Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Time For A Change

For the past 7 years I have taught a "computer" class to middle school students twice a week. In that time the class has evolved from the basic class I inherited (aka typing for 15 minutes, work on making a digital poster of your science or ELA project using PrintShop and KidPix) to a curriculum that includes animation, computer programming, digital image making, physical computing and more. With this more intensive curriculum comes new problems and setbacks. I still teach the students for 50 minute blocks twice a week. Between testing and trips and vacation days this doesn't leave a lot of time to really develop deep understandings for many of my students. Because the class isn't a class "that counts", many students (and their parents), don't think it is an important class and tend to complain about having to do work and thinking that free time on the computers is what the students deserve more of.

Despite repeating the mantra "would you rather program the computer rather than be programmed by the computer", too many students consider themselves to be experts with little left to learn, and parents agree, telling me how their kids are using the computer all the time, watching YouTube and chatting with their friends. It has been an uphill battle that keeps getting steeper each school year.

This past year I have been immersed in reading and thinking and learning about all the different ways that the Making phenomena can be incorporated into the school curriculum. At times I have thought that school doesn't deserve the Maker experience, that the formal and conservative framework of what passes for most schools would only do to making as it has done to other innovations and ideas, absorb it into its rigid structure and change the innovation to fit school instead of changing school to fit the innovation. (see "Why School Reform is Impossible" by Seymour Papert, 1995 - "The Reform sets out to change School, but in the end School changes the Reform. School resists the Reform in a particular way, by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structure.").

Student soldering 3d printed LED flashlight
Well, I am going to give it a try anyway. With the blessing of my school and the science department, we are rebranding the "computer lab" as a STEAM Lab or iLab (official name to be determined), rearranging the room as best we can with our limited resources and electrical circuits, and attaching the two periods I teach each week to the science classes as a hands on science lab experience for the students. Typical NYC public middle schools don't have the time, space, or resources, to facilitate a true project-based lab experience for their students within the confines of 4 or 5 periods a week and 30 plus students a class. It is my hope that what I already do in my computer classes, and what happens in my lunchtime Makerspace, can be the foundation for hands-on inquiry based projects that connect to the existing science curriculum for the 6th and 7th graders. The approach will be framed in design thinking and using a design/engineering cycle that will allow students to work through problems and have the time to discover solutions through this iterative process.

I am excited for the possibilities, I am excited to be collaborating and working with other teachers at my school, for a subject "that counts", I am excited to be doing something new and figuring out what works and what doesn't. Sure there will be problems, but at least these will be new problems. I am looking forward to learning from those of you who are already doing this kind of work and incorporating ideas and best practices and project ideas into our new STEAM Lab.