Teaching Logical Thinking

Art Prints

I suppose I should mention the other activity besides art and photography that I focus my attention on, that is teaching critical and logical thinking to middle school students using Lego Mindstorms robotics.

It all started in a little town on an island off the coast of Maine. Through my elementary school son I managed to meet the computer technology guy, Max Crain, at the school who just happened to have similar passions for technology, math and teaching.

“I see more and more teachers doing more things along with their students.They start to learn from their students.

I think it’s really important that the teachers realize that they don’t have to know how to do everything in advance.” – Max Crain

Max experienced the fear some teachers had of introducing new technology in the class room.  The old school way of teaching was the teacher had to be an expert in the subject and then would impart this knowledge on to their students.  Well in a rapidly changing world with a 30 to 40 year teaching career – how its it possible to be an expert?  Teachers need to continually learn along side their students.  They have to embrace a love for learning over a lifetime or as the MIT Media Labs calls it “Lifelong Kindergarten”.

As bonus he had had a professional relationship with Seymour Papert, the famous MIT professor whose early work with children and technology eventually lead to the creation of the Mindstorms Robotics kits.

“The seeds for this research date back to the 1960s, when Media Lab professor Seymour Papert began developing new technologies for children. Later key contributions were made by Media Lab professor Mitchel Resnick who, since the 1980s, has been exploring toys, computers, and learning. Media Lab researchers developed the first prototype of a “programmable brick” in 1998. Graduate student Fred Martin tested the technology with classroom students as part of his master’s thesis.”

The little rural school had a lot of interesting equipment purchased from grants but it got little use as the aging teaching staff was far from technology literate. But as soon as some parents showed some interest, the Lego Mindstorms kits came out and eventually evolved into a First Lego League team.

All I needed was to see my then second grader put together and program a simple robot to understand the power of this technology and the freedom it afforded kids to play, discover and create at their own pace.

No real “teaching” is required when the right tools are introduced and the kids fuel their own exploration from the excitement of seeing their creations come to life. The learning is not step by step. Its not do this and then do this. It comes from need. The child says “how do it get it to….” And then typically before any answer is put forth the kid says “oh oh yeah I get it” and off they go experimenting.

In my classes at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, I typically give the kids a brief overview of the system, building and programming and then present them with a series of problems to solve with the robots. It might be as simple as trying to make the robot around a box or something more complex like delivering supplies to Martian outpost or using sensors to keep from falling off a table.

Each challenge is intended to make the kids think logically about all the steps required to solve the problem. Unlike regular school work where there is a set answer – what is the capital of Hawaii? This is real problem solving requiring experimentation and logical thinking. The kids are encouraged to fail but fail quickly so they have time to try something different.

MindStorms, a robotic invention system that is revolutionizing LEGO construction kits, grew out of the LEGO Company’s 20-year collaboration with the Media Lab. This construction kit (commercialized in 1998) is based on MIT’s Programmable Brick technology, where a tiny, portable computer is embedded inside a traditional LEGO brick. With this added technology, the brick is capable of interacting with the physical world through sensors and motors, allowing children to build and program their own robots and other computerized contraptions. This technology has been used not only for play and learning by children and teens, but also as a rapid prototyping tool by businesses (e.g., by the U.S. Postal Service).

Unfortunately for a lot of these kids their parents have purchased fancy Lego models which take hours to build and then the kids never want to take them apart because they have so much time invested in them. Its a lot different then in my house where we had buckets of loose Legos from my childhood to play with. At my classes we tear apart what we made so we can adapt to new challenges. The learning is in the visualizing of what needs to be created to solve a particular problem – not following instructions to make some Lego designers model.

I’ve enjoyed years of full classes and sold out summer camps at the AVA gallery mostly just from word of mouth, repeat students and the simply irresistible combination of Legos and robotics. Seems very few middle age school boys and girls can resist the idea of creating machines that obey their commands.

For a class list and sign up, check out the AVA Gallery’s education listings.

Photography Prints