I know nothing about physical computing. But that doesn’t mean my students aren’t learning about it.

I know a little about cartography, design and feminism, which I teach at the NYC iSchool in Manhattan. But physical computing — the programming of physical objects that humans can interact with, like a bike helmet that lights up when it gets dark outside — is beyond what I feel comfortable teaching.

However, I believe curiosity is enough to drive a class, and I had a hunch that physical computing would be an incredible opportunity for teaching programming, electronics, craft, design, prototyping and an entire list of other skills like persistence and collaboration.

So in September, I launched a quarter-long class (then called Media Lab, after MIT’s home of tech/design experimentation) that asked students to experiment with three different platforms: sewable circuits, using the Lilypad Arduino; conductive interfaces, using the MaKey MaKey; and 3D printing using a MakerBot. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned from teachers I follow on Twitter that I should do it anyway, so I did.

The 18 students in that first class really had to teach themselves. Because I didn’t have the answers, they had to find them elsewhere. This was an empowering — but also often frustrating — experience, and the lack of structure led to spontaneous collaborations. The student who knew the most about sewing helped everyone else with that, while the students who were more comfortable with programming shared their skills.

Towards the end of the course, I asked if anyone would be interested in sharing their unusual experience in the class with others, and five students took the lead in putting together a workshop.

Since then, the “iSchool Five” have been invited to talk about their experience at conferences in Philadelphia and Boston. Their workshops introduce educators to “maker education” — a model grounded in the belief that we learn best by making physical things with accessible tools — by teaching them how to make paper circuits, like the kind you can find in greeting cards that light up or play music.

Their goal with these workshops is to take educators through the learning process they experienced in my class: some basic instruction followed by lots of figuring it out. They want participants to leave with the confidence needed to bring this approach back to their classrooms.

The students are also excited about sharing their work with elementary-age students at other city schools. In their own words, in response to my questions, Isiah Baskins, Tianni Stancil, Nasyria Taylor (Class of 2015), Chloe Nunez and Moctar Toure (Class of 2014) describe the process:

Isiah Baskins, Tianni Stancil, Nasyria Taylor, Chloe Nunez, and Moctar Toure with teacher Christina Jenkins at a workshop in Philadelphia.
Tell us more about the class you took together. What’s a day like in Media Lab?

Moctar – A day? It’s scrambled. It’s essentially like you have a bunch of materials and a little insight into what you’re doing and go from there. Of course Ms. Jenkins gives you help when you really, really need it, but besides that you’re really on your own. You do what you can in the hour you have.

Chloe – It was very different from any class we ever had before. For the most part, you’re completely on your own and you have to figure it out. For example, you have to try to make a pocket that lights up when you close it, or a foot-activated Tetris game.

Tianni — I remember coming to class and saying, ‘This is going to be such a bad day — I don’t know what I’m doing” and I would leave with a sense of, “Oh, I’m so much closer to creating whatever I was working on at the time.”

Isiah – It was a lot of trial and error at first. The best thing is that errors were not seen as mistakes — they were seen as learning experiences that you can expand on. I wish I could take it again. We weren’t seen as students, we were seen as creators.

Chloe explains a concept at a workshop for educators.
Chloe Nunez explains a concept at a workshop for educators.

How did you end up proposing this workshop, and what do you teach?

Nasyria – We started collaborating on the applications when Ms. Jenkins told us about some conferences we could apply to. We wanted to keep our “conversation” very simple but also personal. We wanted them to experience the way we learned, and we wanted to tell them about our experiences. Before we went to Philly, we practiced the workshop with some teachers at the iSchool.

Chloe – Our workshop is mostly us teaching the most basic thing we learned first:  paper circuits. It’s the basis for everything else. That’s what we start with, just doing simple circuits on paper using copper tape, coin cell batteries and LEDs, and then we go on to sewable circuits.

Now we’re trying to expand our horizons into notebook hacking or circuit stickers. That was the best part of the conference in Boston! We met Jie Qi (a doctoral student at MIT’s Media Lab who has done pioneering work in paper circuitry, co-developed Circuit Stickers, and is collaborating with the National Writing Project on Hacking the Notebook).  She did this awesome interactive painting, and it was really inspirational to see. I think meeting her was the push that made us want to take what we’re doing even further.

Tianni – I want to go to college to do this!

Students' workshop plan.
Students’ workshop plan.

How did you feel about working with adults? 

Tianni — At the beginning, it’s a little scary. But when they’re so amazed, it’s so … empowering. They’re not the only ones who can teach — we have something to teach too.

Chloe — I like how they get as excited as we did. I like seeing that, like when they say, “Oh my God, I did it!” It takes some of the stress off.

What’s next for you?

Tianni — Hopefully Connecticut, North Carolina, the White House — world tour!

Chloe — We’re currently waiting to hear from the Westport Mini Maker Faire and the White House Maker Faire, and we’re looking into applying to one in North Carolina. We’re also going to try to advance our workshop and move our focus to elementary school-age children in the city. It’s simple enough for them to understand but also really fun. We’re also going to reach out to a few principals in New York City to talk about doing some workshops and see what happens.  If it goes well enough, we’re going to need people’s help to advance our work.

What advice do you have for teachers who are interested in bringing this kind of work back to their students?

Isiah – Just do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt the learning. It’s not something you force students to do but something that’s available to them.

Chloe – When teaching a class like this, it’s okay to not be on your students every step of the way. Give them the materials and guidance and let them figure it out on their own. Encourage them to collaborate with others in a natural way, not forced.

The “iSchool Five” can be reached on Twitter at @iSchoolFive or at iSchoolFive@gmail.com.

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