If anyone has ever walked into the Discovery Learning Center, possibly one of the first things they notice is a large set of windows that seem to allow you a glimpse into Santa’s toy factory. It is probably difficult to resist going up to the window and looking at Da Vinci’s paddle boat, or the plastic origami Angry Birds, or the SliceForm creations all arranged to show off the creativity of CU’s Computer Science students. This is the Crafts Technology Lab, the unique and wonderfully innovative creation of Anne and Michael Eisenberg. CEM spoke to them about their brainchild, and came away with a new and exciting way of thinking not just about computers, but how we approach science education.
CEM: For you, what’s the purpose or the idea behind the lab? What do you want students who are coming to your classes to get out of it?
Mike Eisenberg: Our research is in education. So what we’ve always been interested in is math- primarily math and science education. And the style of the lab is- and this is my practiced way of distilling this down- what we try and do is reflect the best features and strengths of novel technologies with the best traditions of childrens’ work with materials. And what we do in the lab, then, is try to design new kinds of activities for kids to enjoy that integrate scientific or mathematical content in creative, expressive or constructive activities of various sorts.
CEM: I’ve noticed that a lot of your projects seem to have a 3D component. Is there a purpose behind that? Is it so kids can see what they’ve done, or does it have to do with seeing things in 3D from 2D creations?
M: That’s a really interesting question. In content, as far as the domains of application go, one of my major interests has always been 3D geometry, spatial thinking. Originally when I was an undergrad I was a chemist –or a chemistry student- and I was never especially good at it, and one of the things that I became interested in was what one needed to be good at chemistry. It seemed pretty clear to all of us as undergrads that the things that distinguished really fine chemists and chemistry students was their ability to visualize in 3D. So I think that’s where I started getting interested in 3D thinking, just at that time.
But much of our work does focus on creating 3 dimensional models, working in solid geometry, things of that sort. There are a few reasons for that. One, like I said, I’m interested in it. I think it’s central and generally underexplored in science education. There are consistent results that show that students who are good at 3D thinking, who enjoy doing 3D thinking, who have a lot of practice at it, that they gravitate towards and do better in fields like physics, chemistry, architecture, things like that. So that’s one reason. But you mentioned the other reason, which is not at all minor in my opinion. It’s not so much 3D as tangible- that when you make things, when you build things, particularly off a computer screen, they start to decorate the room. Things end up on shelves, things end up in windows, things end up hanging from the ceilings. And I think that plays an important emotional, affective role in how kids get and stay interested in science. I’ve used phrases like this in the past, when not just kids, but adults start putting things around the room, it starts to talk back to us about what we’re interested in. Visitors, like yourself, come in and we’re able to gesture to things, show what we care about. Think of all the subtle and unobtrusive ways that the physical objects play a role that you simply can’t imitate with virtual objects, with programs, with things that are stuck in the computer there. You work for years on all kinds of things –programs, documents, whatever- and the computer looks the same as the day you bought it. There’s no visible aspect of what you’ve been working on. You mentioned it. When we build things in the lab, the lab changes. And I think that plays a major role.
CEM: And are there any examples of things your students have done that you really like or you think are exemplary?
M: All sorts. There are a couple of things in there… there’s a paddleboat in the front window made by a couple of first year engineering students in a class that Anne and I taught in the engineering of Da Vinci. […] We show the students his notebooks, which are works of art in and of themselves, and then we have the students build working replicas of his engineering ideas. That paddle boat we loved it so much, we’ve kept it. […] It’s been here for six years. The linkages that you see on the wall outside in the hall there, those were done by a student who came to work with us on Independent Study. He was fourteen at the time he did them. He’s now, at least last I heard, a grad student at Stanford. But he was working with us and we showed him videos of linkages at the Munich Science Museum, and asked him if he could build those things on our laser cutter. And he did. And we’ve had them outside […] four or five years.
So I know what you’re thinking is probably why do we do all this? There’s a number of reasons. But over and over and over again, what we’ve tried to do is build examples of creative activities for kids to do. […]What I often say is that we do not talk in the language of skills. We don’t talk about skill training. We don’t say that what we’re doing is teaching kids the skills they’ll need in the 21st century or things like that. Rather what we say is that we’re trying to make examples of dignified creative things to do that are rich in content. And so the style of education that we do here really focuses on a narrative view of education. What are the stories people tell about how they got interested? You probably have stories to tell, now that you’re in molecular biology. Where did that interest come from? Without even having spoken to you about it, I would wager that if you start telling that story to yourself, or to others, you’ll probably find yourself mentioning things like influential role models, or places that you liked to be, or activities that you liked to do. You probably won’t talk about skills, like balancing chemical equations, you’ll probably talk about the people and places and stuff that you worked with to get interested. That’s really the emphasis of this lab. What we try and do is use these new technologies to create new narratives