Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paving the Road To Digital Success

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.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Amazing Building Communities Workshop

Futuristic buses in Beijing

Working In-World
We just wrapped up an amazing four-day workshop on design and engineering of public spaces. Each year we spend this week after winter break teaching special collaborative courses with multi-age groups of students so I worked with a math teacher, a science teacher, and another technology coordinator to put together a series of amazing field trips and a design and building project in OpenSim with nine students in 9 - 12th grades. Our field trips were unbelievable, starting at the MOMA with Design and the Modern Kitchen and Design Over Time, then to the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's Why Design Now? exhibit and a workshop, and finally into what felt like the center of the Earth with a tour of the NY Metropolitan Transit Authority's excavation of the planned 2nd Ave. subway tunnel. (More amazing info and pictures of that here!)

Working RL

Renewable Energy Community

Interspersed with those experiences was our project using OpenSim to design and build communities. The students broke into groups,  picked a location in the world to design for, and researched the needs, cultures, and geography of the local region. Once they had chosen their places I created approximate heightmaps and imported them to adjacent regions. I had hoped to use Virtual White's steps to importing USGS Seamless Server data to OpenSim but I couldn't find anything similar for international GIS data. So I did some quick brush work and came up with some okay approximations, though way off scale. The areas they chose were Syndey Harbor, Fengtai in Beijing, and an area modeled after Table Mountain near Capetown, South Africa, though the actual Table Mountain is a nature reserve. Each group focused on different aspects of their communities. The Beijing group worked primarily on a transportation center with a station and a futuristic bus. I got them started with a script to move the bus with passengers inside that they obsessively refined to suit different transportation objectives.
Sydney Harbour Bridge

Syndey Harbor Heightmap
The Table Mountain group focused on a community supported by renewable energy resources. They chose their location because of the high winds in the area and integrated purple wind turbines inspired by Ener Hax's amazing work and solar panels on light-filled structures. And the Sydney Harbour group worked really hard on a fantastic replica of the actual bridge complete with a waving flag and built an extensive housing complex. They had fun inhabiting the city with some pretty awesome kangaroos they built, though I doubt those are roaming as freely as they would like to imagine.

Aside from Ener's work, we looked at an amazing video of Encitra's model for integrating a podcar system in Uppsala, Sweden. And we took a virtual tour of some Second Life regions, like Ijinle 1796, a composite Yoruba village in Africa Illuminated, the impressive Edmonton Civic Center build, and a nice Chinatown build called Chukagai in Yokohama. I don't know how to do SLURLs but if you search in SL you should be able to find these locations. And we read and discussed some passages about affordances and affective elements of design from Donald Norman's books, The Design of Everyday Things, and Emotional Design.

I was so impressed that they really got some essential concepts about what it means to design things for people. On one of our field trips the guide asked them some questions about design and they said things like, "You design things to solve particular problems," "Your first design will never work," and "At some point you will have to use math to get your design to work right." I was so proud of them!
A bit of fun on the bridge

What else can I say....It is so rewarding to work in a way that allows for learning from such different angles, gives them such great latitude for creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration, and provides a social element that really makes it fun. At some points we all feel like it's a game that we're playing together but there's enough freedom to set goals together and for the students to set and revise their own goals. There are even a few girls who want to continue working and create a replica of our school building in the sim! It's also the kind of work that is tremendously engrossing and the concentration is exhausting. They liked working steadily on something and then sitting back and realizing how tired they were from concentrating so hard. In all, what an amazing experience. I look forward to next year's Winterim class.