TNCS Students Get Technical!

tncs-upper-elementary-visit-digital-harborOn November 16th, elementary and middle school students of The New Century School took a field trip to a very special spot in Baltimore City. Digital Harbor Tech Center is a self-described “youth makerspace providing youth with an opportunity to be creative and productive.”

Under the aegis of The Digital Harbor Foundation, the Tech Center opened in 2013, taking over a defunct recreation building on Light St. The next year, they “launched the Center of Excellence to train others how to incorporate making into their own learning environments.” Just 3 years after opening their doors, the Tech Center estimates that, “in 2016, [they] will reach 2000+ students in grades 1-12 from 90 Baltimore-area schools.” They operate on a “pay-what-you-can” basis to allow all interested kids to be able to participate as well as offering free field trips to learn about 3D printing, such as what TNCS students attended last week.

During their 3-hour session in the makerspace, they were first introduced to the Digital Harbor Foundation and the concept behind the Tech Center—and instructed to “look, listen, and learn.” There was definitely lots to look at and lots to learn! Next, for the bulk of the session, they learned and practiced the basics of 3D design, which they ultimately put to use in the execution of their very own custom 3D-printed keychains, the primary endpoint of the session.

To learn 3D design basics, they first discussed 2D design, which takes place on a grid composed of both an x and a y axis, and then added the “z axis” to bring in the third dimension. From there, it was onto a supercool free computer application called “Tinkercad,” which is exactly what it sounds like—tinkering with engineering! The program makes engineering and design accessible to anyone with three simple steps:

  1. Place: Shapes are basic building blocks of Tinkercad. A shape can add or remove material. Import your own, or work with existing shapes.
  2. Adjust: Move, rotate and adjust shapes freely in space. Use tools like the ruler to input exact dimensions.
  3. Combine: Group together a set of shapes to create models as detailed as you want.



TNCS students were asked to complete a set of five fun, interactive tutorials in Tinkercad, each building on the last in terms of skills acquired. When a task was successfully performed, a shower of confetti burst out of the completed design to let users know that module was complete, and they could move on to the next. Immersed was also up to the task, folks, as you can see in the slideshow below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

TNCS elementary students thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Tech Center and picked up new skills like the innate tinkerers they are. If the concept of “makerspace” is ringing a bell, that may be because last week’s post on the Ozone Snack Bar discussed how that newly opened space might evolve as a makerspace. STEM teacher Dan McGonigal said, “The Tech Center has been on our radar for a while now, and we’ve been wanting to explore 3D printing. Now that we have the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade cohort, we can really do some cool things in engineering. The school founders are very supportive of this idea. We have even discussed the possibility of getting a 3D printer here, but with that being so cost-prohibitive, we wanted to introduce the students first and see how it goes—and it went very well.”

With the fourth quarter of the 2016–2017 school year slated for a Technology and Innovation Unit, expect to hear more about the makerspace idea. Mr. McGonigal hinted that recreating some Rube Goldberg machines might even be in the offing. Meanwhile, here are the fruits of TNCS students’ and other area students’ labor at Digital Harbor Tech Center.

Excitement and Creativity Build at TNCS Lego Camp!

Play Well!

Chretien Mayes, aerospace engineer and Play-Well TEKnologies instructor.

Chretien Mayes, aerospace engineer and Play-Well TEKnologies instructor.

“We teach kids engineering using Legos,” said The New Century School‘s Lego summer camp leader Chretien Mayes simply and succinctly. Mr. Mayes, an aerospace engineer, and co-camp leader Chris Miller, an industrial engineer, are on loan to TNCS from Play-Well TEKnologies, the company that designed these “LEGO-inspired engineering classes for kids K–8.” Play-Well is made up of instructors who are by and large either engineers or scientists of various stripes. “The beauty is,” says Mr. Mayes, “each instructor brings his or her own particular flair and expertise to each camp.”

Now in 23 states, Play-Well has built quite a following from their establishment in California in 1997. TNCS, however, has the proud distinction of being the first Baltimore school to host a Play-Well Lego camp, and Mr. Mayes says that’s not surprising because of the particular TNCS resources, the staff, and the students. “The New Century School has a philosophy and a culture of being hands-on with kids in small classes. That’s us, too—we can provide individual, personalized time with each kid. Basically, we can foster whatever each child is into. Some kids like to build buildings; some prefer to make things go.”

Everything Is Awesome!

