Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lessons Learned Through Art Bots

I’ve realized something funny about myself while on the #makered journey.  Normally, I’m a huge proponent of project based learning. I try to incorporate story lines and plan for open ended solutions. But I fell back on recipes when I started working with kids in the Makerspace last year. You know what I mean; everything comes with recipes - Legos, Snap Circuits, even Instructables.  A recipe gives students an outcome and then provides the steps to make the outcome happen. Although efficient, recipes rob students of creativity and the trial and error process that is so important to making enduring connections. This year I have been working hard to avoid the “recipe crutch” and the results have been much more rewarding.

Take the simple art bot, for example. Last year I scoured the Internet for different takes on the vibrating drawing robot and found one that looked simple and effective. I created a demonstration bot to use as a model and carefully planned how to explain the needed circuit.  The project went off without a hitch and each student created a reasonable facsimile of my art bot. Looking back, the project fell well short of what it could have been.

To be fair, I was just starting things off last year and had no materials to pull from. I hadn’t read Make Space and we didn’t have our T Walls yet. I hadn’t taken Lisa Yokana’s design thinking course and I wasn’t using the d.school’s design process as a framework. It’s important to respect the beginning of something. In the last year I have had many inspirations to move my teaching and the art bot project is different as a result.

As with each project this year, students started at the T walls - planning their designs together.  Then, students went “shopping” at the material wall to get what they needed to build their prototypes. The material wall would be revisited over and over again throughout the project as designs were modified. This is the first bit of advice I would give to a teacher trying to set up a Makerspace: before you get the fancy and expensive hardware, get lots of inexpensive materials (popsicle sticks, foam shapes, paper clips, beads of different sizes and shapes - get as much as you can) and organize them in easy to open containers. Then display these materials in an open and accessible way. Don’t hide them behind a cabinet. With my material wall as a resource, I could introduce the idea of an artbot, discuss the circuit using the motor and battery, and challenge the students to come up with a novel design that would accomplish the task. The results were amazing. Students came up with incredibly creative solutions, some of which were far better than the recipe I had used last year.

I learned a few lessons through the Art Bot project. I needed to let go of the recipes and trust the design process. I needed to have inexpensive materials available for student prototyping. I needed to let the kids find their own path to the solution. In the end, the project was easier for me, involved much more critical thinking for the students, and was significantly more meaningful for everyone.