Cultivating more fertile soil

I have never seen myself as a gifted math student. I have always thought that I am better with letters than numbers.

So when I recently found myself hungry for a math equation — and when the rush of discovering and understanding that math equation kept me up to the middle of the night — I knew something special was happening.

My week at NuVu

I spent the last week of June in Cambridge, MA at NuVu Studio attending a week-long professional development session for K-12 teachers. NuVu is an alternative school that takes an interdisciplinary approach to learning: instead of subjects and classes, students engage in two-week design challenges thematically arranged around topics. With the guidance of teachers, coaches, and industry professionals, students explore ideas, create amazing projects, and learn by doing. In some ways it makes me think of the STEAM program at my school on steroids.

I had finished reading Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom (you can see the similar themes already!) just before heading to Cambridge, which primed me to enter into my week at NuVu with the goal of answering one question: is the learn-by-doing approach capable of developing depth as much as it develops breadth in students? Put another way, would a student graduating from the NuVu experience be accepted into MIT like the PhDs who now run NuVu?

I discussed this question with the founders and got a few different responses. But my middle-of-the-night-math-equation experience turned out to be just the answer I needed. 

The project

During the session at NuVu, each teacher came up with his or her own “design studio” project. For my project I decided that I would pursue an idea I came up with a few months ago for a lamp. When I arrived at NuVu, two unfinished sketches were all I had:


The concept was centered around stackable light boxes. You would twist the top box to “turn on” the light and simultaneously create a spiral shape out of the stacked boxes below. The project was a perfect one for this week because, besides the concept and the electronics that would control the light, I had no idea how to begin.

The timeline

Monday: Learn about the Nuvu pedagogy and the tools available in the space.

The third iteration of my 3D mockup for the lamp

Tuesday’s work: the third iteration of my 3D mockup for the lamp

Tuesday: More introduction before lunch. Create my first 3D CAD model after lunch. Discuss the concept with teachers, get enough guidance to spend Tuesday night researching car transmissions and planetary gears.

Wednesday: Adapt my 3D model into a 2D design and try out the laser cutter for the first time. Create a proof-of-concept that the electronics and LED lights would work too. At the end of the day on Wednesday I tried to assemble a prototype and it failed. In the middle of the night on Wednesday I discovered my equation. (That’s the important part. More on that in a moment.)

Thursday: New prototype, new design choices, new materials. By the end of the day on Thursday I had a bare bones proof-of-concept.

Friday: Instead of polishing a “finished” product (I knew I was far from being finished!), I listened to the founder of NuVu and his mentors discuss creativity at a conference hosted at the MIT Media Lab. I reflected on the week and I planned for the future.

The tools

Laser cutter. 3D modeling software. Dremel. Arduino. Electrical components. Drill press. MacBook Pro. Lots of free software. Digital calipers. Did I say laser cutter?

The learning

When I read books/ blogs/ articles that are riding the wave of fab labs and 3D printers in education, I sometimes worry about how easy it is to blur the line between the tools and the learning. (And I get that. A laser cutter really is as cool as it sounds! Who wouldn’t want to learn how to use one?) But as I step back, I can clearly see that I learned more than how to use a new set of tools: I learned how to work with my hands and how to design, diagram, and build physical objects that week; I learned about how transistors and relays work and how software drivers physically interact with hardware; I learned about gear ratios and how to calculate the number and size of teeth in planetary gears. Physics, computer science, woodworking, design, engineering, math. I have always been comfortable with letters and bits, but during my week at NuVu I was deeply invested in working with numbers and atoms.

The soil and the plant

Although I spent the bulk of my time working on the lamp project, I knew the whole time that it was only secondary: the project was rich soil for the learning that grew out of my week.

The hardest part of the lamp project was determining how each light box would rotate (each at its own rate, dependent on the rotation of the top box). My teachers supported me but still I struggled to understand the relationship between the number, size, and spacing of the teeth in the gears of each of the light boxes. That struggle motivated me to do hours and hours of research on Tuesday and Wednesday evening. I was desperate for an equation and when I found it, it seemed elegant and simple. I have never had that experience before with math. But even then my hours of research weren’t enough: I continued to be restless on Wednesday night and at one point I got out of bed, scrambled for a pen, and checked my work, worried that I had miscalculated something.

