by Michael Hyde
One of my very favorite “tried and true” Tinker Camp narratives that hundreds of kids love is our Space Mission. In this narrative, students are challenged to build a “spaceship” that can transport their entire team to space. Without any need for convincing, the play – and the learning – blasts off. Students design spacesuits, communication systems, lighting systems, decide what artifacts are important to bring, and even go so far as to sew their own flight patches and signs. It’s a big undertaking with an even bigger payoff; our campers and students are highly motivated to learn whatever it takes (sewing, soldering, circuitry, programming) to make the mission a success. It’s always a thrill to see what new element a group of students will bring to the story to make it their own, and every journey is different.
In 2017, my favorite tinkering moment, far and away, was the moment when a 5th grade teacher at my school approached me and said, with some doubt in her voice, “We’re studying the moon and the Apollo missions. The students asked if they could build a spaceship in the makerspace and go to the moon. Do you think this is possible?” My makerspace motto and default answer to questions that begin with, “Do you think we……?” is always “Sure, we can try that.” But in this instance, my response was, “Absolutely it’s possible! I’ve been to space dozens of times!”
I was thrilled that our students thought of this journey on their own, and that I’m part of a school culture that fosters making and tinkering. Our students can propose their own way to learn, and the teachers can honor it. I was also thrilled to be able to share with a colleague the work that Tinker Camp does. I showed her this charming video and she started to see the possibilities too.
The teacher and I had a few planning sessions so I could get a complete picture of her Apollo and moon curriculum. We would only have one hour a week for students to build their journey in the makespace, so it was important that we integrate our curricula as much as possible and make effective use of her regular class time. The movie Hidden Figures, about black women’s contribution to the space program, had just come out, so we had a great opportunity to ask student to discover, “Who is missing from the Apollo missions stories? Why?” The curriculum started to take on a new life, both my co-teacher and the students more and more excited.
I learned that our first graders were also studying the moon, and we decided that we could to incorporate some design thinking into the process. Our 5th graders were challenged to design an interactive and immersive experience to take not only themselves to the moon, but our first graders as well. Designing for someone other than themselves increased the challenge level and the pressure. It made things real.
I decided to present the challenge to them with an immersive experience. I blacked out all the light in my classroom with heavy black butcher paper. I projected a YouTube video with footage taken by a Russian satellite of the moon spinning – a very close-up surface view. I played a separate track of the sounds of the planets as recorded by NASA. The room was pitch black, eerie, and even a little magical – lit only with the light from the YouTube moon. We sat on the floor together in the middle of the room, watching the moon spin. We talked and dreamed about all the things we would need to do, learn, and figure out in order to go to the moon. We generated question after question – some that even started off silly but led to some good research, like “What does the moon smell like?” After we talked for some time, I passed out flashlights and headlamps that we used to find our way over to the work tables. The work tables were also covered in black butcher paper and off-set with white colored pencils. We worked like miners in a cave, writing down our questions, our hopes, and our ideas. Some students began to sketch designs for a spaceship, others drew pictures of things they would miss from home – like pets and parents. We hung these large papers up high on the wall, a map to the journey ahead.
From this dreaming session our whole mission unfolded. In our next session, students divided into teams based on what they were interested in. Students were always welcome to switch teams, or start a whole new team if a new need emerged. Some students built the ship, others a ground control station. Another team built the surface of the moon that could be walked on while wearing the virtual reality helmet created by another group. They had to figure out how to work together and communicate between groups. Soon, they designated more roles and ground control became the group responsible for making sure that each group communicated their work to the others. We worked for nearly two months, if not more, on this space mission. Students came in during lunch and recess, and poked their heads in before school. They were invested, and committed. We probably could have worked on this forever.
The day of our moon launch was epic – parents came, other grades came. Some students had made space food to share with its own space-looking packaging. We had moon cookies, and even some experimental space water. By the end of the unit, all of the deep learning was readily on display and our 5th grade students ushered the 1st graders (and parents and others) through the moon journey experience. Then, we had just as much fun tearing everything apart.
One of the main obstacles that can impede tinkering and making in the classroom is time. And yes, this whole experience took quite a bit of time. It also took quite a bit of planning and effort on the front end. It’s worth it. Once the stage is set and the students are tuned in, the ship almost builds itself. I’ve seen it at Tinker Camp session after Tinker Camp session, and it was true in my classroom. When you take the time to create something memorable, to create a moment for and with your students, the learning and teaching is engaging and organic, fueled by curiosity and imagination. When you give learning plenty of time and space (no pun intended), it signals to your students that the work and the learning is important. We don’t need to rush – things that matter take time.
This moon journey was such a joy for everyone involved that it’s now a regular part of the 5th grade project-based learning curriculum at my school; we’re getting ready to introduce it to this year’s 5th grade. It will no doubt continue to evolve year after year – and while the process we used is different in a few ways from the Tinker Camp narrative, the principles are the same. Trust in the ability of kids, honor their imagination, and know that the best way to learn is by doing. I am fortunate that I had plenty of evidence and experience from Tinker Camp to know what is possible. I can say I have been to the moon and back. Where will you allow your students to take you in 2018?