A Summer of Learning in Albemarle Schools

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“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                  Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                  Design and Thinking, the Movie

Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Tech Girl and Mentor

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from America’s school staffs. Remember the recess play that once was the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Albemarle educators and students are fortunate our School Board values and supports engaging and enriching work for our young people.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

A Summer for Young Makers

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This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my division engage in a different kind of “summer school” curricula,  Our students have created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve used math, science, writing, reading, social studies, movement and the arts in their learning – whether measuring boards down to the fraction or following recipes. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits, designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker KidsMaker Corps and Maker Kids

Four elementary summer programs were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of diverse teen leaders into their schools. They created leadership teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills; making games, websites, and tech programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. In our award-winning M-cubed program, middle school boys built and tested their gravity-powered roller coasters, experimenting with energy, force, motion, and slope. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

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A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, as they’ve been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

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Why are we focusing on teachers using make to learn and learn to make strategies as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to mostly teacher talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Some master effective “doing school behaviors” and obtain decent grades but may also often feel disconnected from joy and passion as they work.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s even felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced to cover what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners – field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                   Rotman School of Management                                        Design and Thinking, the Movie
                                                                                                                              

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Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of just measuring what students know through standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know on performance tasks that are far more demanding of both skill and knowledge.

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Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders. It always has been. However, we are concerned about data indicated that the creativity of our nation’s youth is at an all time low. We are concerned that America has a three-year decline in patents filed at the US Patent Office and for the first time in history fewer patents filed than the rest of the world.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

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Irene is a graduate of AHS, a Duke University student, and a member of the first U.S. Maker Corps.

The Art and Science of Making: What Students Do to Create and Invent

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A few weeks ago, some of our young people reminded us that making is a mindset that can occur any time, any place.  On a snow day, a group of kids were co-opted by a local teenage video “maker” into creating and publishing a fabulous YouTube video, “Call Me Maybe, Josh Davis.” This video represented the inherent passion and joy that surfaces when young makers get together and intersect talents, skills, and interests in a collaborative venture. They learned from and with each other. They sparked ideas and inventive thinking. They showed our community what happens when kids exercise their spontaneous and creative genius, use technology tools in powerful ways to communicate, and leave their mark upon an authentic audience.

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We also see inventive potential when our elementary children construct their own cardboard arcade games for their school carnival, test bending moment using chairs, tables, and Unifix cube bridges, and create engineering solutions to design challenges pitched to them. It’s in the creative genius of our teenagers who’ve built their own 3-D printer, designed quad-copters and musical instruments, produced their own studio music and made document camera projectors for less than $100 dollars.

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Navigating Lego Simple Machines at Meriwether Lewis Elementary

Making things is a natural learning state for humans. It offers a different way to see the world through the practical lenses of finding solutions to problems, conundrums, and perplexities embedded in daily life. Making opportunities stretch analytical, creative, and integrative thinking. Making creates multi-dimensional, hands-to-mind and mind-to-hands processing that engages together the mathematical and language centers of the brain.

Making offers integrated learning opportunities–the best of any century learning. We see it in the collaborative efforts of Destination Imagination teams to design-build solutions to challenges. We see it in the gardens created and nurtured as part of a school’s own “grow local” effort for their school cafeteria.

Measuring, Mixing, and Making Muffins at Red Hill Elementary

Measuring, Mixing, and Making Muffins at Red Hill Elementary

Making is not just about math, science, engineering and technology.

A focus on STEM content knowledge is great if we want our children to become the next generation of skilled technicians and workers.  But, for us, the hacker/maker movement is about creating the next generation of entrepreneurs, creators and inventors.  That’s what adding the “A” to STEM gets at–a necessary injection of the creative Arts into STEM as STEAM.

Monticello High Music Industry Class Writes Lyrics and Records Music

Monticello High Music Industry Class Writes Lyrics and Records Music

We believe whether it’s the advanced manufacturing spillover influence from the University of Virginia’s engineering school into our elementary school digital fabrication labs or our year-round Irish-influenced Coder Dojos where kids make games in MIT’s free Scratch programming language  create websites with HTML, or work with Java, our children are moving back through these experiences to the natural learning that’s fueled America’s inventors, patent-makers, backyard mechanics, studio artists, NASA engineers, and skyscraper designers and builders.

A number of our Albemarle schools have prototyped maker spaces in libraries, redesigned computer labs, hallway niches, and converted classrooms. We see the results in the energized work of young people to create, design, invent, engineer, and make.

WAHS physics students build a wind tunnel in a flipped classroom environment

WAHS physics students build a wind tunnel in a flipped classroom environment

 Next year we will open Design 2015 teacher-developed maker space projects in a number of schools. We want our children to learn to use manual tools, but also so much more, In today’s environment, digital tools (in most cases) are very necessary design tools in early stages of “making” — drawing or programming to make something else do something.  Consider the tools, materials, skills, and knowledge necessary to make something new that will meet a human need or want. How many people do we know with the skills to do “maker” work today – despite the idea that America’s economic future rests in the hands of designers, inventors, builders, engineers, and makers from artists to auto mechanics?

We see the connectivity of our partnership with the national MakerCorps summer project as an opportunity to work with children through a different kind of interactive professional development for teachers who will partner in this hands-on maker experience, using a variety of traditional and contemporary technologies. The MakerCorps offers us an opportunity to draw young people, high school graduates and local college students into a real-deal maker program where they will serve as mentors for both our children and the teachers with whom they will interact. This work will engage young learners in the same way that these MESA Academy students engaged in designing, making, and sharing their interdisciplinary work – integrating the arts, sciences, technologies, and mathematics with engineering principles.

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We are at a turning point in human history, a rising tide of a culture of participation in global networks that open doors of which we humans have never dreamed. Remember, “making”, at its core, is about “teaching” kids to view the world (not just school) in a completely different way — it’s about empowerment and ownership of destiny— wondering is great but realizing that one has the power to “make something happen” is a powerful, powerful thing.

summer Coder Dojo

summer Coder Dojo

 Many of us talk about what’s wrong with the world (our work, our culture, etc.)—we chat about the need to change and wonder about something better—but very, very few of us actually do much of anything about it.  We tinker around the edges at best.  We are mostly admirers of problems and not solvers of them.  Public schools, very much by design, often perpetuate that.

So, moving kids from compliant listeners to curious learners is an awesome goal, but the ultimate goal must be to move learners from dreamers ….  to doers …. then, later in life, to change makers. Our nation, state, and local community depend upon it.

But, to make our own dream a reality — we’ll need to move ourselves and other adults along that continuum as well. That’s no small challenge. We educators, have much to consider and make happen.

Chad Ratliff and Pam Moran co-authored this post previously published at makered.org