7th graders are creating 3D cell models with an interface
they've never seen before.
I imagine it would be an exciting time to be a kid learning to use computers thes days. There are so many computing environments that make so many things possible there are new cool surprises around every corner. But from an educator's perspective this poses a tough problem. How can they develop a solid foundation in all of these important tools? Video editing, image editing, web publishing, collaborative document editing, non-collaborative document editing, physical computing, digital game creation, programming...okay, I'm dizzy. Obviously they can't. Ten years ago an instructor in a web design class I was taking warned us against becoming a 'tool monkey' by specializing in one program in a domain like web graphics or HTML rather than understanding how any program in a domain has to work and figuring it out when you need it. I don't think anyone needs to be told that now. There are places in the world for Dreamweaver or PHP gurus but not that many. For the power user or anyone who gets under the hood of hardware and software technology has always been what Rand Spiro calls an ill-structured domain, but the ubiquity of apps, platforms, and insinuations of technology into so many areas of our lives now forces the average user to contend with some very complex user experiences.
As a technology instructor this problem is always foremost in my mind when I design new lessons and units. I want to strike a balance between telling students enough to feel comfortable with something and challenging them to relate what they know to figure out a new situation and test out their own theories. Sometimes I have to reteach things because I've thrown too much at them with too little scaffolding and the class has gone haywire with requests for help.
Aside from appropriate scaffolding I've been working on making sure that whatever new topics students learn are placed in a meaningful context so they have some compelling reason to be learning a confusing, complex subject. Recently I had my 9th grade robotics students learning to calibrate the four types of sensors we'll be using for our next project (photocell, ir reflective, distance, and a temperature sensor I hacked together). They went haywire and had much frustration, sometimes saying things like "I don't get what we're doing at all." That's a sign something isn't making sense, right? So for the next class I put together a worksheet and emphasized the main purpose of sensors. "Sensors are the robot's ONLY way to know anything about its environment. Without them it exists in a dark, silent, empty world." That conjured an intense image for the students and while they still found it challenging to get it to work they enjoyed investigating the sensor readings much more.