Gaining Confidence Through Collaboration

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Sir Isaac Newton’s metaphor describes how knowledge grows by building on prior discoveries and ideas of others. It is one of my favorite quotes to share with our Middle School science students. It reinforces the belief that the best work often occurs within a community of learners who share ideas.
We spend a lot of time in collaborative group work in the science lab, and effective communication is an important part of science learning. It’s one thing to have a good idea; it’s even better to share that idea with your group. Best of all is to be open to others’ ideas and feedback. By sharing their ideas, our students learn to combine the best parts, reject the pieces that don’t work, and refine the final concept.

This is a skill that improves with time, practice, and modeling. It also requires trust that this is a safe community in which to voice ideas and be supported. Every student brings something to the table, and it is rewarding to see them grow to discover and appreciate each others’ strengths and talents. Whether it is designing and building a model arm, a catapult, or an earthquake-resistant building, our students learn the value in becoming good collaborators. As they present their projects, they proudly point out each of their classmates’ contributions. 

Our older Middle School students really show off their skills as collaborators on our Future City engineering team. This seventh and eighth grade elective offers students a resourceful way to learn about engineering, the design process, and project management. The Future City team works together in school and during weekend sessions to respond to a specific engineering challenge under the guidance of their teacher and a local engineer. Local schools compete in the regional competition and the top regional school advances to the national competition.

In designing the solution to the competition’s annual challenge, girls need to use their imagination to take science concepts 100 years into the future to solve a problem. Each team member is asked to consider which part of the challenge is best suited for her strengths, and in smaller groups they tackle five separate deliverables. These include creating a project plan, designing a virtual computer city, writing an essay, building a scale model, and presenting to a team of judges. There is a place for each of them to shine and contribute, and they truly recognize and value each other’s input. Their success as a team depends on how well they consider all aspects of their solution, and they develop thick skins as they question every idea—playing devil’s advocate to be sure their solutions will hold up to the judges’ scrutiny. They learn to reject the idea rather than the person who suggested it, and they are united behind their single shared goal of a cohesive, well-planned city. 

From eager, new fifth grade students to seasoned leaders in eighth grade who are ready to move on to Upper School, Ellis girls gain skills and confidence in their abilities to enact change in their communities through their many collaborative opportunities at Ellis.