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5 Hit Shows Featuring Inquiry and Project-Based Learning

If you or your students are new to inquiry and project-based learning—or if you just need some popular-culture inspiration for your program—you should check out the following hit TV shows. Each one uses the inquiry process to create amazing projects:

  1. Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel is a classic show that investigates modern myths and viral videos, using science to determine whether they are confirmed, plausible, or “busted.” (Let’s face it, the more formal term—burst—doesn’t work as well as busted.) In every episode, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, and their cohorts test myths using the inquiry process. Each show starts with a myth that the team wants to examine.
    • Questioning: The team asks the key questions about the myth. What are its parts? How can we test each part? What are the potential hazards of our testing? How can we use the materials that we have? How can we ensure great TV from picking apart this myth?
    • Planning: The next step often involves sketching ideas, creating scale models, rapid prototyping, and benchmarking. At this point, the team is considering how they can confirm or deny the myth.
    • Researching: When the crew needs to find out more, they search online and even travel off-line to places like NASA or bomb ranges to get the necessary information.
    • Creating: The team gathers the materials and tools they need and builds an experiment for finally testing the myth. They use all sorts of motors, computers, high-speed cameras—and not a little duct tape.
    • Improving: Rarely do things go right the first time, so the team must reevaluate what they are doing. They make adjustments, adding, removing, rearranging, and reworking parts.
    • Presenting: At long last, the team runs the final, definitive test to determine if a myth is true or not—often with surprising results. Recently, Jamie and Adam tried to make a Newton’s cradle out of wrecking balls. That’s radical science!
  2. Project Runway on Lifetime seems as far removed from Mythbustersas I can imagine. When my wife first started watching it, I was dismayed. Anybody who has seen me knows I have no fashion sense and am certainly not a fashion model. Even so, I was quickly roped in by the way different designers used the inquiry process to make fashion and wearable art. The show begins with a challenge laid out by Tim Gunn.
    • Questioning: The first part of each challenge is answering the designers’ main questions. What sort of clothing should we make? Who is the client? How much time do we have? How much money do we have? Can we work alone, or do we have to work in teams or pairs?
    • Planning: After the questions are answered, Tim gives the designers about 30 minutes to plan their designs, using sketches and computer-aided design.
    • Researching: Designers can do some quick research online, but their real research happens at the Mood fabric store where they have a short amount of time to find and purchase fabrics, dyes, zippers, buttons, and so on, within their budgets. Sometimes, though, they have to create fashion from materials found in a pet store, or ripped out of some cars, or even found in the produce section of a grocery store.
    • Creating: Next, designers must use the materials to create their “looks” on mannequins, working through their own plus the other designers’ creative crises along the way.
    • Improving: While designers are working, Tim comes around to critique them, helping each to make improvements big and small before the new fashions hit the runway. The designers must also fit their clothing on the models.
    • Presenting: The runway show finally begins, whether designers are ready or not, and the judges are ruthlessly honest when they hate an outfit—and full of praise when they love it.
  3. Pawn Stars on the History Channel is another show I did not expect to like, but every item that comes into the shop begins the inquiry process. Many times, the items will turn out to have amazing historical significance—a lottery ticket signed by George Washington, or a straitjacket worn by Harry Houdini. At other times, an object is a fake, or sometimes even stolen. The only way to find out is inquiry.
    • Questioning: The first thing that Rick Harrison does when someone brings an item to him is ask questions. What is this thing? Where did you get it? Do you have any papers verifying its authenticity? What are you thinking of doing with it? How much do you want for it?
    • Planning: Often, at this point, the scene cuts away to a private interview with Rick, in which he talks about the item and what he intends to do with it. If he really wants something—say, a Civil War cannon—his face is alight, and he is thinking about the value of the piece and how much he can offer and still make a profit. If he doesn’t want the item, he outlines the problem with it.
    • Researching: When an item is really rare, really strange, or potentially a fake, Rick calls in one of his “buddies”—specialists in history, guns, signatures, motorcycles, classic cars, or whatever. He finds out from the person what he is really looking at and what its value is.
    • Creating: Once Rick is ready, he begins the negotiation process. He studies the object and the seller, trying to determine a price that will be fair but will also allow him to make money. Occasionally Rick offers more than a person is asking, just to be fair.
