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Archive for the ‘pedagogy’ Category

TS-StructEngBingo-v01-thumb

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.

TS-StructEngBingo-v01

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Notes to New Tinkerer

A few years ago, a teacher in New York asked me to describe how I would do a simple project in a classroom setting that retained key elements (open-ended, self-directed, engagement-based) of the Tinkering School pedagogy.

Doodlebots – an exploration of kinetics

Materials
There are six important ingredients:
– batteries (AA)
– wire (almost any insulated wire will work)
– motor (http://bit.ly/amI7ik – $1.09 each if you buy 10 or more)
– duct tape (although we’ve had some good results with scotch tape)
– pens (felt-tips produce the brightest marks)
– stuff from the recycle bin (plastic tubs, cardboard, lids, etc)

You may also want some scissors, a utility knife, and some stiff wire (home improvement stores sell a soft iron wire for tying rebar together that is easy for kids to work with – we keep a couple of rolls around just because it’s so handy).

Project Stages
Remember that this is an exploration, not a series of goals per se. We want the kids to discover the properties of the materials, share their discoveries virally, and build on each other’s ideas. The adult collaborator is there to help and should only offer suggestions when specific questions are asked. Avoid getting the kids into an “ok, I did that, what next?” cycle by never directly answering the “what next?” style questions – the kids will look to each other for inspiration. Only if there is a real drop in momentum should the collaborator actively nudge the kids in a direction (and often the best way to do this is if the collaborator starts building something themselves – the kids will see what they are doing and start to emulate it, then discover a new path).

Finally, don’t reveal all of the materials at once.

Stage 0 – prep
If the kids are young (say less than 6), cut some 6 inch lengths of wire and strip the ends (you need about 1/2″ of bare wire on each end of a wire). Each kid will need two wires. If it’s bigger kids, just put the spool of wire out and give them the wire-strippers to cut and strip their own wires.

Cover the table with butcher paper to protect it from getting covered in doodles.

Stage 1 – playing with motors
Put the motors, the wire, the tape, and the batteries on the table (one motor and one battery per kid). I like to say “These are for you.” to make it clear that they each now “own” a motor and a battery. Allow the kids to discover how to get the motors going. There is no potential for disaster here and when the kids get the motors going they will revel in their success. Often there are a few kids with enough of an inkling of how motors and batteries work that they will get things going. If after 10 minutes of fooling around, no one has a motor going, the collaborator should demonstrate. Once the motors are going, let the kids play with them for a good 10-20 minutes. If there is active exploration of spinning motors, let it keep going.

Stage 2 – Vibration
All it takes create motion is some vibration. The easy way to do this is to put tape on the shaft of the motor, or tape something to the shaft of the motor. Often a hunk of tape is sufficient.

Stage 3 – Chassis
Bots need bodies. Introduce the collection of recycled materials. No two creations will be the same, and it’s not a competition (although sometimes kids will compete with each other spontaneously) so it’s not important that everyone get exactly the same materials in this stage. Just put the pile out and suggest that they might want something to attach their motors to – the kids will pick out the things that inspire them. This stage takes a while. There are an infinite number of solutions to the problem of getting the motors to move the bots, so let the kids discover these the same way they discovered how to get the motors going – let them fool around.

Stage 4 – Doodling
Bring out the pens. You hardly have to say anything, but if they get distracted decorating their machines (a perfectly acceptable behavior), select the most disengaged child and ask if you can “try something”. Add the pen to the bot in the least sophisticated way possible and set it down on the work surface to see what happens.

Resources:
Lots of people have done this project in one form or another, but the Exploratorium also has a nice write-up for use in the classroom.

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