Friday, May 31, 2013

Design a Monument | 8th grade History

This post is written by Heather Pang, our 8th grade history teacher, who recently gave a talk at the FabLearn conference at Stanford. Read on below as she describes this Design a Monument project:

For years, students in my 8th grade history class have studied the monuments on the national mall.  Now, rather than just learning about and visiting the monuments, I have developed a project that challenges them to design their own monuments to important women in American history.

I asked them to pick their subject from the work they had already done on women in the 20th century; I told them to think big, but keep in mind that they would have to figure out how to build it. They had two weeks in the lab to design and build the models.

When I designed the project I had two goals. The first was to create an engaging, thoughtful, and challenging project to end the year thinking about important themes from their studies. The second was to stretch students to think more critically about using history as they had to become the active designers of historical works, rather than as consumers of other people’s created histories. This project achieved those goals. It also presented some new challenges for me and the preparations I need to make for the students to engage in this type of historical practice.

I was asked by a prospective parent who came into the lab while we were working, why would you take so much time from “real history” to build things. The question is an important one, and I described some of my observations to the visitor. Students were debating the merits of representing historical events literally or metaphorically. They had long discussions about the need to include negative information in a monument for historical accuracy. They discussed the need to present their subject as a hero, a role model without flaws. They had delved deeply into their historical knowledge to find ways to show a modern visitor the historical realities of the lives of their subjects. I had seen more “real” historical thinking in the project up to that point than even I had expected.

The Monuments project brings together several threads from the 8th grade year, including the ways we memorialize history, the importance of women in American history, and the ways in which students are themselves practicing historians, not just consumers of information. The students used the tools in the Fab Lab at school to realize their designs, primarily the laser cutter, the foam cutter, and the 3D printer.

This project requires students to think about what important aspects of their subject they want to show in the monument, how literal or symbolic they want their monument to be, and how to design the best user experience.  It also requires them to do a great deal of math to get the proportions and scale right. All group projects require collaboration, but one of the benefits of building something physical turns out that it is much harder for a student to hide and let her classmates do all the work. It also requires a different kind of collaboration because no one is sure of the “right” thing to do.

After the students had successfully presented the projects to the class, we talked about the challenges of the project. Some of these challenges are the same in any group project, time management, delegation of work to group members, and resolving differences of opinion about creative or technical issues. But they also talked about challenges that only came from actually building their monument models, or that came out very differently because of the making process. 

First they talked about skills: they had to learn new software and improve their skills on the machines in the lab, which are important challenges in their learning process. These challenges brought out leadership in some students in ways that they would not have done in other settings. They also talked about the interdisciplinary nature of the project, not the way teachers sometimes do, fitting one subject into another because it is a current trend, but authentically, because they could not possibly build what they imagined without using math. They talked about working out issues of scale and understanding how people would react to their presentation of historical material in physical and symbolic ways. The students also talked about how to take an idea, for example, “what if we had lights on our fountain?” through the process of design and creation. 

Other students described the benefits of doing a new type of project.  They said (I am paraphrasing), we really had to think through what an architect thinks about, for example thinking about a fountain going down into the ground and not at ground level, and how we would build that. We had to think about constraints, for example, we can’t just put up a facade and need to think about struts for supporting the fa├žade, and how that might work for someone visiting the monument. And my favorite comment, “Something that’s unexpected during building can actually work out!”

Bringing fabrication tools into the history class opens up ideas about the role of making in all academic subjects. When students experience history through the process of fabrication they become the historians and they have to come to a deeper understanding of their subject. This opens up a wider variety of project based learning for social studies and humanities classes, and brings students and teachers more options for creativity and deeper investigation of core academic topics and skills. 

This project also reflects an ongoing and evolving interdisciplinary collaboration between me, the 8th grade Algebra teacher, and Angi in the fab lab. 

Each year I have increased the collaboration with math. We noticed the scale issues, and the students did too, so this year I am working with the math teacher and she is designing some indirect measurement activities to support the project. When we go to monuments in DC they will do indirect measurements, record their data in their journals, and we will save that material for the spring project. We will also have them record their reactions to different monuments in terms of the scale, structure, and style of the places they visit. They have already done a sample activity measuring buildings on campus. The idea came from some of the students last year, who figured out that if they wanted to know how a 30 foot tall monument would look, they needed to find something that was 30 feet tall and stand next to it. They started out measuring the lab itself to compare, but I like the idea of building that measurement process into the curriculum, and so does the math teacher.  In addition, the math teacher is going to come down to the lab while they are working and observe them doing the scaling and she may intervene in their discussions, or push their thinking a bit further.  Last year they were creative about how they tried to imagine scale, and we don’t want to interrupt that process, but we do want them to apply skills they have learned in other places.

