Image Credit: PhotonQ-DIY Horse Riding
It was a summer evening, and at 9 or 10 years old I was bored. My younger sister and I were not talking, tired of being constant company. Unable to amuse myself, I slipped out the kitchen door to rummage around in the garden shed. Some while later I reappeared, various discoveries bobbling in my arms and dragging along behind me. Settling on a perfect spot under the backyard's Japanese maple tree I began my work. Time flew by, and soon twilight was fading into pitch black darkness.
"Ok, done. Now, to get a pillow and a blanket."
I scurried into the house, intent with purpose and filled with wide-eyed excitement. Hearing doors and drawers slamming, my father looked up from his newspaper. He surveyed the pajama-clad child in front of him, eager feet teetering on the edge of the top stair,bed covers spilling over in her arms.
"What have you got there? Moving out?" he inquired.
Eager to share my achievement, I quickly redirected him. "Oh no, Dad. You'll never guess. You should see what I just made. Out back, under the tree, I have my very own tent! Those old lawn chairs are now my bed. It took me a long time to figure it out, and several times it fell apart, but now I have one chair turned upside down to make the top canopy, and those old blankets draped down to keep the bugs out. It's perfect. Gotta go. Goodnight! I'll see you in the morning!"
Out the back door I stormed again, tripping, tumbling...and smiling.
The Engineering Design Process
My deeply held experience of creating a backyard tent to cure my boredom represents something I believe is fundamental to learning: the need to not only learn the content, but to have the skills to do something meaningful with it. High on the list of these skills is the ability to solve real problems and to think creatively. However, both at home and at school today we have left little room in "the schedule" for our children to develop these skills. In fact, the over-emphasis on content knowledge and the under-emphasis of real world learning experiences that call on problem-solving, critical thinking, and the "oh, what can I do with this knowledge" skills have Newsweek exclaiming that we have a Creativity Crisis in our schools.
Fortunately for middle school students at The Lovett School a unique partnership around digitally fabricating objects (a long way from a backyard tent!) will help them develop both content understanding and these important skills. The engineering design process-with its emphasis on identifying problems, imagining, and constructing iterative designs towards possible solutions-will become an integral component of our 6th grade math and science education, as well as 8th grade geometry.
Digital FabricationDigital fabrication is a process by which one can digitally design and then physically construct objects, often using 2D fabricators or 3D printers. Numerous industries, as well as the U.S. government and medicine and design fields, employ digital fabrication systems to create prototypes, just-in-time parts, and full-scale models. As technology has advanced, personal manufacturing is now becoming affordable and accessible-with students even creating and selling their own products.
The University of Virginia's Curry School of Education believes that the engineering design process found in digital fabrication can provide a more integrated approach to the teaching of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) when centered in the elementary and middle school classrooms. Key engineering and design concepts can be learned alongside important content with an experience that will deepen student engagement and understandings. Supported by various grants including the prestigious MacArthur Digital and Media Learning Competition Award, Dr. Glen Bull and his team including PhD student Willy Kjellstrom are leading the design of the FabLab (Fab@School) program, bringing digital fabrication tools, research, and curricular resources to the classroom.
The Lovett/UVA PartnershipThe Lovett School will be one of three pilot schools (including The Albemarle County Schools in Virginia and Punahou School in Hawaii ) working with UVA on digital fabrication. Our initial focus will be our 6th grade math classrooms with all 166 students beginning the year with an introduction to real-world problem-solving using digital fabrication. Students will consider an issue on the Lovett campus and then work within certain constraints to create prototypes of potential solutions. Later in the year 8th grade geometry students will explore packaging and 6th grade science students will examine earthquake-proof building structures.
To support the partnership, Lovett has invested in a site license for the proprietary modeling software, two new color laser printers, 15 2D fabricators, and reams of cardstock and tape. Most importantly, our pilot teachers attended two days of professional development with Kjellstrom, and they will work closely with me on action research, final artifacts and ongoing community reflection.
Our First Engineers: Teachers
We kicked off the Fab@School partnership last week with our first set of engineers: the teachers! Kjellstrom (also a Lovett alum and former 5th grade teacher) led a two-day workshop for all 6th grade math and science teachers and 8th grade Honors Geometry teacher Mark Bagwell. The workshop was well designed to establish prior knowledge, situate the learning in the real world, assess our faculty's comfort-level with project-based learning, and identify the challenges including curricular implications, differentiated learning needs, and assessment. Teachers were given a through-line question for context, "What is the difference between a Rice Krispie Treat box and PopTart box?" Various explorations with the software and fabricators led us to more conversations and a wealth of curricular extensions around ecology, marketing, product design, and human behavior.
We spent a good bit of time discussing the problem-solving process, possible "problems" worth solving, and the value of project-based learning. As Bagwell noted, "The biggest thing we can teach these kids is not formulas. It is how to solve problems. That's life."
We also considered how to mirror the engineering design process when you have limited time and therefore limited iterations. And, it was clear that everything we do cannot be a PBL activity. "We can cover part of our curriculum this way, but not everything," Andrea Morgan stated.
So what did our "engineers" first experience look like?
A discussion about problem-solving:
A look at our tools:
An opportunity to imagine:
Time to discuss, analyze, and redesign:
And, of course, celebrating some success!
Lovett's resources for the digital fabrication partnership will be located and openly shared (as much as possible) on a special section of the Lovett School Resource Network. We will be adding projects and lesson plans to the site, and posting to a community blog where students, teachers, and I will share our reflections on the learning process and experiences. We encourage anyone with an interest to learn alongside us and share any insights, questions, or reflections.
So, what was the response from our first engineers?
Image Credits (unless otherwise noted): Perry McIntyre, The Lovett School