Teaching – Using geeky tech to educate middle school boys and girls

When I was a bit younger I had the opportunity to be part of a teaching initiative that worked to bring technology and engineering education to young children who might otherwise have become disinterested in the fields due to a lack of understanding. This educational program was full of enrichment activities, hands-on projects, and mathematics that all worked together to elevate the student’s understanding of the world and how their science and math classes could be relevant to everything around them. This initiative actually used the old shop classroom (do you remember the creepy metal shop or wood shop in your middle school?) and transformed it, and many others like it, into a fully functioning hub of technology with an array of older computers and wooden classroom tables for the kids to collaborate around.

The reason this was important to me is that it allowed me to take what I know from my engineering background and fuse it with my love for teaching. It also let me pull from my geeky side when it came to providing references, comments, activities, and technical aids. This brings me to a little side rant:

As someone with “geeky” tendencies I know that we as a whole get a pretty bad rap from just about everyone. Now, I’m not going to go all woe is me here because let’s be honest we do it to ourselves. There are plenty of social awkward folk in the ranks and a lot of geek culture is fairly misogynistic (chain mail bikinis anyone?). The key is, as someone who likes geeky things, to realize the flaws in the system and embrace the good things…and be a good person. This is especially important if you are teaching young children, and doubly so if you are teaching young girls. If you are going to reference something geeky or pop culture related to the kids and there is some questionable stuff there acknowledge that it is questionable and provoke them to think about it. Given how many different types of gamers there are these days I was very clear where my interests lay when talking to the students. I am not some basement dweller not am I a dudebro gamer. I like all sorts of things, specifically technology.

Curriculum

When working with students we delved into many different aspects of engineering building blocks over the course of the three years they took the class (6th 7th and 8th graders). In 6th grade they began learning building blocks like drafting, unit measurements, basic trigonometry, and basic engineering concepts such as moment, force, and acceleration. In 7th grade the students graduated to basic statics, programming and construction, power point, and slightly more advanced math. In 8th grade we tied it all together with some more advanced concepts in each area as well as a full design project complete with building a prototype (to scale if necessary), design doc, and proposal paperwork to an ‘executive’ via power point presentation.

I was pleasantly surprised with what these kids could handle if you presented the information to them in a way they could comfortably work with. Activities, board drawings, real world stories, and demonstrations all served to solidify the concepts in their mind. Board drawings about moments and moment arms was one thing but showing them that something as simple as a miniature teeter totter (plank with fulcrum) could let them see it in action solidified the concept. We also had 6th graders who wanted to come down during lunch or after school to learn more about trigonometry and algebra which was awesome.

Maintaining balanced between boys and girls

One of the major issues that I encountered while teaching was learning to work with the girls in the classroom. This isn’t because I could not relate to them or that I was a man or anything like that. They simply started to lose interest in math and science (most, not all) during 7th grade and it just got worse in 8th grade. When talking to colleagues in other schools they all noticed the same trend and it was disturbing. This is something our program was fighting so hard to combat!

The problem itself is much grander in nature and we were told to read through multiple papers and dissertations on the topic before beginning our teaching. In the real world fields of study like engineering, math, science, and other tech related professions are generally less accepting of women. This isn’t to say there aren’t amazing and brilliant women in their field…they are just more rare. With these fields being so male driven I think young girls and women are almost given the impression that “well, math and science just aren’t for me” or “that’s not what I should be focusing my attention on”. This is of course a terrible frame of mind to get in and all it serves to do is drive them away from these fields of study and further reducing the number of amazingly talented women in the field. This in turn makes the field more male driven and so on. Thankfully there are a number of women and men out there working to combat this and our program strived to work hand in hand with them.

The other problem with teaching these subjects to young girls has to do with the social dynamics of this particular age bracket. Around the 6h through 8th grade levels the boys tended (not all mind you) to be rather rambunctious and outgoing always raising their hand and always wanting to show how much they know to the teacher. A large portion of the female students became quieter when it came to questions to the class, and preferred to do more socializing with each other. I know that this age bracket is pivotal in female social structure and cliques were something we had to fight hard against, often times forcefully splitting people up between tables. If you controlled the attention the boys received (often times letting them sit there waving their arm in the air going ‘ooh ooh I know it’) and call on other students making sure boys and girls received equal attention I found I had a much more balanced classroom with a higher level of attentiveness. Combining this with a large number of hands on activities also served to pull in the students who normally struggled due to attention disorders.

