Sunday, October 26, 2014

Off to See the Wizard

The titular reference of this post is twofold: first, The Wizard of Oz is our latest read aloud selection; second, we had a killer field trip this past week that brought out the wizard in all of us.

Let's start with Tech Jam...

On Friday, we headed into the bustling metropolis that is Burlington to attend Tech Jam, Vermont's flagship innovation and technology networking event. I love taking field trips, but the wind up is often stressful. Since Tech Jam was my idea, I handled the logistics, which meant scheduling the whole day and making sure that we got the most bang for our buck. Staring at Tech Jam's show floor on Friday morning, I wondered what on Earth I had done. It was loud and busy and chock-full of people. Even though we had a plan and a passel of expert chaperones with us, there was so much to see and do that I just knew something was going to go south for us.

But it didn't! It did exactly the opposite... and in a really big way.

Making with the simplest ingredients...
What does this button do?
VTel President Karen Marshall explains fiber optics.
Our first stop was Generator, Burlington's makerspace, which is located on the ground level of Memorial Auditorium. We had been ramping up for this visit and the kids were pretty excited to see the space. Very quickly, I realized that it was going to be impossible for me to keep my tour group at my side! The students scurried around from station to station trying Arduino, e-Origami, squishy circuits, various sensors, and simple things like building cantilevers from washers and paint stirrers. The sheer variety and range of activities and exhibitors at Generator alone really drove home the point that making and maker ed can be done with the most basic of materials but achieve the coolest of science and design tech outcomes. Students made light-up boxes, learned about conductivity, practiced physics concepts, and played a homemade version of Operation to win lollipop prizes. They got to see electric race cars, laser cut dinosaurs, and the creative workspaces and studios of Generator members. The excitement in the room was reaching fever pitch and we had only been at the event for 20 minutes.

So, you made that cardboard dinosaur head with... lasers?
The next thing on our agenda was a presentation from the Vermont Department of Labor, so into the bowels of Memorial Auditorium we went, to concert venue 242 Main in fact, to watch and listen as economist Kevin Stapleton talked about the correlation between education and career opportunities (i.e., salary). Kevin expertly demonstrated the point that unemployment decreases and salary increases as you earn college and advanced degrees. One of the students' main takeaways, when we debriefed at the end of the day, was that tech careers give you the variety of skills you need to transfer in and out of all kinds of different jobs and careers. This was especially cool because employment trends for the iGeneration show that today's young people will have several careers and job types over the course of their lives, versus the one or two types of jobs that their parents and grandparents (and teachers) had.

Denied the all-important stage dive, boo!
After Kevin's presentation, it was time to hit the show floor. I'm a tradeshow veteran, having worked at several dozen over the course of my previous career in advertising, so I gave my group a quick Tradeshow 101, armed them with their bright orange swag bags, and away we went. Our prep work served us very well. Having spent time Thursday morning researching the exhibitors, selecting a few that we wanted to see, and planning questions to ask them helped the students have richer conversations with a select group of vendors but also gave them conversational wings across the board. Though we talked to just about everyone, we had some really deep conversations with our target exhibitors and left everyone shaking their heads in amazement. Being the youngest students in attendance (most were in junior high and high school), I can confidently say that we wowed 'em. Not only that, but the students got to try Google Glass, mess around with Oculus Rift 3D virtual reality gaming technology, play with beta versions of robot toys that were just purchased for production by Nerf, get face scans from the folks at BluBin 3D printing, make designs with microplate readers at BioTek, and learn how the internet works. Three of the best interactions in my group came as we talked to Vermont Works for Women about gender equity in STEM careers, chatted up the ladies at Pwnie Express about marketing, and asked the folks at Big Blue what we could expect with the company's sale to Global Foundries. I'm not kidding. The guys in the No Stage Diving picture above (and other kids, I'm sure) had those conversations. #gagnergang #forthewin

Finding out what's next for IBM.
Wowing the gals at Pwnie Express.
Getting project ideas from Ken Howell at the Champlain College Maker Lab.

And we were just getting warmed up! After a lunch and a well-deserved body/brain break at Oakledge, we made our final stop at the Center for Emergent Media at Champlain College's Lakeside Avenue building. ANESU Assistant Superintendent Catrina DiNapoli met us there to take a tour of the college's new Maker Lab. Our contact at Champlain, Ken Howell, who teaches at the College and is on the Generator Board of Directors, apologized when we arrived because a lot of the Lab's goodies were up at Tech Jam. No matter, we said, because we had already seen them! We were eager to get the goods on this dreamy makerspace and, boy, did we. Ken talked to us about how Champlain College students are working with many of the same hardware suites that we have access to in our own makerspace (Arduino, littleBits, MaKeyMaKey) to design and build next-level video game controllers that use sensors to enhance the gaming experience. Ken also demoed a laser cutter, which was pretty epic.

After all of that, we had to head back to the rolling hills of Monkton, which is a good thing because this teacher was certifiably exhausted. I think the kids could have kept going though!

Long story short (too late), Friday's field trip was the kind of educational experience that we want to have as often as possible. Engagement was high, restrictions were few, and authentic learning was happening every which way. What's more, the kids were getting prepped for the real world, which will be here a lot sooner than most of us care to think. A special THANK YOU to all of our chaperones: Ms. Cota, Juliana Dogherty, Miss Carina, Emmy Harvey, Sean Havey, Lianne Petrocelli, and Karen Parker, as well as Catrina DiNapoli for joining us at the Maker Lab and Mr. Dan, our absolutely fearless bus driver! The folks at Tech Jam, Seven Days, and Champlain College made this an experience we will come back to again and again.

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