How to Bridge Academics and Invention in Elementary Education - Guest Post by Lisa Zapalac

This is a guest post by Lisa Zapalac, co-founder of the Long-View Micro School in Austin, Texas. Long-view Micro School is reimagining the education experience by connecting academic goals with hands-on project-based learning. Their goal is to be forward thinking, to empower children with the academic knowledge and long term transferrable technology skills to ensure they are best prepared to handle future endeavors.

Long-View's recent "Build Week" presented students with the challenge of building and programming a fully-functional computer using Piper. Along the way, students developed growth mindsets to take on challenges themselves, the grit to work through frustrations and the ability to work collaboratively with other students. Enter Lisa Zapalac.

Re-imagining Elementary Education Through Building a Computer

At Long-View Micro School in Austin, Texas we are constantly re-imagining the education experience. From our flexible and modern learning environment, to the classes we teach (Computer Science and Python coding instruction starting in 2nd grade!), to the schedule: our vision is to ensure we are looking ahead and keeping the long term, transferrable skills foremost in our curriculum.

Part of the rhythm of the yearly schedule at Long-View is something we call
“Build Weeks.” Build Weeks periodically bridge academic blocks and open our schedule up to allow us to dive into special activities and challenges. Build Weeks help us grow intellectually, help us make connections between disciplines, and give us an opportunity to try new things.

During our latest Build Week, Long-View kids broke into three and four-person teams, humorously named everything from the “Rainbow Monkeys” to “Team Sloth.” Then the teams were given a challenge: build and program a working computer using a Piper kit, which provides a Raspberry Pi, a breadboard, an SD card, laser-cut wood, a screwdriver, wires, switches, and buttons.

The multi-age Long-View teams were immediately immersed in building, with very minimal direction from the adults (not that any of us know how to build a computer anyways!). Our key goals were:
• empowering the children to take this challenge on themselves;
• providing them the opportunity to work in an intimate and highly collaborative situation;
• providing them a task rich with dead-ends, difficulties, and potential frustrations;
• and helping them understand more about how constructing and making relate to the learning process. 

    We also hoped to enrich our rigorous Computer Science curriculum and give the kids the chance to see what it felt like to create something from scratch.  

    After anywhere from 4 to 8 hours of hard work following the Piper blueprint, using screwdrivers, attaching wires, conference-calling Piper support, and learning about component parts like the breadboard, the SD card, HDMI cables, and Raspberry Pi, all teams had a working computer. It was hard to miss that moment, as the squeals of joy when the screen finally turned on brought smiles to all of our faces!

    Next, the teams moved into the electronics work, deepening their understanding of circuits, switches, polarity, and LED lights. Fueled by their expertise in Minecraft, the kids explored the Mars and Cheesetroid worlds with "Piperbot" while practicing breadboarding and exploring opening and closing circuits. Piper’s goal to “amplify creative confidence around computers and electronics” was quickly realized. As Long-View student Avi said, “I basically learned kids could build a computer. No one in my family could build a computer!”

    Build Week ended with a reflection session and a guest appearance via Skype by Lieutenant Tommy from the Piper headquarters in San Francisco. As we Skyped with Tommy, we met engineers that work at Piper, saw some of the code they wrote, peeked at new products, and appreciated the hard work that went into making this cool product. And boy were our kiddos shouting when they heard the Piper team code in Python, just as we do at Long-View!

    Thanks to Piper, our second Build Week of the year was a smashing success!