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What gains do children make in curiosity, creativity and persistence over 100 hours? What age can you start?

To answer these questions, we ran a 100 hour-long summer camp – looking at nature from an engineer’s point of view. We opened the camp to a wide range of ages – all the way from 3-10. Each child was paired with an adult or a high school explainer.

The main barriers for the littlest ones were motor control and verbalization of ideas. The former was addressed by having the high school explainer or adult serve as the “hands”. Over time as the little ones got used to the environment and people, they became more comfortable with expressing their ideas and goals.


We based our curriculum on the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the core principles of successful games and motivation theory:

  • a sandbox to start and explore without fear of failure
  • showing the real world and exciting applications of learning (or “why” this is important)
  • providing “just-in-time” or “on demand” knowledge, encouraging students to learn as they build, instead of making them demonstrate expertise before they build.
  • giving each student choice and ownership of their learning. Students could apply their learning to design and build models of their own choosing.


Over the course of the 100-hour camp, students experienced the following progression of skills:


25-50 hours – Gaining Observation Skills, Familiarity with Materials, Asking questions that can be investigated

  1. Notice features, patterns, or contradictions in one’s world.

For instance, instead of differentiating birds on the basis of color, students started to notice differences in wing beat frequencies, wing tip shapes, types of beak etc.

 
  1. Ask questions about the phenomena being observed

Why is it that millipedes move slowly, but centipedes can move fast? Why do leaves on different plants and trees have different types of edges?

  1. Becoming familiar with materials and how they behave

We use very simple, low-cost materials to lower the cost of failure. It is not a very big problem if a child breaks a few popsicle sticks while trying an idea, but the same tolerance can’t be extended if the materials or equipment are very expensive or single-use only. With practice, students learn to predict how different materials behave under varying forces, and conditions such as temperature, light, pressure, or mediums such as air, water, and oil. The most direct application of this was when the students designed and built self-ventilating animal homes using mud, sticks, leaves and water.

  1. Learn to use instruments to measure variables

Students were exposed to a wide range of both simple and exotic measuring instruments – from humble rulers and magnifying glasses to microscopes and boroscopes.

  1. Develop an investigation plan

For instance, for the cardboard automaton week, we showed the students various videos of automatons to inspire them. After the videos, we worked on drawing our own designs. At first the students thought that the project was easy and came up with very elaborate designs. Once they started executing, they realized that they needed simpler designs — and went back to the drawing board.

 



A surprising finding was the value of kits such as “Snap Circuits”. These type of kits usually are not at all open-ended and dont give the learner any choice. However, they were valuable for the younger students to experience early success, reinforce learning and motivate them to explore using other materials (such as squishy circuits) to build designs of their own choice.


  1. Students use diagrams, maps,drawing, photographs, 3D models as tools to elaborate on and present their ideas

We invited a scientific illustrator and artist to teach the students about picking key features and representing them in 2D. Students learned to look at a bird and represent it as a few ovals of various sizes. 

 


50-100 hours Being able to apply the Engineering Design Process and gaining in persistence

The biggest learning gain for students at this level of practice was being able to say, “lets try again” when something didn’t work. Most students get very frustrated when their model doesn’t work on the first try. It takes repeated reinforcement of the message – “Its ok! Lets try again. Now what should we change this time to try and make it work?” to develop persistence.

  1. Make and use a model to test a design and to compare the effectiveness of different solutions
  2. Students persist through failing designs and models
  3. Students compare designs through repeated testing, troubleshooting, recording and analyzing results and finally identifying the best.

Students went through all stages of the engineering design process each day while exploring different questions regarding bird flight, beaks, animal locomotion, tree stability and structures etc.


  1. After repeated development and testing, students invent a totally new design based on the characteristics of the best design.


The summer camp provided 100 contact hours to students who came for the full 4 weeks.  Due to the young age and lack of similar, prior experiences, the students didn’t get to the Inventor stage. Based on the programs we run at our studios in NYC and LA, we have seen that it takes ~500-700 hours of practice for students to be completely familiar with observing, framing the right investigation questions and persisting through the engineering design process to get to the Inventor level.


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