Prototyping

One year ago, where I am sitting right now, twenty-eight desks were arranged in rows and columns facing the front. There were a few stock posters of Italy and a bowl with old Spanish pesos on top of a dusty cabinet. The cable connecting the computer and the SMART board was two generations older than the HDMI you use at home.

There are at least ten solar panels in that room now. The posters were replaced with mathematical artwork first hung at the Bruce Museum and enough memes that the Fire Chief is worried we’ve covered too much of the wall. We’ve stained the floor (sorry), got rid of the computer (not sorry), added a Chromecast (awesome), and are renovating the adjacent courtyard (slowly). The classroom is an example of the prototyping that occurred there today.

Grayson, Siobhan, Ziare, and Destene are working to charge batteries for kids’ cars using solar power. Just building the rolling cart for the panel takes hours. They’ve messed up at almost every step of the way. “Fail fast, fail forward” was the chours at Deeper Learning last month and was apropos this week. Find me a test that can measure Ziare’s satisfaction in taking apart a gear-box and figuring out why it was broken. A gear was missing; today was the day he needed to learn how to 3D-print.
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3D modeling and printing is perhaps the most tangible example of prototyping. Two groups of four are dependent on battery packs working. Emily’s prints have gotten progressively better. She’s iterating and improving.

I was giddy today when we finally got the large solar panels working. The voltage of the panels, rated at 48V, topped out around 83V.

In addition to this miniature motor, the sun was strong enough to power the electric go-kart motor. The students escaped before I could film it, but I did catch the getaway.

Prototyping is vital to what we do but it takes time. We front-loaded this project with the chemistry and math of batteries: redox reactions, exponentials, logs. As students prepare their final submissions – documentaries, a Reddit post, a photo essay – we ask that they return to the science and math explanations and data that support the project. This week and next week, though, are all building.

When we speak with other schools that teach and learn through projects, they’re honest. If you think you can take science and math courses that already have daily pacing charts, add engineering and technology, and somehow “cover” everything you did before, you’re not being realistic. Our Design Studio course essentially adds another quarter credit to our four core classes, but we still have to make tough decisions about which topics are essential to “cover” in their entirety and which to simply expose students to. The weekly schedule we project to students has become a best guess and not a scripted plan.

The irony in using the word prototype is that it suggests that what we create can be easily copied. The majority of teachers – my old self included – worked hard to refine handouts to use yearly. We love tinkering until we get that lesson just right. But standardizing the experience strips it of the most important part: input and creativity of students. They are the ones inspired to make a Solar Smoothie or phone-charging skateboard. Our passions are not their passions. The space where they overlap, we hope, is our classroom.
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