Picture this: I was installing an exhibit at the Seashore Trolley Museum today when a young boy, about ten years old, walked into the gallery. He strode over to a corner of the room, stopped dead in his tracks, splayed his feet wide, let his jaw drop, and started hollering at his sibling:
"Wow! Sissy! Sissy, come HERE! You've gotta look at this. There's a really, really OLD computer here."
What was he looking at? A vintage Remington typewriter from the museum's collection, pushing a century old. You know the kind. The lovely, round, metal typewriter keys. The carriage return that snaps at the end of each line. A body heavy enough to throw your back out.
Using his prior knowledge, this boy's identification of the artifact made good sense. It had a keyboard. It sat on the table. What else could it be?
This reminded me that the 12th annual Beloit College Mindset List hit the press this week, offering a glimpse of our world through the eyes of this year's incoming college class - er - that would be the Class of 2013, right? Anyway, this year's list revealed that incoming college students have never used a card catalog to find a book, have never had to wait until the evening news to find out the news, nor have they known a world without the internet, let alone a world without desktop computers. Apparently, the idea of this list is to prevent college professors from cracking jokes like "Here's Johnny!" when their students have no idea who Johnny Carson was. Or something like that. Now, to be honest here, what rap star could I possibly bump into, literally, and know that he was one? Silence. Cultural references change quickly. Not only do typewriters become "really old computers" but vinyl records become "the largest CD I've ever seen." It seems to me that the "teaching with technology" trend in our schools could support "teaching about technology."
How can our society raise problem-solving citizens (as well as a sufficient number of home-grown engineers) unless children not only learn about the history of technology but about how scientific processes and critical thinking are fundamental parts of human society? The technology that kids worship (you know what I mean here) doesn't just drop into their hands out of nowhere as they might think. It emanates from our daily human needs, wants, and challenges. We identify a problem and then use our creativity to imagine a solution. We design it and test it. Then, maybe we design and test it ten more times before it really works. These design and development processes drive technological change. It's how we went from this "old fashioned" canvas roll sign in bus windows (below) to the flickering digital ones we see now.
Now more than ever, our children are often better at using digital stuff than we are; yet, in truth, these coveted objects (think iPods, iPhones) are "black boxes" to them. They don't know what the technology is that drives them, how it works, or how it evolved.
I'm not speaking anecdotally here. There's a movement afoot nationally to bolster our public education standards with an emphasis on what are called the Skills and Traits of Scientific Inquiry and Technological Design. Thankfully, the new learning standards of Maine's Department of Education encourage the development of these skills.
Science and Technology Specialist Anita Bernhardt advised Seashore Trolley Museum to look at Boston's Museum of Science for best practices in science education, particularly their Engineering is Elementary program in the National Center for Technological Literacy. The museum hosted our first professional development workshop for elementary school teachers this spring, a workshop that focused on how to teach about electrical circuits and engineering design. Now that we're finishing up the installation of History in Motion: Public Transportation Connecting Maine's Communities, we're preparing to head out into school districts to share workshops and lesson plans, with electrical wires and duct tape hanging out of our pockets. Maine's history of public transportation (the horse-drawn streetcars, the trolleys, the buses) offers a valuable opportunity to integrate history and science learning standards.
And we'll be keeping our eyes open for those really old computers and huge CDs lurking in the closets.