A Perfect Example of Authentic Learning in Action
A Perfect Example of Authentic Learning in Action
PUBLISHED: Wednesday, July 15, 2020 by Todd Stanley

NASA recently announced that it would award $35,000 to anyone who can make a better toilet for its astronauts. NASA is calling it the Lunar Loo Challenge because NASA scientists and engineers, with all of their infinite wisdom, have not really had a good system before. Some of the methods used back when we were regularly taking trips to the moon included astronauts using roll-on cuffs, bags, or space diapers. With the advent of the Artemis program, vowing to put a person on the moon by 2024 for the first time since 1972, NASA is asking for the public’s help with designing a better toilet. However, there are certain constraints that must be followed. According to NASA, the toilet must:

  • Function in both microgravity and lunar gravity
  • Have a mass of less than 15 Kg in Earth’s gravity
  • Occupy a volume no greater than 0.12 m3
  • Consume less than 70 Watts of power
  • Operate with a noise level less than 60 decibels (no louder than an average bathroom fan).
  • Accommodate both female and male users
  • Accommodate users ranging from 58 to 77 inches tall and 107 to 290 lbs in weight

What a great authentic learning task for your classroom. Challenge your students to design a space toilet. You could do this with all ages and get all sorts of interesting products. This is problem solving at its finest in that you are given a real-world problem with real-world consequences and asked to develop a solution. If that is not authentic enough, the possibility of $35,000 certainly adds a little validity to it. 

Can you imagine how engaged students would be working on a project such as this? This would show them how what they are learning about engineering and science can be applied to the real world rather than to worksheets, homework, and assessments. It gives their work context because they can actually see for themselves how it might be used in their own lives.

You don’t have to wait for NASA to put authentic learning on a silver platter—these sorts of real-world problem-solving opportunities for your students are out there, ready to be discovered. Once, when I was teaching a gifted elementary class that was a one-day-a-week pull-out, we had to hold class in some yurts that were used as science labs by the nearby high school about a 10-minute walk from the school. I had to march a dozen or so third and fourth graders from their school, through the high school, and along a sidewalk that led to these yurts. One time, when it had rained very hard the day before, we encountered a challenge. The mud near a section of the sidewalk had become saturated and the water came flooding up on the sidewalk, making a large puddle that blocked our path. It was impossible to jump over, even with my adult legs, much less students’ short ones. You couldn’t really walk around it because the ground was too muddy. In order to get to class, we had to walk through the puddle, getting our shoes wet. 

I had planned an elaborate lesson about something or other, but all the students kept talking about, as we walked into the classroom and took off our shoes and wrung the water from our socks, was how inconvenient this moat was going to be, not just for today, but for any class for which it rained the day before. Someone needed to do something about it. I’m sure these 9- and 10-year-old children thought I was going to call maintenance or a custodian, or some other adult to take care of the problem. What I decided then and there was that life had presented us with a problem, literally laying it at our feet for us to solve. I broke the students up into groups and challenged them to come up with a way that we could cross the puddle without getting our feet wet.  

Students worked on this for half the day, brainstorming ideas, drawing designs, and listing materials that would be needed to build their device. We had a rich conversation about what we thought might work, and I thought I had done my duty as a teacher of intellectual curiosity in allowing students to explore a real-life problem using the engineering design process. And that is where I left it.

The very next week, one of my students, this sweet blonde-haired third grader, was carrying a large grocery sack along with her usual school supplies. I thought she might have a project due for another class or a change of clothes for after school. Grinning from ear-to-ear, she pulled out a contraption. It was a couple of boards connected with a hinge. You could open and extend it across a 4-foot space of flooring, a little more than the length of a rain puddle. This student had taken her excitement about our hypothetical project and decided to take it a step further. Employing her dad, who was only happy to use his tools gathering dust in the garage, they had taken her design and actually created it.  

When we walked out to our yurts, she was leading the pack, the excitement almost causing her to sprint. Although it had not rained, there was an outline of where the puddle would sit. She pulled out her device, extended it across the mark, and we walked over it like a bunch of ducks following their mother. When I asked her for her plans so that I could make one for the class, she simply handed me the bag. “It’s for the class.” We used that device every time it rained to great success for the next 2 years that I taught in the program.

This student taught me not to limit the possibilities of problem solving to the confines of the classroom. Use this enthusiasm and eagerness to drive the learning beyond. This is how students are going to see how what they are learning applies to their lives, by actually solving authentic problems in a real-world setting. That is what students would be doing by creating a toilet for NASA, but it doesn’t have to be that earth-shattering. It can be something right in front of them that they encounter every day. You just have to look for it.

For more information about the Lunar Loo Challenge, visit https://www.nasa.gov/lunar-loo-challenge.