A School for Engineering (part 2 of 2)

Behold the simple lightbulb

How Our School Might Do This

1. We go slow; we go deep.

Slow learning is key here. Here's what I'll propose — I invite comments to make this better!

Every 2 weeks, we pick a single, human-made object — a computer mouse, a refrigerator, a coffee maker, a lightbulb. (Students might propose these objects, and the teacher might pick which one is most appropriate for the class.)

These should be things that kids can get their hands on (think "camera," not "septic systems").

The kids begins by asking honest questions, which the teacher writes down in a public place. If the kids were exploring a toaster, their questions might include:

Why does the inside glow red? How does the toaster know to push the bread up at the right time?

The teacher resists the urge to give answers at first. She (or he) lets the kids spend time asking these questions, and mulling over answers themselves.

She recognizes that the simple answers that come to most adult's minds — "electricity!" "a timer!" aren't likely to really be answers, but merely labels for the complex, fascinating real answers.

To answer that "electricity" makes the coils glow red isn't saying anything. It's just pasting a label on our ignorance. To answer that "a timer" makes the bread push up at the right time isn't really saying anything. It's just pasting a label on our ignorance.

We want to achieve real understanding in our school — not just the memorization of names.

After the students sit in their questions for a while...


2. The teacher dives into research.

She (or he) reads books. She visits web pages. She contacts clever people in the community. She keeps track of what she understands, and notes the things she doesn't understand.

She falls a little in love with the mechanical object, and the human ingenuity it took to devise it.

She becomes a somewhat-expert on this topic — at least insofar as her students are concerned.


3. The class has an (extended) conversation.

The learning isn't a lecture, it's a conversation. The teacher shares some of the things she's learned, in that wonderful way that doesn't shut down more questions, but rather invites them.

She uses metaphors. She tells stories. She gets them to imagine what the inside of the toaster would look like if the students were 1 millimeter tall — or if they were as small as a speck of dust.

This happens a little every day, over the course of two weeks.

As they talk, and as everyone gets more deeply into the subject, the students ask more questions. For example:

What don't the coils burn? Why don't they glow white, like a lightbulb? What is "electricity," anyway? Where does it come from? Where did electricity come from in the first place?

Formulating these questions will take kids into thinking about photons and electrons, into thinking about the whole power grid, about the conservation of energy and about the Sun's energy, and perhaps about the origin of energy in the Big Bang.

Asking these questions will take kids miles further into real scientific understanding than most schools give grade schoolers — and maybe high schoolers.

From these questions come real scientific interest and understanding — and for all kids, not just a select few.


4. We learn with our minds — and our hands.

Whenever possible, students should be able to hold, prod, and shake the objects they're learning about. If a class is talking about toasters, it should have a couple in class (preferably bought cheap, at rummage sales).

Kids should learn to handle them — safely. Ideally, we should have some that are sliced open, exposing the guts for the students to examine.


5. We expose our ignorance.

It's not just fine to admit to kids that we don't understand some of these things — it's crucial.

Epistemic humility — acknowledging when we don't know the answer — is the beginning of wisdom. It may also be the beginning of genius.

As physicist Brian Greene writes in The Elegant Universe:

Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.

6. Revisit the topics.

Most schools hold back on teaching the real story of things like electricity until the kids are "ready" for it. (Usually, this'll come in high school physics.)

But this is silly — and educationally disastrous. When we try to teach complex things (like electricity) all at once, we create mere poser-knowledge. We get students who can get A's on tests, but who don't know how electricity actually works — and who don't know that they don't know.

A much better route is to start exploring these phenomena when children are young, and let them rest in the mysteries of their non-understanding — learning, meanwhile, something real. As educational psychologist Jerome Bruner famously (and infamously) wrote:

any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

The core topics — mass, electricity, heat, momentum, chemical transformations and so one — will pop up again and again. Reality is a natural "spiral" curriculum. 

And rich, complex understanding will come. Through the subsequent months and years, periodic insights will come, unforced. Through conversations, kids will make breakthroughs — mostly small, and sometimes big.


7. We weave engineering into the rest of the curriculum.

Mechanics is, of course, science. It's also history: what are the stories behind these inventions? how did these inventions change the world?

If technology is history, then it's also reading. And it can be art, too — drawing can be a means of understanding. One has to pay attention — pay exquisite attention — to draw.

And, by and by, our engineering curriculum will also intersect with math. Math explains reality in the most precise way.

Even before students actually use math formulas to make sense of mechanics, they'll be honing the mental habits that are all-important in deep mathematics: question-asking, seeking full understanding, considering competing explanations. Really, this can all be summed up by puzzle-unraveling. "Here is something you don't understand," we can tell students. "How might you try to get a grasp on it?"


8. We start early.

Earlier is better  — kindergarten, hopefully, and first grade at the latest. 

We need to start early, because what we're trying to form is a habit of thinking — a way of being in the world.

Lee, who sparked all this thinking in my mind, wrote:

Can you imagine what kinds of adults a civilization might have if they had spent 13 years looking at their world, thinking about it, and then actually inventing something to make it a little better?

(Lee, I'm paraphrasing you a bit here. Let me know if you'd like to change that quote.)


(A Note)

Students will differ. We shouldn't expect all students to fall in love with mechanics equally quickly, or equally deeply. People aren't blank slates, and some come into the world interested in technical things more than others.

I was pretty bored by technology as a kid, for example. I got the impression somewhere that smart kids were supposed to be fascinated in taking apart old TVs, and in putting together radios. I never was, and always felt a bit guilty. How foolish!

My four-year-old, in contrast, is obsessed by all things mechanical. He'll see a thicket of plants and ants and snakes, and comment on the rusting wrench that someone left lying there. I anticipate that when he watches the famous scene in Jurassic Park where the T-rex chases the Ford Explorer, he'll be more interested in the truck than the dinosaur. This is, frankly, weird to me, but so it goes.

That said, I'm confident that all kids — even technological innocents like me — can come to enjoy the imaginative unpacking of the technological world around them.


In brief:

We're surrounded by human creations we don't understand, and it hurts us. But schools can help all students come to comprehend, and enjoy, the world of mechanics/technology/engineering.

In our school, we'll go slowly, taking on only 2 mechanical object a month. Students will ask questions, and teachers will dive deep into learning, so as to engage in a rich conversation with the kids. Kids will actually touch, smell, and taste the things they're learning about. We'll identify the things we understand, and the things we don't — and seek to go deeper. We'll tie this into the rest of the curriculum, and start early, letting understanding build and become more complicated as kids move through school.

So now that this idea has been hatched — let's improve it. If you have an idea for how we could make this engineering curriculum better — a book we should read, or a website, or someone we should talk to — let us know. If you know of anyone who's doing something like this already — or who is doing a totally different (but excellent) early-grades mechanics curriculum — please let us know!