And that was the answer to the question I was asking that week. How can students gain depth of expertise in this kind of multidisciplinary learning environment? When I got out of bed in the middle of the night to check my work, I understood the answer in a new way: context and motivation were my most valuable resources; information was cheap. In just 3.5 days of working on the lamp, my relationship with math changed. And if I had more time for another iteration I would have gone deeper into the physics of the project too. (I’d like to address the friction and ease of spinning the top light box, and maybe explore redesigning the lamp to be able to hang from the ceiling as well.)

I have no doubts about the quality of my learning experience in this model or its ability to develop real depth of understanding in its students. If we are moving to an educational paradigm that follows an agricultural model rather than an industrial model, my week at NuVu has helped me focus on cultivating more fertile ground in which my students can learn. Looking back on my week, I see this quote from the perspective of my experience as a student at NuVu:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Where to go next?

Looking ahead, it might be worth sharing two places where I can see the experiences of my week going next:

  1. Will it blend? I’m not wild about defining “blended learning” as a mix of online and in-person lessons. Instead of focusing on the delivery mechanism, I think it might be exciting to try blending instructivist and constructivist pedagogies and allow the internet and computers to fill in where appropriate. (Recently I’ve been amazed to check out some of the graphs that Khan Academy is sharing while tuning their artificial intelligence algorithms. You don’t have to geek out about this stuff like I do or understand the details to be amazed by how they are trying to balance challenge and engagement to maximize “learning efficiency” for millions of students.) For example, I know that I would have been thrilled to have a digital personal trainer support me through my evening research-and-study sessions during my week in Cambridge. And hey — by the end of it, I would have been willing to create new online lessons to offer to the next person who wants to learn about how planetary gears work too.
  2. Anyone want to buy a lamp? On the last day of the session, the founder of NuVu thought it would be fun for us to continue working on my lamp project remotely. His idea: what if we can push through a few more iterations of prototypes then crowdsource a real production of the lamp on Kickstarter. What a thrilling idea! I have been working on resizing the design to fit more comfortably as a desk lamp, and I’m trying to get my hands on a laser cutter in Philadelphia to test it out. Anyone out there want to buy a lamp?

10 thoughts on “Cultivating more fertile soil

  1. This is wonderful – changing the way to think about everything we teach. Makes me think even about language learning and my experience with Hebrew this summer. I am learning in a way that I never teach, really based on a longing to read the text in its original. The experience of the actual language acquisition is completely different and completely grounded in context.

  2. …and I can’t wait to support a teacher who will lead his students to “…long for the endless immensity of the sea.” This is very cool stuff, BC.

  3. What a great account of your week at NuVu! Upon returning, I said to many of my friends that it wasn’t about the actual “thing” that we made during the week, but the experience — the melding of disciplines and the learning and application of new skills. (Although, on Monday I received my EL panels and battery packs from David and am eager to finish my jeans!) My first day home, I ordered the Make Electronic kit, instruction booklet and a beginner’s guide to Arduino. In the way that you found yourself longing to understand math, I am consumed with being able to understand the Arduino — which includes the programming and electronics components, as well. My family has wondered what they did to my brain in Boston. 🙂 It was refreshing to work on a creative project that was so consuming that I didn’t think about taking a break to eat and didn’t want to leave at the end of the day. That is the experience and environment I want to learn to create for students.

    I also started reading Invent to Learn last week after seeing it on an educators’ “must read” list — and I concur.

    I hope your weekend in Florida went well and that the Steam Net app is on it’s way to production!

    • Thanks for reading, Susan. It’s great to hear from you! Yes — I think we were all riding the same wavelength that week. We have quite the challenge before us to make experiences like that possible for our students, don’t we?
      Keep in touch!

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