I ended the trip with a visit to a well-known private school, Nueva High School. They recently built a new campus, and it is GORGEOUS. Not exactly a budget-priced facility, but there were lots of ideas that could still apply to any school from their space design. I spent most of the day visiting two Olin alums, Steve and George, who teach together at the school in their design labs. They, and other teachers at the school, are awesome.
The physical space is intimate and flexible. The shop / design area consistent of four classrooms all connected together by interior doors and sliding whiteboard walls. The sound-proofing between rooms was great while one end held a discussion and the other ran the CNC router. The folding walls made it possible for a teacher to be in one space while supervising students in another.
I liked the projects they selected for students -- one group was studying bike repair, going out and finding abandoned bikes around the city and working with their teacher to scrap out parts and create a few working bikes. This weekend, at the school's STEM Fair, students would be repairing bikes for visitors at no charge. Service learning was a common piece of the learning experience.
Another project had students building a physical clock, a cool integration of mechanical design, electronics, machining, and art. They started with open-ended brainstorming to think broadly about ways of telling time, then narrowed quickly into something they could build in 10 class periods. It was interesting watching Steve work with one student who had a bit of a crazy idea -- a clock that would strike a battery and cause it to explode. Rather than say "that is unsafe and just stupid", which was my initial thought, he was able to engage in a productive discussion that left the student feel validated in his idea yet understand that he could not explode batteries in class. Steve praised the artistic vision of ticking down to an explosion event, explained why exploding batteries posed safety and environmental hazards unless you had a lot of setup time and expertise with battery acid, and then clearly stated that it would not be possible to carry it out in the 10 build days of school, leaving the possibility of making that final step happen outside of the class if done safely at home. This is a mindset I have seen at other private schools as well and want to do my best to bring that open-minded attitude with parameters into my own classroom.
One interesting class that I joined was reflecting on a documentary they watched about food waste. After watching the film the day before, they worked in groups of three to draw a system diagram of where waste was being produced, discussed what the underlying causes were at each step, and then talked about ways they could create projects based on the topic. Only a few students decided in the end to pursue a project with this topic, but others preferred some of the prior topics they studied. The intent of the video and discussion was exposure to one more thing students could be passionate about.
To end the day, I hung out with the Nueva FIRST Robotics team, 4904, one year newer than our team (4859). It was neat to see how their team operated -- they were incredibly student-driven, a shift from some of the strong programs I visited earlier in the week who had much more mentor direction. Given my ongoing tension between encouraging students to work in ambiguity and the power of providing students with very strong hands-on skills, I can't decide which approach is "better". But they are definitely different. I hung out mostly with the programming team, doing my best to learn about how they handled vision-tracking, something our team is yet to master, but something that is really important if we want to have a strong team in the future. Students showed me a prototype on an arduino that talked to their RIO, then a better prototype on a RasberryPi, and finally their plans to have more efficient tracking from a new RasPi 3. I won't pretend to understand it, but it was fun watching them teach me and at least give me footholds into asking the right questions when we start learning.