OnCUE

Author - Nicholas Zefeldt

Our New Classroom Anthem of Perseverence and Grit

A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to teach a computer science enrichment class to four periods of incoming fifth grade students. Initially, I thought the goal of the class was to show these students that each one of them could learn the basics of a web development language.

Turns out, I was wrong. Teaching students that they could become computer science professionals was just the cherry on top.

For part of this summer class, I decided that my students would create a website from scratch using HTML. To the uninitiated, HTML is a jumble of tags that surround the content of a webpage. In the jumble, however, is precision. Every colon and slash must be placed perfectly. If a character is incorrectly inserted, the whole project fails: your incredible web page appears only as a blank screen.

After a few days, it became clear that these students would learn as much about tenacity and perseverance as they would about website publishing.

I had a student in my class named Justin. Imagine a nine-year-old version of a Silicon Valley startup employee, with a shaggy mop of brown hair covered by a hooded sweatshirt. Justin loved technology, but, until this moment, never had the opportunity to create something on a computer from scratch.

Justin struggled with the assignment. On a regular basis, he would come up to me and plead, “Mr. Z! I have looked at every line of my code, and it all looks perfect!” Then, like clockwork, he would begin to blame the computer. “It must be malfunctioning,” he would reason, as though it was impossible that another missed semicolon could be the culprit.

I was in over my head.

The goal of the assignment was not what you probably are picturing when you imagine a website. We were not trying to display pictures or build interactive features. No. Our goal was simply to use HTML to get short essays about our hobbies to display using a web browser.

It seemed simple enough when I planned it.

The students continued to struggle. I began to question why I assigned it to 120 students in the first place. Why not something simpler? I wondered when the challenge would become too much, when frustration would turn to boredom which would lead to an inevitable loss of interest.

And yet, the students remained engaged.

On the third day of the project, I was troubleshooting with another student when I heard a whisper come from Justin’s direction.

“…yes.”

It was not the kind of “…yes” that is designed to brag or boast.

It was not the kind of “…yes” that purposely distracts a classmate.

I don’t think Justin even realized he made the sound. It was barely audible. It was genuine and sincere, full of pride and joy.  When I walked over to Justin’s desk, three sentences glowed from his web browser. A simple and yet functioning website.

Welcome to Justin’s Awesome Website.

I like to swim, play baseball, and program websites.

I hope you like my website.

Justin shared his experience with the class—the hours of frustration that led to his eventual success. His “… yes” became our classroom anthem. Kids would get stuck, stick with it, and then, “… yes.” Our community changed. I watched students stop shying away from challenges and begin relishing them. They recognized that the discomfort of real learning was the very thing that would lead them to that feel-good whisper.

That summer, I learned that one of the hidden benefits of introducing students to computer science is found in giving them the opportunity to learn something totally new for the first time. It puts the natural discomfort of learning on stage where it can be observed and reflected upon. It is a playground to find perseverance and grit that can be applied to other learning challenges in the future.

I discovered that students reflect a teacher’s genuine excitement for learning and curiosity about the world. I taught them HTML alongside them in the trenches. They saw me become frustrated when my page didn’t work and overjoyed when it did. When teachers are genuinely engaged in actually learning and gaining new knowledge, our students will follow suit.

When students whisper “… yes” upon finding success it is proof that we have reached them. The perseverance that preceded it will stick with them long after they leave our classrooms even if the specifically learned concepts eventually fade. That, in my mind, is the goal of the work that we do every day of the school year.

Chase those elusive, under-the-breath whispers.

 

Nicholas Zefeldt is an Instructional Technology Coordinator at the Contra Costa County Office of Education. He can be reached at @NZefeldt or www.joyfulclasscollective.com.

Focus on 3D Modeling, Not 3D Printing!

3D printing is awesome. The once empty print bed coated with a thin veneer of hairspray or glue suddenly becomes our imagination physically realized. Over the years, the process of 3D printing has become increasingly affordable for schools, and design programs have become more accessible for students and teachers alike. 3D printers slowly are becoming ubiquitous in school libraries and Makerspaces.

With that said, I need to get something off my chest: we should be working to get students excited about 3D modeling, not 3D printing. I know. I know. It is a subtle argument rooted in semantics. But hear me out: 3D printing is something that a machine does; 3D modeling is where the human magic happens.

Imagine a student writing a beautiful poem, carefully choosing each word to convey a specific feeling. And at the end of that complex writing process sending the poem to the laser jet printer. We would never refer to the journey of poem’s creation as “document printing.” It would rob the process of the human decisions and the creative struggle that naturally come with the creation of a poem.

Machines print. Humans imagine, design, and create.

3D printing is something that a machine does; 3D modeling is where the human magic happens. – Nicholas Zefeldt

The moment that you begin to make 3D models, not prints, the final artifacts of your student projects, you begin to reap some additional benefits as well.

Easier Entry Point!

It doesn’t cost anything to get students creating 3D models. If you already have a computer at your disposal, you can create a free account on Tinkercad (or Blender for older students) and be modeling almost instantly. No 3D printer required. Want to show off your students’ amazing work? Have them insert screenshots of their model from different angles into a document, and have them write about the creative decisions they made in its creation. Or, have them give a “video tour” of the model using screen recording software. Don’t wait for the funding and delivery of a printer to begin this powerful work!

It’s Faster!

As someone who used to teach 3D modeling to a school full of elementary students, I would have hours and hours of printing ahead of me the moment that a class project was completed. When the printer was jammed, the print queue only got longer. The anxiety to get projects printed before Open House was real. By changing student artifacts from printed objects to three-dimensional digital models, educators don’t have to feel obligated to print every object that students create. Printing can be saved for those special moments when a model truly is worthy of the time and materials required to print it.

Focus on Curriculum!

Once we get over the hump of learning how to model in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) environment, the focus of every modeling activity transitions to the application of academic concepts. The moment that students begin to model an object is the moment that they are forced to think about geometric shapes, angles, measurement, and the object’s intended purpose. In an amazing unit of study about the Titanic, the class learned about how the catastrophe of the Titanic was partially due to the type of bolts used in the ship’s construction. Students modeled both the bolts that were used and the bolts that should have been used. The unit was not about printing the bolts, but rather about developing a deep understanding of how the ship was built. In fact, only one set of bolts from the whole class was printed—but everyone had the opportunity to engage in the deep thinking and learning involved in the modeling.

I love 3D printing. The fact that we can rapidly create objects from our imagination blows my mind. But what I really love is 3D modeling. The moment that students are asked to apply what they have learned in class by creating a model from scratch is the moment that assignments stop feeling like “work.”

By focusing on 3D modeling, the emphasis is placed on the human side of the design process—the creativity, the problem solving, and the application of related concepts. That 3D printer sure looks cool—but the real magic hides in the creation of 3D models.


Nick Zefeldt is the Instructional Technology Coordinator at the Contra Costa County Office of Education. He can be reached at @NZefeldt. Check out his blog at http://www.joyfulclassroomcollective.com/.