davidd (davidd) wrote,

batteries, wires, & bulbs... and daleks (finally)

A "professional" teacher, I'm sure, would type up a complete lesson plan, detailing methods, materials, strategies to appeal to multiple intelligences, and detailed formative and summative assessments.

Whereas a disreputable ne'er-do-well who has no business being in the vicinity of impressionably young minds might scribble six or seven bullet points at the bottom of a piece of scratch paper during a faculty meeting, throw together some plastic baggies filled with bits of wire, a couple of batteries, some rubber bands, and a lightbulb scavanged from a plastic flashlight... and a hastily typed worksheet, of course... and introduce the lesson by talking about race cars and circuses and our homes being submerged due to global warming. (Actually, the students came up with the race car analogy. And the way global warming is being presented to students has them thinking it's only going to affect polar bears and penguins.)

The centerpiece of the lesson: using the stuff in the bag, plus some tape if you need it, make the bulb light up.

Guess what? THEY LOVED IT! The 4th-grade class totally LOVED this lesson... because they got to figure someting out on their own and have a concrete result at the end! In fact, a number of them wanted to take the supplies home to show their parents. (Which, being a crotchety skinflint, I did not allow).

I made an interesting observation with today's group. Two of the students claimed they had already done someting like this in their "GT" classes. "Oh, yeah, electric circuits, we've done that. This'll be easy."

"Good," says Mr. D. "Then your task is to put two bulbs in your circuit."

Ya see, here's the deal. These so-called "GT" classes use kits from educational suppliers. Despite what some teachers and most administrators believe, kits, in my ignorant newbie opinion, fall short at fostering any significant independent thought, whereas a non-packaged collection of materials requires a significant level of thought about the process, an attention to detail, and an understanding of the underlying concept for the project to be successful.

In short, the GT kids were unable to light even a single bulb without assistance, while many of the "regular" kids figured it out on their own.

Don't get me wrong; I love the GT kids, I become completely engrossed in conversations with them, and their understanding of underlying concepts and their ability to see "the big picture" is generally greater than that of their peers. I feel, however, that some elements of GT programs as administered in the schools, being too structured and dependent on "purchased materials," actually limit the students.

I've seen "circuit kits." Usually they have little sockets to screw the bulb into, and alligator clips for making connections, and a battery box with spring clips. The difference is, with just plain wires, batteries, a bulb, and tape, the students actually have to pay attention to where the wires touch the batteries, and how to connect the battery or wire to the bulb. The kits always "assume" that an explanation of polarity is enough for students to understand what's going on inside the little battery box. Huh huh. What helps 'em understand is when they have to undo everything they've taped together because they attached their batteries "flat end to flat end." They need to see the little point on the bottom of the bulb and the solder bump on the side of the bulb, and the insulator in between. It's those details that they can see that help them understand.

Especially kids like these. These kids have never built anything in their lives, other than little papery craft projects in class. Did I write about building Gundam Wing robot models with the SPeD kids, and how the Educational Assistants and Part Time Teachers were getting all involved in it? One of the math standards pertains to translating 2-D drawings into 3-D shapes. What could be more appropriate than looking at printed directions for assembling a model kit... especially when all the written instructions are in Japanese!

I noticed during my recent camping excursion with the 6th-graders that the "video game generation" kids have a very limited understanding of practical physics in the real world. Playing Mario Brothers does not prepare a kid to build a plank bridge across two wooden pallets. The ideas of leverage, and even, I swear, of gravity, are nebulous to a lot of these kids.

So they get excited when they get to do something physical. They are delighted to find out they can actually make something out of real stuff: metal and plastic and rubber. And they learn the importance of craftsmanship, of being careful, of paying attention. Even if they did it "right," if they did it sloppy, if the connections were loose, the bulb wouldn't light.

I was surprised at just how engaged the kids were with this project. I was more surprised when they wanted to take the stuff home, or to know where they could get wire and bulbs.

This simple lesson, as it turned out, totally rocked!

By the way, as we approach the 3 week point, quite a few of the guppies in the completely sealed biospheres are still alive! Success! (I have a cynical rant to share about this project at some point; like that comes as a surprise!)

As long as I'm on the subject of practical mechanics in education: after pastilla posted a link to a Dr. Who Dalek building web site some months back, I spent many days pondering over the idea. It kept coming to mind whenever my mind was idle; in other words, quite frequently. The dalek-building web site is incredibly detailed. Insanely detailed, even. Amateur dalek-builders probably put more time, effort, and detail into their creations than the original TV prop builders ever did. The lengths they go to in order to duplicate the exact appearance of the TV robots is astonishing, including injection-moulding the plastic parts and crafting precision metal castings and fittings for the joints and hinges. I was thinking about all the planning, all the measuring, all the calculating, all the problem solving, and all the practical and valuable skills (metal working, wood working, plastics moulding, adhesives, electrical wiring, and in some cases electronics and computer programming) involved in constructing a "realistic" full-scale dalek, and I realized that successful completion of such a project would comprise a fully rounded course in Life Skills for a student. My understanding was that pastilla's original concept was to integrate the dalek project into the curriculum for the Celanic Games Home School program. To me, this seemed like the greatest home school course ever. It integrated math, science, practical arts, fine arts (ya gotta paint it, ya know?), and a lot of serious technical reading... in a foreign language! (Perspex? Oh, yeah, plexiglass!) The end result, in addition to, I assume, a diploma of some sort, would be a "killer" robot!

More importantly, if you can build a dalek from scratch, you can pretty much do anything!

I believe the dalek project was put on hold in favor of a possibly even more imposing task, an entry for the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race in Arcata, California. The same skills required for dalek-building apply, with the addition of a physical fitness element! This would be the greatest school project ever. The benefit to a student from participating in a project like this would be immeasurable. Actually, the benefits would be quite measurable: you'd have a kid who could kick butt on both the SAT and in shop class!

I really hope the students (okay, the student) at Celanic Schools have the opportunity to complete the Kinetic Sculpture or the dalek project. Mostly because I want the vicarious experience of doing something that awesomely cool.

I learned this week that the "Bot Ball" robot competition, held here recently, is based around kit-built robots. I'm sure the quality of the learning experience is substantial for the students involved -- a select few students, that is. The real challenge is finding practical, hands-on stuff in which the majority of students can participate. As noted above, the majority of students have never built anything. Realistically, building daleks is far beyond the scope of what can be offered in a public school. But building a dalek isn't necessary. At least not at first. All you need is two 6-inch lengths of copper wire, two AA batteries, and a flashlight bulb. That'll get 'em started.

(The two SPeD kids in today's science class even finished their entire written worksheets before the end of class. They were two of only about 8 kids total out of 28 who could make that claim!)

[Sorry for any typos and awkward sentences; I'm too tired to proofread this right now.]
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