Isn’t this the type of problem with which we should engage students? YES!!
I love this scene from Apollo 13 and not just because I’ve always had a thing for space exploration, whether human or Wookie. However, when I view it now I recognize the richness of the task the NASA engineers are faced with. To begin with, the task is simple to state; they need to make a square peg fit into a round hole. It’s authentic-the astronauts need to breathe. Really, it probably doesn’t get anymore authentic than that. There’s a high level of collaboration, not just a single person trying to build a working prototype. My favorite part is when they dump everything on the table. Everything the astronauts have access to in the spacecraft. I loathe cookbook science labs or any activity where all the materials have a specific purpose at a specific time so that every student ends up with a similar product. I love to present students with any material I can find. This is because I don’t know every possible solution to the problem they’ll think of. I want to give students the freedom to think outside the box and negotiate the value of any material in helping them achieve a solution and I would be awfully arrogant if I assumed I knew all the materials they would need to do that. I encourage students to use whatever they can find, even it’s not laid out on the “materials” table.
Not only did the engineers have to build a working prototype, but they also had to record the steps they took to build it exactly as they did them, in order to relay the design up to the astronauts. That would be effective communication. Finally, there’s an authentic performance assessment at the end. The authentic audience, the astronauts, must be able to build the apparatus correctly, so that it filters the carbon dioxide out of the air…or they die.
This would make a great STEM Task or makerspace challenge…just remove the life or death aspect.