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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Tech Teacher: Do-It-Yourself Projects Enhance Learning

Some inexpensive tech tricks yield big classroom dividends.
By Geoff Butterfield

Johnny Chung Lee is not your average video gamer. When Lee, a bespectacled computer science graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, bought a new Wii gaming console, he wasn't content to burn endless hours playing the tennis, bowling, and golf games that came with the popular system.

Instead, he modified his Wii to perform a variety of simple tasks that, together, can mimic expensive technology -- tech often out of the reach of the average classroom teacher. Then he posted the instructions, and accompanying video, online.

For instance, with about $50 and a trip to Radio Shack, Lee can show you how to turn a blank wall space into an interactive whiteboard -- savings: about $1,500. Another project he devised instructs intrepid hackers in the best way to create a steadycam for stable video work. Cost: about $14.

Lee's a classic do-it-yourself guy, part of a growing movement of people who are extending consumer appliances beyond their original purpose, or finding new purposes altogether. Teachers, too, are natural DIYers. Consider the enterprising teacher who demonstrates model rocketry using a coat hanger, an inner tube, and a soda bottle, or the crafty fellow who builds a hovercraft out of an old CD, a balloon, and a soda-bottle top.

Keeping students engaged with hands-on projects can be especially challenging with limited resources and changing curriculums, but here are a few sources of inexpensive tech hacks, perfect for teacher-student collaboration:

  • Check out the growing communities of DIYers online, where aspiring hackers swap instructions for all kinds of projects. Web sites such as Instructables and Make offer project plans, videos, and tips any teacher can find useful. The excellent Howtoons has simple, inexpensive projects that kids would enjoy, presented in a fun cartoon format. These simple projects are not as elaborate as Lee's, but the sense of satisfaction is the same.
  • Investigate the blog scene. TeachClever is not about tech hacks, per se; it's a blog about making teachers more productive and efficient. But it includes a healthy selection of tech tips for the classroom that make it a great stop for a project pick-me-up. Also check out Tech Savvy Teachers, another worthwhile online stopping point.
  • Take your class to the mecca of mechanics, the Maker Faire. Held twice a year, the Maker Faire, sponsored by Make, is an astonishing gathering of DIYers of all ages. Plenty of excited teachers attended the 2008 event in San Mateo, California. You could see them building rockets and marshmallow guns when they weren't being entertained by the flame-throwing fire engine, the Diet Coke-and-Mentos fountain, or the bicycle rodeo. Inside one of the main halls, long tables were filled with kids and adults busy working on projects led by helpful docents.

The creativity at the faire wasn't limited to hardware and electronics, either. There were tables of people silk-screening their own designs and creating new things with old cloth and thread. The overall lesson of the day: Ingenuity and creativity is something we all possess, and, as with any other skill, your inner DIYer can be cultivated.

What makes DIYers special is their enthusiasm and their willingness to share their expertise. DIYers are truly lifelong learners and teachers. They don't always realize it, though -- they're too busy having fun.

Cost: Materials vary based on project.
Time to set up: Depends on project.

Geoff Butterfield is senior technical Web producer for Edutopia.

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