Innovators and Explorers Sandbox

Introducing a style of classroom experience that’s extremely different than what you are used to reading about.
Warning: What you are about to read is different, out-of-the-box, 100% student-centered, innovative, creative, and does not have any reference to multiple choice testing….continue on at your own risk but I warn you…you may just find yourself wanting more of this style of learning in our educational systems.

Phil Zaubi (our IT Director and fellow teacher) and I have been sharing the responsibility of teaching our 12th grade Computer Science course. These are students who are in the 4th year of our 4-year program, so this is their last year with us. The year has been a combination of capstone experiences, projects, and real world experiences. Over the last 3 or 4 years of teaching the class, while it has been a good experience for our kids, we always felt like something was missing. Well, I think we found it.

Thanks to a working lunch at a Mexican restaurant where the stars aligned and the brainstorming came together, Phil and I put something together called “The Innovators and Explorers Sandbox”.

andersonThroughout our program, at the end of each semester, students complete a rather lengthy and thorough evaluation of all the projects, assignments, and overall experience of the class. Sometimes that is in video format, audio format, or just text based. But, the one thing that seemed to always come to the surface was that students craved the experience of working on a project without all the requirements and “rules” of a graded project. But I was not able to figure out how to implement that into a hard core Computer Science curriculum and yet maintain the rigor of an honors or dual-credit level class. Until now.

After spending the entire first semester learning Object Oriented Programming with Java, they had a culminating project which took about 7 weeks: the complete game of Monopoly. The project included 5 java classes and was massive: Every possible Computer Science concept and skill is required to complete the project. It may have been the most challenging thing we’ve done in 4 years: hence, there was a need to open it up some and let them spread their wings.

Enter the Sandbox: We listed every technology, language, and programming/design environment that we had access to (or had in the closet), plus some that we knew existed “out there”. Then we asked students to consider their dream challenge. They are going to choose any technology they want, plan how they are going to learn that, propose how they will be evaluated, and not have any fear of failure. No homework assignments to distract. No pop quizzes. No tests. “…WHAT? Are you serious? You gave the kids the freedom to just explore on their own? Are you crazy? No one does that! They have to be evaluated with a quiz or reading check! Do it now! This will NEVER work. Please stop this nonsense. This can never succeed. Students will never be able to learn like that, much less at the level you are expecting. You have finally gone too far out of the box. What about the even problems at the back of the chapter? How will we evaluate this with a bubble on a standardized test?….”

Right?

Wrong.

joe leapLet me start by saying, for me as a teacher, it has been one of the most enjoyable, satisfying risks I’ve done in a while. Expectations of class are still high. Rigor is still there. Passion is still high. Student learning is still central to class. And every student is making progress.
Let me start by sharing with you some of the technologies that they are working with:face
o Face Recognition with Kinect sensor
o Multiple Skeleton recognition using Kinect Sensor
o NeuroSky Mindwave brain wave detector using C++
o IOS Programming using XCode using Objective C
o Unity 3D environment creation and scripting using C#
o HTML5 and CSS
o Android App Development using mobile Java
o Drone helicopter control using Node.JS
o Gesture interpretation using LEAP sensor
o Skeletal and Voice Recognition using Kinect Sensor
o Maya 3D modeling and avatar skeletal and joint rigging
o AutoDesk and ShipConstructor ship modeling and design
o Oculus Rift and Unity integration
o Arduino breadboard with Processing
o Fusion & Kinect Sensor to scan and model real life 3D objects
o Network server , client, and switch configuration

shipHow did we set it up the project? Well, we started with a fictitious, yet real scenario that these kids will face at some point in their educational or work career. They go into office and your boss says, hey (you) …we just found out that we were selected to complete this project and it is crucial that we do it right. We’ve never seen this technology or software, so we are not sure how it works. Figure it out. Use whatever resources you need to. No excuses. Deadline is in 7 weeks. Go.

We felt strongly that we communicated that as they choose their project, we made it CLEAR that: as long as they are working hard, trying, and making conceptual and skill progress, there is no way to fail. In other words, take a risk to try something crazy and out of the box without the fear of the grade. Work hard every day in class, research as needed, experiment, explore, ask questions, work with peers, and use your resources. Hmmmm…those also seem to be the skills that would help someone be successful in the real world outside of school. Interesting.

