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  1. Ben Shapiro
  2. http://benshapi.ro/
  3. Assistant Professor
  5. Tufts University
  1. Brian Gravel
  3. Tufts University

Nedlam's Workshop

NSF Awards: 1450985

2015 (see original presentation & discussion)

Grades 9-12

We describe Nedlam’s Workshop, a unique university-high school partnership investigating how to enable diverse populations of high school aged youth to engage in inquiry through making. School practitioners are curious about how to bring ideas and practices from the maker movement into school. While educators’ curiosities often focus on which technologies to purchase (e.g., 3D printers), the challenge, and the promise, of integrating making and schooling lies in understanding how to bring the maker-directed, inquiry-rich practices of engineering, arts, and computing into the classroom. Through a combination of formal (in-school) and informal (after-school) environment and course design, teacher professional development, and community partnership, we are investigating how making and schooling can be productively integrated to afford creatively rich learning experiences for all students.

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Discussion from the 2015 Teaching & Learning Video Showcase (7 posts)
  • Icon for: Elizabeth Hassrick

    Elizabeth Hassrick

    Research Scientist
    May 11, 2015 | 10:56 a.m.

    The video did an excellent job of capturing how the chaos of a maker lab can be harnessed for STEM learning. The first vignette of the moment when the student realized she had achieved her goal was priceless. Witnessing that moment really helps me to see the value of the work in the moment. The organization of the vignettes of the students doing their maker work and the explanation of how they were guided, helps me to believe that researchers can begin to measure and reliable produce meaningful STEM learning in maker labs.

  • Icon for: Ben Shapiro

    Ben Shapiro

    Lead Presenter
    Assistant Professor
    May 11, 2015 | 03:52 p.m.

    Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m happy to answer any questions you or others have.

  • Icon for: Katherine McNeill

    Katherine McNeill

    Associate Professor of Science Education
    May 12, 2015 | 04:47 p.m.

    Very cool. I enjoyed watching the kids and their excitement about the work.

  • Icon for: Lisa Hogan

    Lisa Hogan

    Technology Integrator
    May 12, 2015 | 09:09 p.m.

    I completely agree the challenge of integrating making and schooling lies in understanding how to bring the maker-directed, inquiry-rich practices of engineering, arts, and computing into the classroom. The students seemed very intent on their own self-designed projects. You mentioned the BlockyTalky. Can you tell me more about BlockyTalky and it’s value to the students. Also, what kind of relationship exists between the app developer team at MIT and Malden High School teachers?

  • Icon for: Avron Barr

    Avron Barr

    May 13, 2015 | 01:12 a.m.

    Great to see the students so engaged. What’s next? How can this work influence the proliferation of Maker Labs and their integration with schools?

  • Sherry Hsi

    May 14, 2015 | 08:54 a.m.

    I can see BlockyTalky being implemented in many places in and out of school because it is learner-centered and allows individuals and teams of students building and tinkering on a design challenge that is interesting and relevant to them. One challenge or opportunity would be to get this into more hands of teachers. Are there any plans for online or f2f PD workshops for teachers or educators to get their hands on this? I can see running with this with our science center teen internship program especially because it’s both creative and teaches engineering and coding.

  • Icon for: Ben Shapiro

    Ben Shapiro

    Lead Presenter
    Assistant Professor
    May 14, 2015 | 03:32 p.m.

    Dear Katherine, Lisa, Avron, and Sherry,

    I’m writing responses to you jointly because I think there is some overlap in how I’d answer each of you… but I don’t want to seem impersonal, so feel free to write more questions :-)

    What you’re seeing in the video is the convergeance of multiple NSF projects. I’d like to explain what they are in order to answer your questions.

