(Robotic) Hands On Learning

“Mr. Paige, come look what I did!”

I’d just stepped into a sixth grade science classroom, prompted by the knowledge that they were in the building phase of a cool project involving robotic hands, and she was the first student who looked up and made eye contact. The class was so busy, so focused, so when this young scientist invited me to check out her work I threaded through the groups of students standing around tables talking, tinkering, and engaging with each other, and hurried to where she was standing.

IMG_5349When I got to the table this student shared with her group I saw pure delight in her eyes. Proudly she explained the intricacies of the mechanical glove she and her peers had been working on. “Biomechanics,” she called it, as she talked about the “anatomy of the hand.” This young scientist explained the project to me, nodding at the open Chromebook on the table and pointing across the room where their teacher was working with another group to test some fingers.

This is a project championed not only by our amazing ACMA science folks, but also by our district’s TOSA team (Teachers on Special Assignment). It’s a nice example of what can happen when educators work together, teachers open their classrooms to new ideas, and everyone puts student engagement first.

At an art school like ACMA it’s not unusual to see students engaged in activities that mean much to them. Potters, poets, and performers spend hours both in class and out creating works that demonstrate their creativity and artistic ability. Musicians, dancers, and painters practice, problem solve, and innovate as part of what they do every day. Filmmakers, theater techs, and graphic designers know all about trying one approach, revising, adapting, and doing something different. In all those artistic fields I see passionate and purposeful students determined to create something amazing …the same qualities I saw in that robotic hand.

Similar too was the pride in that student’s voice when she invited me to come over and see what she and her group had done. That hand, all wires and cardboard, showed the results of that same curiosity and creativity so familiar in art studios and performance spaces across campus.

It’s in these moments of creation that real learning flourishes. As students make, from clay or musical notes, or words, as they build, with movements, code, or even wires and cardboard, they create connections that bring understanding to life. The students who are making maps in history class, building court cases in English, or applying math to real world problems all have a chance to find relevance in what they are learning.

IMG_5354This week’s robotic hand could be next week’s Sphero challenge or next month’s cigar box guitar build. The joy I saw in that student’s eyes, and the focus that filled the whole sixth grade science classroom, could be echoed in choir, or theater, or Spanish class.

At its best education provides students with opportunities to succeed, to create, and to engage. When that best arrives, as it did this week in the form of the robotic hands, the power of learning is profound.

Our challenge as educators is to build our lessons and our schools with the potential to inspire students to want to know more, to work together to understand, and to come up with a product (be it something written, built, or performed) that inspires them to turn to us when we enter the room and say proudly: “Come look what I did!”


Lighting a Fire

It was as if we were middle schoolers, the dozen or so principals laughing, learning, and playing with fire.

photoWe’d gathered for one of our monthly achievement meetings, when all conversation focuses on teaching and learning, and the topic of the morning was NGSS, the Next Generation Science Standards.

We talked a bit about integrated and coordinated models under the wise and well informed patience of our district Science ToSA (Teacher on Special Assignment), a gifted educator who knew that a pack of principals may be comparable to a classroom of 7th graders sometime after lunch on a day the student council hands out popsicles.

Rather than lecture us about the importance of experiencing science, she reminded us of NGSS’s “5 E’s” and brought out the matches.

5EsAt the sight of colored water, candles, and mason jars the room lit up.

We started in small groups, writing predictions and drawing models, borrowing ideas of what and why from our partners. Next, we placed the candle in the tray of water and covered it with the inverted mason jar.

…and watched.

Some of our predictions came true. Some of us were surprised. All of us learned in a way administrators don’t always when sitting at a meeting.

For the next twenty minutes we adjusted our variables and continued our experiments. How would things work if we used two candles? What would happen with a bigger jar?

Our smiling teacher circulated the room, asking questions and providing a collection of objects we could use to alter our experiments. My team used clay to eliminate the seal between the bottom of the tray and the jar.

video scienceThroughout the room everyone engaged with the experience and each other. The only time I saw a phone appear was when a principal took a video of her experiment to post on Twitter. This is a big deal in a room full of principals, whose schools are the centers of the universe, and whose cell phones are a tether.

Our attention was absorbed and our curiosity piqued. Grown people, we searched for words and pictures to tell our teacher and our peers what was happening in our labs.

It was, I realized as I watched the eager faces of these dedicated educators, a perfect example of the best teaching we see in classrooms across our district. To have this happen at a district administrator meeting was something really special, an experience that inspired us and would send us back to our sites with a renewed perspective on learning.

Education eternally evolves, new content and new expectations changing to meet the changing needs of the world. As it does, however, the heart of education remains as simple as it is profound: people gathering together to answer that enormous three letter long question: why?

scienceWe didn’t just learn that lesson today, we lived it. It was, in that moment, the proverbial lighting of a fire, not filling of a bucket.

Reminding ourselves to engage, to play, to be curious, and to work together is essential to creating and maintaining a healthy school. Allowing opportunities to wonder, to predict, to experiment (and as with any experiment, to fail as well as succeed), isn’t unique to science, but can be a part of learning in every discipline. Heck, it even has a place for administrators.

I don’t know what my next staff meeting will look like, but I do know that I’m inspired to make learning by doing a part of it. Will there be matches? I’m not sure about that, but I do hope that there will be some kind of lighting of a fire.