George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Building a Car Can Drive Deeper Learning

Math used to be a struggle for 14-year-old Kathryn, until she fell in love with cars and started a hands-on project to build her own. Now the math matters and makes sense, and a whole new world of learning has opened up for her.
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How Building a Car Can Drive Deeper Learning (Is School Enough? Series)

How Building a Car Can Drive Deeper Learning (Transcript)

Kathryn: My name is Kathryn, I'm fourteen years old and I live in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Kathryn: I don’t really know what originally put it into my head. I'm not entirely sure, I think a big part of it though was working and going to car shows and just seeing different things that people had built.

Kathryn :It was kinda love at first sight, you know. It's just like this cool little sporty car that you can just drive around and it can just be you and one other person. And it's just-- I think it's a cool little car.

Kathryn :When we first got the car home, we put it into the back yard, because I wanted to get started right away, of course. And so I was literally sitting there, looking at the car and I'm like, "Okay, where do I start?"

Jerry: This is the hardest one to get. Can you see where your wire sleeve is down there?

Kathryn: Yeah, I can.

Jerry: Where the bottom stroke of the piston is. So you wanna be just like just above that. You got it, Pennello.

Jerry: I got it.

Jerry: All right.

Jerry: We're good.

Dale Dougherty: When we immerse ourself in a big project or a problem set, without even necessarily knowing why or what the outcome is, we have the opportunity to learn new things that are unlike any other opportunity.

Jerry: Mm-hmm, I'd always look at that, real close there on those two.

Dale: The project itself is creating opportunities for her to learn that she didn't set out for that to happen.

Kathryn: So what I'm doing right now is, I'm using telescope gauges and micrometers to measure the bore of the cylinder in three different locations, top, middle and bottom. Then I'm also measuring the diameter of the piston to make sure that my tolerance levels are where they're supposed to be.

Dale: Imagine if she kinda did this as an exercise on paper, or watched someone else do it. The amount of real learning that would happen would be minimal. So it's really almost that diving off the cliff and into something that is really-- it's risky. You know, she's spending a lot of time on this, and yet she's holding it all together. I think that's pretty amazing.

Kathryn: When I first started school, like all through elementary school really, I wasn't very good at math at all. Like I had so many issues, like we'd do flashcards every night and I'd still just completely not understand it. And so like as I got older, it started to be a problem, you know, 'cause you can't really pass school without knowing math.

Then I started on this car, and I could take lessons I'd learned from the car and how I'd used it mathematically to do and solve the problems in the classroom.

Kathryn: I'm not so sure it's solid.

Jerry: What's not solid?

Dale: The most basic level, that you're learning to learn, so you're becoming a better learner. And your engagement around learning is higher, you're going to be more receptive and open to new forms of learning, even ones that don't specially work for you.

Kathryn: That's way too small.

Kathryn: Some of the examples in my car for math is like converting metric to standard systems and just learning how to measure and place parts and to be able to understand how much tolerance you need for it, and so it helps to learn your mathematical systems. The forum, it's been a really big part of this project, because it's an online place where you post comments, almost like Facebook, and it's called the Pennock's Fiero Forum because it's pretty much all based on Fieros.

Jerry: So you got this that you weld in, and there's some really nice holes in your frame rail finish.

Kathryn: You go in and there's people working on all kinds of different projects to do with Fiero, or just sharing feedback or suggestions. It's kind of like having a bigger form of a family really, on the forum.

Kathryn: So if I post just up onto my thread and be like, "Hey, I'm stuck. I need some help, SOS here." And so, they'll be like, "All right, what are you stuck on? Let's see how I can help. Here are some suggestions."

Dale: To be able to go out and find those people, no matter where they live, who are working on cars and say, "I've had that problem. I know that transmission or this replacement part that you buy over here is not very good, this one is a better one." They're navigating a world of living knowledge, all right. It's not just book knowledge, it's "real thing" and how valuable is that?

Kathryn: I definitely think about how school could be better if they had more interactive projects, because there's so many kids who don't get to go on and learn what they could really do, because they don't have these opportunities. And so I think that if like schools could offer more interactive, more what you wanna do into your classroom systems, then a lot more kids would be willing to learn, willing to go to school, and actually having a good time there, opposed to, "Oh my gosh, I've got this next class and I don't wanna go."

Dale: The Fiero is Kathryn's car, it's her. That object and her are aligned.

Kathryn: If I'm like having a rough day at school or something, I'm like, "Okay, in a few hours, you're gonna be home. You get to go to your shop and you get to work and you just get to forget everything else."

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Vanessa Carr
  • Additional Camera: Joseph Rivera
  • Editor: Matthew Beighley
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Commissioning Producer: Zachary Fink
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was co-produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television as a companion to the PBS special, Is School Enough?

Is School Enough? Video Series

Edutopia's new series profiles young people who are making their learning more authentic by taking it into their own hands, on their own time. This series is produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television, as a companion to an hour-long PBS special that is now available to watch.

More Edutopia Coverage on Hands-On Learning

Visit the Is School Enough? series page to see more videos on informal learning.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Andrew R. Proto's picture
Andrew R. Proto
Middle School English Teacher

Really looking forward to this special. I'm glad to see that it will be looking at the Maker movement.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

What an interesting video! All the points made at the end about learning are spot on. Projects draw kids in. Unimaginative assignments turn them off. Great food for thought.

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