    Project 1: Nedlam’s Workshop (award 1450985)
    Nedlam’s Workshop is a pilot investigation into how we can enable all students to learn through authentic inquiry through making. Making and the Maker Movement are very visible right now. From White House maker faires to breathless news stories and blog posts about places like Google offering makerspaces to their employees as perks, making and being a maker are high status. Yet, making has been a part of school for a very long time. But it’s been a low status activity for low status kids, kids who have been judged as less than capable of academic excellence and tracked away from rich academic learning and toward vocational and technical education. We know from decades of research that youth of color and from working class families are much more likely to be put on the non-academic track. But, we wonder: with the popular, high status ascendence of making, do we have an opportunity to reconstruct how kids on the voc/tech track are perceived? Can we use their skills for making as a way to signify their academic capabilities, and, thereby, to increase the richness of their academic schoolday experiences? In particular, can the signification of capability that being a maker offers today be a way to encourage schools to adopt inquiry-based constructionist pedagogies across the curriculum?

    We got a unique opportunity to investigate this possibility when the principal of our partner school offers us the chance to take over the school’s abandoned woodshop. The district had cut funding for the space and there was a real risk of the city taking over the space to use as a facility for maintaining city equipment. Could we, the principal asked, turn it into a maker space for his students? Malden High is the most ethnically/cuturally diverse high school in the state, and so Principal Brown’s offer of space was also an opporuntity for us to investigate how to embed a culturally-responsive approach to making in a large urban high school.

    We have four high-level research questions: 1) How can we enact culturally-responsive inquiry-based making for a diverse population in an urban high school? 2) How does participation in that kind of pedagogy change students’ ideas about themselves and their peers? 3) How does observation of students’ rich capabilities change teachers’ ideas about the students? and 4) How can adopting this approach to making enable teachers to increase the inquiry focus of their courses?

    We started transforming the space in September 2014. We worked with kids after school to clean up the space and to reorganize it in a way that was supportive of digital fabrication. So we brought in equipment to complement the woodworking tools that were in there already. Much of this was the usual makerspace gear: 3D printers, soldering irons, and the like. But, more importantly, we began right away to encourage the students to make the space their own (you can see paintings the students made of themselves on the walls), and to start using the space to work on projects that were interesting and exciting to them. As Leah Buechley has deftly pointed out, far too many of the media images of who makers are and what kinds of projects they do are focused on white males. But that’s not who hangs out in Nedlam’s Workshop. Our most common participant is a Haitian female who immigrated within the past few years. We want to understand what kinds of projects are appealing to students like that. We started with a loosely structured afterschool program so that we could understand what making could and should be for our diverse student body.

    Once we started getting some momentum and understanding of the kids, we launched a new for-credit in-school elective course. The elective, which began in late January, is much more structured than the after school program. We have gone through several increasingly open-ended cycles of creative design and engineering. We began with investigation into what kinds of paper airplanes fly best. Then we opened things up a bit more: We had heard a lot from students during after school that they worried about how to charge their phones at school without risk of theft. So the next project the students worked on was how to design and build systems to charge their phones while protecting them from theft. Students are currently working on their final projects: they observed and interviewed people in different spaces in the school and in their homes to find places where people had problems and now are working on building solutions to those problems. Well, most of them are: a few are working on building things that they just think are cool (e.g., Daft Punk style helmets).

    We are learning a lot from the students, and from our conversations with one another. Our team is really diverse. We have a former high school teacher, artists, and engineers on our project team, and often have quite different ideas about how to respond to what we are seeing in the classroom. And our students are quite different from one another in their interests, personalities, and backgrounds. So different that thus far it is difficult to tease out general lessons about how to do maker inquiry in the classroom. So right now we are pretty focused on developing case studies of different students’ experiences and of the difficult choices we have made in running the course. This summer we will be working with a team of teachers from the school to co-design revisions of units they teach to incorporate this approach to making into their classes. We look forward to sharing the results of their work (lesson plans and teaching case studies) with the research community next year.

    Project 2: BlockyTalky (awards 1418463 and 1453201)
    I have two research projects investigating how new programmable toolkits can enable youth to learn about sophisticated contemporary computing ideas.

