By Michelle Lange
A physics challenge called Coaster Boss has taken over Ms. Kelly’s computer technology classroom. Eighth grade students created a roller coaster track of black foam and colorful rubber tubes, and taped it from ceiling to floor in a goofy loop around the room. As they dropped a heavy silver marble down the wall, whizzing under the table, and even around one kid, all eyes stayed glued on the photogate timer, which flashed a record speed when the marble rushed by. “WHOOOOOO!” The room erupted with students immersed in a lesson about velocity.
“You can tell when somebody’s happy when something finally works,” said technology teacher Kelly Lewis, who runs this FUSE Studio in her classroom at Hadley Junior High in Glen Ellyn, IL. Coaster Boss is one of more than a dozen hands on challenges in technology and design that students take on to explore their interests in areas like IT, math, art and science. When something clicks, Lewis said, it’s obvious.
“They’ll scream or yell or come up and show me what they printed on the 3-D printer,” she said. “You get to see their joy when they finished something, especially if they’ve taken a long time to figure it out.”
FUSE is a new kind of interest-driven learning experience developed by researchers and educators at Northwestern University. It’s based on extensive research on interest development and interest-driven learning, and students choose challenges to work on that are based on their own interests. Adult volunteers help Lewis keep track of all the questions that go along with multiple challenges going on at once, and facilitate instead of instructing kids on the challenges.
“They’re completely independent, I think that’s my favorite thing about this,” said Donia Moustafa, who volunteers through a mentoring program that connects CompTIA’s IT pros and FUSE students. The FUSE Studio in Lewis’s classroom is part of the NextUp initiative by CompTIA and Creating IT Futures to interest teens in tech careers. CompTIA and Creating IT Futures partnered with FUSE at Northwestern to equip 21 schools in 9 states with interactive FUSE Studios like this one.
“They take pieces of IT and science and math and make it easier for kids to understand and play with,” said Dale Schwer of Class Com, who volunteers as a CompTIA IT pro. The hands-on learning of FUSE is much different than Schwer’s rigorous and straightforward IT education from 30 years ago. “This brings a piece of the fun into it, so it doesn’t seem like a job.”
FUSE challenges are designed to engage pre-teens and teens in science, technology, engineering, arts, design and math projects and to foster the development of important 21st century skills. FUSE Challenges like Dream Home teach kids the same computer-aided design programs architects use to design real houses. Just Bead It has the kids in glasses and gloves, mixing chemicals to create reactions, and Ringtone lets sound engineers mix beats together and produce digital sounds. Kids who want to be game designers can develop their own Super Mario levels, and other kids design cars for the 3-D printing project Print My Ride.
“They’re getting everything from the ground on up,” said Kimaya Wentworth, who also volunteers with FUSE through CompTIA. Students are learning to code right in front of her. “They’re learning Adobe and Java. They’re learning programs that are going to benefit them in the long run.”
Interest Driven Learning
Students can take as long as they want on each challenge. If they’re interested, they’re encouraged to dig deeper. Schwer can tell kids are interested in a project when they start asking “What happens if…?”
“This whole roller coaster thing is a great example,” Schwer said. “It started with a few kids who could have made the tube, sent the marble down and finished the project. But there’s always a kid in each class who says, ‘What happens if we twist this pipe, so it does the triple loop?’”
A lot of challenges are done independently on in small groups, but Coaster Boss was a magnet. It started with three kids and by the end of class, most of the students were invested with everyone throwing in their ideas.
“When something doesn’t work, somebody else puts their mind to it. To see their minds work to pick up and develop things, that’s really neat,” Schwer said.
Lewis matches those struggling with student experts and instructs them to solve the problem together. The CompTIA mentors communicate where the person may be going wrong and try to help them figure it out and navigate how to fix it.
“You want to get them to problem solve and build resilience, and you’ve got to make them struggle a little,” Lewis said. “I’m always surprised by the students’ willingness to stick with it if something’s not working.”
During her volunteer time, Wentworth sees kids naturally connecting with each other and working in groups. “The kids are problem solving and figuring things out themselves,” she said. That teamwork is her favorite thing outside of the prosthetic hand challenge, where kids take 3-D printed parts and build hands for kids who need them.
“The fact that they make these hands and give them to an organization that ships them overseas is just rewarding,” Wentworth said. “They’re helping another child who doesn’t have access to the same treatment as we do in a first-world country, and I think that’s amazing.”
Michelle Lange is a writer and designer living in Chicago.