Students spent 3 days researching their technology and also the resources available to help them learn this. This would be a project where the learning itself, and even finding the medium through which they would learn, even the evaluation, falls 100% on the shoulders of the student. Then they submit a formal proposal to the teacher for approval.
droneHere is what each student submitted to the teacher for approval:
• Describe what technology you will explore. What is it? Where/how is it used?
• Why did you pick this and what is your connection with this? Why learn this technology?
• What is your goal of learning this technology in the next 7 weeks?
• Briefly discuss the long term value for learning this type of technology. What field,major, industry would have value for the skills learned in learning this technology?
• How will you learn about this technology/language? Identify at least 2 specific ways. No generalities–be specific with book titles, url links, blog url, people names, etc
• What software needs to be installed? What is the URL to get it? Have you already downloaded it?
• What hardware needs to be bought? What is the URL for where it can be bought? Have you already arranged to have it ordered?
• Describe if you are thinking you will do a major project, series of small projects, demonstration of skill, etc for your “final project” you are working towards.
• This project will involve a great deal of thought/energy/frustration/willingness to explore/effort. Are you willing to put forth what is needed to really learn this technology/language/environment at the level expected?

kinectparabolaOk, this sounds nice, but there has be some type of accountability, right? Of course there is. In a project like this, the final outcome is the learning itself, not what is produced with the project. So, it is crucial that if they identify what is important—then that is what we evaluate. So, each week, the students complete a BLOG post 200-300 words where they communicate the new concepts and skills that they have learned since the last week. They specifically identify the progress that they made since last week. They reflect on the challenges, successes, and the failures—the ones that they conquered as well as the ones they are still struggling with.

About 3 times throughout the project, each student sits with the teacher for about 10 minutes for a “project review” where they show us the progress, we ask them specifics about what they have been learning, and they communicate their progress. That is how they earn their “grade”. Some students have decided to work on a specific project, while others are simply taking advantage of the time just to learn the technology.

What was the experience like for the students? What were they actually able to accomplish and learn? Well, certainly we have had every part of the spectrum. Some students have gone far past even our highest expectations. Some of the students learning IOS, LEAP, website design, Unity and Maya 3D modeling had early successes as their strategies for learning proved to be very effective! We have seen tremendous learning, as well as tremendous progress in advancing into much higher skillsets. For others choosing more risky and leading edge technologies, there have been challenges from the get-go. It took the students using the Mindwave brainwave detector a couple weeks to actually be able to pull data from the sensors…but…YES!!! Finally!… they did it and are working on interpreting, displaying, and analyzing that data using code. The Face recognition and Drone folks have had most difficult time just trying to connect and communicate with their technology. We have seen numerous mini-successes, but have made our progress by failing, learning from those failures, finding new sources of knowledge and learning, and making small , but crucial steps, forward. I am so excited for the Face Recognition students because they have just identified some code which should allow them to see their efforts come to life. Literally, they found a couple lines of C# that have eluded them for 3 weeks. And Michael is making great strides with the drone helicopter. Very exciting

We also felt strongly that there be a “research” component (similar to the IB program, but not at long or complex) where students explore their technology in the real world. What colleges offer degrees related to it, what jobs are available involving it, what are some possible future uses for it, what industries might develop uses for it, and even to describe the “dream” job that involves the technology: Where would they be, what problems would they be solving? Who would benefit from solution developed using the technology? The medium for this part is the creation of a video where they speak freely, but use the guiding questions to steer their thoughts

This “Sandbox” project is a 7 week project and will conclude with 2 1/2 days of Pecha-Kucha style of presentations to the class. Each student will be given 10 slides, each slide is on the screen for 20 seconds and automatically advances. They will briefly describe each slide, but are very limited in their words. The presentation itself, as well as the content and preparation, will be evaluated. All presentations are recorded. There is a peer evaluation rubric that each student submits for each presentation as well as rubric for the teachers to evaluate during the presentations.(We’ve got about 2 weeks left and we’ll be doing the presentations after that, so I’ll have to re-post this with afterthoughts of the final presentations.)

Things I have learned about the project: While there is value in students finding their own best learning tools, they also will not have a way to evaluate until they actually get into it. I might suggest 1 video tutorial, 1 text based screenshot tutorial, a couple developer websites, and even 1 book that each kid submits in the initial proposal. How long are you willing to let students fail before stepping in to help? Some students are extremely resourceful, some not as much. How much help will you give? How much will you be involved is software installation and hardware purchase? How much outside of class work will you expect. Students must be vested in the project and engaged in the class; they have to want to learn. This is about as different of an educational experience as the students have probably had, so you may have to help them learn like this…with their own interest and natural curiousity guiding the way. In fact, you have to keep on them. That rigor will be there if the expectation is there and they know that. Overall , we’ve had no major issues with motivation; sure you have an occasional Friday afternoon class that may not quite be as focused as you hoped, but all-in-all because we did the legwork to set it up, we’ve seen exactly what we hoped for—and YES…this is something that we will be making an integral part of our 12th grade year from now on.

Most importantly, you have to be able to step back and let learning happen, even through failure and struggle. I know our natural teacher impulse in to ride in and help (and even I admit I did on occasion), but we have to willing to just let learning happen. And it will.

There is a different way to approach education.If something I said, you read, you saw, or heard make sense to you, we should connect.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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