Teacher Innovation

Teacher Innovation, Making, and Underwater Mood Robots

We’re planning to profile a few extraordinary teacher innovators on the blog. In the spirit of this week’s Maker Faire, we wanted to share a profile of teacher-preneur Karl Wendt (he’s presenting today and Saturday). As a physics and engineering teacher, Karl created a pretty amazing projects-based learning program and is now working to support other teachers in doing the same. Check it out to learn about Wendt and the work!– Beth

What do you get when you bring together a team of students with no previous experience in engineering or coding, a great essential question, a bunch of tools for making, and a teacher ready and willing to let student creativity drive learning?

Meet Beta Bot, a student-created “autonomous underwater mood robot” (made out of a plastic cookie jar) that becomes happy, sad, or angry depending on its environment.

Beta Bot is the brainchild of three students in an applied physics class at High Tech High’s Media Arts High School. In the words of their teacher Karl Wendt, it is “totally rad.” The Bot was one of many unique student creations in response to a broad learning prompt (“How can we create a device that moves on under its own power and can respond to its environment without any human intervention?”). In addition to being super cool to watch in action, the projects allowed Wendt’s students to authentically and independently explore a range of topics from fluid dynamics and circuitry, to coding and team dynamics.

Teacher and Edu-Maker

As an educator, Wendt is particularly passionate about engaging students in meaningful hands-on projects because he understands the joy of making first hand. Growing up, he spent a lot of time in his garage with his dad, taking apart and building things. Garage-inventing blossomed into a professional career as an industrial designer. (In addition knowing a lot about steel grades, Wendt holds nine patents.)

A desire to have more impact and a lingering frustration Wendt felt about his own educational experience inspired him to make the jump back into the classroom. Thinking back, he wondered why school couldn’t become more like those days fiddling with his dad, where he learned so much more than in his classes. He set out to create the type of education for his students he wanted for himself.

It wasn’t an easy process (Wendt described his first attempts as akin to “trying to cross the ocean on stepping stones without getting wet—while blindfolded and during a typhoon”), but over time Wendt figured out how to create an environment where learning and innovation became the norm. His students proposed, designed, and made innovations ranging from helicopters to electric go-carts and and underwater robotics.

All this making led to some pretty awesome educational outcomes. 99% of his engineering students got into college. During his time at HTH, students reporting an intended major in engineering increased 400%. Perhaps most importantly, students gained a new sense of what they could be capable of. In a reflection, one student maker wrote: “I never thought that someday I would have the chance to construct something so large and magnificent with my own hands… Every day was a new learning opportunity, and every obstacle was a new challenge.”

Tips for Bringing Making Into Your Classroom

There are a few key design elements Wendt highlights as particularly important:

1) Failure is an option. Wendt believes that “if school should teach us anything it is that learning comes from pushing yourself until you fail, figuring out what went wrong, and fixing it. Ideally, project-based teachers will plan enough time for multiple failures—their own and students’—so that by the end, the project is a smashing success.” Making provides an opportunity for failure, and for finding the edge of one’s learning.

2) The end-product isn’t the goal, the learning process is. Wendt encouraged his students to take on projects where they didn’t know the answers or process beforehand; students were inspired to learn new content as problems presented. One team, in trying to stabilize their in-progress helicopter, discovered they actually needed differential calculus.

3) Project based learning is messy, but it isn’t unplanned. Wendt noted that he learned “that nothing could replace careful preparation and planning on my part… This meant supporting students in their quest for solutions and in reflecting on their learning. It also meant that I spent as little time as possible on direct instruction, and as much time as possible challenging students to find new answers, scaffolding for individual students’ needs, and fine-tuning my project designs.”

4) Recruit the village. Wendt built his program by heavily recruiting partners outside of the school—both in industry as well as higher education– to be involved with the work as mentors and sponsors. Cris Fitch, who volunteered as a mentor two days a week to teach electronics and C code. He made the impossible possible. “Cris is a truly selfless team player and friend who I have learned so much from,” said Wendt. Key sponsors included companies like Goodrich Aerospace, RMS Laser and The Office of Naval Research. These partners were excited to be part of the process, and they provided tools and services to student teams. They also provided career inspiration to students.

5) Build trust early. Students needed to have a few small wins and learn about the process before embarking on much larger projects. “Executing a small hands-on project early in the semester gave my students confidence that they could do engineering, as well as the chance to get excited about it. It gave me the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the students and hear what they were interested in.”

Inspiring and Supporting a Future of Making

Wendt left his job at HTH in 2010 to figure out how to take his work to the next level, helping more teachers create the conditions for authentic student making and learning in their own classrooms. Wearing the hat of “student” as part of Harvard’s first Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D. cohort)—he is spending his next school year as a doctoral resident at Khan Academy, helping the flipped classrooms gurus figure out how to deliver even more STEM lessons that are connected to meaningful project-based learning.

In his spare time, he’s launching DCA, “Discover, Create, Advance”, where other teachers can find ideas for projects and learn more about the innovation process he used in his own classroom. He hopes to add more content and features to the site over time to create a whole platform where teachers can customize projects and get support that fits their students and school resources.

Catch Up with Beta Bot at the Maker Faire!

Are you a teacher passionate about making, or with projects to share? Karl will be at the DIY pavilion at the Maker Faire (public dates are May 19-20). Wendt will be there to share and talk about his experience at the Education demo day (Thursday), as well as Saturday. His Faire number is 8211.

Not lucky enough to be going to the Faire? You can also start a conversation directly with Karl at karl@discover-create-advance.org.


5 Responses

  1. gwen wendt
    May 18, 2012

    Karl, You continue to amaze us.

  2. gwen wendt
    May 18, 2012

    Karl- you continue to amaze us.

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