First Do No Harm

I came across a great quote by Pablo Picasso the other day “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” When I tweeted this someone replied that students were also scientists. A good point. Kids are naturally curious. They want to know about the world and the way things  work – science! They want to tell stories, to draw pictures, to make music (well happy sounds anyway) and to dance. Too often we teach that out of them. The other day I spoke to a group of students in a gifted and talented program in New Haven Connecticut.  The youngest kids were in fourth grade while the oldest were in seventh or eighth grade. To say that the room was high energy would be putting it mildly.

Now it wasn’t the quietest classroom in the world but it sure was fun for me. I started by demonstrating some technology. The Kinect device was really popular. What I tired to do though was not to talk about what it did some much as how it does it. I prefaced some concepts with “warning math to follow!” The kids groaned a bit the first time but after that they were more curious than apprehensive. I warned about physics once (actually a couple of times) which lead to a conversation about what physics was. Younger kids hadn’t heard the term. In fact one of the really cool things about this talk was that since I had no clear end goal other than peeking interest in STEM subjects in general and computer science in particular we could bounce around a bit. It was like a hyperlink enabled conversation. Much fun for me. I think it was fun for the students as they all stayed awake and engaged in the conversation.

I demonstrated some of the sample applications that come with the Kinect for Windows SDK which I find make it interesting and real to discuss the concepts behind the Kinect device. The kids wanted to try EVERYTHING. When I showed the audio test they all wanted to shout out commands to the device at the same time. This lead to conversations about sound filtering. Of course the talk on the infrared camera and how it is used to calculate distances brought in both math and physics. Everyone wanted to try the skeleton tracker which draws a stick figure that following the movement of someone (or two) standing in front of the sensor.

It would have been easy, well as easy as anything involving middles school students, to just lecture. To just stick to a script and to accept limited questions and ignore anything that was off topic as defined by a narrow description of the topic. And some times that seems like it is necessary. But I wanted to encourage more questions and more interest in doing more exploration not less. That is the advantage of being a guest speaker I guess. I am concerned that too often we do narrow student’s interests rather than broadening them. That we teach the art and science out of students to be replaces with dry and often meaningless facts and so-called “information.”

One of the things I like about some of the competitions that Microsoft runs (the Imagine Cup comes to mind with its several opportunities)  offer the chance to explore their interests and meld them with technology. They let them stay artists and scientists by pursuing problems that interest them. Sometimes you need to let students head off into directions of their own. Too much structure can sometimes do more harm than good. How do we keep the artist in each student? How do we keep that innate curiosity in science that children are born with? And yet at the same time we need to teach them what they need to know. A fine balance but one that I think we really need to strive towards.

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