Constructing Modern Knowledge begins with a ritual intended to kickoff four days of project-based learning. I learned a version of this brainstorming technique in the 1980s from my mentors, Dan and Molly Lynn Watt. I ask participants to take over their teacher hat and put on their learner hat; to spend a few days learning selfishly.

Participants are asked to share an idea for something they wish to make – not a set of techniques or skills they wish to learn. We write all of the ideas down on large Post-It notes hanging on the wall. Once the project ideas are shared, I ask who is interested in each project. You may express interest in as many projects as appeal to you. Those people’s names are then listed under each project. It is around this time that someone points out that the number of projects outnumbers participants. So, we may consolidate project ideas.

Expressing interest in projects

After allowing everyone to marinate in the project ideas, I ask for a volunteer to be a beacon, not a leader, for each project. The only responsibility of the “beacon” is standing somewhere for a few minutes so potential collaborators know where to “bunch up.”

That’s it! There is no formal instruction, Constructing Modern Knowledge participants then spend the next 3 1/2 days working on a variety of projects in a supportive, material rich, non-coercive environment.

Project Ideas

At CMK 2011, Rick Weinberg, a learning specialist for a BOCES in upstate NY, contributed an interesting project idea. Rick said that he wanted to invent a way to charge his iPhone while riding his bicycle to work. Crazy, right?

Rick gets down to business

Colleagues drop by occasionally to think with Rick.

Although, several people indicated interest in Rick’s project, he largely worked alone. He began building a LEGO model in which a motor was used as a generator and a small lightbulb would be used to indicate the generation of electricity.

Faculty consults and collaborates

Throughout the project development process, members of the Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty check-in with participants or are asked to share specific expertise. More often than not, this is an opportunity for

teacher and student to learn together.

Faculty member, John Stetson, checks-in with Rick
John & Rick collaborate

Rick tests a prototype

Rick shares his working model with guest speaker, Lella Gandini

Bicycle needed!

Day two saw a local participant contribute a bicycle to our collection of objects to think with. This upped the ante for Rick and allowed him to move from model to a series of prototypes

Then the craziest thing happened

After another couple of days tinkering, experimenting, engineering and over-engineering (see video for explanation), the craziest thing happened. The invention worked!

As Rick peddles the bike, energy is generated by the LEGO generator attached to the rear wheel and powers the attached iPhone backup battery.

As you might imagine

As word spread of his success as an inventor, Rick’s fellow educators participating in Constructing Modern Knowledge wanted to see for themselves, ask questions and document the LEGO Bicycle iPhone Charger with all manner of cameras, cellphones and iPads.

Rick the engineer

Rick Weinberg is obviously an engineer with years worth of science and engineering experience under his belt, right?

Is it possible that complex work, like that demonstrated by this project, is possible without following a hierarchical sequence of skill development or formal instruction? Or can a good motivating prompt, appropriate materials, supportive culture and sufficient time allow learners of all ages to solve problems bigger than themselves?

Engineer? from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Over-engineering, childhood lessons from Dad and the learning story behind this project

Watch the following video telling the story of Rick’s project development and the myriad of interdisciplinary lessons learned en-route.

LEGO Bicycle iPhone Charger Learning Story from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

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