Hello, ITP camp! / week 1 (On pop-ups + paper circuits, teaching physical computing, and soft circuits)

IMG_4297Thanks to a recommendation from a student's father and a generous fellowship, I'm spending most of my out-of-classroom time in June working on projects at ITP Camp, "a summer camp for adults" that's hosted by NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. I'm coming here with 8 years of experience in classrooms but very little experience with computing, and I'm hoping to learn a little about a lot of things (including Processing, a programming language often used by artists; Arduino, a controller that can be programmed to interact with the world using sensors; and soft circuits, which are electronic circuits on fabric; and others.) After the first week, I've really been struck by the challenges of working in a space where I know nothing. I've realized that I often situate myself in environments where I'm at least kind of comfortable - ed conferences, ed/design meetups, etc - but this is a situation where I know so little that I almost don't even know what questions to ask. (It's not totally true that I know nothing - I'm coming to this with some interest in electronics and I kind of understand how programming works even if I don't know how to do it. And yet - ) So, here's what the week has looked like in that context:

1) Pop-ups and Paper Circuits (Or: On Teaching Something I'm Still Learning Myself) - Classes at ITP camp are taught by the participants, and one of the obligations of the fellowship is that I teach something. In my fellowship application, I proposed to make a pop-up book that uses paper circuits to explore electricity - and that's the topic of the class that I was scheduled to teach on day 1 of camp. So, knowing nothing about how circuits work, I taught myself using Jie Qi's work and other resources from the MIT Media Lab's High Low Tech Group. The recap of the session on Tuesday, including materials, is here. Lesson: Teaching really is the best way of learning stuff.

2) Teaching Physical Computing - I attended this conversation with Tom Igoe on Wednesday because I want to teach physical computing (the programming of physical objects - like an elevator call button, rather than a mobile app). The conversation was more philosophical than I'd anticipated ("What must students know before they're able to imagine?" "What do I have to offer (as a teacher), and what are the limits to what I have to offer?"), but it was really useful as a way of trying to make sense of my own experience as a "student" who's trying to learn this stuff herself. One of the arguments here was that students do not need to know as much as they think they need to know (about, for example, electronics) - but my sense is that one must have a significant amount of experience to even know what must be known and what can be forgotten. I don't have that experience in this space - I don't know what half of the sessions on the calendar are even about. Lesson: Once we know, it's difficult to remember what it's like to not know.

3) Soft Circuits  - On Thursday, I went to Jen Liu's workshop on soft (wearable) circuits. We spent the first 45 minutes looking at examples and materials, and then we spent the next hour making a working circuit that used snaps as a switch. I left feeling totally inspired and totally frustrated; my snaps weren't working, and I still haven't figured out how to create anything more than a very simple circuit. But, I have new ideas about materials I can use in my pop-up book, and I got to experiment with conductive thread. I'm still frustrated, but making fabric light up is so satisfying!! Lesson: I'm easily frustrated by things that I don't understand, + need to work on that one.

Other things I did: Shop Safety and Kids Day planning with Jaymes Dec.

Other things I missed that I wish I'd been able to do: Workshops on Processing, Wearable Electronics, Makerbot, and Intro to the Soft Lab (including the embroidery machine!)

This week: I'll be working on the book on Monday and Tuesday, but I'm leaving Wednesday for a different camp experience - an outdoor leadership program that's meant to prepare educators to take young people camping.


Stanford's summer design workshop for K-12 educators.

*Stanford's design school - the - offers a free workshop in "design thinking" for K-12 educators every summer, and I attended in July 2011. Info about the workshop is here. After the first day of the's summer design workshop, I posted six thoughts to Twitter. I've been meaning to expand on those things, and have spent some time since then thinking about what my experience at Stanford will mean for my classroom practice. Here are those original six tweets from July 13, with a few new ideas about each:

Thoughts about today's k-12 design workshop @stanforddschool: 1) so useful to see designer/educators facilitate #designthinking ... I teach a high school design methods class, and have read the things you're supposed to read about "design thinking," but have never really watched anyone facilitate it (outside of graduate school) or participate in it outside of my own classroom. This experience felt much faster than I'm used to, and that urgency (or low-level panic) lent a feeling of "we're all in this together-ness" that drove rapid idea-generation, prototyping, etc. I'm not sure that it's always best to move so quickly - I often felt overwhelmed, and didn't like that I couldn't think more before doing - but I think I can do a better job of moving "quickness" into my classroom in some way.

2) the environment is inspiring and I love the supply cart .. Will mimic in Room 402 I just went to IKEA yesterday to pick up a cart that's the closest I can get to those images for $50. I'll post a picture of what that actually looks like in my room in the next few days. The's studio space gave me the feeling that nothing had to be the way it was. There might be whiteboards hanging on the wall, but they could very well be .. on the floor! Or the couch could be rolled into the hall, or the foam cubes could be used to build a fort, or those masking tape rolls could be a Sharpie-holder, too. The supplies were accessible (ie, not behind closet doors, as mine were last year), which made me feel trusted and independent - "permission" seemed implicit. And, there were images on the walls to help us "reset" the room before we left it, so at the same time that I felt free to use the space however I wanted, I also developed a sense of respect for it. (My own photos aren't so great; I like the set from Bytemarks on Flickr.)

