The Crooked Line
- For each project, Bakker’s students are split into different teams. “They’re all working in twos or threes,” he says, “so they either have to teach each other or learn from each other.”
How, Bakker asked next, could they create this same love of science in their students? The result was a major restructuring of the science curriculum around the principle of inquiry. They replaced freshman biology, for instance, with a physics course heavy on investigations and light on formulas, which helped to bring more students who might have entered Deerfield with poor math instruction into the sciences. (Students now typically take biology their junior year.) And they created senior-level courses such as Physics Projects.
Bakker deliberately made Physics Projects a series of struggles for his students. “I’m not after them getting the answer,” he says. “I want them to learn what to do when they get stuck, and find ways of getting unstuck.” That’s why, when Simon’s robot would only go backwards, Bakker left him alone. “If Simon is stuck,” he says, “he should solve that, not me.”
Over at another table in the clean, bright light of room 205 that Tuesday before Parents Weekend, Simon’s friend Miles Steele and his team were having a much easier time of it. Miles is an acknowledged computer expert with the pattern-on-pattern dress of a guy who has loftier concerns than fashion. His first robot, which he built with a different team, had been “kind of shaky,” he says. “The wheels kept slipping, the balance was all wrong, and the third wheel was a spoon with a Band-aid on it.” It never worked. By Tuesday’s class, however, Miles’ new robot worked so flawlessly that his team had started to work on the next assignment.
What had changed?
The collaboration. One of Miles’ new team-members, Jake, had seen Miles’ earlier effort, so on this one he refused to let him use tape. Whereas Miles admits he has an impatience to stick things together quickly and see if they work, Jake insisted that they be more methodical. “Jake really solved a problem I have,” Miles said. “He likes to use real materials like metal and screws so it actually holds together, which is really important.”
Failure, in other words, had taught Miles life lessons he couldn’t have gotten from a textbook or a lecture hall: the danger of his own impatience, and the value of co-workers who challenge him. This is also part of Bakker’s plan. He puts his students in teams, then changes them for each project. As Dean Warsaw explains, “in the world we live in now, the solitary genius has been replaced by teams of people working together, sometimes across the world.”
In Physics Projects, this collaboration also creates cross-pollination of disciplines and talents. Some know about nuts and bolts. Some use their artistic skills to make their robots beautiful. Others write elegant code. Others create artistically edited Youtube videos about their projects, or excel at the oral presentations Bakker requires. “They’re all working in twos or threes,” Bakker says, “so they either have to teach each other or learn from each other.”
- Photovoltaic cells at the front of each robot sense light and dark and send information to a programmable, open-source microprocessor.
All Simon and his partner, Rhys Louis, seemed to be learning from each other on Tuesday, however, was that they hated their backwards robot and wanted to throw it out the window.
The program Simon and Rhys wrote for their robot was fairly simple, they thought: If the left photo-sensor on the front of their robot received a high number, representing lots of light from the course, it would make one wheel turn. If the other sensor saw a lot of light, it would make the other wheel turn. Why, then, would the robot make weird circles, or go backwards, or sometimes when they tried it on the course in the back of the class, veer off towards the abyss? They began to look more closely at their servos.
These robots didn’t have simple DC motors turning their tires. They had servos, which are more like a DC motor attached to a processor, or what Miles Steele calls a “small, stubborn brain.” Miles is the son of a software engineer, so he had already studied the program running his servos and found a way to make them behave.
Simon and Rhys, however, hadn’t been so lucky. There aren’t left and right servos, so to make their robot symmetrical they had had to mount one servo facing in the opposite direction. This meant that when they told it to run forward, it was actually making the robot turn in circles or go backwards.
When students get truly frustrated Bakker sits down with them, not to teach them the answers but to model the right thinking process: “Let’s go back to square one,” he’ll say, and get them to methodically check each step. Once they’ve got their methods straightened out, he’ll step away and let them find their own answers. He noticed that Simon and Rhys were still fiddling, so he let them be.