Monday, November 12, 2012

Just giving kids a really cool black box is not the same thing as teaching them how to apply it to a problem.  Working with 10, 11 and 12 year-olds is a pleasure.  They are more easily convinced than my college kids that they don’t actually know everything and they are genuinely excited when their code causes their circuit to behave as planned.  I invoked the ‘Magic Smoke’ legend and none of my students had heard it.  For my readers who are not familiar with this principle, “All electronic devices have ‘Magic Smoke’ that makes them work and if you connect these devices incorrectly, they will lose their ‘Magic Smoke’ – you will smell it and you may even see it.  Once you have let out the ‘Magic Smoke’, you can never put it back…”  I am always amazed when kids imagine that there are dozens of ways to connect wires to devices, you just have to try them all.  Kids, if allowed to do so, will just start connecting wires randomly to see what happens.  I always start off the class by advising that plugging  these strange new objects into receptacles that may accept them may be fun for a very short time but will not yield much useful information and could very well be dangerous or deadly, not to mention wasteful.  I am an empiricist so my methods generally endorse this kind of behavior but without understanding, there are limits.  

 Any instructional approach needs to present material in a contextual way so that students develop understanding.  Someone recently re-tweeted the old adage, ‘Knowing all of the facts is not the same as understanding the principles…’ which illustrates the importance of relevant, contextual assessment to insure understanding.  Having a context for the concepts encourages the effort required to learn the necessary material.  Knowing which information to present to arrive at an educational goal, setting those goals and assessing students’ progress with some sort of authentic (relevant) instrument are essential to assure that, going forward, students will have the necessary intellectual tools to develop understanding. Finally, what might be a teachers’ most important task is to inspire and to give their learners the means of finding the tools to discover more.  I am encouraged by the suggestions here in this video online at but the actual implementation will be another matter.

There are so many great programs that are addressing this problem that it is difficult to decide which ones to work with.  I recently visited one of these Hackerspaces known as FUBAR Labs ( ) – (Fair Use Building and Research) at their Rutgers University, Livingston campus location. Rick Anderson has been bringing together technologies, like a 3-D printer, with engineering students who want to get their hands on these technologies.  I will return there soon to learn more about their program and to possibly help out.  Many engineering majors have never actually built a circuit on a bread board or designed, etched, drilled, stuffed and soldered a PC board.  I will continue to introduce students to these hands-on methods where ever I can. I would appreciate your comments and suggestions for helping technology seekers and for other program worth working with.


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