Day of the Living Dead: Appliance Autopsy Hands On Learning Opportunity


Reuse, refurbish, rebuild. All part of sustainable living…and language learning. Photo by Wade Alley, all rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Wade Alley no reuse without permission.

Before you Recycle It, Tear It Apart:  Hands – On Language Learning

If your house is anything like mine, you probably have a place where you keep the dead and dying.  I mean appliances and gadgets, of course.   Old coffee makers, an old hand-crank generator radio (originally bought in case Y2K became the disaster everyone feared), a toaster, and some other appliances can have a second, albeit short life in your language teaching classroom. 

The idea for this task/problem based lesson came to me a few years ago when I was teaching a course called English for Makers. (Shameless self promotion alert: I got an article published on this very topic at the Mextesol Journal.  You can read my wonderful article here. )  For that lesson, I managed to get some very cheap appliances for students to take apart.  Since then, we have moved from one house to another and I have discovered quite a supply of old things that don’t work or don’t work well any more. So, rather than toss them out into the trash (which I admonish you not to do), I repurposed them into a chance for my young students to take  these tired apparati apart, describe, and hopefully put them back together again.  Here is how to get started.

Reverse Engineering Task -or- Appliance Autopsy Day

Time requirement: 2 hours hands-on, minimum.  It may go longer depending on the deliverable portion of the activity.

Safety Concerns: Students may try to ‘repair’ broken electric items and then plug them in.  Take steps such as removing the power cords from items or covering/blocking electrical outlets in the classroom.  You may wish to consider a safety briefing.  Safety glasses may not be necessary given the small size of most appliances.  Check your school’s safety rules before you proceed. 

Level: CEFR A1-C2

Materials Needed:  Very used or broken household appliances or gadgets. 1 for each student.  (Most parents would welcome an opportunity for someone else to recycle their old stuff. Don’t count them out as donors.) Hand tools: Small screwdrivers, Allen wrenches (hex keys) needle nose pliers, wire cutters, electrical tape, etc.  Worksheet (1 each). Video or still camera or cellphone camera.  Copy paper box lids or small boxes to keep parts from falling to the floor.

Objectives:  (Open-ended) By the end of this block of instruction, students will demonstrate familiarity with terms associated with using tools, vocabulary of electronics and engineering, ordinal and cardinal numbers in realistic usage, given and following instructions, passive and active voice structures.  Reported speech may also be considered as an objective.


Preparation: Facilitator should have an old appliance to show students prior to the class day.  Emphasize to the students that they shouldn’t bring in anything that is new…ever, nor should they spend any money on tools.  A prepared facilitator might want to send a note or email to parents explaining the project. As was mentioned earlier, lots of parents are more than willing to have someone else recycle their old stuff.

Let students engage at their own pace. Some will work fast, others slow. Photo by Wade Alley, all rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Wade Alley no reuse without permission.

Day of the class: The class will have a noisy disorganized feel to it. This is normal.  Have students partner up with a class mate.  Pass out the worksheet to everyone, and tell them to begin by reading the sheet to discover what it is the students must do.

The key to an effective session here is to let students proceed at their own pace.   Some will be very adept at taking things apart, using tools, while others aren’t at all mechanically inclined.  Let them go without rushing if possible. 

As students continue, roam the room and ask pertinent questions such as: What was the appliance?  How long did it work before it stopped?  You could also ask about the tools they are using, what name are some of the parts, etc. This will allow you to check their progress.  

Remind students that they should be taking video or pictures to help them reassemble their appliance.  Here you may have students pursue different outcomes/or demonstrations of skill.  You could ask them to perform an autopsy on the appliance to explain why it didn’t work. (Great video here) or you could have them do a reverse engineering video that explains how the appliance was supposed to work, or how it was put together.  There are a number of great videos by the Khan Academy on reverse engineering.  Click here.

Now, these videos I have linked are entertaining and informative, but unless you are teaching a group of engineering students, they won’t know what a step down transformer is, nor will they have any idea about asbestos.  What you can ask them to do, is speculate how something was built, how expensive the parts are based on their own judgment, how long it took to build the object, etc. They can also speculate very well about the product’s demise and (if the appliance was in the student’s home, may be able to add anecdotal evidence as to the cause of death).  

Why pairs or partners?  They can and do help each other with disassembly, vocabulary, and the task component. They can also help each other stay on task.   

Student deliverables range from the completed worksheet and in class demonstrations of target learning, or video or presentation evidence could round out the tasks.