Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Making tough stuff fun

This summer I took my kids, 15, 13 and 8 to the Museum of Science in Boston. They love the exhibits that let them interact with things. One of the things they like is the computer room. There we discovered the West Point Bridge Design software. Turns out this is a completely free piece of software whose purpose is to "provide middle school and high school students with a realistic, engaging introduction to engineering."

Being aimed at kids, there is also a contest involved, where kids use the software to design the least expensive bridge that can successfully carry the simulated weight of traffic across it.

What is interesting about this software is that while it works like a game, it is very sophisticated - during simulated load tests, it shows both compression forces and tension forces. When the design is poor, the bridge fails in a catastrophic way! But the software allows potential bridge designers to learn from their mistakes, not guess at the solution through trial and error by providing information on stress failures and pin-pointing issues. You can change the thickness of a member, or change its metallurgy, and the software provides a graph that shows what the change means to the strength of each member.

When I was in college, I had friends that were studying to be civil engineers. They spent a lot of time working on the math that supports these concepts. I bet they would have loved to actually see how their design decisions are affected by forces pulling and squeezing their designs. In fact, one of the highlights of their coursework was when they built a bridge out of balsa wood which they then subjected to stress until it broke. But this exercise came after a whole bunch of math and other pre-requisites.

Wouldn't it be cool if instead of starting with loads of math, potential civil engineers started by actually designing stuff? Yes, the math is required - but linking it to experience (even if virtual) would really make it stick. This approach is sometimes referred to as experiential learning. The idea is to engage students in direct experience then use the results to focus their energies on reflecting on what happened. It is natural for people to want to correct their own mistakes - it is what makes games so popular - when you "die" in a computer game, your natural instinct is to try again. But the difference between games and formal education is that games are safe, so you are willing to try again.

Imagine potential lawyers in mock trials, potential airline pilots getting access to life-like simulators, or potential army doctors working on virtual patients! Like the Bridge Building simulator, I recommend putting the play forward of the formal learning as a way of creating stronger connections between the tangible and abstract, and even better is where the two can be combined.

More on this topic to come in future posts!

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