A would-be ratchet, marked but not yet cut
A would-be ratchet, marked but not yet cut

Today was Wednesday. Wednesday is the day I get to spend a fair bit of time in the Design Lab, working on projects.  I have a crew of students coming in every Friday now, to work on mechanical knowledge as part of a robotics program. They’re in fifth grade.  And I spent a good portion of the morning cutting ratchets for their automatons/mechanics project.  Once I finished ratchets, I moved on to eccentric cams.  And once I had made a few eccentric cams, I cut a few crankshaft pieces and assembled those.  And then the insight which had almost settled into me.

Some of the books I’ve read this year have included a number of the Maker titles published by MakerShed and Make Magazine.  And from them, I’ve gradually built up a philosophical framework for understanding the kinds of work that I should be having kids do in the Design Lab.  So the insight comes directly from the book The Maker Workbench, and it amounts to this:

  • Grades K-5 build “kits” — sets of pre-made parts that require some assembly; but basically with a student guide to help assemble them with some glue or a few simple tools, it can be done…
  • Grades 5-7 build “projects” — the teacher assigns a project, and students are shown how to complete that project using tools, that take raw materials or basic materials up from raw materials to finished parts; and then the finished parts are assembled.
  • Grade 8 learns “processes” — having learned how to build projects, and turn raw materials into finished projects, eighth graders get instruction in how to create their own projects, and complete them.
Gears in various stages of completion…

But of course, right now, that puts me in the awkward position of having to develop some kits, and some projects, and some processes, so that I can teach others to work through these processes. And I have to do it right now.  Because the end of the year is approaching, and lots of people are asking me for content as we approach the end of the year.  And I agreed to take on this extra one-quarter-long class at the end of the year. Silly me.

So here it is:  me making kits, and developing projects.  I’ve often felt that our students lack any sort of mechanical education. The fifth grade, though, the class I’m currently working with, does a couple of “take apart” days, where they disassemble machinery into as many of its small components as they can, and then label and identify them, and develop some sense of the building blocks of our current industrial culture.

In essence, though, I’m taking that process in reverse right now.  I’m cutting gears by hand, with a very sharp utility knife, and using geometry to work out the center of some plywood disks, cutting them into gears, and assembling some basic mechanisms a little at a time.  I’m trying to give them a bit more than they can do in an hour and a half, so that the smart ones will be on schedule, and the ones who need some extra help will only be a little bit behind.  I’m also not over-complicating the mechanisms, either — partly this is because I haven’t quite gotten mine to work perfectly yet, and partly because if I make them perfectly, kids will be deeply discouraged when theirs don’t turn out right.  My goal is to have some new progress for them to follow every week, and get a sense of how to build their own machinery.

Gears assembled inside a temporary housing.

But this means that I have to begin to assemble something between a kit and a project.  I know my current fifth grade students pretty well. They’re hard on equipment, and cheerfully enthusiastic about launching — and I do mean launching, as in “across the room” —anything that doesn’t work for them.   So I have to show them how I cut the ratchets, and how I cut the cams, and how I fitted the cams and ratchets on to gearshifts, and how I assembled the bearings for the control rods to slide up and down in, and….

It doesn’t all have to be perfect right out of the gate.  I have to keep telling myself that.

To do list for Friday:

  1. Get some more 3/16″ dowels, some more wooden circles, and some coat hangers (to cut into crankshafts)
  2. Build at least two more crankshafts.
  3. Cut at least two more cams and two ratchets per team.
  4. Assemble at least one more ‘box’ for the housing of the gear system, as a model for students to follow.

Eventually I’d like to have a team of students working on doing these “prep tasks” with me — kids who can be trusted with utility knives and small saws, kids who can stay focused on a simple and clear task repetitively, and kids who understand that a part is worth a thousand pictures.  A lot of the kids in this class right now expect to build robots out of Legos… I hope to show them a different way of working, in time, one which requires considerably more patience, but allows them much greater flexibility and power in the long run.

But before any of that can happen, the enlightenment of “Aha! I know how to structure my program with three stages of development: kits, projects and processes!” has to give way to the very simple and basic tasks that led to the insight — cut gears, drill crankshaft parts.  Cut gears, drill crankshaft parts.

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