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 façade, 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.