Legos and work ethics

The work ethics of the students were highlighted in one of our major projects the 7th graders worked on which has to do with Legos. Our program worked with the Lego company, and their Mindstorm boxed set, in conjunction with the programming software Robolab. The Mindstorm kit was a large Lego TECHNIC set with the addition of a micro-computer lego brick (pretty hefty), motors, multiple types of sensors, rotating components, gears, cams, and many other awesome parts. The Robolab software allowed students to create programs using a modified LabVIEW interface to control their lego computer and have it complete a myriad of different tasks. I could talk for days about the awesomeness (and geekiness) that is Lego Mindstorm however I should keep this blog post somewhat reasonable in length. The project the students needed to solve, and a brief description of what was required, is the following:

THE VOLCANO!

We had a large plaster volcano complete with surrounding territory and a base of operations set up at ground level. Once set up on the floor of the computer room was also had a wavy and zig zag path from the edge of the model (at the base camp) to some location on the floor a good distance away identified as the ‘supply depot’.

Phase 1 – the students needed to build a vehicle that was capable of locomotion when controlled via a program downloaded to their RCX (LEGO computer brick). The RCX did not have to be mounted on the car as it adds weight but it was allowed if the students preferred it. The catch – Lego motors can spin fairly fast but have extremely low torque. The solution was that students needed to set up gear boxes and downshift the force of the motors to create slower moving but high torque wheels for their vehicles. The awesome – one group of girls actually build a vehicle with rear differential and rack and pinion steering.

Phase 2 – the students needed to program their vehicle to start from the supply depot and following the black line on the floor to the base camp. The catch – the black line was far from straight and changed daily. The solution – The vehicle had to be able to use light sensors to know when it was or was not on the line in order to maintain its course. Some students used a more crude approach while some applied fairly complex logic statements to their program to make their vehicle travel smoothly.

Phase 3 – the students needed to program their vehicle to start up inside the base camp and retrieve a specific supply crate. The supply depot had four docking bays in a line sorted by color and each group was assigned a specific color to stop their vehicle at. The student would load the crate into their  vehicle and it had to return to the base camp which entailed climbing from ground level up onto the model. The catch – Students needed a more complex algorithm for determining which color their light sensor was looking at at any one time. The climb back up onto the model was also not something to be trifled with. Weak vehicles or poorly designed vehicles need to be redesigned to accommodate it. The solution – students learned to test each color in front of their light sensor to get the exact value they needed for their assignment. Once recorded, and their car was modified for the small climb they were good to go. This phase was where most of the students struggled though they eventually got it in the end.

Phase 4 (bonus phase) – the volcano was about to erupt again and the scientists have devised a plan to roll a large “volcano cork” device up the mountain and plug the opening to prevent destruction. The students had to move a tennis ball up the side of the volcano and deposit it into the hole at the center. The catch – the vehicle had to be able to “hold” the ball and be strong enough to climb a reasonable and rugged incline. The solution – the only group that solved it was a boy and two girl team who created a super tough vehicle just for the task. Their vehicle had multiple sets of wheels each able to adjust to variations in the surface they traveled over. The car was driven using a 64x torque multiplier from the maximum lego motor setting. It moved real slow (1/64 max speed)but nothing stopped this thing from getting to them top!

The students really loved playing with Legos and we made sure to teach them a lot about the science underneath the hood so to speak. They gained knowledge of moving parts, gears, force, and programming all while having fun. What was really interesting though is watching the students interact with each other. Some of the boys were incredibly brash and wanted to recklessly start cobbling together a solution for each phase with no forethought. Their girl teammates had none of that. They were the careful and logical planners that really kept everyone in check. That isn’t to say everyone adhered to this dynamic but it was great to watch. I liked seeing balanced groups working methodically to solve their problems drawing from the strengths of each team member.

I feel that as a whole we were very successful in bringing technology and engineering education to the classroom in a fun and exciting way. Finding a way to bring geeky tech (legos, programming, oscilloscopes, electronics, and models) in and maintain the interests of the students regardless of age or gender was a huge accomplishment. While it is only the tip of the iceberg and there are much greater issues at stake in regards to some of the obstacles we faced, I think that the program made great strides (and continues to do so to this day) towards improving the educational system.

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