As any graduate can attest, the Smith College Campus School has a long history of making learning fun. On a recent Friday morning, students in Mary Ann Dassatti’s sixth-grade information technology class are discovering that for themselves. They are testing the beta version of a new website, and the room is soon focused and alive with ideas and questions:
“Robots can analyze all the results for every single move in like two seconds!” … ”This robot is a genius!” … ”This is so weird!” … “Wait, there’s a robots’ rights movement?”
Introducing sixth-graders to complex engineering concepts—and getting them to like it—may seem like the stuff of fairy tales. But with the help of “Through My Window,” a multimedia engineering education website developed by faculty at Smith and Springfield Technical Community colleges and funded by the National Science Foundation, it’s actually becoming a reality.
“Engineers literally design our world,” says Glenn Ellis, a professor of engineering at Smith and a member of the “Through My Window” team. “But potential engineers are often turned off to engineering at an early age. … Our hope is to create a learning environment that engages all children and helps them to see themselves as the engineers who will be designing the future.”
The site immerses learners in stories featuring culturally diverse characters with whom they interact in novels, graphic novels, and “online learning journeys.” According to sixth-grader Skylar Nieman, the results are compelling.
“You don’t start by thinking about the machines,” she says. “You start by thinking about the story. It makes it easier to think about because it’s more interesting. You have a story, not just the facts.”
Bringing the story to life has been a collaborative effort of a team that includes Ellis, Professor of Education Alan Rudnitsky, faculty members from Springfield Technical Community College, illustrator Evanleigh Davis, author Sonia Ellis, a group of Smith students, and a team of software developers. This team has joined forces with students at the Smith Campus School to test and evaluate the software; after working with the software, students and researchers meet to discuss their experiences and share ideas.
Lauren Ann Weston ‘15 is one of the Smith students working with the project. For Weston, helping to develop “Through My Window” has offered a range of rewards.
“As a junior at Smith,” she says, “I am playing a role on the “Through My Window” team that is providing me with leadership skills, independent motivation, new knowledge about previously unknown topics, technological skills, and real-world collaborative skills where the end result of my hard work is not a grade, but rather a tool that will affect people’s lives.”
The software opens by introducing students to an online graphic novel that gradually becomes more and more interactive. As users try to figure out how to help the characters in their quest, they are challenged to grapple with questions about how the mind works, and the possibilities and limits of artificial intelligence: What do you need to understand to be able to play ping pong? To play chess? To respond appropriately to someone else’s emotions?
Head of School Samuel Intrator is especially interested in the way the project brings grammar school students and researchers together in an unlikely but highly effective team.
“It’s a perfect example of how faculty can forward their research by using the minds of sixth-graders to figure out how to frame, write, and test this software,” says Intrator, who is also a Smith professor of education and child study. “Experts are rolling through this school with their best thinking, and kids just bump into it in so many ways. From the perspective of both the technological development and the educational philosophy, this is incredibly valuable.”
At the end of the software testing session on this recent Friday, Dassatti asks students to log off and prepare to move to their next class. One student sends up a cry of mock protest: “Nooooo! Why, Ms. Dassatti, why?”
“Because I’m so terribly mean,” comes the firm but friendly response. “Remember, you can log in at home.”