The Apollo 13 unit is made up of a sequence of short activities, each lasting from one to seven class periods. The primary focus of each activity is introduction to processes that support the kinds of design and science activities students will engage in as they are learning science content during later units. The unit begins with viewing the movie Apollo 13, the 1995 movie about the aborted Apollo 13 mission to the moon. Each subsequent activity introduces students to aspects of the Learning by Design culture and gives them experience in the practices that will be important as they begin learning science content in an LBD setting.
In the film, students see scientists and engineers engaged in informed decision making, collaboration, inquiry, computation, clear communication, design, simulation, and so on. They hear scientific terms being used, and they see the complexities of devices and organizations and the need for clear terminology and collaboration skills. The movie provides memorable examples of scientific reasoning, design processes, and collaborative culture for the class to refer back to throughout their LBD work. An edited version of the movie takes one class period to show, and a second class period is devoted to discussing the model of science and design that the movie presents. After seeing the movie, we ask students to make their first attempt at a convincing argument - they need to use evidence from the movie to argue for or against continuation of the space program in a mock letter to their senator. Discussions about what makes for a persuasive argument introduce the need for deep knowledge and investigation.
Students then begin to engage in a series of design activities. The first, the Book Support Challenge, introduces them to collaboration, building on each other's ideas, design within constraints, design iteration, and the identification of design criteria. Students are divided into groups and given 10-15 minutes to build a bookstand out of 3" X 5" index cards, paper clips, and rubber bands. Their bookstand needs to support an open textbook well enough that pages can be turned. After 15 minutes (almost always enough time for all groups to be successful), the teacher leads the students through a simple gallery walk, in which each group describes their bookstand's design, shows how it works, answers questions, and solicits suggestions for improvement. The groups work a second time on the same challenge and show their revised designs in another gallery walk. The class is then given an additional challenge: they are to design the best-quality bookstand for the least amount of money (prices are fixed for each index card, paperclip, and rubber band). They follow the same procedure of designing and constructing in groups, sharing their designs and discussing them during gallery walks, and then iteratively revising.