Innovation at Work! An Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Approach to Learning (for students & teachers!)

The collaborative spirit embraced at The Willows can be observed amongst faculty and staff as well as within a classroom’s structure. I am fortunate in my role as Dean of Educational Technology to collaborate with teachers across grade levels on a regular basis. Intersession is a week-long, innovative experience when the Middle School breaks from our regular curriculum and all teachers have the opportunity to collaborate in new teams and students collaborate across grade levels as well. This year, we brought in a Visiting Maker Expert and founder of Catalyst, Jean Kaneko, to teach a Middle School Intersession course titled Biomimicry and Battle Bots: A Story of Survival.

Working alongside Jean was a valuable learning experience that provided students with a unique and challenging skill building experience, and also offered me valuable professional development.

On a surface level, Jean taught us how to use equipment – Arduino boards with shields, Bluetooth electronics, wire cutters and strippers, air dusters to flash cool hot glue, and most exciting, our new 3D laser cutter – Glowforge Pro. This immediately sparked ideas for ways to engage with the 8th grade science teachers and have classes use the Glowforge with our upcoming mousetrap car project. Intersession culminates in a Family Education Night, an interactive evening for students and their families that highlights the projects and accomplishments of the students. Upon viewing the course artifacts at Family Education Night, two third grade students, with the assistance of their Maker teacher used the laser cutter to create a present for their teacher’s upcoming birthday. And last week I led a Willows Academy workshop where teaching faculty created laser cut projects and brainstormed potential classroom applications. The momentum is strong!

Less tangible but deeply powerful, was the shift in thinking that we really gained from collaborating with Jean. I have read a lot about prototyping in connection with making and design thinking, but I didn’t see the value for the time invested until now. My participation in this Intersession course showcased firsthand the amount of planning, critique, editing, revision, and teamwork that was necessary for each iteration of a bot – from ideation to battle ready. Now I am enthusiastically ready to incorporate this process in my teaching!

Another highlight of the class was Jean’s outstanding presentation of and emphasis on failure as a central part of the process. Watching the kids listen, and then later observing them undergo struggle and limited success made us all celebrate the victories and feel truly proud of what was accomplished. While debriefing with Jean about the course and future collaborations, she emphasized the unique value of The Willows Intersession as being “a year’s worth of work or focus in one week.”

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