Making, Tinkering, Engineering in the Classroom #educon

At Educon 2.5, Gary Stager (@garystager) and Sylvia Martinez (@smartinez)  ran a conversation called “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom“.  I was especially interested since I’m working with the team developing our new STEM curriculum that the school will roll out next year.

Gary and Sylvia shared countless of cool things you could buy and bring into your class, including Little Bits, Makey Makey‘s, Squishy Circuits and Raspberry Pi‘s, but that’s not what I took from the conversation.

In school, students aren’t playing around and learning anymore.  They’re sitting around and “learning”.  We tell them facts, they memorize them.  We test them, the recite from memory.  We ask them to apply the ideas to something new, they stare at you like deer in headlights. Lost. Confused.  Frustrated.  At least that’s been my experience trying to bring some more hands on ideas into my classes.  And the things I’ve brought in really aren’t that much of a stretch.

TinkeringI can’t imagine bringing in a box of random items and telling them to play.  I guarantee the first thing I would get asked is “Why?”, followed soon after with a “Will this be on the test?”.

I want my students to learn things they can take outside of school.  Reciting 20 definitions and writing them out on a quiz is not going to accomplish that.  Giving them a Raspberry Pi and asking them to make something interesting… that just might.  Would it tie directly to curriculum standards? Probably not.  Therein lies the largest problem I think most of us face.

If you have a design class, or a digital fabrication class, sure these ideas of making and tinkering are perfect.  You’d be silly not to.  For me, it’s tough to find a place to fit it inbetween factoring quadratics and triangle congruencies.  I’m not saying it can’t be don’t, or that it shouldn’t, I’m just saying I am struggling to find a way to do it while still hitting the standards I’m being paid to teach them.

While at EduCon, I talked to a student about his science and math courses.  He told me about his engineering class that he took and how he found it to be pretty challenging.  I asked him what they did in the course.  He told me about his final project, where him and his classmates were asked to come up with either a consumer product or something that would address the environment (I don’t totally remember the details).  He made a solar panel hat that was able to charge up his iPhone while wearing it.  He admitted that it wasn’t “pretty”, but it could be produced for $5/hat.

Someone please tell me why we aren’t doing this every school.  I don’t understand why we aren’t making an experience like this common for every single student in every single school.  Imagine what ideas students could come up with and create if their entire school career was framed like this.

Gary and Sylvia talked about the “Spiral Design Process” (pictured below) and how we might build it into our courses. In this process, students would start with their objectives/goals, design, develop and test, and then plan the next steps continuously “spiraling” back through this process, improving with each “spiral”.  They mentioned that this wouldn’t be something you told the students, but, as the teacher, you would use it to guide your students through developing whatever it is they ae making.  This was new to me, but I love the idea of making your original idea better and better.  Too often, in schools, we do something once, grade it, then move on.  What if we did something, tried it, improved on it, tried it again, made it even better, then learned from that and moved onto something bigger.  I like the second idea a lot more myself.

Spiral Design Process

I’m pushing hard to find ways to fit this into my school’s new STEM curriculum.  But it’s a tough battle.  It doesn’t fit into “traditional” schooling and it certainly doesn’t seem like something that is going to get us through a bunch of standards, like we hope to.  If you have suggestions on how to sell this idea better to a group developing a new STEM curriculum, please please please tell me.

One concern that continually came up during the conversation was someone who wanted to try to do something, but didn’t know how to do it themselves.  Sylvia and Gary and others in the conversation continually said how amazing it is to try something you have no idea about and learn with your students.  This is something I haven’t done, but, like was mentioned in the session, no one ever told teachers that they need to know absolutely everything.

It would be healthy experience for teachers to struggle through something with their students.  Just yesterday, I got my hands on a Raspberry Pi and some Little Bits.  Between coaching and grading this weekend, you can bet what I’m going to be doing:

Making, Playing, and Tinkering.

Photo Credit: the_exploratorium via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: the_exploratorium via Compfight cc

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Comments 4
  1. One of the ways to sell a new topic to kids (and perhaps to admins, too) is to engage them with the idea that a project is a pilot. You and they are going to develop the sequence together. Asking students up front to analyze/improve the steps of a process *with* you not only lets them know you are not infallible, it is more like play. In children’s self-directed activities, the rules and the structure are always under review. If some idea doesn’t work, they flex something and move forward.

    If the “standards” are to be useful, they must be approached honestly. They set a direction, but will fail all of us if they restrictively prescribe the plan/approach of learners and those who help them.

    1. Thanks Algot,
      I like the idea of selling it as a pilot as a way to get the students to learn with me. I might just try that and use their feedback to improve the entire method.

      I fear that administrators see the standards as restrictive, that we must follow and use them exactly as their prescribed. I’d love to use them as a tool to guide my instruction, and I’m sure that would be great if I did some cool, innovative things with my students. But, what happens when I don’t hit standard x, y, and z? Will my students be prepared to go on to their next teacher who, maybe doesn’t do things the way I was, expects them to know those standards. Aren’t one of the reason we have the standards an attempt to keep teachers accountable?

      1. Hitting the standards.

        Standardized tests (evaluations of the “hits” on standards) might be somewhat appropriate for student measurement. Did *they* reach the goals?

        In more recent times, the standards emphasis has changed from benchmarks for the students themselves to a way to evaluate a teacher and a school as a whole. Clearly, successful results on the test by all (No Child Left Behind) tells those who fund education…something. My sense is that it says the student, teacher and school have been successful at preparing for the test. It doesn’t seem to matter much that one set of students are not the same as the next. It doesn’t seem to matter that some students will succeed in life just fine while not being able to factor an algebra expression as an adult.

        Keep up the good work. Work to challenge the children in your classroom so that they engage in getting through the job.

        1. I hope one day we can find a way to evaluate and measure our students’ success and learning in a more meaningful, accurate way. It won’t be easy, but it needs to happen.

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