Monday, March 19, 2007

Where by "artifact" I mean "engineering toys."

I'm doing a research project on engineering education that's looking at how middle and high school students use physical artifacts to learn about technology. What kind of tools do teenagers use to learn engineering and how does the design of these artifacts affect the kind of learning that occurs with them (what features do they have? do they cater to visual learners? experienced programmers? traditionally underrepresented minorities in technology? students who might have difficulties in "normal" classrooms?)

The following is one part (approximately 33.3%) of a scholarly paper I'm working on; this is an overview and call for help with the "library" section - the other two sections focus on the effect of artifact design on student-artifact interactions and the usage/effect of artifacts in classroom settings, respectively, but I'm focusing on this one for now.

The short:

If you were designing a section of a library dedicated to helping teenagers learn engineering, how would you create the space, choose the materials, and run the whole place, and why?

The long:
In particular, if you were including toys (electronics kits, building sets, K'nex, bot competition kits (Vex?) books, soapbox racers, mindstorms...) how would you set them up in a system that would give you as much kid-learning as possible for as little librarian-trouble as possible (parts getting lost/broken, students not knowing what to do with them, etc.)

The little I've seen with engineering toys in libraries so far amounts to sticking gadgets in bins on the shelves and treating them like "normal books" for checkout, but there must be other ways to do this - I'm looking for everything from informal brainstorms to personal anecdotes to suggestions for books and papers to read. (I'm also looking for folks to interview by phone, email, or anyplace reachable by car from Boston - especially librarians and high school students.)

The explanation:
It's not just the design of the toys and tools themselves but the space they're within and the people within that space who shape how kids interact and learn with them. A library is a fantastic space to learn within - no schedules, no set subject boundaries, space to explore, and librarian-mentors around to help you find information so you learn how to teach yourself things. What would a teen library for engineering education look like? As a librarian, how would/do you use "engineering toys" as ways to promote and teach information fluency?

The obligatory disclaimer:
I'll be using this information for my studies in engineering education, and will give you full credit for contributions and cite you however you wish (requests for pseudonyms or anonymity will also be honored). The paper will be licensed under a creative commons attribution-noncommercial-share alike license when it's finished in May, and I'm working on ways to share it in draft form before then. If you'd like to contact me outside the comments, drop me a line at mel [at] students period olin period edu.


Sam said...

I’d begin by considering what sort of things feel like ‘trouble’ to most librarians.

Chief among these is noise. Even if the students are enthusiastic and are using the facilities to learn in the best possible way, this could be noisy. If two or more students are collaborating, they ought to be able to talk to each other without disturbing other library users or the librarian. If they’re using electric motors, sounders, etc, the same applies. So, soundproofing the area would be my first priority. There are a great many ways this can be achieved, and it has to be balanced with other requirements…

Second most important on my list is that the space should be reasonably immune to abuse by its users. This means that the materials of which it is made should be hard-wearing and easy to clean, to withstand physical abuse. It also means the layout should be such that it discourages abuse, for instance because it is visible to the librarian. This visibility criterion might conflict with the soundproofing requirement above, and an engineering-style compromise is needed. My instinct would be to suggest that the area should be built into the main library space in view of a librarian’s desk, it should have a door at one side, and it (the area, not the door) should face the desk with a full height double or triple glazed window of the kind used between recording studios and their control rooms. Such a window could be made of polycarbonate to increase its physical robustness. (A good book on this topic is the Master Handbook of Acoustics, by F. Alton Everest.)

The above, I think, would protect the rest of the library from the learning area. The next problem is how to minimise the effort the librarian(s) must spend on managing the area and its contents. The key here is that effort is subjective. Whatever the artefacts, they ought to be chosen not only to appeal to the teenagers, but also to appeal to the librarians so that looking after them and showing people how to use them doesn’t feel like a chore even if it does take up a fair bit of time. This would probably mean running courses designed to get even the most sceptical librarians enthused about the educational potential of the equipment (“In some cases, artefacts and toys can teach you more than books!”). Also, implementing a maintenance regime (possibly outsourced in the case of anything really hard to maintain, to reduce the librarians’ workloads) that’s straightforward would be an important step, and it might be worth working backwards from this in your elucidation. I.e. start by trying to work out the kind of maintenance schedule a librarian could handle easily, and then see which of the available artefacts would be maintainable under such a schedule. You might find that this narrows down the possibilities fairly sharply.

Having not used K’nex or Mindstorms, I can’t really help evaluate actual products beyond saying that I really enjoyed using ‘breadboard’ and cheap components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, LEDs, switches, inductors, transformers, motors, solar panels, logic gates, crocodile clips, bell wire, batteries and piezo sounders) to build circuits with when I was in my teens. The great thing about breadboard is that it gets you almost all the way to manufacturing circuits: all you need to make the circuit permanent is some veroboard and soldering equipment. Soldering in a library probably isn’t a good idea, but someone who has learned on breadboard could be given a pamphlet on what to do next if they want to get equipment to use at home or at school. The other nice thing about this is that it’s not brand specific; it’s closer to nature (to physics!); it’s not an artificial learning tool: it’s learning with something ‘real’.

Mel said...

This is tremendously helpful. It's a real eye-opening experience to see a librarian's point of view - I probably wouldn't have thought of things like soundproofing or a maintenance schedule with my engineering hat on. Thank you, Sam!

Jack Vinson said...

If you have access to anyone at IDEO, ask them how they store and index their sample objects. They have several offices, and a open shelf full of potentially-interesting gizmos to help inspire the creative process.

Sam said...

Update: I would avoid Magnetix toys, at least for younger children. Here's why.