Over winter break I collaborated with Katherine Moriwaki, Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Louisa Campbell, Joe Saavedra, and Liz Taylor to develop a day long workshop for elementary school students and their parents called Scrapyard Challenge JR. Katherine and Jonah are the co-creators of the Scrapyard Challenge, a workshop that allows participants with no previous knowledge of electronics to design interfaces by integrating conductive materials into found or discarded objects. Participants create wearable objects or instruments from these materials then plug them into a MIDI controller that generates sound when an electrical connection is made. The focus and concept behind these workshops is to broaden access to a design toolkit (physical computing) that is largely unavailable (due to interest, exposure, or funding) to most people. Katherine and Jonah have run this workshop in over 20 countries over the past seven years, but their most current venture has been to adapt the activities and hardware for a younger audience under the banner of informal science learning.
Unlike many informal science learning settings and workshops, Katherine and Jonah approach this domain through an art and design lens. Recently, they have become very vocal supporters of STEAM learning, an alternative approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) by including an “A” for art. This approach is not only more interdisciplinary, but also appeals to a much wider population of students who have no interest in science or who do not identify as science learners. Scrapyard Challenge was therefore elegantly poised for translation to the kiddies (classified by age or age at heart).
We planned to have four stations at the workshop: Bottle Violins, Drawbot, Aluminum Foil Bands, and Squishy Circuits (see below – right now the PDFs are HUGE so they are jpgs for now).
My role in the group was as a curriculum designer. My goal was to develop a Frankensteinian guide, part self-guided instructable, part support for classroom integration. While I am not sure if this counts as one of my own prototypes for thesis, the insight I gained into the structure, format, level of clarity, and desired outcomes for my own thesis was immense. I can classify this into two categories: (1) the technical design of the document, including hierarchy, necessary elements, documentation process, etc. and (2) the conceptual turn back to informal spaces.
Layout and Information Hierarchy
Most curricula or lesson plans are horribly designed – not in terms of the actual activity, but the way in which the information is conveyed. An ill-designed lesson can subvert the learning goals if teachers themselves cannot connect the objectives or meaningful questions back to the actual activity process. This can prevent invaluable “teachable moments” (that split second where a student translates passive learning to a deeper understanding through application or questioning) and even worse can leave learners more confused or disengaged than before. This is not to say you can always reach every student – which is why these moments are so important – it is internalized in the learner, becoming more intuitive and accessible later.
If teaching is the highest form of understanding (thanks Aristotle), then everyone should be required to make an instructable. Documenting the process of making these projects with a much younger audience in mind forces you to negotiate obscure or expert language and to decompose a larger challenge into procedural bits (such an process is a exercise in computational thinking in fact!). Creating these lessons challenged me to properly explain these concepts to an audience for whom resistance had more meaning as a social or historical term.
Language aside, it also forced all of us to deeply consider the activities 5 – 7 year olds could physically engage in based on their motor skills, etc. For example, could they strip wires? (Sometimes) Could they peel a piece of tape off a backing (Not really) Could they mold playdough into a sandwich? (Absolutely) Safety was another big concern that we took pains to account for, not so much for the risk of an electric shock but for a sharp wire.
I found that in designing these lessons, I felt constantly torn between my need to adhere to the guidelines of rigid classroom lesson formats and more exploratory program curriculum I have written and analyzed in the past. For as weird as this may sound, it became somewhat of a volatile internal battlefield: teachers are more likely to adopt if it is within the confines they know and must teach (which they generally have major issues with as well), yet the learning potential of the student diminishes if s/he is not allowed to explore and follow their own interests. If the goal is for the learner to take active agency over their learning, informal spaces are it, ESPECIALLY IN THE SCIENCES.
Over the break (and largely in preparing for this project), I did a large amount of research into assessing informal science learning spaces. Combining this with past experience, I believe the crux of broadening science learning really lies in assessment. Formal is imposition and informal is fusion.
This, however, is not a reactionary discourse against formal learning spaces – they are necessary as well. It is to say that the design challenges inherent across informal learning are much more personally fulfilling and exciting to moderate. Since this post is already long enough, I will discuss this further in another post.
STEAM-inspired, modular middle school curriculum designed to facilitate learning and empower teaching of abstract computational and electrical concepts through the personal fabrication of a physical, computationally-enhanced toolkit using alternative, “soft” materials.
I feel revitalized after some of the key decisions I have recently made based on the feedback I have been receiving and feel very confident in my direction and the scope of my work moving forward. Here is a deliverables list for thesis proposal. I would like to have completed drafts of the following: Anything with a ** will probably just be an unfinished outline/template.
Each stage of the process, i.e. lots o little paper boxes
(DESIGN, ELECTRONICS, TALKING, SENSING, COMPUTATION, NETWORKS)
(0) Outline of Computational Thinking skills
(1) Overview diagram to outline structure + refining stages (adding, dropping, changing names, etc)
(2) Essential Questions/Enduring Understandings
(3) Assessment rubric
(4) Diagram with Standards Alignment
(5) Individual lesson outline**
(6) Step by step documentation of lessons**
(7) Materials overview and list
The most important takeaway from this presentation and critique is nailing down who it is for (teacher or student), where it will be implemented (in school or after school) – these are crucial questions I did not answer in this presentation, and Ryan’s critique made me realize that I needed to return to these as I move forward with my proposal. I believe his specific words were “those are key decisions that you’ll have to make that will have a big impact on what your project is.”
Here’s upshot: Continue reading »