Monday, November 18, 2013

Maker Faires - creating opportunities to empower students

For the past 2 weekends and for the whole of last week Gary Stager was working at ASB on making.  I've had a number of opportunities over this time to listen to Gary talking about what he refers to as the "game changers" - the kinds of learning experiences that challenge students' views of themselves as competent learners.  These game changers are as follows:

  • Fabrication - which includes the technology for designing and creating real life objects/products
  • Physical computing - creating machines that interact with their environment
  • Programming - giving precise instructions to a computer in order to control it
When I lived in Switzerland I taught a young boy who had an artificial leg.  He was an amazing boy who was able to ski, snowboard, swim and so on, but there were times when his prosthetic leg broke and he had to go to the hospital for a new one.  Also because he was growing fast, he often outgrew his prosthetic and needed to go to hospital to get a larger one.  Today with 3D printers, it is possible to simply print a new body part with a custom fit.  Imagine what a life changer this could be!  In the not-so-distant future, if you want to have a new bike, watch, phone case or whatever, you will simply be able to buy the design of anything you want, tweek the design to customize it to your preferences, and make it yourself on your 3D printer.  Think about the long term consequences of not having to make something in one place and ship it to where someone wants it - even just thinking about the savings in transport and fuel alone is mind-boggling.  

Physical Computing
The summer before I moved to India I went to TeachMeet East in Cambridge, where there was a Raspberry Jam going on.  This was really interesting to me because Eben Upton explained what motivated his team to design this credit card sized basic computer - a growing number of students were applying to do computer science at Cambridge University who have never programmed anything at all, or ever tried to build a computer, they were simply passive users of technology.  The Raspberry Pi is affordable for students and is aimed at making programming fun.  It's important for students to know that they can invent things that work and as Gary explained "Physical computing supports a wide range of learning styles and offers a part of the process that appeals to kids who have different attitudes, interests and expertise."  The Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Lilypad and others are bringing the experience of physical computing to students.

In the 1970s I almost became a computer programmer by accident.  I was at university and my boyfriend at the time wanted to try out for a job at Control Data.  The corporation was coming to our local Town Hall with the promise that anyone who got through the selection process (an evening of tests) would be trained by the company and guaranteed a job in computer programming at the end of it.  Being a student of geography and history at that time, I wasn't in the slightest bit interested, but decided to go along anyway.  To my embarrassment, after the tests were completed I was selected and my boyfriend was not, and I then had to explain that even though I'd been selected I'd just come along for the ride and that I was going to have to turn down this opportunity.  At that time, of course, I had no idea that 15 years or so later, I would become a computer teacher and actually have to learn how to programme!  I have also come to realize that those tests did actually show that I was good at something that I had no idea about then, or for many years afterwards.  However once I did start to learn to programme (Logo) I discovered that it was fun and I was able to include some programming into at least one unit of inquiry I was teaching each year.  What I discovered was that some students had a real aptitude for understanding how to programme - it wasn't always those students you would first think of - but some just got it and found it fun.

Gary Stager refers to computer science as "one of the jewels of human ingenuity" as it encourages problem solving, communication, creation and invention:  "Learning to program a computer is an act of intellectual mastery that empowers children and teaches them that they have control of a piece of powerful technology.  Students quickly learn that they are the most important part of the computer program"

These past weekends I have seen a lot of kids having a lot of fun.  I have seen students and parents persisting at tasks that were hard for long stretches of time.  I have seen students proud of the things they have created.  I'm determined to encourage teachers to give their students more opportunities to use the Maker Studio we have just established at school.

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