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Teaching with Touch

05/27/2015

Assistant Professor Cas Holman (right) puts students’ projects in context for LEGO Education representatives Jesper Elling, Louise Aagaard and Jesper Just Jensen.

In late May students in an interdisciplinary studio that caps RISD’s two-part collaboration with LEGO Education presented final projects to an international group of designers and educators. Rather than create finished products, students were asked to explore the role of play in early education and shed light on how rapidly evolving digital and analogue tools can work together in a constructivist learning environment. Assistant Professor of Industrial Design Cas Holman, who’s known for her own work in designing tools that enable kids to learn through making, taught the spring portion of the LEGO Education collaboration.

Building on theoretical research conducted during a Wintersession seminar led by Associate Professor Nicole Merola, head of Literary Arts + Studies, students in the spring studio were given free rein to explore speculative, “fairy-powered” ideas, engaging in the kind of blue-sky thinking that provides real insights. But they also benefited from a mid-semester reality check from Gordon School teacher and early education specialist Ngina Johnson, who pointed out that the best classroom tools “empower kids to take risks and have fun, to collaborate, cooperate, argue and ask questions.”

Students worked individually and in teams, designing a wide range of tools and related curricula. One proposed device is intended to trigger learning via cross-sensory experiences involving sound and color. Another takes advantage of real-world archiving technologies, allowing children and teachers to build their own databases of sharable ideas and helping kids communicate with peers in classrooms across town and around the world.

In Play Space sophomore Nadine Zaza BArch 17 – who says she  learned more in the playground as a young child than she did at school – explored the concept of tactile learning. Her futuristic device would allow kids to navigate fluidly between real and digital environments, creating play spaces by sweeping a hand across a tablet and then testing them out in real time.

“I read this work as a science fiction utopia,” notes Edith K. Ackermann, a developmental psychologist who served as a visiting critic. “And I like the fact that it’s possible for users to tweak their own work and hypotheses as they go. It’s an improvement over the way we use digital tools now: to design a project from start to finish that then gets turned over to a 3D printer, which spits out a completed object – boom!”

Architecture major Andrew Yon BArch 16 recalls being asked to make similarly vague leaps in his thought process as a primary school student. “I remember being frustrated as a kid because we were told to plug numbers into these black boxes that magically provided solutions, but the theory behind the math was never explained or applied to the real world,” he says.

Yon’s Learn-E-Journey employs digital tools to enable a new system of teaching and assessment – one in which learning is a nonlinear journey and teachers pinpoint each student’s capabilities to determine where they need more attention. “The current educa­tional system attempts to teach to the middle,” he explains, “whereas the L-E-J would allow each student to create his or her own path of learning. This approach encourages more intrinsically motivated learners.”

Jesper Just Jensen, a senior director at LEGO Education who traveled from Denmark to engage with students on multiple occasions, was intrigued by many of the ideas presented. He appreciated students’ “very personal, philosophical and inspiring approaches.” And Executive Director of RISD Research Daniel Hewett responded favorably to projects that allow for “do-it-yourself” hands-on learning, noting that physical gestures can help bring intangible concepts to life.

Pleased with the work students presented, Holman notes that RISD embarked on this partnership with LEGO with no preconceived notions about what the outcomes might be. That said, she feels that students rose to the challenge, “raised provocative questions and envisioned novel ways to use technology and hands-on making to shape the future of early education.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: Architecture, English, global, innovation, interdisciplinary, Industrial Design, partnerships + collaborations, students

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.