“We Want a Tech Club!”
by Nick Song & Raadiyah Nazeem
“We want a tech club!” was a common phrase expressed to us from many different students throughout last year. Using technology in classrooms is an end goal for many teachers; having accessible laptops, ipads or tablets and a SMARTBoard would often satisfy having technology in the classroom. What we found was our students were not so concerned with what technology we were using, but how it worked. For example, some students wanted to know how a computer understood certain commands, and other students wanted to have real hands-on experiences with breaking machines apart and putting them back together. Unfortunately, with our budget and access to materials we couldn’t have the students breaking machines apart, but it got us thinking: How could we provide students with an authentic experience and understanding of the technology they use every day? We decided to pursue these questions through the lens of a technology club.
So, how did we get started? We knew we needed to establish a benchmark to really understand what students knew and how comfortable they were working with technology. We had students choose a piece of technology and draw how they thought it worked. Some students chose a cell phone or laptop, while others chose a stove or refrigerator. Many of these designs reflected simple circuits—but there were many unanswered questions. For instance, students knew when you pushed a button on the phone the screen would light up, but they didn’t know why. Some students used technical language, while others used simpler terms. We were working with a wide range of understanding.
Thus, we faced our next big obstacle: choosing a platform. The Internet was filled with technical gadgets and kits targeted at elementary aged children wanting to explore the STEAM field. As we were browsing, it was amazing to see how much the technology had progressed. When we were kids, it was pretty cool to build a lego contraption that moved when you cranked a handle. What we saw were tools that allowed students to make app controlled pet feeders! What a time to be alive! It was daunting when we were presented with so much choice. We had many questions: How difficult were the kits to use? What were the costs? Did the kits support our needs? In the end we decided to begin the tech club with the LittleBits electronic kits (http://littlebits.cc/). The kits were reusable and easy to put together. However, they could be combined in infinitely complex ways, challenging even the more technically savvy student.
Now, we knew our benchmark and had a tool to work with. Following the design thinking principles, we wanted our students to be considerate of others’ needs for technology and create designs that reflected them. Students were encouraged to talk to their peers and teachers to identify a problem or need that could be solved through technology. When they had identified a need, they were then asked to sketch a design of a prototype they thought could address the need. Students presented a range of ideas. One student identified that it was difficult for teachers to know when the washroom on the second floor was in use. He decided to create a sign that would light up when in use. Another student decided to create a machine that would make it easier to transport books from one place to another. With designs in hand, it was time to start prototyping!
The prototyping phase allowed everyone in the club, including the teachers, to work through problems that were not considered during the design phase. When working on their own individual projects, the club was alive with chatter. Students were giving each other suggestions on improvements and changes. They were eager to share their inventions. We took this one step further and invited teachers and administration to a product demonstration. The students benefited from the meaningful feedback from the adults in the room and were excited to put that feedback to use. Which meant it was time to start using wires and switches and motors, oh my!
Students were challenged to look at their prototypes and decide what real materials they would need to build with. As they were doing that, we were thinking of ways to make the next step a little more engaging—rather than just giving the students the materials they asked for, we wanted a way for them to understand and experience the decision making that inventors and engineers go through. The idea arose to create a “parts market” instead. Each student was given a budget to purchase parts. It provided an opportunity to practise some mental math and launched a discussion of budgets and funding that professionals may experience in the real world. Students were challenged to adapt their design based on materials available and their budget.
With materials purchased, we were now ready to start building! This phase proved to be a little more challenging for us teachers because the questions were getting much more technical. We needed help! We invited experts from our community to further support the learning. There were many teachable moments that occurred during our one-hour Monday lunch sessions. One student’s questions about why her car’s wheels didn’t work led to an impromptu lesson on circuits and electricity flow. Soon, we noticed that all the adults in the room were able to take a step back because the students were comfortably running the show. As the tech club progressed, many more, unpredictable events happened. We would be lying if we told you that the club progressed exactly as we had planned. The input and suggestions from the students helped shape the club as much as our planning had. Our ideas for each club meeting changed moment by moment based on the challenges and successes the students faced.
The students proudly showcased and celebrated their success in a school-wide way by sharing their designs and products at a school assembly. Students who were initially hesitant during the first few meetings, confidently explained the need their invention was meeting, how they designed it and how it worked. Students reflected later that they were happy to have the opportunity to work with technology in a way that allowed them to understand how something really works.
Creating a club from scratch has been extremely meaningful for both of us. Having the support and collaboration of a fellow teacher made the whole process more manageable. Coming to the club with different strengths helped us to distribute the workload and help our students to the best of our abilities. The students required different levels of support to be successful. Our different approaches helped students figure out their problems through trial and error or through explicit teaching. Treating this club as a learning experience also took a lot of the stress off our shoulders. We were learners along with our students. We learned that a successful tech club at our school required willing teachers and students who weren’t afraid to ask questions, learn from each other, and try!