    • Improving: Many of the items Rick buys need to be reconditioned—a vintage motorcycle that has been badly reworked, a helicopter that was in a crash, a classic vending machine that is in rough shape. He takes the item to another buddy, letting the person know how much money he has in the piece, how much money he wants out of it, and what sort of restoration he is hoping for.
    • Presenting: When an object is reconditioned, Rick sees the big “reveal” and finds out how much it has cost him. Usually, he can still make a tidy profit on the deal, and he, his staff, and the various specialists he’s pulled in along the way—not to mention the original seller—all have made out well.
  4. Cake Boss is a TLC show that documents the antics of Buddy Valastro and his family-owned confectionery—Carlo’s Bakery. Once again, I was a reluctant viewer of this show, but Buddy’s charm and his ingenuity in creating all sorts of cakes is really addicting to watch. He even created NASA’s official cake for retiring the shuttle fleet—a space-shuttle cake that actually launched! Each episode begins when a client enters the shop requesting a cake for a special occasion.
    • Questioning: First, Buddy asks all the main questions about the ordered cake. What’s the occasion? Who is it for? What is the person like? What do you envision? How about if I were to do this, that, or the other? When does it need to be done? And though the show does not show this part, I imagine that price enters into the negotiations.
    • Planning: Next, Buddy describes aloud the idea he has, and a plan for the cake takes shape before the viewer’s eyes. He figures out who will work on the project and what each person will do.
    • Researching: Buddy and his crew search for the information that they need to complete the cake. One cake for a botanical garden, for example, had to have edible flowers that could fool a botanist. In addition to researching flowers, Buddy brought in an icing-flower expert to train his crew.
    • Creating: The time comes to put all the pieces together, often with wooden platforms, PVC armatures, little motors, special effects, Rice Krispie treats, miles of fondant, and, of course, cake.
    • Improving: Buddy looks over the cake, sometimes having to rework whole parts of it or repair sections that crack. He then applies finishing touches with edible paints or even burns icing with an acetylene torch.
    • Presenting: In the end, Buddy and his team carry the cake to the special occasion and present it to the person for whom it was intended. Most often, the person is overwhelmed, saying that the cake is both incredible and delicious.
  5. Rocket City Rednecks is a new show on the National Geographic Channel, starring a group of rocket scientists who also happen to be backwoods boys from Alabama. On their weekends off from working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, these geniuses launch ridiculous but insightful science experiments. Despite the surface hilarity of the show, there’s serious thinking and experimentation going on. The ringleader, Travis Taylor, is a second-generation rocket scientist who lets his self-described “redneck ingenuity” shine. And this show, too, features inquiry. It starts when Travis announces what he wants to do that weekend—launch a mission to Mars, or build an Iron Man suit, or stop an asteroid from slamming into Mobile and destroying the world.
    • Questioning: As soon as Travis announces his idea, his crew immediately begins asking questions. Where are we going to get a Martian lander? How about Bubba’s broken-down RV? What kinds of systems are we going to need? How are we going to build a shelter on Mars without carrying a huge payload?
    • Planning: Next, the team makes a plan for the different components of their project. Who will do what, with what—how, where, and when? They sketch, discuss, argue, and then split up into teams to get the job done.
    • Researching: The teams gather materials and learn whatever they need to know to complete the project. They experiment with different possibilities, run tests, and usually requisition something that “Daddy” Taylor will sorely miss from his garage.
    • Creating: At a certain point, Travis and his team put all the pieces together and get them to work—whether they’ve built a rocket out of an RV or an Iron Man suit out of Travis’s dad’s smoker.
    • Improving: Next, invariably, Travis and his team have to make improvements on their designs. This is where much of the hilarity ensues, but it’s also where a lot of the real innovation comes into play.
    • Presenting: Finally, the crew puts their project to work, either succeeding or failing. In the episode during which they build a Mars base, the team, using 20 pounds of cargo, creates an impressive domed shelter in about half an hour.

So, in case you think that inquiry and project-based learning are just new educational fads, think again. They are a major part of popular culture, as evidenced in these TV shows. They are also the way that innovative adults introduce new ideas and devices in the real world. Turning your students on to these shows can inspire them to become backyard scientists, artists, chefs, and entrepreneurs.

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