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Bento Boxes at Boston Architectural College exhibitLast spring I facilitated a new project with my high school geometry students. Using their developing understanding of the geometry of circles, they designed circular bento boxes for use in packaging a healthy breakfast for the average elementary student in our school district.

Our highlighted success skill, critical thinking, came into the project early as students worked to determine the average elementary school student profile. Was average simply a student halfway in between second and third grade? Because they were talking nutrition, should they look more at the average size of an elementary school student rather than the average age? Was it more reasonable to pack enough food for a fifth grader and know kindergarteners would waste some, or was it acceptable to leave fifth graders a little bit hungry without any waste?

Once they had determined their average elementary school breakfast eater, my students began designing their boxes. Because we were going to print them using our 3-D printer, there were size limitations. There were also requirements about what types of lines and angles needed to be included so I could assess their understanding of circular geometry. We used the BIE Creativity and Innovation rubric to assess both their final product as well as the process they went through to arrive there.

Feedback from students during reflection was entirely positive. They liked the challenge of determining the average elementary school student. They loved the creativity of designing their own bento boxes and the authenticity of printing them. They had learned the required geometry as evidenced by their products as well as required high school common assessments. I was left, after my own reflection, convinced that this was one of the most successful projects I had ever created. But why?

Where the Idea Came From – This Time
The only difference I could think of between this and all my other projects was the way I’d thought of the idea. And here lies the most important thing I’ve learned about how to find ideas for PBL projects. In almost all my other projects in the past, I’d sat down with the intent to develop a project but not with an idea. The idea would finally come as I reviewed my content standards and wracked my brain to find an authentic, engaging context for the standards.

Not true with the bento box project. I had been walking in Boston, Massachusetts and happened to walk by the Boston Architectural College during an exhibit of bento boxes. The exhibit was a comparison of bento boxes and the tiny house movement, pointing out that the goal of each was to maximize the use of a small amount of space. I spent fifteen minutes in the exhibit, thinking about all the mathematical opportunities encapsulated in the ideas I was seeing. When I left, I wrote the bento box project.

The difference between this visit to the BAC and every other visit I’ve paid to galleries, museums, ballparks, events, films, and really any other experience I’ve ever had? I noticed this one. That’s the lesson. Notice, and the project ideas will come.