The Crooked Line
By Nathaniel Reade
Photographs by Brent M. Hale
It’s Friday morning of Parents Weekend in room 205 of the Koch Center, and Simon Moushabeck is feeling nervous. A smiling senior with curly dark hair and the stylish dress of a jazz musician, he and his teammate are about to demonstrate the robot they’ve built before an audience that includes their teacher, their fellow students, and a passel of fathers, mothers, and siblings. This robot is supposed to follow a course of black tape that twists and turns over a white board like an indecisive river. Instead, it has shown an unpleasant tendency to misbehave. During most of Tuesday’s class, for instance, it would only go backwards.
Simon is one of 13 students in a class called Physics Projects that is taught by the chair of the Science Department, Ben Bakker, a modest man with a white goatee. This was the second robot they’d built in the class. Photovoltaic cells at the front sense light and dark, and send information to a programmable, open-source microprocessor called an Arduino Board. Simon and his classmates had to pass AP Physics to get into this class, but the majority of them aren’t science or computer experts. Most of them had never programmed a computer before or written a line of code.
- Sometimes the best learning, like the best robot, has to follow a crooked line.
Bakker knew that Simon and many of his classmates were nervous about programming for the first time. He knew they were probably thinking, “This is too much for me.” He could have taught them programming, but he actually tries to create situations that make them nervous. He showed them some websites and said, “It’s pretty easy. Go learn it yourself.”
He also gave them crucial advice. “Sometimes you will hate your robot and want to throw it out the window,” he said. “Don’t do that. Stick with it.” Then, even when many of his students’ robots were twirling in endless circles, going backwards, or failing to move at all, he’d say, “You don’t need me here,” and walk out the door. Bakker isn’t lazy, and he doesn’t want to see his students fail. He does this because, he says, “This class isn’t really about robots.” Instead he’s trying to teach them much bigger lessons about work, life, and themselves. And he knows that sometimes the best learning, like the best robot, has to follow a crooked line.
Ben Bakker’s methods may seem unorthodox, but they represent an approach to teaching that experts consider to be far more suited to the world we now live in. As Deerfield’s Academic Dean Peter Warsaw explains, in the past education mostly consisted of transferring information: facts and formulas.
- In the 21st century, teachers need to help their students find, analyze, and use information now available at the click of a mouse.
In the 21st century, however, information is available at the click of a mouse. The best teachers, therefore, no longer act like the “sage on the stage” so much as “the guide on the side,” trying to develop the abilities and attitudes their students will need to find, analyze, and use all this information.
Bakker cites Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who noticed that too many of his smart, highly-educated graduate students, when they got into his lab, sat there and waited for somebody to tell them what to do. The trouble with that, Bakker says, is that “nobody knows what the next great question or problem is going to be.”
So Deerfield’s Science Department decided a few years ago to reexamine the very core of what it was doing. Bakker asked his teachers a question: “What were you doing when you first fell in love with science?” Biologists, chemists, and physicists all had a similar answer: They hadn’t been sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture; they had been dissecting, investigating, testing a hypothesis, solving a problem.