Tinkering and “real work”

Last week I was invited to be a panelist at the National Council of Women in IT Best Practices summit. It was a great experience and I learned a lot! My session was about getting girls interested in STEM subjects and programming through “making stuff” and tinkering.

The session was really interesting and we had some great questions about how tinkering can fit into the school day, especially with so much focus on test results and career and college readiness. It seems that to many people, tinkering conotes a messiness and unprofessionalism that doesn’t apply to “real” jobs in scientific fields.

I believe just the opposite is true – tinkering is exactly how real science is done.

I like to think I have a unique perspective on this. After graduating with an electrical engineering degree I went to work at an aerospace company and ended up on a research project to create the GPS satellite navigation system. It was fun, exciting work and we were building something that was literally theoretically impossible. The hardware was too slow, the software didn’t exist, the math was only a theory, and existing navigation systems weren’t build to handle the precision we needed. The military pilots we worked with didn’t trust it either, creating interesting team dynamics. There were many days where we just sat around and talked through the problems, went to try to them out in the lab, and watched our great ideas go up in smoke. Then we did it again.

It was the essence of tinkering. We tinkered with ideas, methods, with hardware and software, always collaborating, always trying new things. There was no “right answer”, no “scientific method”, and sometimes the answers came from the unlikeliest sources or even mistakes. There were flashes of insight, fighting and battle lines drawn, crazy midnight revelations, and occasional 6 hour lunches at the local pool hall/bar.

I’m not suggesting that any of that is a good model for K-12 STEM education – but perhaps we should avoid squeezing all serendipity out of STEM subjects in a quest to teach students about a “real world” that exists only in the feeble imaginations of textbook authors. Tinkering is the way that real science happens in all its messy glory.


4 Replies to “Tinkering and “real work””

  1. There’s nothing better than trying to figure out something and not having the answer waiting for you in a book or on an answer sheet, and it is a joy to be able to help children find joy in exploring, wondering, and discovering. I think you might enjoy this story…

    I truly appreciate your scientific experience, and we have made you our honorary classroom science advisor. We decided to go with your suggestion to “experiment” with circus peanuts during our 2nd grade science circus camp. Although I didn’t quite have an exact focus for our experiments, I did decide to connect it to a previous study of solids and liquids. So, into a cup of water went the circus peanuts with a discussion of what we thought might happen. We haven’t left experiment one yet…

    I placed our “lead scientists” in charge (we have three – two boys and a girl). After a little more than a week, we now have spongy circus peanuts in orange water. The peanuts have black spots on them. The class figured out it is mold AND most kids had no idea what mold was before this. So were we just fooling around? Hmmm… There is also a clear film on top of the water. Ew!!! Each day the team, the little girl especially, comes in and checks our science table to find out what is happening. Of course, there’s always a crowd and a discussion. We have answered some questions but have created a number of new questions that will guide our explorations.

    Our BIG question of the day from our science team: “Mrs. Molishus, is it true that if we keep looking at the circus peanuts, we’ll throw up?”

  2. Thanks for the story, Sylvia. My background is also in electronic R&D (navigation and tracking, among other things). I am often frustrated at the confusion of science with engineering. Yes, I realize there is a huge overlap (I worked in the engineering division of an oceanographic institute). But the messiness you describe is not only how real science is done. It is, as you illustrate, how real engineering is done. And most of what people mean when they say science is actually engineering (see especially the top placing “science” fair projects). I suspect that the invisibility of engineering in the popular imagination is partly to blame for people’s inability to imagine the role this messiness plays in the “real world.” Any thoughts or suggestions about how to address this? The American Society for Engineering Education recently proposed creating “building stuff” class and substituting it for math class and science class as soon as students have mastered arithmetic! Obviously this is slightly tongue in cheek, but maybe not much.

  3. Maryann – I’m honored to be your honorary science advisor! I’d be happy to do more! PS – there is a connection between circus peanuts and Lucky Charms cereal that I just read about today 🙂

    Mylene – I did a bit of blurring the lines of science vs. engineering myself in this post. I don’t know why we hide engineering from kids, it seems to me it’s the best way to learn about the world. Roger Schank says that K-12 science and math curriculum’s sole purpose is to weed out kids so that university professors in those fields only get the ones who will understand their lectures. Sort of a dark view, but I do know we lose the opportunity to make science (and math) relevant to students by divorcing it from the real world. Then we turn around and proclaim that we are preparing students for the real world. Crazy.

  4. “There were flashes of insight, fighting and battle lines drawn, crazy midnight revelations, and occasional 6 hour lunches at the local pool hall/bar.”

    I would say that these are good models for K-12 education, sans the obvious. Would you agree that the compartmentalization of learning destroys not only the opportunity for these types of learning, but limits the very notion of it in students and teachers minds?

    The more I work play with students through creative learning technologies like Turtle Art, Scratch and Picocrickets, the more it becomes apparent what schooling is doing to them. Today while working with 4th grade students I observed their uneasiness about what to do or where to start when presented with a challenge and an open opportunity to tinker through it. Though I’m fortunate to have the opportunities to use these technologies in some classrooms, I can’t help but be disappointed knowing that these opportunities are so few and far between. I’ve started handing out CDs with the software to these students so they can have something to tinker with at home. I find myself thinking that I shouldn’t be doing anything in school that they couldn’t do at home too.

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