The XTech Program for Middle and High School aged youth turned is designed as a cycle of two years learning experiences for Middle School students, followed with being novice and then expert facilitator/mentors for the new participants. We are at a transition year now where our advanced students are now ready to begin working on their facilitation skills. We received an invitation to host an activity at the Mini-Maker Faire at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in March. Although we don’t normally host one-off events, but we saw this as a great opportunity for the intermediate cohort to try out some activity facilitation before they become facilitators-in-training this summer. After brainstorming activities, considering pros and cons of each in terms of the space, audience, tools and materials, they were unanimously enthusiastic about making pinewood race cars.
We reminded them that they had taken two full days that summer, cutting their wood piece on the bandsaw, sanding and shaping it, designing wheels, testing and adjusting their car until it was a creation they were proud of. We asked them how families might do this activity in the 20-40 minutes they might have to spend at our booth at the faire, while still maintaining that same opportunities for experimentation and creativity. They took the challenge very seriously and some suggested we test a second idea as back-up in case it didn’t work out.
A few days later, one of the senior facilitators, Winnie, did some experimenting with alternative materials that could make the race car activity doable within the given constraints. She came up with a prototype made with a foam body, plastic bottle top wheels, and simple axles made from bbq skewers, nails and straws. Winnie presented this prototype to the group at our following XTech session and they began building their own. The new design allowed for faster working times that involved more sanding than sawing and more poking than drilling.
As soon as we started testing our prototypes down the sloped track, we noticed they needed weights in order to make it to the end. This turned out to be the best part! The need for weights and the impact of the placement of those weights (washers, marbles, nails) in relation to the car’s design made a huge difference in how they worked. More so than with the pinewood versions. We used to joke that the person who made the fewest adjustments to their block of wood would usually end up with the fastest car. The foam cars were all made with different goals; some wanted to theirs to go fast, others to jump, and one student wanted to make an “absurd” car. After discussing different techniques they used to create their car, we opened up a discussion about planning and facilitation. They had just spent about an hour building but we were anticipating people staying in our workshop space for about 20-30 minutes! They discussed how we could prepare some of the materials better so that the activity would not take as long, without taking away opportunities for creative choices. This is what they came up with:
• cut the foam into rough blocks that could be cut and shaped further by workshop participants
• pre-drill holes into the plastic bottle caps
• make sandpaper blocks
• provide paper and pencils for sketching ideas out
We were so impressed with the careful thinking they did to prepare for this event. It was a wonderful reminder of how much growth and maturity is possible when youth are given opportunities to step into new roles.
By Patricia Ong and Meg Escudé
Check out a follow-up post about this same group of facilitators on IMLS's blog here.