    In the WeJam project (1418463) we are studying how designing, building, and performing with physical computer music instruments can enable youth to learn about parallelism and concurrency. T

    In my CAREER (1453201) we are beginning to investigate how building a broader set of networked devices (e.g., tools with which to interact with your pets when you are away from home) can enable kids to learn about networking, distributed systems, and other contemporary computing topics.

    A big part of both of these projects is creating BlockyTalky, a new toolkit for networked physical computing. BlockyTalky builds on others’ prior work showing how physical computing can excite kids about learning computer programming and electronics. I’m referring here to Leah Buechley and Yasmin Kafai’s work with e-textiles, by Paulo Blikstein and others with the GoGo Board and Arduino, and Amon Milner on combining the cricket with Scratch. One strong strand of all of their work is that physical computing toolkits can motivate participation and persistence by youth from populations (e.g., girls and African-Americans) that are dramatically under-represented in computing.

    However, BlockyTalky differs from these toolkits in some fairly sharp ways: the first is that it’s designed to fit naturally into the many networked ways in which we use computers today. LEGO Mindstorms, Arduino, and other popular physical computing toolkits are artifacts of an era before the Internet was ubiquitous. They work well for projects that stand alone, but not for building projects that connect to the web, to mobile computing devices, and to social media. BlockyTalky makes it very easy for beginning programmers to create projects that do all of these things. The second is that BlockyTalk’s programming language is designed for ease of use, with careful choices about abstractions that are intended to connect to learners’ prior knowledge. For example, the operations and semantics of networked communication in BlockyTalky are identical to those of shouting at a friend across the room. In contrast, programming Arduino — which was never intended to be used by beginner programmers — can be surprisingly difficult: writing code to do things as simple as making a button control whether a light is blinking requires programming sophistication that decades of research (beginning with Soloway’s work on The Rainfall Problem from thirty years ago) shows is quite difficult for beginners. The third point of difference is the amount of effort we’ve put into finding ways to have BlockyTalky inter-operate with other educational or social media tools. We do this for two reasons: 1) because we want to investigate long-term learning trajectories wherein youth move between various technologies as they deepen their participation in computing. and 2) because we want to make it easy for kids to have their projects work together with other systems that they care about (e.g., to build an ambient interface to instagram). An example of this (which appears in the video) is that we’ve extended MIT App Inventor (a toolkit for kids to make their own Android apps) to speak the same network protocol as BlockyTalky. This makes is remarkably easy for youth to build mobile apps that communicate with networked physical computing devices that they build (e.g., to create a phone app that lets someone unlock their locker). The MIT team has been quite encouraging of our efforts, but all of the development work and work with kids has been done by Tufts students.

    We conducted a pilot study last summer of students using BlockyTalky to build and perform with their own computer music instruments. Two papers about that are currently under review. We will likely be conducting another iteration of BlockyTalky for computer music this summer.

    A Few Words About How These Projects Fit Together
    Students in Nedlam’s Workshop have a lot of freedom to choose what kinds of projects they work on and what tools they use for those projects. Some of the kids are using BlockyTalky, others are using App Inventor, some are combining the two, still others are using LEGO Mindstorms, and one is using Arduino. My grad student Matt Ahrens is planning to write a paper describing three students’ different experiences doing their projects with different tools, with a particular focus on how students’ deepening understandings of how to use their choice of tools shapes their project goals/scope over time (e.g., how discovering the difficulty of implementing a particular project feature leads students to cut out other features to free up time or, conversely, to abandon a time-consuming feature in favor of easier ones).

    We would love to get BlockyTalky and our extension to App Inventor out into the hands of lots of teachers and students. We still have a good amount of work to do to get things to a stable- and usable-enough state to do so. But my hope is that we will start hosting workshops for teachers by next Spring. Sooner might be possible for more adventurous users… so feel free to get in touch.

    Ok… that’s all for now.

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