authentic inquiry experience. Once the groups or class has identified the variables for testing, teams can investigate them. Student investigations promote understanding of the NGSS crosscutting concept Cause and Effect and will help inform students’ design decisions when redesigning their device. Groups can either formulate procedures on their own to investigate each variable or be prompted by the teacher either as a group or a class. Prompts may include questions such as “How will we record our data?” and “How many trials will be enough to have confidence in our conclusions?” Either way, single-variable testing provides a valuable opportunity to develop sound practices of data collection. Depending on how the groups have identified the downbeat, they will need to determine the length of string that aligns with the this timing. If students have selected one beat per measure, they will need a longer string, which will take longer to oscillate back and forth. A group that has identified four beats per measure will need a string that will swing much faster, so these students will eventually create a device that has a much shorter string length. Collected data can be recorded in the data tables provided in the student packet (download the student activity packet at Although data will be collected by groups as a whole, students should individually record information in their packet. Students are then prompted to graph their data. Scaffolding may include providing students who need additional support with prelabeled x- and y-axes, units, and graph titles. Teachers can help students by making a large graph for the class (using a whiteboard, chalkboard, or interactive board) as an example. It will be helpful for students to see an example graph with properly plotted and labeled x and y axes. Teachers should make sure that groups are indeed controlling for each of the variables. The use of a data table helps facilitate this by asking students to record the length of string used in all trials when the weight is changed. When the variable being manipulated is length, the data table asks students to record the weight used in all the trials. Asking students why one variable is not changed at all during specific trials reveals the single-variable nature of science investigations. The questions help students understand how their graphs can be used as predictive models, a concept new to many middle school students. After single-variable testing, students will once again work in their groups and use the knowledge gained from testing to redesign their device. Students are prompted to draw their redesigned device in the activity packet. Informed design refinement demonstrates the iterative nature of the engineering-design process. It should be noted that in our pilot tests of this lesson, at least two cycles of the EDP were needed to optimize working devices. Therefore, students will work through the EDP cycle once, complete single-variable testing, and refine their designs. Misconceptions addressed Variable selection and subsequent investigation of that variable support the development of accurate scientific understanding about the factors that affect an object’s oscillation. This understanding will ultimately influence the design of the device in the challenge. Student misconceptions about force and motion are well documented. Students often incorrectly see force as a property of an object and not an interaction between objects (Dykstra, Boyle, and Monarch 1992). They typically struggle with the notion that gravity is a force, and even high school students have difficulty answering the question of whether the force of gravity would be greater on a lead ball than on a wooden ball of the same size (Brown and Clement 1992). In this activity, students’ acceptance of evidence that contradicts misconceptions often occurs during the variable testing and data collection. While students will accept data that support their thinking about a phenomenon, they often will not as easily accept data that contradict their misconceptions. For example, teams often misidentify the mass of the bob as a variable that affects oscillation. When their data do not support this misconception, students may think that something is wrong with the experimental procedure and that their data are also wrong. Careful discussion will be needed to facilitate students’ examination of not only their data but also the validity of their initial ideas. Teachers may need to be explicit in this discussion and ask students, “What trends do we see in the data? Is there a relationship between the weight used in the testing and the oscillations?” Students may have hypothesized that as weight increases, the number of oscillations will change by either increasing or decreasing. Students are often surprised that the data do not support the hypothesis and that there is no relationship between these two variables. Variability of solutions It is important for teachers to showcase final design variation among groups. This is a valuable opportunity for students to see their classmates’ creative design solutions. Students, as part of their presentation, are asked to summarize how the science investigations and iterative redesigns shaped their final products. Showcases can be done formally as group presentations or informally as a gallery walk around the devices built in the classroom. Other modifications Another way to uncover student thinking is to use a formative assessment probe such as “The Swinging Pendulum” by Keeley and Harrington (2010). Students select which variable they think will have the greatest effect on a swinging pendulum, and this conversation about the length of the string, the weight of the bob, and even the angle at which the bob is held can be used to connect to the design challenge. Everyday Physical Science Mysteries (Kornieck-Moran 2013) is an additional way to connect to the challenge and reveal student thinking. These mysteries are not formative assessment probes but engage students as readers, who are presented with a mystery that can be investigated or solved with science or engineering. “Grandfather’s Clock” is a mystery that aligns with the goals of this lesson and sets the stage for examining pendulums as students attempt to determine how to make a clock accurately keep time. These probes and mysteries can be used prior to the Justin Time Challenge or afterward as a check of understanding. We choose to not use them prior to the challenge because our emphasis in this lesson is on the introduction of the engineering-design process. We would suggest using the probe and mystery as summative assessments. Conclusion Engaging students in science and engineering practices can be accomplished by updating classic science investigations, such as the exploration of the pendulum, through the integration of engineering-design tasks. The Next Generation Science Standards challenge teachers to integrate practices, content, and application while facilitating critical thinking and engagement (NGSS Lead States 2013). Justin Time purposefully connects engineering design and science investigations. Moreover, the innovative use of music in Justin Time has proven an effective approach, earning positive feedback from both students and teachers. Teamwork and communication skills also help students as they move through the design challenge, ultimately promoting student growth and engagement. Katheryn B. Kennedy ( is program manager and J. Adam Scribner ( is science professional development specialist at the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

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