teaching machines

FabLearn 2017

I spent the weekend at the FabLearn 2017 conference. The conference brings together teachers, policy makers, museum staff, and nearly anyone who cares about learning by making. My favorite conferences are the ones that I write about. So I figure I should write about this one—so that I can add it to my list of favorites.

The trip started at 3 AM Friday morning. I got in my car, set the recycling out at the end of the driveway, and drove westward to MSP. Traffic was light, because the world was dark. It wasn’t until I got into the airport that the first incident happened: I entered a women’s restroom. By mistake. Sure, I found it funny that there weren’t any urinals, but I saw a pair of shoes that seemed like the kind I’d see in a men’s restroom. Upon emerging, however, my deepest fears were realized. I shook my head in disgust with myself and found my gate.

On my flight I read some of Young Children Reinvent Mathematics by Constance Kamii, which has given me lots of great ideas for exercises to try out on my children to figure out how they think.

But Cars 3 beckoned. It’s a story of growing old, which is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. My peers are starting to deteriorate, and I fear I might be too. The movie fell a little flat. The jokes were just not there. The conflict was mostly internal, and the mild external conflict relied very heavily on us caring about Lightning McQueen and his record. But it also seemed to be the story of Pixar, whose youth and superstardom has perhaps come to an end.

After landing, I hopped from an AirTrain to a BART train to a CalTrain until I arrived at the Palo Alto Transit Center. Next stop: Stanford University.

Several weeks before my plane took off, I had contacted an old friend who was now at Stanford. Dan and I had worked together at a summer camp 15 years ago. I was hoping he’d let me buy him lunch. I trekked up the long avenue through the wooded tailgating grounds that form the entrance to the campus. Amazingly, Stanford has not developed these many acres of green space, and it adds to the university’s majesty. I found Dan’s office. We hugged. Despite teaching at a big smart people school, he hadn’t changed.

Dan walked me around campus. He seemed to get lost rather quickly. In his defense, the campus buildings all look about the same, and there are many. He bought me lunch at the faculty club. Disappointly, Donald Knuth was nowhere in sight. We reminisced about our camp days. Like that time we put a bunch of canned vegetables on the counter of the women’s showerhouse just for the awkwardness factor.

In Gates Hall, we saw the schedule of the many on-campus recruiting events that are trying to woo Stanford students to jobs and internships. I tried not to be jealous.

Thanks to Dan’s extremely powerful faculty ID card, we were able to climb the Hoover Tower. I was surprised to learn that Herbert, Dan’s and my fellow Iowan, was in the first class at Stanford University. The exhibits suggested to me that perhaps he is given too much blame for the Great Depression. It sounds like he’d been trying to rectify the conditions that led to the eventual stock market collapse even before he was president. He also had started some projects to help recover from it, but he was dethroned before their impact was felt. Poor guy. But he became a humanitarian—a conservative one that loved and cared for the poor, even with policy.

We stumbled across the storage server that the Google founders used in their research on web search. It’s good to be reminded that things start humbly.

Then we saw Rodin’s bronze sculptures at the Cantor Museum. I learned there also of the history of the university. It started because one-time railroad baron and governor of California Leland Stanford Sr. lost his son to typhoid fever. Apparently, the 15-year-old Leland Stanford Jr.’s love of ships did him in. On a trip through Europe, the son asked to be at the helm of their vessel. The long exposure to cold and chilly air was too much for him, sadly, and he fell ill and died in Italy. His parents were paralyzed by grief. His mother even held seances to try to connect with him. Alas, they turned to philanthropy and built a beautiful university in his name.

A casting of Rodin’s The Thinker. I don’t blame him. There’s a lot to think about.

After that Dan and I parted ways. I found my motel. The kind folks at The Counter fed me. The coffee Oreo shake hit the spot. Thus ended day 1.

On Saturday the conference began. Michael Eisenberg opened with a keynote that was full of challenge, which is something all keynotes—all presentations, really—should have. Otherwise, why do we talk? (I had just started a chapter in Kamii which posited that one of the most important ingredients in cooperative learning is conflict.) Eisenberg’s theme was the body as the new frontier for making. In particular, he stressed that he was not as concerned about the “tattoo model” of human augmentation, in which youth voluntarily experiments with their bodies. Rather, he was concerned about adults engineering their children to be prodigies.

During the very first session of the program, I heard someone in the back of the room talking. It made concentrating on the speaker very difficult, but I figured the chatter would stop once we all settled in. It didn’t. I wondered why someone near the person wasn’t shushing them and contemplated getting up and doing it myself. But then I thought I could just put a spin on the situation and change my attitude. I imagined that the person in back was translating live to someone nearby. Lo and behold, when I gave the individual this positive interpretation, my focus returned. And it turns that translation was exactly what was happening. The English from the speakers was being turned into Portuguese by a couple of translators in attendance.

The conference program included a lot of panels. I really like keynotes. I sometimes like paper sessions, and even when I don’t, I acknowledge them as the most important part of advancing knowledge and raising up new investigators. I rarely like panels. They don’t have enough identity and focus. They are a staged conversation that no one owns. Audience questions are almost always relegated to the last few minutes. I attend them to learn what people think and how they behave. But I think we need fewer of these.

