Editor’s note: This week, Stephanie Chang gives us an overview of the making happening at The Menlo School, one of the MENTOR Makerspace pilot schools in 2012-13. Dr. James Dann (pictured right) and his students in his Applied Science Research (ASR) class have exhibited at Maker Faire for the past five years. James asked to join our network only if he would not take this space of another school just starting out, and if we felt that what he has learned running the ASR class would be valuable to our other pilot schools. As you’ll learn in this profile, and his presentation in one of our Google hangouts, it certainly is! (If you watch the video, please skip to timecode 2:42.) In that presentation, we especially liked his sharing the “golden rule” of the safety-focused Arthur Allen Whitaker Lab: “Ten digits in, ten digits out.”
In one corner of the classroom sits a hand-built air hockey table, designed and created from scratch by two high school girls in Dr. James Dann’s Applied Science Research (ASR) class at the Menlo School. It’s perfectly functional, a second iteration with at least 500 individually-drilled miniscule holes to allow for the correct rate of air flow. On another table nearby is a motorized go-kart, and an Induction Maglev track sits close-by as well. Models of student-designed motors – the first project of the year in ASR – are stored high above a set of cabinets. In order to build the motors, students had to learn about and put together a number of concepts and skills: magnetic fields, torque, alternating/direct current, wood construction, 3D printing, etc. And hidden behind cabinet doors are materials for the second project of ASR – a high-altitude weather balloon that needs to launch (often 1000 feet above ground), collect data about atmospheric conditions via its various sensors, and transmit data about its position in order to be retrieved. These projects are only a sample of the ingenuity, creativity, and real learning that happens in Dr. Dann’s classroom. He talks about them – the projects, the class, his students – with a light-hearted chuckle that belies the true passion and care that accompanies his teaching. In June 2012, he was given the Distinguished Teacher award, a designation voted on by students and a plaque that he proudly displays in his office.
A scientist by training who had a career at CERN before he dove into education, James Dann teaches not only Applied Science Research but also freshman physics and AP Physics C. There is no doubt that he likes teaching physics overall, but it’s obvious that he loves teaching physics in a hands-on, project-based, non-traditional way that eschews standards and test prep and instead focuses on design, building, iteration, analysis, and presentation. The juniors and seniors who voluntarily take ASR as an elective jump right into projects. In line with James’ teaching philosophy, skills and topics are taught on a need-to-know basis, where they’ll be utilized and applied immediately. This way, students don’t learn about the ideal gas law four years too early and then, have to re-learn it again when it becomes useful for calculating atmospheric pressure. Instead, they learn how to strip wires, program sensors and Arduinos, calculate magnetic fields, create 3D CAD sketches – all for the purposes of their projects. In other words, they make.
Students spend the first five to six weeks of a 14-week semester making a motor. They must learn the concepts, build a functional motor, take measurements to prove and understand how it works, and write a paper about it. This is no small feat, as a motor is actually quite a complicated machine that takes into account all aspects of physics: mechanics, electricity, and magnetism.
The second project, which takes up the remaining weeks of the first semester, is one based more in scientific research: making, launching, and collecting data via a weather balloon in order to better understand and interpret atmospheric science. Two months worth of work culminate in a 12-hour Saturday where James and his students head up to Marin and launch each group’s weather balloon. There, they hope that all the mechanics, radio transmitters, GPS chip, backup data collectors, and sensors work perfectly – if for no other reason than to easily track the landing location of the balloon. Otherwise, the day extends a bit longer with wild-goose weather-balloon chases through woods and over rooftops. Back in the classroom, students, fully immersed in their scientific responsibilities, review their data in order to interpret their findings and conclusions. Last year, the class had 3 groups go up above 120,000 ft. and the students were able to recover all three payloads and all data. Here’s one group’s video of their balloon heading up to space.
Students in ASR embark on a second-semester project of their own choosing. Some work individually, others in groups, and they all spend at least one full week brainstorming and researching different project ideas and wishes, often using MAKE Magazine and Scientific American as starting points. Some focus on variations of tried-and-true engineering projects, including modified scooters and go-karts, but others venture down a more scientifically-inclined route, building Helmholtz coils for deeper scientific research. Whether they choose to work as a group or on an individual basis, all students inevitably collaborate with one another. Students have differing levels of academic and practical knowledge, and those with expertise in one area trade secrets and strategies with students with experience in another realm. Whether intentional or not, the classroom becomes a lively, messy, and collaborative space for hands-on, real-time learning.
The final products of the class are visible – they sit on floors and tables and are often displayed at Maker Faire in May. They also survive as models for the next year’s class. In addition to the actual projects, there are other products too: research papers. James asks students to write scientific research papers for each of their projects, providing constructive feedback on progressive drafts throughout the semesters. He meets with them periodically, and he grades them on their concepts, analysis of data, clarity of explanation – all components of actual papers published in journals. There are abstracts, historical background, graphs, charts, 3D drawings, formulas, technical specifications, calculations, scientific theory and calibrations, conclusions, and appendices. Papers range from 20 to 60 pages in length and force these juniors and seniors to translate their learning into a real-world format. Along the way, they learn how to write too. There are no tests, no quizzes, no high-stakes evaluations, just papers that show the students’ processes and demonstrate their understanding.
With more than six years of ASR under his belt, James has triggered an increased appreciation and interest in learning through making. Before the beginning of this 2012-2013 academic year, James’ classroom was a typical science classroom, bright and sunny with wall cabinets and floor cabinets jammed full with measurement tools, woodworking equipment, electronics parts and sensors, and a sole 3D printer. It contained about 4 big benches, along with a few small tables and chairs, and one side was lined with 6-8 iMacs. Originally, James had to do a lot of wheeling-in and wheeling-out, and students spent a solid chunk of their 55-minute class period setting things up and putting things away. This past summer though, the plows and backhoes were out in full force, as they cleared out and repurposed the Upper School’s basement storage space into a new ASR space: officially christened the Whitaker Lab in late October. The dusty basement is now a well-lit, vast expanse of workspace, complete with movable desks and carts, a conference room for brainstorming and presentations, an equipment area with a table saw and laser cutter, a Robotics wing, and even a sunny patio. It is well-used too, housing not only James’ classes but also Engineering, MBEST (Menlo’s Bridge to Engineering, Science, and Technology program for girls), and Robotics. James sets up – and leaves out – vacuum and temperature chambers, woodworking and electronics tools, and measurement stations. At long last, the space matches the aspirations of James’ classes and intentions.
He hopes to continue teaching Applied Science Research – and offer more of it – to students (and girls especially) in the years to come. James acknowledges the steep learning curve that he embarked on as he uncovered how to best teach a class like this, and he happily and willingly offers his experience and wisdom to other teachers who are bringing making to their classrooms and schools – with whatever supplies and whatever budget. It’s obvious that he’s done a remarkable job in just a few years; a graduated senior stopped by his classroom to say hello during our summer conversation and ask about when he could drop by to do some work. This particular student entered Menlo School with an unlikely background from a struggling socioeconomic sector, and he walks away headed to Duke, supported by his experiences learning from and with Dr. James Dann.