What are we trying to teach: how to do or how to think?

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.

3D printers in the Fab Lab at Marymount

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.

Display of futuristic toothbrush designs made in the Fab Lab

Futuristic toothbrush designs made in the FabLab

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?

A motorised device built and programmed by HSoMSE students

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.

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4 responses to “What are we trying to teach: how to do or how to think?

  1. At a previous school links were made with Industry, and students were given the opportunity to design and fabricate a particular product as part of a “competition”, the winner of which was then invited to the factory where there product was manufactured. I remember in particular Year 8 students designing cutlery which was then manufactured in China (two students visited for 2 days) for use in a restaurant chain in London, and thinking what a fantastic experience for all involved. A top UK chief even skyped to an assembly to say how much he loved the designs that had been created. Unfortunately this did however need a buy in from a keen and committed parent with contacts, but many schools have these just waiting to step in.

    • Darren, that project sounds amazing. The fact that the ‘winning’ design would actually be fabricated and used on significant scale would give such meaning and power to the project for the students! Obviously it would not be easy to do, but getting parents involved in school projects would really improve the potential real-world applications of these projects. The school you mention obviously had parents with significant important and international contacts, but parents don’t need to have contacts on quite that scale to be useful – it can just be a connection where they work, from a publishing house to a smash repair. We should get parents excited about the academic life of the school and use the resource they provide to make student work meaningful.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Parents are such an untapped resource schools should reach out to in order to improve learning opportunities and strengthen community links.

  3. Pingback: What are we trying to teach - Building Connections | Peer2Politics | Scoop.it·

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