Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Garbage Warrior

I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior this week. It is about architect Michael Reynolds who builds "earthships" in the New Mexico desert. These homes are built from used tires and pop bottles. They are completely self-sufficient with their own power, water source, heating and sewer systems. The movie documents his beginnings and his fights with government regulations to allow him to continue his work.
He started by constructing experimental buildings with trial and error experiments. Not everything worked correctly at first.

You can sense his passion for his early work:
"We couldn't worry about what it would look like we just wanted it to work. Everything was striking intense the whole time. People would come out here and they never wanted to leave. It was a time of magic."

But as he started to become known the local government sought to shut him down for his unorthodox methods. One of his workers/friend said:
"The powers that be in the architectural world, and in the planning world,can't see any other way than the way that got established. There is only one way to be an architect."

Shauna Malloy, Attorney for the State Architects Board says,"Standardized design in construction is so important because it means safety."

There are many parallels to education in this film. The government regulators and politicians could only see the way things have always been done. Architects (educators and students) must do things the way that they have always been done according to the codes (core standards) and must have inspectors check that they meet "standards."  Even most of the vocabulary is exactly the same!

So he was shut down by the local government for a few years. He then worked for years and became a legal subdivision. He was now legal but not happy:

"For a period of time there I was not exploring, I was not evolving.I was taking what I had learned to that date and keying it in to convention as clearly and legally and straight forward as I could to try and not make any waves. Just do something that they could relate to for a few years and get stable with the powers that be."

His wife says,
"We lost this ability to dream an idea and do it the next day."

His friend adds,
"He lost the right to experiment and create new buildings and innovations on the buildings.You got to be able to make mistakes. Otherwise you never evolve housing type. So that's what the rest of the country is. They're still stuck in the same housing as they were in World War II or World War I. It's the same exact housing. Everybody's so stressed about getting sued for a single mistake that there is no evolution of design."

"I had lost the freedom to fail."

Sometimes we need to reject the "safety" of standardization to challenge students to be creative. In order to make new designs architects (educators) and builders (students) need to work hand in hand to creatively experiment with new ideas. And yes, failure is part of the process. But when Michael was forced to bow to the codes (standardized curriculum), he lost his passion and creativity. How many students can not find their passion or creativity at school because of restrictive, standardized tests and curriculum? How many students sit and listen to traditional architects who design the same way that has been done for years creating bland sub divisions that all look the same? I think students would much rather take some risks with a lead learner like Mike Reynolds who is modeling his learning with his "students."

It is also obvious in the film the sense of community among Reynolds workers. They are closer than family. Another intangible (not testable) trait that we desire to teach our students.

So Reynolds tries to get the state to pass a law creating a space for experimental housing without building codes. It fails because of politics. After the tsunami in 2004, he and his team head to an island in India to teach them how to build earthships that are cheap and reliable.

Michael in India after tsunami:
"They whole heartedly jumped on the fact that this may be a way to keep them  cool and get them shelter and get them water and treat sewage.  There were no barriers. You go to a situation that's been devastated and the barriers are gone."

"When you see how open people are immediately after a disaster. There is a real difference in the people and the opportunity here and the people and opportunity in the West."

I think many (but not all!) of the most creative education ideas are happening outside of regular public schools. They are happening in charters, private schools, and international schools. These schools have less restrictions and more opportunity to experiment and yes fail at times. I hope that public schools in the USA will be given the freedom and will move to creative environments before an educational tsunami hits.

PS: Thanks to Shelly Blake Plock aka TeachPaperless for recommending the movie many moons ago.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

End of keyboards and typing class?

This app is not new, but it is new to me. I just got the free download for Swype on my Droid. Now I do not even have a plan for texting because my fingers are so big that I never text. It is difficult for me to just type tweets on my phone. So when I tried this I thought it was great. It does not require precision, but works great! Check out the video to see how it works:

Now my thoughts quickly returned to my senior year in high school when I took one semester of typing class. I learned the basics and could only type around 25 words/minute. It was a year long class but I dropped it second semester to take weightlifting instead. My typing teacher was not happy with me, but I figured I could always practice more on my own time. Turns out maybe I won't need typing skills at all soon.

