This is an experiment in tracking how, when, and why, big structural engineering concepts come up in Tinkering School. I’m not sure “bingo” is striking the right note, but this is a portion of a little chart I made for myself as I head into another big Tinkering School summer.
When I speak at conferences, my distaste for grades, and most forms of measurement applied to student learning, comes across quite clearly. This stance often leads to a question of the form “If we don’t test them, how will we know they are learning?” The answer is, simply, if you knew them, you would know if they were learning or not – and if they aren’t, testing isn’t going to help you understand why. “So,” someone will ask, “if we don’t measure the kids, what can we measure?” I believe that it might be useful to measure the school; how well is it engaging the students? how happy are the students and staff? how excited are students and staff to start the day? how much after the school day are they talking about the ideas of the day? are they making excuses to stay longer at school? This chart is a small experiment in measuring and documenting my own practice.
In my 12 years or so of Tinkering School, the kids that have come multiple times have developed strong intuitions about structural engineering. Structural engineering is a discipline, and I like this definition from Wikipedia:
Structural engineering theory is based upon applied physical laws and empirical knowledge of the structural performance of different materials and geometries. Structural engineering design utilizes a number of relatively simple structural elements to build complex structural systems. Structural engineers are responsible for making creative and efficient use of funds, structural elements and materials to achieve these goals.
Look at any of the past years of Tinkering School projects and you will quickly see the emergence and use of “relatively simple structural elements to build complex structural systems”. These patterns are near-perfect examples of basic structural engineering concepts, despite the fact that we hardly ever do anything that resembles a lecture about engineering (although in Overnight camp we do sometimes have a morning “vitamin” that looks suspiciously like a five-minute lecture/demonstration). There is a strong rolling culture at Tinkering School that is fostered and maintained by the alumni tinkerers. A major component of that culture is the accumulated knowledge, both tacit and explicit, about structural engineering. It is quite common for an older tinkerer to give advice to a younger tinkerer and to frame it in terms of previous projects; “When we were working on the windmill tower…” For example, large rectangular frames of wood are often easy starting points for new constructions, and as one comes together, the alumni student will (more or less gracefully) suggest that a corner gusset or diagonal member would be a good way to keep it from skewing over sideways and turning into a trapezoid.
When we are working with the kids, we use all of the real terms from structural engineering (“lever”, “moment arm”, “compression”, “tension”, etc), and then explain as needed in the context. These terms don’t always stick on the first encounter, but by the end of the week, they start reliably popping up in conversations.
We’ve never looked really closely at how the topics come up and which contexts create the most durable learning moments. So, I created this chart of the most common concepts and at the end of each day during our team reflections, I will see which boxes I can check and write anecdotes to capture some details. It’s not perfect, but I’m curious to see what it looks like at the end of the week and to see if there are any patterns to the anecdotes.
Here’s the full chart.