New Stuff: Invent to Learn

There are many times we may say “thrilled,” but not as many times that we experience a true thrill. Seeing a Twitter link to a new book i had never heard about before called “Invent to Learn” was an honest thrill!
I DO think the author's should have contacted me to borrow the title of my fallow website “Build Understanding” instead of the more awkward “Invent to Learn,” but then maybe i predict their thesis incorrectly (i have only read the first 5 pages so far). But what i have read puts me on excited pins and needles.
I started my own hacking (small “h”) website in about 2007 while teaching alongside a masterful science teaching artist at Toledo High School in Washington, to fulfill a professional development (PD) requirement for teaching in my state of Washington. It would have more constructive to simply watch my colleague (designer, Science Olympiad guru and Maker 'par excellance:' Chuck Caley) and spend time being mentored by him. (One of the sillinesses of the age of “accountability” in education is that rich opportunities like building things together or talking or watching or sharing coffee in the workshop are not easily measured and so you have to sit in meetings or take “official” college courses in order to “demonstrate authentic growth…” Blah, blah, blah
I was permitted to design my own 8 hour PD and wanted to have a more organized curriculum for the 9th graders in my Physical Science class. Nicely, i could teach whatever i wanted since the curriculum consisted of nothing more than a textbook (“What do i teach?” “Huh? Well i guess just use the textbook…”). But my Western Washington University teacher training (1998) drilled in the fact that teaching is an art in which the text may play little role.
My first year i knew how do labs and write lab reports since i had studied science. I was articulate and clever, but since a person only knows what they have seen, and since i had been taught by many well organized and caring teachers but never – until a solo artist in college: Dr. Ernest Kroeker – by a master teacher, my perspective was painfully limited. I wondered how to keep the kids, and myself from mental dessication by using a committee developed textbook rich in factoids but devoid of narrative and substance.
A coarse, newsprint flyer from a wanna-be teacher support, entrepreneur named Ron who called his stuff TOP Science (didn't they all?) was stuffed in my staff mail slot with all the other weekly junk. Still, sitting on the potty was boring so i grabbed the lot and leafed through it in the quiet of a toilet stall. The sample science activities Ron showed looked very doable, and did not require me to buy expensive equipment (other than string and wooden clothespins.) i ordered a book then another and another; $9.99 each, topically organized.
Ron saved my students by providing meaningful activity designed to lead learners to understand. How much more exciting to tinker, then find tou have a question: why?
  • Why does pulling suddenly on the string break it but pulling slowly does not?
  • Why does simply running a string around a couple wheels make require less force to lift?
  • Why does a plastic bag in a jar stay “stuck” to the inside so stringly when you are pulling it out?

I was seduced by watching kids engage with building electric switches from clothespins. Wouldn't premade switches be easier? … Then i realized “easier” was not motivating, but problem solving and constructing seemed inherently engaging. I started adding construction projects as the capstone of each unit.

MEASUREMENT – Students built 3D “recognizable objrcts” using cylinders, cones, spheres, rectangular prisms and calculated the volume and surface area of the finished product.
ENERGY – Student built Rube Goldberg machines on a concept pliagerized from Science Olympiad (where it is called “Mission Possible”) and were graded on number and kind of energy transfers.
MACHINES – It is a rite of childhood to build a catapult, i thought, until i discovered trebuchets! Students shoot at a target and are assesed on accuracy.
So, seeing “Invent to Learn” excites me that an increasing number of teachers and learners and talking about the value and worth of tinkering and making as an educational activity.
I needed this. After a few years in the trenches with supervisors that alternately loved and dreaded “Jay's projects” i am infused with renewed passion to teach my students by helping them learn through doing what they love: making silly, fun and crazy contraptions!
Thanks Sylvia and Gary! and Ron Marson and Chuck Caley and Brian Brewster (who is my current principle and who is on the “kids seem so engaged and seem to learn so much by building cool stuff!” end of the spectrum. In fact it is Brian's bridge, built as an example to his physics students, pictured in the masthead of this blog.)


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