3) I think the design process (and today's activities) should allow for quiet + independent reflection as well A number of participants (there were probably around 70 of us) expressed that they didn't feel that their voices were heard in their small "studio" groups or during the workshop in general. This was in part a function of a totally overprogrammed schedule; I really needed time to process the experience, alone or quietly, and there was close to zero (formal) opportunity for that. But, that's easily fixed. The more significant problem was that as we plowed ahead with improv games and interviewing and iterating, we never stopped to talk about how "design thinking" is experienced by folks who communicate loudly (or not), or fluently in English (or not), or visually (or not), etc. I often struggle with working in groups, and struggle to facilitate successful group work in my classroom, and these questions about how to navigate interactions between those coming to the design process from different places would have been really important to examine.

4) educators, too, struggle with abandoning the safe/practical/conventional, even if the design process is meant to gener(ate) empathy/creativity What's the value in engaging with the design process if its outcomes are no more radical/successful/empathetic than they would have been otherwise? There's tremendous value in the process alone, but I think we have to respect the results, too. It's not just about the pipe cleaners.

5) so it's really difficult to abandon that, and I'm even more proud of #disastercamp for proposing such innovative designs Details about that project in the post below.

6) finally, looking fwd to prototyping/iterating tomorrow! In the past few weeks, I've totally reconsidered how I'll teach design in sept I will be using a number of the's design activities this year, and thinking about how I can introduce a sense of "quickness" to my classroom. I'm thinking about how to design my classroom to make materials/furniture more accessible. I'm thinking about introducing new design challenges every day/week, rather than doing mini activities that lead up to something larger at the end.

For a complete collection of the materials we used at the workshop, click on "Inspiration" at the upper right; it's a list in progress, but the and IDEO materials are fantastic.


[vimeo w=525&h=350] Disastercamp was a five-day summer class we taught twice in June/July that students to design creative solutions for disaster response. Inspired by the 2011 Imagine Cup Emergency Response and Crowd Sourcing challenge, the course investigated the extent to which natural disasters are ever “natural” and looked to design as a methodology for creative problem-solving. Participants engaged with each step of the design process as they moved toward a final concept that leveraged social media and other tools to improve communication and coordination for disaster relief.

Lesson #3: Classroom collaboration is difficult. Disastercamp was co-facilitated by Francesca Fay (English), Dylan Snowden (formerly with FEMA), Eulani Labay and Francis Carter (Parsons the New School for Design). Everyone brought a valuable perspective to the class, but I found it really challenging to co-coordinate. Who would facilitate when? Would we contradict each other? Does that matter? How could we take advantage of what everyone was bringing to the class without losing coherency? I've invited people who work outside of Room 402 to come to all of the courses I teach - design critics, an entire college class, filmmakers, etc - and I feel strongly that some aspect of that is really important, but I really struggle with how best to develop that relationship. One of the most common frustrations I heard at DML last spring from educators who work with young people in out-of-classroom situations (after-school, etc) was that it's really challenging for them to get involved in K-12 because of district restrictions, not knowing where to find partner teachers, etc. Something I didn't say there, but that became clear with Disastercamp, was that those partnerships are incredibly valuable - but they're really challenging to cultivate on the teacher side as well.

Lesson #2: Sometimes the design process is the best methodology and sometimes it isn't. I was asked the other day (in an interview for the New Visions Digital Teacher Corps, which I wasn't accepted to) about the possibilities for bringing "design thinking" into other subject-area courses. (The same question came up for me earlier this summer when I heard about another teacher using the design process to facilitate essay writing in her English classes.) I'm pretty skeptical about this; I see a significant difference between the learning experiences through which we try to move students toward an understanding that we're certain of (for example, how to find the derivative of a function, or write a letter to the mayor) and ones where the answers are truly unknown to us (what are the possibilities of using social media for disaster response?) If the design process is used to solve problems creatively, I have a hard time imagining how to apply it to situations where we want to point students toward a known answer.

Lesson #1: I don't really know how to formally assess the design process. When students are engaged with finding derivatives and writing letters - activities that, presumably, their teachers know how to do themselves - maybe it's easier to define what an "assessment" might look like because the outcomes are anticipated. But, when thinking creatively - like when trying to find new solutions for disaster response - the outcomes are often unknown. How do you write a rubric for that? We had clear expectations for what students would learn regarding social media and the nature of "natural" disasters, and these understandings were manifest in their solutions - but when we asked them what they learned, they talked about persistence, and being able to justify their design decisions, and having a user in mind. How do you anticipate that? My design rubric is here; I find it useful as a place to begin (it's helped me to overcome a problem I have with not making my expectations clear enough), but I think the most successful "assessment" of the design process happens throughout, with critique and iteration. I'm not yet sure how to capture that.