The collaboration with Angi in the fab lab has been a huge part of the project. I developed it with Diego, and refined it the second year with Angi. The girls get more comfortable asking for help, and working together with another expert adult in the room, and that allows for greater creativity. Students who want to go further with one of the tools can do so, since sometimes Angi is able to spend significant time with one group, working on some technical challenge; that would not be possible without two people in the lab at least some of the time.

Bringing the history class down to the lab to build monuments is one more tool we can use to expand what we think of as history instruction, and introduce students to how history work happens in our culture. After building their own monument prototypes, students are more likely to think critically about historical monuments they see, and they are more likely to feel that they have the ability to present historical material in creative ways. In short, in the lab they make the monuments, and working in the lab makes them historians.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Interactive Museum Exhibits | Cancer Biology

You probably would find it as no surprise that we here in the Bourn Idea Lab are big fans of the Exploratorium and other similar museums that focus on designing highly interactive, hands-on exhibits to engage museum visitors. So when we got the opportunity to ask students to play the role of museum exhibit designers in the senior-level science elective, Biology and Economics of Cancer, we thought it would only be appropriate to put in a design constraint that the exhibits be interactive.

Along with teacher Elaine Middleman, we developed a very open-ended design prompt: "Design an interactive museum exhibit to educate visitors about some aspect of cancer biology." After the initial kickoff for the project, which involved a guest presentation by exhibit designers at the Franklin Institute held via Skype, students had approximately six weeks to work on building prototypes of their exhibits. We noticed that the first few days were frustrating and anxiety-inducing for many students because the project was so open-ended and everyone struggled to figure out exactly what they wanted to work on. But every group eventually settled on a topic and as they began working on building their prototypes, excitement began to build.

Due to open-ended nature of this project, there really was no way for us to anticipate what students needed for their various projects and to scaffold/prep them ahead of time. So instead, Elaine, Diego, and I naturally took on the role of mentors, checking in with each group periodically, advising them on things to think about, giving tips on potential solution, and teaching them skills and techniques in a just-in-time manner. And in fact, more often than not, we acted more as collaborators because none of us had any idea how to do something and we ended up working alongside students to figure it out as best as we could. Along the way, depending on the project, students got the chance to use the laser cutter, 3D printer, vacuum former, and Arduinos. Some learned how to solder. One student taught herself Processing to write a game and threw in a Makey Makey at the end just for the fun of it. 

Sure, this is a more chaotic way to run a class but this is exactly the type of controlled chaos we love. Because it is a surefire way to get to an amazing breadth of projects:
  • A computer game controlled by a banana to illustratoe how the length of telomeres affect  human aging and cancer
  • A virtual colonoscopy station built with a vacuum formed mold, creative use of red patterned fabric, a fake "endoscope", and a YouTube video of an actual colonoscopy
  • An exhibit demonstrating the different effects and side-effects of cancer treatments (surgery, radiation, chemotherapy) using an Arduino
  • An exhibit illustrating the various aspects of liver cancer using an Arduino
  • An exhibit on lung cancer built using the vacuum former and the laser cutter
  • A station for testing your skills as a histopathologist built using laser cutter and simple circuits
  • A 3D printed heart hooked up to tubes and strings of pulsing LED lights controlled by an Arduino to represent blood flow 
A mere six weeks ago, many of these students have never stepped foot inside the Bourn Lab and here they are as makers of these incredible projects. What will this project look like in a few years, when students who have had more consistent exposure to the lab rise in the grades and we get a class of seniors who are already comfortable with the resources of the lab? We can't wait to find out!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Roman Treasure Box | 6th grade History

History teacher Laura Docter came to us with a problem. In her 6th grade history class, Laura's students do a project in the spring where they make models of Roman artifacts using clay. As the project nears completion, Laura's classroom would start filling up with beautiful clay versions of oil lamps and jewelry but at the same time, she would struggle to find a good way to store and display all these items.

As we were chatting, I happened to mention that Diego and I were talking recently about how kids these days, and especially girls, rarely get the chance to learn basic hands-on skills like how to use a cordless drill properly. I count myself as one such data point; because neither of my parents are handy with tools, I never even touched a power drill until I was well into my 20s. Yes, using a cordless drill is a simple skill but simple skills can be the gateway to empowering students to start their own journey as makers.

You can probably guess where this is heading. Laura, Diego, and I thought, "Why not design a simple hands-on project for her history class, where each student will learn proper drilling techniques by building her own treasure box for the Roman artifacts project?" Since this is an assembly-focused project and we have very limited class time, we prepped and pre-cut the sides of the boxes using the laser cutter. Then within the span of one class period, we showed each girl how to use the cordless drills properly and safely, and then offered guidance as she assembled the hinges of the box using nuts and bolts. After all the boxes were built, the girls then took another class period to select and design appropriately Roman sayings to engrave on the top of the boxes.

One of my favorite things about this project is how even something so short and sweet can allow us to teach some foundational hands-on skills and provide Laura with a simple storage solution for her hands-on project. Two birds with one stone, indeed!