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And for an encore…

Posted by on Nov 26, 2010 in General | One Comment

A lot of the folks who learn about the Workshop come to it by way of the EVX project. This makes sense; it’s inspirational and makes an amazing story. The question that these people always ask Simon and the team is: what are you going to do next?

The most obvious answer, and the one we typically offer, is that we want to start a school. The real product of projects like EVX, we explain, is not cars. It is a way of learning, and a way of thinking about learning.

For some people, this is too abstract. They may be interested and sympathetic, but they need to see some tangible product. For them, I offer this as our next mission: We will be the first team of urban high school students to successfully compete in PunkinChunkin.

Some might wonder: what possible social benefit is there in spending an inordinate amount of time (and money) building elaborate contraptions whose sole purpose is to fling a pumpkin as far as possible? (And believe me, far means far: the record is approaching a mile now.)

None whatsoever, and this point is worth pondering for a moment.

A thought experiment: give me 40 kids from the same high school. Assign half of them to two years of conventional math and science (say, algebra, chemistry and physics), and the other half to PunkinChunkin (with us teaching it). Come back to those kids seven years later (that is, five years after the experiment ends). Ask them what they recall about the content they were taught during this period. I’ll bet you a dozen of those amazing cream donuts Ann Cohen gets from the Italian bakery that the PunkinChunkin kids win in a landslide when it comes to retaining math and science concepts. While you’re at it, ask them about whether they pursued STEM careers once they finished school. Dollars to donuts (of course) you’d get the same result.

So what does this tell us? First, learning by working on real problems is important and serious work, but if cannot be the only work we do. Wonks are fond of talking about making people “life long learners,” which means that sometimes learning has to be its own reward. Second, spending two years learning to fling pumpkins may be pointless, but it is likely far less pointless than high school as we know it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.