What if we made a robot?

If you had the chance to spend some time cooking up a cool invention with a bunch of your friends, wouldn’t you want to at least try it?

That’s what learning starts with, when kids get involved in robotics, a branch of engineering that merges math and science in what they call “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

Students all over the country participate in the big competitions that pitch their club’s robot against those of others. Usually they are part of a club, but sometimes their school creates a course that centers on building a robot and entering it in the contest.

As Molly and R.J. tell us in this video, it’s a great way for kids to overcome any bias against math and science and get their hands into the real thing. And the fun of doing it as a team gives them a lot of practice in collaboration, critique, revision, and all the other habits of expert engineers.

Please, write in and tell us when you’ve had this much fun! We’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses we receive.

What next?! Linking inquiry to amazement

As the days grow shorter and darker, here’s a great game that will light up students in grades 6-12 with learning that’s actually fun. It’s a collaborative competition called InterroBang – a new term for the combined punctuation marks at the end of “Isn’t this amazing?!” – and it looks first-rate to me.

An interdisciplinary challenge that focuses on culture, creativity, exploration, and science, InterroBang runs from now through January—perfect timing for those winter weeks when kids need a really fun project filled with choice, autonomy, problem solving, content knowledge, and creativity.

The rules of InterroBang are simple, but they contain all the elements of great project-based learning. Kids visit the InterroBang website to pick (or create) their own “mission” to carry on their own or with a team. (Strategic alliances are part of the fun.)

Depending on the complexity of the challenge they choose, they’ll get different numbers of points for completing it to the satisfaction of the contest judges (which includes other players and mentors at higher levels of the game, as well as a panel of experts).

The mission can be intellectual, technical, or artistic, but it has to involve physical action, not just thinking and writing. Students devise their plan, and then they go out and do it, documenting their actions with pictures, video, and audio. Once that’s completed, the mission becomes a “deed” – posted on the website for others to view. Then players can go on to choose another challenge, join a new team, win more points, and so forth.

To me, InterroBang’s beauty is the flexibility and creativity it affords participants. For example, here are five sample “missions” that kids might take up or adapt, each with a different focus area:

• ME, UNPLUGGED. (Focus: Culture) Use no electrical or battery-driven devices for 24 hours. Write a detailed diary of the experience (you may use a camera to document the day). (Level 1, 10 points)

• UNDERCOVER. (Focus: Exploration) Visit someplace you have been before, but dressed as someone who does not belong. Document how people talk to you, how they treat you, and have your collaborator take pictures. Write up your reflections on the experience. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TRESPASSING THE PAST (Focus: Exploration) Find a highly frequented building or place (a shopping center, a racetrack, etc.) and find out what used to be there. Indicate what the land was used for and why it was developed. Provide pictures of the before and after. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TINKER. (Focus: Creativity) Take a common household item apart and find out how it works. Putting it back together is encouraged. Making it into something new gets you extra points. (Level 2, 20 points)

• PAPYRUS PILOT. (Focus: Science) Either try to break an official paper plane record (duration, distance or wingspan) or do something truly amazing with paper planes. Either way, document plane fabrication and flights. (Level 3, 30 points)

This is InterroBang’s second year, jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning, and Nuvana, a groundbreaking games company that wants to change the way kids learn in and out of school. (Motto: “Playing for real.”)

I’m so curious to hear what you and your students think of InterroBang that I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to anyone who writes in to describe your experience.

How’s that for amazing?!

Proof that intelligence is infectious

This morning I came across some wonderful evidence about the power of engaging students in math and science that has clear importance in the “real world.” (Thanks to the Educator Network ning for the tip!)

This project started with Andrew Conlan, a scholar at the University of Cambridge in England who wanted to mathematically model the spread of infectious disease in elementary schools. What better research assistants than local teenagers, he reasoned, to help create and administer questionnaires directly to the children involved?

Conlan already had access to students age 13 to 15 and their teachers through the Motivate Project, which uses videoconferencing to join dialogues between students and working mathematicians. It was just one more step for him to turn those conferences into work sessions in which students honed kid-friendly questions investigating how younger children’s socialization patterns affect the spread of everything from chickenpox to swine flu.

With their local access and their rapport with younger kids, the student researchers collected data that Conlan calls “unrivalled in scope, size and detail.” Together they sampled 75 complete primary school classes from 11 different schools, with nearly a 90 per cent response rate. After school and during lunch period, they processed the results. And they grasped the epidemiological concepts, too. At year’s end, they visited Cambridge to present their data before the Applied Math department there.

This all took place in England, home of terrific sites like the Motivate Project and “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here” where working scientists interact with students. Here in the U.S., I’ve seen comparable collaborations with local university researchers play out at High Tech High in San Diego.

So let’s set out to prove that intelligence can be infectious! I’d like to start a resource list on this blog of sites where teachers anywhere could go to match up their students with serious research in the field. I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you send me a suggestion we can use.

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Bringing practice back to class

What if kids listened to lectures on their own time, and spent class time in guided practice instead? (Dan Pink’s blog this week calls it “flipping homework.”)

That’s the technique used by many pioneering teachers, including Karl Fisch, a Colorado high school math teacher and blogger. He makes YouTube videos to explain key concepts and procedures to his algebra students—who view them after hours.

During class, students actively work on solving problems, collaborating in various ways as they try out the concepts for themselves.

Meanwhile, the teacher has the time to watch, assess, and coach kids as they puzzle through the problems in the moment. He can offer just the help that each needs in the moment, stretching their learning to the next step.

That approach makes sense for any subject (math, science, foreign languages, etc.) where a teacher wants to introduce background knowledge via direct instruction or sustained silent reading. Delivered during traditional “homework time,” that information has a chance to come alive the next day — and “stick” as kids make it their own in the messy, generative ways that deliberate practice demands.

Just today, Fisch’s students conducted a Skype interview with a geothermal engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab — but as homework beforehand, they prepped for their interview by reading a package of background information. (Find out more here.)

Have you tried a strategy like this in your classroom? Do you have other ways you’re accomplishing the same goal? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

The rhythm of joint action

Sports teams that warm up together before a game usually do it to heighten camaraderie and spirit. But synchronous exercise of that kind also seems to increase not just their motivation but their ability to pursue joint goals successfully, says a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

This might mean, for example, that kids who practice Double-Dutch jump-rope, or ballroom dance, or playing in a band—anything that involves moving together in time—are actually getting sharper at accomplishing anything they try that involves cooperation, perception and reaction to a partner’s actions.

A little “action research” by teachers and students is worth a try! Science class after gym class, anyone?

Constructing wings to fly with

“I can figure that out!” That’s the message that comes across in the how-to videos in the current online issue of Edutopia — showing how a challenging hands-on project can create a culture of steadily increasing motivation and mastery. My favorite shows ninth graders from Seattle whose science teacher drew them into a long term project to engineer from papier-mache a light-weight wing construction that works. I had to agree: “It’s hard–but once you’re on the inside, it’s fun!”