Teachers build robots at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium

The robots they built didn’t look like the face in the picture, but 20 Illinois teachers built robots that had many talents of their own during a one-week workshop at the Shedd Aquarium last month, this Aug. 10 story by The Associated Press reports.

Sindy Main, a science teacher at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Freeport, told the AP that going to the workshop would not only be a learning experience for her, but a great way to design something for the classroom to help students get excited about science: Now that she and her colleagues built their own robot, they “hope to hold a class where students get to learn about building a robot,” the AP quoted her as saying.

Teachers attending the workshop were able to maneuver the robot around a shipwreck in Lake Michigan, tilting the robot in all different directions, scooping up some trash that it could see, and it all sounds like a lot of fun.

Of course, you have to know something about how the process of science works (testing hypotheses, evaluating results) and about problem solving as a team just to get the robot to work. Main said she hopes to use these learning strategies in class:

This experience of building a robot was a lot of problem solving—it’s totally science and we need to get kids to be excited about engineering technology. Now we have a model for our kids to go by. As a science teacher, I know the kids will love it. They will learn math, how buoyancy works, science methods, and trial and error.

Actually, it’s a model for kids to learn by

Those of us who study learning have known for some time that kids who grew up in the digital age don’t learn the same way anymore: the lecture model, where kids are expected to focus on one topic for 45 minutes, doesn’t stick. Instead, kids are wired to process multiple streams of information at once. To many people, texting while talking while working on algebra homework might look like they can’t pay attention or can’t focus, but that may not be entirely accurate in all cases.

Most high-level managers in today’s workplace have attention spans of between 30 seconds and five minutes as well. This rapid “context shifting” is actually learning. What’s going on is the learners are piecing together a bit from here, a scrap of knowledge from there, a piece of data from another place, and putting it all together in their mind to build something they think is important.

In the case of this robot workshop, teachers built a robot, a concrete product that resulted from putting together bits and pieces of information from many different sources and engineering something they think is important. They learned by doing, by applying new information they gained. This robot-building exercise can be seen as a model of bricolage, and these teachers can be understood to be honing their skills as bricoleurs, 21st-century problem solvers, scientists, engineers, and just plain digital-literate citizens.

Old-school Judgment with a Digital Twist

One of the biggest skills involving digital literacy these days is judgment. The problem isn’t that good information isn’t out there; the problem is it’s mixed in with all the bad information. There’s plenty of both on the Web.

Therefore, since kids learn by discovery—by surfing around various channels being broadcast and taking what they need to complete a current task that’s important to them—where we need to focus is on judging the quality of information.

The old library sciences guidelines are a start:

Authority of any resource is the first step towards quality. Determining the authority will help you decide if Web sites are worth your time, a waste of time, or something in between. The author of any piece is listed, along with contact information and qualifications for the author and sponsoring organization.

Next, accuracy of information you use naturally leads to accuracy in your own projects. Sources are listed to back up any factual information. The Web site looks professional and the information is presented clearly, generally free of grammatical errors, certainly free of spelling errors. Charts or graphs are appropriate, clearly labeled, and cited where necessary.

Third, is the information current? Whether you are searching for information from last week or last century, finding the dates when information was created or posted is essential. Dates are shown for when information was written and posted. If required, the date of last update should also be shown. The page contains no dead hyperlinks. The text provides sufficient context for you to determine a time frame for the information.

Coverage. Good Web sites will make it possible for you to find what you need quickly. They usually provide a search bar or site map. They compare well to other sites or resources on the same topic. Hyperlinks are relevant to the information, and all information is available without needing new software or paying a fee.

Finally, is the information objective? While some situations call for an opinion, unbiased information is what you usually need when doing “discovery.” Kids need to be able to weed out information that is skewed or has a hidden agenda. Intended audience is easily determined and relevant to your needs. Information is clearly separated from advertisements (Voxitatis is ad-free, but unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most sources of information, since somebody’s got to pay the bills). Note if the topic of your search is typically controversial or often debated, and be aware if you are on a personal page, blog, or editorial section.

Translating This for Discovery Learning

In many cases, information is useful that fails some of the above tests. For example, Wikipedia is often accurate, providing thorough coverage, but not authoritative. Fox News is sometimes current but not objective. A university professor might post something that is authoritative (and possibly accurate) but not objective or current.

The key today is navigating all the information in a useful time frame in order to reinforce what you’re doing. If you can figure out which aspects of the information help you decide how useful it is for the particular task in front of you, your brain can successfully weed out the bad info and sponge up the good info. Then you can apply it to accomplish a current project or task. That’s how you build successful 21st-century learning.

We are publicly inviting any science teacher to blog, on our Answer Maryland site, about a classroom robot-building project if he or she would like to have server space to document the learning that took place. It’s not an attempt to create a site about “how to build a robot” or about physics or even science. Rather, it would be a blog documenting the trials and errors of the robot-building process in a classroom. Send me an email if you might be interested.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.