Related to my post on reinventing engineering education in the 21st century, while I have been in New York this week I have observed a few examples of ways people are teaching engineering or technology in hands-on ways. This is great: kids get to make stuff, and they get some idea of what it is like to create things in the real world. However, it also got me thinking about what we are trying to do when we teach students these sorts of skills: do we want them to be able to repeat, or do we want them to design? Do we want them to simply know the how, or do we want them to know the why? Do we want them to answer questions, or do we want them to solve problems?
On Monday I visited Jaymes Dec at Marymount School, and his fantastic Fab Lab (Fabrication Laboratory). In his Fab Lab he has a range of awesome equipment, including six MakerBot 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, a laser cutter and a ShopBot Desktop router.
It’s fantastic that the students have access to these tools and learn how to use them. They are able to use these tools to make products, such as the futuristic toothbrush designs shown in the pictures below.
I chatted with Jaymes about how the FabLab was usually being used within the curriculum. He only has one lesson a week with each when he teaches kids the skills of fabrication and design. It struck me as similar to how Technology classes often work back home: students complete projects to learn how to use the equipment and understand some basics about the design process. Although he has worked with some other teachers (primarily the Art department) to work on projects in unison, this was rarer than he would have liked. To me, this fabrication idea should be integrated into projects for a range of subjects, allow students to (for example) build greenhouses to learn about plants and light in science, and so on. Jaymes stated that he would to love to do more integrated projects, and that with the limited time he had currently a lot of his teaching time was spent getting the students familiar with the equipment.
Yesterday I visited a very different school, the High School of Maths, Science and Engineering (HSoMSE), a selective ‘magnet’ public school which specialises in maths, science and engineering teaching. Although there a lot of magnet schools accross the country and within New York itself which specialise in maths and science, HSoMSE is rare with its specific inclusion of engineering in that mix. Students do specific engineering subjects all throughout their high school experience, and in their junior (year 11) year they can elect between a science, maths, or engineering ‘track’ for their subjects.
Overall, the idea of incorporating engineering throughout the high school experience sounds like a great idea to me. The engineering classes are often taught in a very hands on way, such as Principles of Engineering class I observed in which students were building and programming small motorised devices. However, are they learning how to design and solve problems from these activities, or are they just learning how to physically build and program these devices according to specific instructions? Are they learning the why or just the how?
At both of these schools, students were being able to build things and make them work, although in very different ways. I love that these approaches are hands on, and especially in the case of the FabLab the students create something worthwhile out of the task. However, does it truly make sense to isolate engineering or fabrication and make it a separate subject? Don’t these skills really relate to and build on knowledge from other subject areas? I know that the teachers I spoke to were on the same page as me about all this, but the limitations of the existing school or class structure isolates these engineering or fabrication classes and makes it difficult to integrate design and creation into other subjects.
The ‘Maker’ movement suggests that we want students to be makers and creators, people who are unafraid to develop real, physical solutions to problems. I agree with that, but it’s not just a matter of showing them how to physically make things. We need to teach our kids to be problem solvers; to realise that they have the power and ability to develop and create solutions which are meaningful. I would argue that in order to do this, the ‘making’ should not be separated from the problem itself. We need to develop meaningful projects which combine the design and creation of solution with real problems in subjects such as science. This is what High Tech High does so well with it’s approach to Project Based Learning: they do not ‘teach’ engineering, but instead they allow students to actually engineer.