21st century shop class

June 17, 2009


A report (summary, handy comparison tool) put out today by the American Institute for Research describes the state of American Math proficiency in fourth and eight grades compared to many other countries.

The gist, surprise surprise, is that the U.S. lags a good bit behind Asian countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Many have called for the U.S. to reinvigorate its math and science education program so that we can churn out more scientists and engineers to keep up with everyone else in the market of ideas, and ideas about for how to do this.

I won’t advocate for or against any of these proposals, but instead will throw one of my own ideas into the ring.

If we’re going to throw some money at the dearth of kids going into science and engineering careers, let’s start by making science and engineering more than just intellectually interesting. I think the percentage of kids who like building stuff and tinkering is far larger than the percentage who eventually decide they like the strictly academic aspects of these fields. Unfortunately, many of those who don’t make it into the field by high school fall off because “they’re not good at math,” or they find it “boring” or “not relevant to their lives.” Ultimately, to make it into science and engineering fields, you must overcome these obstacles, but we can give them a good bit of the kinetic energy required to overcome those hills. Simply, we make them like the actual practice of science and engineering and worry about the theory later.

(You’ll notice that I’ve seemingly forgotten about math, but while the mathematicians usually have a different philosophy than scientists and engineers, I think we can also overcome the barriers that middle and high school math poses in a similar way as the science barriers through my proposal).

What ever happened to shop class, where you build birdhouses out of wood and maybe even get to do some metal working? I haven’t heard of its still existing in many schools (public or private) these days, and its disappearance makes sense given ever-tightening budgets and ever-escalating safety concerns (how many people trust an eight grader with a bandsaw?). While making birdhouses and the like can be quite enjoyable, we should extend the class to encompass a much broader spectrum of the sciences.

We need a new kind of shop class (or, even better, middle through high school curriculum) where the students work on well-defined projects that given them latitude to be creative and to take initiative. These projects can be things like customizing bicycles, making trebuchets, creating robots to do small tasks, developing simple wind turbines and fuel cells and solar arrays, taking apart a car engine, building an electric motor. The possibilities are many and quite scalable in complexity and knowledge prerequisites. In sixth grade, the students can build and program simple robots using the Lego Mindstorms kits, and in twelfth grade they can build them using breadboards, servos, and real programming. Students could construct a composing chamber where they introduce different types of organisms, test the chemical properties of the chamber, and monitor its progress over time. Sites like Make Magazine and Instructables are full of projects like this.

Projects can run the gamut from biology, chemistry, physics and environmental sciences. The main key, though, is that they must be self-directed and involve actually building things. They can learn the practical knowledge necessary along the way. Self-directed learning — another important trait of scientists and engineers. The teacher would take a very hands-off approach, walking around providing little bits of guidance here and there but mostly staying out of the way.

I’ve seen classes set up like this. They’re art classes and are often incredibly effective. Students come in on their free periods because it’s relaxing, almost, to work without direct teacher involvement and produce something they’re proud of.

Of course, in order to run a class like this, it takes a teacher who is energetic and motivated. Anyone can teach science from a textbook.

A class like this could be an elective, a supplement, because I doubt many schools will want to give up on the “hard sciences.” It should be an elective, for the main goal is to give kids the motivation they need to make it through the more academic parts of the disciplines.

I don’t fool myself that many schools will adopt a class like this, or that it will become any kind of national initiative, but when I’m back teaching in a high school, I’ll do whatever it takes to get a class like this underway.

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