For teachers, creating constructive and dynamic curriculum and activities is our most common creative task. Since I started working on the STEAM program last year, I have become much more conscious of the role that iterative design can play in the process of creating effective projects for learning. This process really came to the forefront as the STEAM and make teachers developed a program we are calling “Pop Up Projects.”

We wanted to create a STEAM/make experience for two programs that offer to bring parts of the Friends’ Central experience to groups other than our current students. The first program, called Night Out In the Classroom, invites parents to spend an evening as a student, participating in classes led by FCS faculty. The second program would be part of an initiative from the Admission Office to bring groups from local independent middle schools to campus to experience a bit of what learning can be like at Friends’ Central. We were also interested in creating small projects for our own students to work on that could be completed in a very short timeframe, and to have something available for future short workshops, community outreach events, or any other occasion to model the STEAM experience through a short activity.

The Goals

  • Projects should involve building something.

  • Projects should be collaborative, to be completed in teams.

  • Projects should be open-ended to allow maximum creative and interpretive freedom, but provide concrete goals and enough structure to start without being overwhelmed by “the blank page.”

  • Projects should be able to be constructed with a combination of electronic and analog materials.

  • Projects should force you to think about the process of creation.

  • Projects should push you to work outside your comfort zone and try new things.

  • Projects should be a heck of a lot of fun.

The Challenges

  • Projects must be accessible to participants from age 12 to adults, with only minimal modifications.

  • Projects must be accessible to people with no background in computer programming, robotics, mechanical engineering, etc.

  • Projects must be able to be completed in 1-2 hours.

  • Project supplies must be affordable and mostly reusable.

The Design

We started thinking about some common physics/engineering/maker prompts and projects –  things like Rube Goldberg devices, mousetrap-powered cars, homemade musical instruments, and basic robots.

The first task was to design new prompts around these classic tropes. The most difficult goal to meet was creating a prompt that was open-ended, but structured enough to present a clear goal and not be overwhelming. The different project ideas provided distinct challenges in this regard. In the case of the Rube Goldberg project, “Create a Rube Goldberg device” seemed far too open-ended. Our solution: Transform a traditional pegboard marble run prompt into a challenge to create a pegboard pinball machine. The mousetrap car prompt had the opposite problem. The standard prompt seemed too restricting. We were reluctant to tie the propulsion of the vehicle to one particular component, we wanted participants to design their own propulsion system – mousetrap could be one option, but so could a balloon, a slingshot, an electric motor, or anything else they may think of. The solution: make the prompt about building a vehicle to travel a certain distance or speed, rather than about the specific construction materials.

Not surprisingly, meeting the challenges proved to be more challenging than meeting the goals. (That’s why they’re called challenges, right?) We were stuck trying to figure out how to incorporate electronics and robotics components in a way that was accessible to those with no programming background and could be incorporated into projects very quickly. In STEAM and make we often use computers and microcontrollers like Raspberry Pi or Arduino to complete these sort of tasks. Both are small and powerful computing devices, but both need to be programmed to do anything. Even using a simple graphical programming tool like Scratch would take a significant amount of time, and more knowledge of computer science principles than we were willing to assume our project participants would always have. Also the costs associated with these devices by themselves are inexpensive, but they must be hooked up to keyboards and monitors or computers to be programmed. Then they must be connected through wires and breadboards to integrate with other components – additional skills that we weren’t willing to make prerequisites to participation.

We were stumped. We did more research. We discovered littleBits.

These magnetic snap-together robotic modules were exactly what we were looking for in order to integrate simple electronics components into these projects. Thanks to contributions from our Admission and Advancement offices we were able to purchase an assortment of bits to use for these projects.

We had a lot of fun brainstorming an eclectic list of analog supplies to make available as well. Some materials were obvious: cardboard, hot glue, rubber bands, springs, wheels, zip ties. Other items seemed versatile for creative repurposing: CD’s, tin cans, balloons, soda bottles. Still others were included for maximum creativity: markers, pom-poms, colored paper, pipe cleaners, and, of course, googly eyes.

We also felt it was important to provide each group with a dry erase board and markers to encourage deliberate thought and design as part of the process.

