Sunday, November 22, 2015

Serendipity is allowed

How's this for a lesson plan?

Serendipity is allowed . . . and even encouraged.

It is a philosophy set forth by Ed Moriarty, an instructor at MIT's Edgerton Center.  Opening the doors of the strobe lab for "that Saturday thing," as it is called by the students, Ed provides mentorship and asks challenging questions of children and adults of all ages who drop by to play and experiment.

Here is learning at its most creative, combining physical manipulation of electrical components with thoughtful observation.  There is no syllabus, just the joy of learning.

We were giving some friends a tour of MIT and we had explained that the philosophy of play is an important component of life at MIT.  We walked by the strobe lab at an opportune moment and were immediately hijacked by Ed. He said, "Hey, come in here. I want to show you some stuff."

He borrowed a circuit that eight-year-old Amelia had constructed and asked us, "What kind of shadow is created when you have three small diodes shining red, blue, and green and put a finger in front of one of them?"

"What if you hold up several fingers and the shadow falls on someone's face?"

Or as above, "What happens when water comes out of a sixty cycle-per-second pump and is illuminated by a sixty flash-per-second strobe?"  This little boy learned that the stream of water is actually composed of droplets, not a continuous stream.

As noted on the Edgerton Center website:

Always willing to follow students’ lead and to let them discover their own voice, Moriarty offers the intellectual and emotional support that enables students of all ages to learn to engineer by doing.

What do we do in classrooms?  Well, for the most part, we throw away spontaneity and and shoehorn students into tightly constrained curricula.  They learn the facts, but they often lose the creativity and joy of learning that comes from impulse and experimentation.  They soon forget the surprises that serendipity can bring.

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