I know typing is now taught in elementary schools, but will we get to a point where traditional keyboards are obsolete? With the love being given to the Ipad how long is it before all keyboards are virtual, and programs like Swype are so much better than typing. Of course what I need is a reliable speech to text app.

So are we wasting time in elementary school teaching typing? Schools of course will be the last to notice as they are still worried about teaching cursive.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Girls in Technology

I just finished a nine-week, 7th grade technology class. It was a great bunch of kids. They experimented with straw rockets, constructed polygons in Geometer's Sketchpad,made pneumatic-powered devices, created egg drop vehicles, experimented with Lego Robotics, designed with Building Homes of Our Own, and ended with a GPS unit.

Often times my tech. classes are dominated by boys, but this class was about 50/50. In particular I had a group of girls who are model students as far as behavior and honor roll grades. They did every assignment with great attitudes. But when I asked the students at the end of the quarter about what their favorite and least favorite part of the class was,they did not like anything that we did. I got lots of "boring" comments. Now some of this could be chalked up to the end of the year, I just want to be out of here feelings, but it does bother me that my class seems to be loved by boys and only tolerated by girls. This is not the first time that I have received this kind of feedback from female students.

So what can I do differently? How can I get more girls (there are some who like my class) excited about technology, science, and engineering? Do I need a different kind of project or a different approach to my current ones?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Geocaching and graphing

I did a mini-unit with my 7th grade technology class this week using GPS devices. First we reviewed latitude and longitude and I went over how to use the devices. I have a set of 12 low end Magellan GPS units so the students worked in pairs. Then we went outside and I made sure everyone had signal and that the units were working properly. I then had the students walk around our parking lot and write down the seconds of the coordinates every 10 feet or so in this table. We only wrote down the seconds because it was a small enough area that the minutes and degrees never changed.

The next day the students typed the seconds into two columns in Excel and made a line graph. If they did a careful job the graphs turned out very realistic. If their graphs looked bad it was usually from one or two points being way off. We "fixed" the numbers by changing them to numbers nearby for a best fit, and the graphs looked much better. In the past I had students map out the perimeter of our school. This did not work as well because the building blocked signal from the satellites and we got inaccurate readings.

The third day (our last real day of class) I hide a couple of pieces of candy in 10-12 spots around the school grounds. I had students bring out a pencil, paper, clipboard, and their GPS. After everyone's device had a good signal I gave them one set of coordinates and they took off to find the loot. It is important to only give one set of coordinates at a time otherwise some students run ahead and find all of the caches before everyone else (previous years experience). After someone found one I would give everyone the next set of coordinates. The kids had fun and if I would have had more time it could be tied even more into graphing on the coordinate plane.

In previous years I have taken students on a "walking field trip" and we left school property to find some real caches in our neighborhood. That was a lot of fun also, but required me to get permission slips which I did not feel like dealing with this late in the year. Local caches are easy to find at  Sign up for a free account and you can search for them. I also like to use this site to show students how far apart degrees are and what confluence is.

One other mini discussion we have is how a GPS works. I ask them if they think a GPS sends a signal, receives signals, or both. Most of them think both, but actually they only receive a time stamp from satellites. Then the device uses the difference in time to compute distance. The distance from different satellites make intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram to narrow down the location. After a unit gets signals from at least four satellites it will track in 3D.

All in all my GPS unit was fun and students learned some real world math skills. Geocaching also encourages exercise through walking and biking. (my students were running to find the candy). If you can get some higher quality GPS units you can upload and download maps to use with them and study terrain and lots of other social studies topics. It was a great way to end the school year.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Landscape class

We are wrapping up our landscape class. Come check out the slide show of our pour on our class blog and give the students some more dots on our clustrmap.