 We were concerned that we had oversimplified the projects for older or more advanced users, or for workshop experiences for which we may have a slightly longer timeframe. We added extra challenges to each project and got to work designing and formatting the project prompts:

The First Test Run: STEAM

With our project descriptions printed and our supplies in place, we decided to try out our prototype projects during a double-block of STEAM. We gave students the option to participate in this trial or continue working on their own projects. Most were ready for a break and chose to give the pop up projects a try. We divided the students into four groups of 3 or 4 students each and gave each group a project sheet, a supplies list that included descriptions of all the available littleBits, and a couple small whiteboards. With a brief introduction to how to use the littleBits, they were off and running.

We decided to give them very little introduction so as to better determine areas where it would be beneficial to add more structure in future iterations. I find this approach to be easier to evaluate and adapt than to over-structure an assignment and then try to determine areas where structure can be decreased. This approach does, however, often lead to some very interesting and unexpected first experiences.

We learned a few things:

  • Groups need to be able to choose their projects. In the interest of time, we randomly assigned projects to groups. The level of interest the group had in the task at hand, not surprisingly, had a significant impact on the outcome of the project. We created two new projects, an art-bot and a timekeeping device, so groups could have even more choice.

  • Some of the projects and supplies needed tweaking. The musical instrument prompt needed to be reworked, and elements that were originally in the main mission became extra challenges. The pegboard for the pinball prompt needed some additional support and side rails to contain the ball. A few additional supplies needed to be ordered.

  • We need to provide a little more information and context. While the students were building, the teachers were making notes about information or structures that may have made the experience go a little smoother. Some of these ideas had to do with providing more context others were more practical about the use of certain materials. We created this tip sheet to use for our next event:

 Prime Time: Night Out in the Classroom

Our next opportunity to roll out the pop up projects came the following week when we were joined by nine FCS parents and one alumnus, eager for a taste of the STEAM experience. This time we had a bit more of an introduction prepared and we were able to share the tips we learned from watching STEAM students try these projects out. The parents formed two groups and chose their projects. A very brief and frantic 45 minutes later we had an incredibly well crafted robotic monster and pegboard pinball machine.

The Final Test: Sixth Graders

The next week we were visited by a group of 18 sixth graders and two teachers from the Miquon School. This was our final and most challenging test run for these Pop Up Projects. We had already fine tuned the experience with our own STEAM students. We had run the program very successfully with adults. Now it was time to see if we had designed something that was truly a valuable experience for all ages.

 For this age group we decided it would be useful to provide a bit more structure to the experience. Specifically, we created some tools to help highlight and focus students on the different types of thinking and working that we hoped they would utilize. After our general introduction to the projects, the five groups (helpfully pre-arranged by their teachers) chose their projects.

Rather than dive straight into the chaos of creation we asked them to take a few minutes to “Think with your eyes.” This gave the students some time to look over the materials they had been given and begin to think about how they would approach the activity.

After that they were asked to “Think with your group,” for another five minutes or so. As the members of the group shared and debated their ideas, the whiteboards quickly became filled with drawings and plans for how each group would proceed.

After this brief, but deliberate, planning period, the groups were ready to “Think with their hands.” This mode of thinking and working would occupy the majority of the allotted project time (in this case about 90 minutes). A STEAM student mentor joined each group to help the students return to thinking with their eyes and groups in a three-part iterative process.

For the entire 90 minutes, the room was filled with an energy that only eighteen excited twelve year-olds can produce. Activity was flurried and frantic. Groups paused occasionally to think with their eyes or with each other before returning to the hands-on activity with new ideas and clearer goals. As noon approached the sounds of buzzers and motors and the enthusiastic shouts of celebration when an art bot rolled or a robot danced grew louder. As Colin called, “Time’s Up!” we gathered around to see the five completed projects. The students left for lunch feeling a well-deserved sense of accomplishment.

Introducing Pop Up Projects

With the successful conclusion of our event with Miquon, we decided that these projects were ready to leave their “beta” phase. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to tweak the challenges, add new supplies, or come up with entirely new project prompts as we continue to evolve the experience. What it does mean is that we are ready to share our work with anyone who is interested. There are two ways to experience Pop Up Projects for yourself. If you would like to join us for a Pop Up Project event at Friends’ Central or in your own school, library, or community center we would love to work with you and make that happen. We are also sharing these projects under a Creative Commons license (attribution, non-commercial, share-alike). We would be happy to share all of our project sheets, tip sheets, powerpoint slides, and supplies list with you.

We can’t wait for our next chance to engage minds and hands with these Pop Up Projects, to continue to learn from the experiences, evolve the program, and make learning about design and engineering as much fun as we can.


Modeling Iterative Design: Introducing Pop Up Projects

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