Intro to Makers: Communication Challenge
The most important thing I’ve learned in 15 years of teaching is that the calendar lies. November 12th doesn’t look that close to January 15th, but then the alarm goes off and somehow the year reads 2013 and everything falls off the rails. Or maybe I’ve just learned that concrete planning for the next terms is one productive way to deal with my November funk.
In the second semester I’ll have a new batch of 7th grade students entering the Makerspace for the first time. One of the great scheduling idiosyncrasies of this weird class is we rolled from a spring 7th grade elective into a fall 8th grade class. While there have been some real benefits to that continuity, I’m excited about presenting an explicit Intro to Maker Culture sequence for these new students. I’ve thought at length about design thinking, read pedagogy about project designs that encourage rather than restrict student creativity. I’m a year older, and while that’s not much in fraction terms, this has been my first orbit in a Maker-Teacher mindset.
In the spirit of Gary Stager’s Good Projects and the Maker’s Grimore, here’s the first in a non-sequential run of “opening” projects for spring Makers. The content here steals extensively from the first few chapters of James Glick’s Information– which is a great book and an AMAZING audio book.
I envision this a a series of running projects, based on the fundamental historic challenge of communicating a message further and faster than a human can run. This is an attempt to motivate a constructivist playground of communication technologies, rather than trying to teach about serial protocols, morse code or semaphore. Ideally this will work like Cardboard Automata for communications protocols, where students start with the most basic materials to accomplish a relatively simple task, and then adapt as the challenge escalates.
The physical locations will drive changes to the technological solutions. For the first round we’ll stand at the end of our academic hallways, with full visibility and just out of auditory range. The next challenge will be between two non-adjacent classrooms, then from non-line of sight sections of the fields, then… who knows. Great solutions that rely on specific properties of one location will struggle in the next.
The structure of the messages will change each time as well, quietly pushing students deeper into information theory. Maybe the first week will just have a list of 5 simple and distinct phrases. One group could do really well by choosing a simple set of 5 gestures as an elementary phrase book. That technique would be difficult to implement for an arbitrary phrase from a 20 word vocabulary and more so for a message that involved arbitrary numeric values.
In each challenge, there will be some third-rail of “WHOOPS!” that designs need to avoid. During the first week, it will be causing any disturbance to classrooms on that hallway. On others, there might be members of other groups stationed in specific positions as interceptors. Hitting the “WHOOPS!” rail doesn’t invalidate the communication, but it’s a clear way to constrain the design space.
How far could this project go? I honestly have no idea, and that accounts for much of my enthusiasm. If the initial challenges are kept small, then at the very least it will provide students with a great opportunity to complete a design cycle. As soon as one group succeeds by emulating some historic communication system, be it talking drums or the Clacks, then I think we’ll be off to the races. I’m not looking for them to recreate the entire history of telecommunication in a few weeks, but this seems like it will provide enough concrete experience to being discussion of message density, signal vs noise, and yes serial communication protocols. Which is great, because I have a pile of nerdy ASCII jokes just waiting for an audience.