Monday, August 4, 2014

Who You Callin' Shrimp?

Over the weekend, my teaching partner and I participated in the E21 Conference at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. Our school librarian also attended. On its website, E21 is described as "an immersive two-day conference that will bring together librarians, educators, workforce development professionals, makers, and artists. Over the course of the conference, participants will explore emerging technology in support of a culture of creativity and innovation for the 21st century." If you have been keeping up with the blog, you can see why we thought it sounded so good!

Looking back, I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. I could have used more time with the hands-on session to get to know my MaKey MaKey a little better and some of the keynotes and panel-type presentations weren't really geared for attendees like me. The garbage art workshop was fun and Saturday morning's keynote with inventor, engineer, and all-around mad scientist/nerd John Cohn was well worth the price of admission. Here is some media:

A very creative creature!
Garbage critter before, during, after
Setting up my MaKey MaKey for Tetris
John Cohn: My kind of scientist!
Getting my pickle ready for its close-up
John loads a Van de Graf Generator with Rice Krispies
The aftermath of John Cohn's 10,000v Rice Krispie cannon

YouTube vids:

Running 100v Through a Pickle

100,000v Showdown!

What I want to talk most about, though, is my experience in the e-Origami session. This was my last session of the conference and my teammate had attended it earlier. She said that it had been the best one yet. The presenter, Bev Bell, is a really dynamic lady who has a funky artist's spirit, a caring teacher's heart, and an engineer's mind. After some of the presentations and sessions I had gone to already, I was in the mood for something different. It sounded like e-Origami with Bev was going to do the trick.

Before I go on, I should be honest and say that I wasn't really in the mood to be at the conference after a parking ticket, a bad night's sleep in my dorm, and a Freshman 15-inducing buffet as my only food source; I was tired and hungry and the text from my husband containing a picture of him and my brother-in-law out on the boat wasn't helping my resolve. Had I not heard such good things about Bev's workshop, I would have gotten in my car and driven home. The positivity and promise that today's post might be demonstrating comes with two full days' removal from the scene!

...Back to Saturday afternoon. I arrived in the workshop location, where it was cool and quiet. Bev was giving some instructions and the other participants were prepping their seats and gathering supplies. Bev asked us to get some origami paper and a bag containing LED lights, copper tape, and a battery, as well as instructions on how to make an origami crustacean. We practiced folding a small-scale shellfish as a group and I got to meet the lady sitting next to me, who was a librarian from a town close to mine. The lesson moved to soldering (It's "e"-origami, after all. How else do you make your shrimp's eyes light up without wiring a circuit into his belly??) and I started to feel pretty cool about what I was learning. I took care to follow the instructions, ask for help, and take my time. After about two hours, my shrimp was done--folded and wired with a spiffy handle on its underside--and I was ready to put that little puppet to work. As I connected the circuit by tapping the copper tape on my thumb with the wiring under the shrimp's tummy, I couldn't wait to see its eyes light up.

I'm sure it's not going to surprise you that nothing happened. Absolutely not a darned thing.

A table-mate checked my circuit for me and gave me ideas for a few places to troubleshoot. It was helpful and I was buoyed a bit, until once again, I tapped the copper to close the circuit and nothing happened. After flagging Bev down, she tested my circuit with another battery and posited that my LEDs were the problem. She gave me two new ones and I sat back down. All around me, people were starting to parade around with their shrimp puppets. There was a lot of laughter in the air and the participants whose shrimps had lit up on the first try were taking shrimp selfies and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Looking down at my lifeless little puppet, all I wanted to do was go home. After nearly two hours of hard and focused work to no end, I divested myself of the conference pretty easily. Grabbing my bag and a pair of fresh LEDs, I sneaked out the door and drove away.

At home, I couldn't keep the puppet out of my mind. It sat in my car alone and lifeless and something inside of me told me that it didn't deserve its fate. I couldn't bail on it and trudged back out to my car, in the rain no less, to see if I could bring that shrimp to life. Without a soldering iron, I holed up in the bathroom to be within arms reach of tweezers, nail clippers, and other small tools. Essentially, I had to cut out the old LEDs so as not to damage the paper, but leave enough of the wire so that I could patch some new LEDs in. Instead of solder, I would use the excess wire from the old lights and twist it around the wire from the new lights to complete the circuit. The science behind it was solid, but making that connection was a little tricky. After about 20 minutes, I introduced Blinky the Shrimp to the world. The cat was mildly amused, as was my husband, and the dogs were not impressed at all. I felt like a million bucks!

This story made me think of how it feels when you can't do something, when nothing seems to be going right. It made me understand what it's like to come from a cruddy day into an environment where there is a degree of pressure to perform, to get things right, to make the product that you came to make. Worse yet, because I was feeling this way and others around me weren't, it made it really easy for me to bag it and walk away. What saved me was that I wanted to finish the job and I was curious about what was going wrong with my shrimp. If it had been something that I wasn't invested in, Blinky would probably have found its way to the recycling bin and out of my mind for good.

In an age when teachers tell students to persist, try and try again, have "grit," and rise to challenges no matter what, experiencing learning frustrations of our own is a good reminder as to how hard this is to actually do, especially if we don't care whether we get it right or not. I think this makes the case for empathy, sure, but also for providing engaging learning environments where students can come at problems in a way that suits their feelings and abilities. Being able to put Blinky down cleared my head and come back to the problem when I was ready to give it my full attention. That bit of flexibility saved my sanity and also gave the world the plucky little shrimp puppet that will sit at my desk this year to remind me to remember what it's like to struggle.

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