Finding ways to help young future engineers work with all of this new, inexpensive, very cool technology has become a full time job and not always an easy one.
Last week was a little distracting with all the destruction in the wake of hurricane Sandy; delayed deliveries, disrupted communications and some critical situations for family caused by prolonged power outages, but the work goes on.
While traveling to teach my PIC Robots class, I was rerouted numerous times due to power outages and downed trees. Seeing neighbors out clearing huge branches from the roofs of their houses and piles of uprooted trees lining the streets confirmed that the winds howling around my house had indeed been quite high. Still, I was very lucky and a few inconveniences are nothing compared to others’ misery.
I found myself wishing that I had built a data logger to measure wind velocity – and realized that I could teach the kids how to develop code for their PIC controllers to do this. With that in mind, I ordered an Arduino Pro Mini 328 - 5V/16MHz from RobotShop to sit on top of our RAMB II(maybe we should start calling it a ‘Shield’).
Of course, simply giving kids a really cool black box is not the same thing as teaching them how to apply it to a problem. That’s why working with 10, 11 and 12 year-olds is such a pleasure.
They are more easily convinced than my college kids that they don’t actually know everything and they are genuinely excited when their code causes their circuit to behave as planned.
I also invoke the ‘Magic Smoke’ legend to enlighten them further. For my readers who are not familiar with this principle, “All electronic devices have ‘Magic Smoke’ that makes them work and if you connect these devices incorrectly, they will lose their ‘Magic Smoke’ – you will smell it and you may even see it.
Once you have let out the ‘Magic Smoke’, you can never put it back…”
I am always amazed when kids imagine that there are dozens of ways to connect wires to devices, and just have to try them all. Kids, if allowed to do so, will just start connecting wires randomly to see what happens.
While plugging these strange new objects into receptacles that may accept them may be fun for a very short time, I always make sure to tell my students the risks; namely that it will not yield much useful information and could very well be dangerous or deadly, not to mention wasteful. I am an empiricist so my methods generally endorse this kind of behavior but without understanding, there are limits.
Any instructional approach needs to present material in a contextual way so that students develop understanding. Someone recently re-tweeted the old adage, ‘Knowing all of the facts is not the same as understanding the principles…’ which illustrates the importance of relevant, contextual assessment to insure understanding.
Having a context for the concepts encourages the effort required to learn the necessary material. Knowing which information to present to arrive at an educational goal, setting those goals and assessing students’ progress with some sort of authentic (relevant) instrument are all essential to assure that, going forward, students will have the necessary intellectual tools to develop understanding.
Finally, what might be a teachers’ most important task is to inspire and to give learners the means of finding the tools to discover more. I am encouraged by the suggestions in this Ericsson video I found online, (http://www.ericsson.com/thinkingahead/networked_society/learning_education ) but the actual implementation is quite another matter.
There are so many great programs addressing the problem though. I recently visited a Hackerspace known as FUBAR Labs– (Fair Use Building and Research) at Rutgers University, Livingston campus location.
Rick Anderson has been bringing together technologies, like a 3-D printer, with engineering students who wanted to get their hands on these technologies. I will go back soon to learn more about the program and possibly to help out.
Many engineering majors have never actually built a circuit on a bread board or designed, etched, drilled, stuffed and soldered a PC board. I will continue to introduce students to these hands-on methods wherever I can, and I would appreciate your comments and suggestions for helping technology seekers and for other programs worth working with.
David Peins teaches children as young as eight years old to read schematics, create working circuits on breadboards, program embedded controllers with MikroBasic and to program their own autonomous mobile robots to play ‘Robot Sumo.’
Thanks for your comments and encouragement. I do believe that there is a need for programs outside of formal public education classrooms. I taught in a public school for 28 years but I always found that the kids did their best work when they weren't constrained by a specific plan that specified outcomes. Kids do best when they are exploring, finding their own passion and discovering the unknown.
Thanks Sylvie, I must admit that at times I do question the path I have taken. However, no matter how tired or streesed out I am, when I get up to teach a group of kids, I know that I made the right decision. Admitting to myself that I am a teacher may have been the best decision I have made.
Excellent work, David. Micros and the enabling technologies from mass-produced smart-phones are making cheap robotics much more accessible. I work with FIRST and its FIRST LEGO League competitions, which are gaining real traction in schools and elsewhere.
For me, the most important aspect of all of this is that focusing kids on problem solving lessens the behavioral conditioning that's so much a component of regular schooling.
I love working with the kids. Making a room full of under-privileged kids light up with an idea keeps me going for a month, and Intel (my employer) encourages me to do it once a week! The FLL tournaments start this weekend across the country, and Arizona has over 30% more teams competing this year. I am proud to have been asked to serve as Head Robot Judge for two of the regional contests. Dean Kamen is just flat-out brilliant for thinking it up, and the more I learn the more I'm in awe of how it all fits together.
I think it takes a very special kind of person to dedicate oneself to the education of children. Not everyone has the patience and ability to simplify things without dumbing the subject down. I really admire what you're doing, David. Keep up the awesome work!