Mr. Miller hands out Lego people to each child who can correctly answer a question about engineering, such as "What is Lego glue"? (Answer: Overlapping.)

Mr. Miller hands out Lego people to each child who can correctly answer a question about engineering, such as “What is Lego glue”? (Answer: Overlapping.)

Instructors are there to teach basic principles of engineering and physics and then to turn the kids loose to follow whatever interlocking whims they choose. The instructors weave in and out among groups of builders, answering the questions that spring up all over like geysers. A frustrated, “Why isn’t this working?”  is met with a patient but no less technical answer, and the child is encouraged to try again, applying the new information to her whirligig—but not before proudly demonstrating her “wiggly tooth.”

Transmissions are a fundamental “building block” in engineering and get a lot of play at Lego camp. They start with a simple pull-back transmission (think of the toy cars that you pull back, hold, and then let fly) and progress from there to gear transmissions and all of the different things that can be done with those. Three or more gears touching makes a “gear train,” which can ultimately produce anything from cars to spinning tops to gondolas.”Overlapping” is another principle and also what the camp instructors teach the kids is like “glue for Legos”—stability and strength are derived from the shared surface area of overlapping bricks. With that concept entrenched, they can design houses, construct bridges, etc. An important point is that no fancy or specific kits are required here, and this is largely so that kids can replicate what they have learned at home. A common complaint about Legos in general among parents is that once their kids put a kit together, they no longer seem to know what to do with the individual pieces or are unwilling to “think outside the box.” “Our thing is,” said Mr. Mayes, “is that we focus on the basics, and then kids can go anywhere from there.” Starting with a simple gear, for example, kids might end up with anything from a monster truck to a ski lift. “Once we get to the level of gear train, you can do this, you can do that—you can do anything you want with it,” Mr. Mayes says he tells kids.

Everything Is Cool When You’re Part of a Team!

Thus, Lego camp boosts kids’ confidence, their creativity, and, importantly, their ability to collaborate. We always aim for individual or group projects that we can mesh together at the end,” says Mr. Mayes. The collaborative project for this camp was a vast, interconnected arch bridge. “Every kid made one and then we put them side by side, covered them with bricks to link them together, and put a road on top. It was probably 5- or 6-feet long by the time we were done,” said Mr. Mayes. “And then the kids sent all of their cars across.” Imagine the sense of accomplishment—not to mention sheer fun—that must have engendered! “And hopefully, the idea is, that we’ll create some future engineers!” said Mr. Mayes.

How well does Play-Well play at TNCS? “I’ve been to other schools that I can tell don’t invest in technology or that ‘outside-the-box’ education,” said Mr. Mayes. “At The New Century School, the kids get all that. In addition, the staff and program directors are so on top of it, here. It’s a really great school.”

Finally, the burning question: What did a Play-Well TEKnologies aerospace engineer think of the Lego movie? “Awesome. If I could miniaturize myself, I wouldn’t mind playing a character in it!” said Mr. Mayes. Pretty convincingly, as a matter of fact!

Spaceship Club Elevates Aftercare at TNCS!

One of the perhaps unfortunate developments in modern society is that school lets out midafternoon, but the workday continues, making aftercare an essential service for many families. Isn’t it nice to know that at The New Century School, aftercare is just as enriching an experience as the rest of the schoolday?

Enter Emily Feinberg, Aftercare Coordinator, who strives to make sure that kids are engaged and happy and using the gap time between school and home in worthwhile ways by creating “clubs” that appeal to individual student predilections. Clubs range from music themed to math, drama, and world culture. Prior to the beginning of the 2013–2014 school year, Ms. Feinberg approached Aftercare Instructor Ron Shalom and asked him to suggest an idea for a club. That was no problem, says Mr. Shalom, who has spent lots of time with TNCS students and has developed a good feel for what appeals to them. He’s not particularly a fan of science fiction himself, but says that kids are forever asking him about all things Outer Space. And so, to give the people what they want, Spaceship Club was, er, launched!

Mr. Shalom is just the kind of well-rounded person TNCS likes to have around. The Maryland native joined TNCS staff on moving to Baltimore in March 2013. Prior to that, he studied linguistics and music at Oberlin College and Conservatory. In addition to teaching, Mr. Shalom is a talented composer and songwriter and plays the piano, double bass, and guitar. He also speaks Spanish and Hebrew. (Music, art, languages—a Renaissance Man, indeed!) Naturally, he brings a lot of his innate creativity to aftercare.

