On Feb. 2, every classroom at Polton Elementary looked a little like a recycling center. Every room was stocked with large, brown paper bags, all filled to overflowing with an odd assortment of stuff: egg cartons, pipe cleaners, paper towel tubes, empty cereal boxes, pieces of tinsel, miniature flags. There were also piles of random pieces of cardboard and tables covered with rolls of duct tape and balls of twine. But something else was present too: anticipation.
“The moment they open their bag and dump it all out, opportunities and ideas are just flowing out of them,” said fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Crawford, describing the beginning of a school-wide project called “The Grab Bag Challenge,” where students are given a bag of disparate items and have one hour to create something that has a function or otherwise adds value.
“It feels like play but they’re bringing in so many science and interpersonal skills,” Crawford added. “It gives them the opportunity to think outside the box.” Or outside the bag, in this case.
“You just let your mind go wild and build whatever you want to,” said fifth-grader Samantha Kennedy.
“You have to have an imagination. Without that, you can’t really do anything,” added fellow fifth-grade student Kaden Billings.
The Grab Bag Challenge is based on the book LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student, by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer. The book focuses on something called the LAUNCH cycle, which students Kennedy and Billings know by heart: “L – Look, listen and learn. A - ask lots of questions. U - understand the problem. N - navigate ideas. C – create. And H – highlight and fix.”
Kennedy, Billings and their fifth-grade classmates worked in small groups and used the LAUNCH cycle to meet their grade level challenge: to create something that would be found in a city or community. Kennedy’s group created a park. Billings and his teammates designed and built a grocery store.
Students in fourth grade, who are studying Colorado history this year, were challenged to create something the pioneers who settled our state might have wanted or needed. Understanding how important it was to catch wildlife to eat or to use for trade, several groups of students came up with ingenious contraptions to catch squirrels, rabbits or beavers.
“The Grab Bag Challenge is great because it gives students the opportunity to go through that LAUNCH cycle quickly, with that rapid prototyping,” said Adrian Neibauer, elementary STEM and Innovation coach for Cherry Creek Schools. Meanwhile, teachers are able to use the language of that acronym throughout other parts of their day - writing, math or science. It translates in to other subject areas which is really nice.”
In fact, the specials teachers at Polton did their own combined Grab Bag Challenge. Students in art, music and physical education had to select items they could use to do a musical or rhythmic performance that increased their heart rate. Third-grade students demonstrated creativity and collaboration in their performances.
Polton is the first school in the Cherry Creek School District to do a school-wide “LAUNCH Day” where every student from kindergarten through fifth grade took part in a Grab Bag Challenge. But other schools are starting to implement the LAUNCH cycle because it helps students develop essential, 21st century skills, including critical thinking, collaboration, innovation and teamwork.
Jon Pierce, elementary STEM and Innovation coordinator for Cherry Creek Schools, says it also helps students build another important quality. “Creative confidence – they come out feeling like ‘I can do anything because I just created something out of nothing,’” Pierce said. “’This didn’t exist… I willed this into existence.’"