One of the sessions was on projects built by young makers. The kids presenting in the session had done some amazing things, but the followup comments from the audience raised an alarm inside of me. The kids were placed on pedestals, and rightfully so, but I fear what happens to a kid who is identified as perfect or superior. Ironically, we were in the same building as Jo Boaler, an educator who taught me about fixed vs. growth mindsets. I learned from her that we are to praise hard work and specific actions. Otherwise, we will create kids who freeze up when faced with challenges, too afraid to lose their identity.

In these rooms full of academic talk I almost never ask questions. Most of the questions that do get asked were either already answered by the speaker or seem to be more about the questioner posturing himself. However, I regret not asking one of the young makers a question. The young woman had made a violin bow that visualized the dynamics of various pitches with an LED strip attached to the bow. Her project was technically fascinating, and then she mentioned that she was applying for a patent, which are a scourge to the making community. If I had the gumption, I would have asked, “What leads you to pursue a patent?” My guess is some enterprising adult is at work here.

On my way back to my motel, I walked by this amazing tree. The owners of the house have tolerated the beautiful hazard, with a lot of its miss sprawled out just slightly above the roof. You can see the post propping up one of its many branches.

Dinner that night included garlic naan. There might have been some other food involved, but naan is always the main course. Thus ended day 2.

On Sunday, I had my thirty seconds of fame. I was one of many speakers in a series of lightning talks. Years ago, I was a student volunteer at an IEEE Vis conference. Fellow volunteer Alethea showed me the importance of distinguishing oneself in these kinds of talks. She had brought a violin and composed a parody of The Devil Went Down to Georgia to describe her research. So, taking her cue, I shared the following limericks to describe my work on Madeup, a programming language for generating 3D models:

I hold here some things made of code
Just ideas with atoms bestowed
I traced out the lines
Designed with cosines
And voila, they suddenly growed

Madeup is a tool for to learn
Like Logo, you move and you turn
With each little path
Laid out with some math
I programmed my grandfather’s urn

With Madeup perhaps we will see
Kids make computationally
The output is real
It’s something you feel
It goes from your brain to 3D

After we all had our thirty seconds, we stationed ourselves at our posters and waited for people to stop by. I was warmed to have many people request a demonstration and rejoice over finding something they could use to marry computer science and making in their classrooms. The number one question was if Madeup exported to STL, a 3D file format. I don’t understand why STL is the go-to format for slicers. I find it overly verbose. There are countless converters between the various formats, but I think it’s time I export into STL directly.

During one of the breaks I snuck over to the Stanford University Bookstore. Zeke at the counter asked what brought me to campus. When I mentioned 3D printing, he took off his wedding ring and wondered if I could make a “2D manifold embedded in three dimensions.” His ring, as you have probably guessed, was a Möbius strip. I told him I don’t often get to discuss topology with people. He was a mathematician by training, he said, as he counted out my change.

My final meal was at Terún, an Italian restaurant. I asked my waiter what he recommended, and then I ordered something different: the nduja, which certainly doesn’t sound like an Italian word to me. He insisted it was. I ordered it because it had zucchini on it. My waiter didn’t like zucchini, but he agreed to pass on my order to the kitchen. The pizza seemed to appear just moments after I ordered it. It was just what I wanted. As I was finishing my last bite, my waiter returned, surprised that I had been able to finish it all by myself. I told him to bring me the dessert menu. Thus ended day 3.

My nduja pizza, complete with zucchini.

One thing that Palo Alto and California really need to work on is communicating with the outside world via non-technological means. On Saturday I looked for postcards. The university bookstore had some, but there were all of the Stanford campus, and there wasn’t much variety. I also tried to buy stamps, but they were out. I looked for some postcards in another bookstore, but all they had were Golden Gate Bridge postcards. It seemed disingenuous to send those home to my family, as I hadn’t been there. I looked in grocery stores, drugstores, and stationery stores. I couldn’t find any that had to do with Palo Alto or California in general. The woman in the stationery store told me to let her know if I found any. On Sunday I went and bought three more boring cards from the university bookstore. They still had no stamps. So, I tried to find other places that sold stamps. The 24-hour postal station didn’t have a dispenser. I tried two gas stations, two grocery stores, and a FedEx station. No stamps could be found. So, on my way to the airport Monday morning I stopped at CVS. They sold me a book of stamps, but the clerk couldn’t tell me where the nearest postal dropbox was. I walked along the 10-minute route to the train station and found nothing. I took a CalTrain to San Bruno, walked a mile to the BART station, and found nothing. I got to the airport and asked about a maildrop. They had none. You people.

I’ve seen tire horses before, but never suspended inches from the street. I’m glad not to have to contend for space.

As I sat in the airport, I saw someone with a Jamf T-shirt on. Jamf is a software company in Eau Claire, one that I even worked for during a summer. I went over to him and asked if he worked there. He didn’t, but he was a client of theirs. I asked if he lived in the Cities, and he said was from Emeryville. I nodded politely and then continued on my way. But I had nagging suspicions. I returned to him and asked who he worked for. Pixar, he confirmed. I told him that I’d just watched Cars 3 on the flight over, and that every time I watch one of their movies, I question what I’m doing with my life. He graciously told me that teaching is important too. But he downplayed Cars 3. “It was okay,” he said. He promised that Coco was going to be really good.

I am glad to have finally visited the esteemed city of Palo Alto and the esteemed Leland Stanford Jr. University. I found it quite full of normal people, and my life as a Midwesterner adequately prepared me to operate in this not-so-foreign land.

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