Spark Truck Shares Design Skills

Source: Wired, Nov 2012

When Eugene Korsunskiy and seven of his fellow students from Stanford University’s set out to tour the nation in a brightly painted truck full of laser cutters and rapid prototyping machines, they thought they were bringing a chance to play with high-tech maker tools to school kids who hadn’t had one yet.

And they were: SparkTruck, the educational make-mobile, made 73 stops this summer, treating 2,679 elementary and middle school students to hands-on workshops covering the basics of electrical engineering and digital fabrication, and giving a chance to make cool stuff in the process, like small robotic creatures and laser-cut rubber stamps.

The most rewarding part of the trip wasn’t introducing the kids to new technologies. Instead it was something far more basic: watching them struggle with design problems.

… “Somewhere in each activity, we wanted the kids to get stuck, physically or mentally,” he said.

The point wasn’t to torture children, but to force them to work through an open-ended problem on their own.

Some teachers were skeptical. “One teacher told us, ‘My students are so conditioned to thinking that I’ll give them the right answers,’” Korsunskiy said. She didn’t think the group’s approach, which Korsunskiy summarized as “giving [kids] the space but not giving them the answers,” would work.

Presented with a design problem, students would get stuck — and as the teacher predicted, they would come to the facilitators and ask, ‘How do I do this?’ They would beg, plead, and get frustrated. The SparkTruck team would withhold answers, instead asking a kid with, for example, no idea how to keep her robot from falling over, ‘How do you think it cold be done?’

Eventually, the hard-nosed approach paid off. “After an interaction like that, you see a gear shift in [a kid’s] head,” said Korsunskiy. “Once you make it clear that you’re not there to provide the answer, they completely rise to the challenge.”

Design lessons, Korsunisky noted, are based around creative problem-solving. They’re not about memorizing right answers but about developing critical thinking skills, learning to work through problems in a repeated process of brainstorming, testing solutions, and going back to the drawing board. In short, this kind of education builds the very skills of perseverance and intellectual independence that parents, teachers, and social critics say that American children have in short supply.

For Korsunskiy, watching students hit a wall — and then figure out a way over (or around) it — was the most rewarding part of the SparkTruck experience.


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