This spaceship workshop is a hive of activity on Mission Days.

This spaceship workshop is a hive of activity on Mission Days.

So, enough orbiting around the subject—what is Spaceship Club? “The premise behind the club,” says Mr. Shalom, “is that all of the students are aliens from Planet Ickydoo, and they’ve come to Planet Earth to explore.” Basically, Spaceship Club is an imaginative new world where kids create, pretend, and participate in a collective narrative. It’s really quite special. But it’s also one of those amazing organic things that you really have to witness to fully appreciate (see video below). A story underpins the hour-long club, and this story unfolds a new way each and every time the kids meet because they are spinning the narrative as they go.

The interactive story-telling aspect alone is quite inspiring to see, but it’s not the only way kids tap into their creativity in Spaceship Club. They also actually build spaceships! The skills they cultivate in the process are limitless—engineering, math, physics . . . even communication technology! Then there’s the astronomy and geography that also come into play. Wait—also anthropology, sociology, and zoology!

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s back up and start at the beginning (no, not the Big Bang, more like 4:00 on a Friday afternoon). Between 11 and 13 kids assemble in the day’s designated space (sometimes The Lingo Leap, sometimes outside, sometimes a classroom), and the space is instantly transformed into Planet Ickydoo, our Spaceship Club participants’ home and headquarters. The Ickydooians immediately commence repairs on or, if necessary, new construction of their spaceships to be ready for the day’s mission to Earth. The purpose of these missions is data collection. Ickydooians observe, take notes, and report back on earthly goings-on, such as climate, inhabitants (animal and human), topography, and vegetation. Endless subnarratives are possible during these missions, and the kids take full advantage! They adopt special names, for example, or discover Dr. Seussian fruits, or (humanely) trap and carry back snakes to headquarters for more intensive testing and observation.

Some days, work on the spaceship necessarily occupies most of the club. After the holidays, in fact, some crafts were in fairly bad shape. Mr. Shalom provides large cardboard boxes for the spaceships’ outer casing and an assortment of other found/recycled materials (tubes, smaller boxes of all shapes and sizes, twine, duct tape) to trick out each one. The kids team up and construct their spaceships according to their specializations. “The Snake Company,” for example, is an elaborate system of working parts piloted by two lower elementary students with a shared affinity for reptiles. Although the kids usually have the mechanics under control, Mr. Shalom patiently navigates the jumble of spare parts, assisting with more complex repairs and recommending alternative ways to approach problems. It’s obvious that he also relishes the kids’ curiosity and capacity for innovation, praising any particularly useful adaptations he sees them making. (Here and there, he may have to interject an admonishment or two to a particularly energetic Ickydooian, but his stated role is something akin to Air-Traffic Controller or Mission Control.)

With the ever-changing variety of source materials at their disposal, the students have branched out into making other implements that might come in handy on missions. You never know when you might need your suit of armor on Earth, for instance, and there’s no upper limit on the variety of transmitters and scanners that might serve. “When pointed at an unfamiliar object, the scanners can tell you everything you need to know about that object,” says Mr. Shalom. One key piece of equipment is the ansible, a sort of transponder “[they] made out of an old internet modem and a busted RCA cable,” says Mr. Shalom. Any Ursula K.Le Guin fans will know just what this “superluminal communication” device is.

About midway through the hour, the activity ramps up. Mr. Shalom announces the Liftoff schedule and keeps Ickydooians informed with a countdown so they’ll be sure to be “spaceworthy” in time. Liftoff is the high point of the club. Kids scramble into their boxes–oops, ships—and really get into the pretend play. Sounds, sights, and dialogue all enhance the performance as the Ickydooians hurtle toward Earth. Mr. Shalom talks them through each phase of breeching another planet’s successive “-spheres,” lending a little drama to the scene, and then reestablishes a line of communication with each Ickydoo Spacepod.

On landing, the little space travelers engage in the aforementioned scientific study of the strange, new planet and are continuously reminded by Mr. Shalom to remember to gather plenty of “space algae” for the necessary fuel to return to Ickydoo. All the while, they are garnering insight into other worlds, cultures, and beings and how to live in peace and harmony among them in our shared universe. And so we can add philanthropy to the growing list of important attributes that Spaceship Club cultivates. Working parents, rest easy. Aftercare kids are having an out-of this-world learning experience!

There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie

—Ziggy Stardust