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Dissolving the walls: how a guest speaker sparked new possibilities

Grant Knowles (Chattanooga, TN) – Morning car rider duty is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, but you’re fairly sure things will get a little nutty.  This morning it provided the same experience over and over for each sixth grader I teach in our new VW eLab: each student popped out of their car ready to share.  I got ideas, I got questions, I got excitement.

Yesterday we launched our EdCorp by having a guest speaker, David Barron from Siskin Hospital’s Physical Rehabilitation Center, to come and talk with class about the challenges his patients deal with, both physically and emotionally, about their needs and the costs involved acquiring braces, splints and other orthotics they needed to help improve their quality of life.  This whole talk was spurred by students exploding with interest from our introduction to our new 3D printers.

Our school, Normal Park Museum Magnet, in Chattanooga, TN, was one of eight grant recipients which awarded us a VW eLab in partnership with the state of Tennessee. So we are surrounded by new, cool tech, but what do we do with? As an introduction to 3D printing, I had the students look into how we could use our new tech and all the knowledge we’d soon have to help people around us.  Sure, it’s cool to print Spongebob, but service learning and being civically involved has always shown me more long lasting engagement than anything else.  We came across orthotics, and other adaptive health technology.  Students saw multiple devices printed to help people hold toothbrushes, type or open a two liter bottle.  They asked questions about causes and effects to which I didn’t have answers.  We took a whole class to build empathy; we went through tasks like teeth brushing, typing, handwriting and opening water bottles, all without the use of our thumbs or fingers independently.   The challenges stuck with them.

I invited Mr. Barron to come speak with us, and the students took notes on their own.  Middle school students, taking notes, without being asked.  I’ll let that sink in.

They asked questions, they followed up new learning with deeper questions.  They were brainstorming and ideating on the spot.  They couldn’t get enough, and couldn’t wait to get started.  Our debrief was quick, after their time to dismiss to their next class, but they held back.  They wanted to make decisions on the spot.  We rethought our business as we walked out of class.

The sixth graders have been excited to start their EdCorp since the beginning of the year. I told them I had the idea to use their math and science learning to build small scale aquaponics systems, but this idea exploded for them.  It was their idea, and they were unanimous in their thinking.  This was their business.  This was their way of using their learning to help the world around them, and if things go well, the world outside of theirs as well.  They were excited at any idea, but the ability to find their own challenge, to empathize with people affected, to learn from a mentor was what they needed.

If they’re already excited enough to fire themselves out of a car into school on a cold, dark morning, then I can’t wait to see where the rest of this journey takes us.

Grant Knowles is a middle school educator at Normal Park Museum Magnet school in Chattanooga, TN. He runs the VW eLab, which was one of several maker spaces recently launched to expose students to digital fabrication tools that foster creativity. Follow Grant Knowles at @NPMMVWeLab