Dissecting Toasters

A problem:

We’re surrounded by machines made by human brilliance, but we don’t experience them as brilliant — we experience them as alien and inhuman and infuriating.

But machinery is wonderful. It can be understood perfectly, and exploring machinery can be exhiliarating, and wonder-provoking.

Outside of shop class, schools don’t do much of this.

Our basic plan:

  1. Once a month, each of our classes will pick a technology — toasters, for example.
  2. They’ll make a prediction as to how the device works, and write those down (perhaps publicly, on our chalk wall.)
  3. The students will try to figure out how it works: they’ll shake it, draw it, bang on it, dissect it, and probe it with questions.
  4. Those questions that elude even the class’s best attempts to answer, the teacher may prepare a lesson on.
  5. They’ll try to re-assemble it. They might even try to build another one, from spare parts.

Through this, we hope to...

  • Help students understand how the world around them works.
  • Develop a habit of thinking: how do things work?
  • Nurture a (true) conviction that our students can understand anything technical they put their minds to.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

If you enter one of our classrooms, you might spy a student pressing gently on a toaster’s exposed spring coils with a pencil, to see how they work. You might also stumble upon students arguing over how something works.

Some specific questions:

  • How do we, erm, prevent kids from wounding themselves? Machines can hurt. How do we want to handle safety?