Why do we educators do it? It’s fun enough tinkering around with projects on our own, so why must we bang our heads trying to involve a pack of screaming kids from the neighborhood? I’ve thought through this before, sometimes at professional lows, when the mob of scruffy little ingrates around me has been unimpressed with my proposed tinkering activity or found uninteresting the pile of stuff I thought was fascinating.
But then there are the highs, the “Ahh, that’s what it’s all about!” moments. Dan Sudran, with nearly 25 years of experience at the Mission Science Workshop (MSW) in San Francisco, recently wrote to me with one especially rich story:
On Tuesday, Luis, who was here in 1997 as an 8th grader at Horace Mann, came to see me after sending me an email in homey-speak, which worried me a little, saying that he HAD to see me. At 14, Luis was just arriving from El Salvador and had a thick accent. Now he is audibly and visibly a true Mission homey.
Well, he basically just told me how great it was when he came to MSW and made a low-rider bicycle, and now he is a mechanic and does bodywork with his cousins, and showed me the most amazing low-rider car he parked outside, complete with hydraulics, sound system, etc. Now that is some really cool STEM! Anyway, he just seemed so pleased with himself and with me and we were just like old buddies…..so he wants to come in and volunteer and help other kids who were like him!!
Dan describes it as humbling and exhilarating at the same time, a rare moment when the feedback is so clear; for most of our lives, the kids just leave at the end of the session or the end of the year and you never know what the effect was.
But actually, most of the time when the kids do leave, no thanks verbalized, I’m all filled up and swirling with the ideas and inspirations that I got from them. I can recall being in their shoes a few short decades ago – you wouldn’t find me expressing cordial gratitude to my teacher. In the end, I believe I learned most of the truly valuable stuff I know from tinkering under the few inspired teachers I was fortunate enough to have over the years. And I thoroughly enjoy trying to make that kind of education happen for the kids around me.
So I think the answer is not so oblique, really: I tinker with kids because most days it’s a good, good time. And I trust the long-term effect is just as good.
Curt Gabrielson is an educator who splits his time between East Timor and California. He is the author of Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff