A Summer of Socioemotional Shop

The summer Makerspace program was three hours a day, three days a week. It ran TWTh from 10AM to 1PM.

On the final Thursday at 12:55, Alvaro and Ben got their project working. It was fantastic.

There were some stated, and some unstated, objectives to the project. The first was to make a nerf gun that we could measure and modify to come to some understanding of the variables that affect the performance of a pneumatic/ballistic system.

To that end, Alvaro worked hard to build a nerf gun, reusing a couple of parts of a previous one he’d built, but had broken itself up after a couple of shots. He needed to learn some fabrication techniques that could help him build more precisely.

There’s a life lesson here that came up several times over the month: that to use more power, you have to build — or otherwise operate — more carefully, with more precision. We talked about that with regard to relationships, too, as well as everything else he does. That if you’re going to do something with a lot of force, you need to take *exponentially* more care.

And that’s where one of the summer’s triumphs came in: Alvaro’s got pretty poor math skills, but what I perceive as math talent. He can reason and recognize ratios and relationship, but he can’t annotate them. He handles it almost completely intuitively, and as a result often makes the kinds of mistakes you make when you assume that, for instance, relationships are linear when they’re actually exponential.

That gave me plenty of opportunities to draw Cartesian graphs. I did it without numbers at first; just x and y axes, starting in the lower left, and then a rough plot of what I thought was going on. He’d look at them and occasionally ask a question, but really didn’t understand what we were looking at. For a couple of weeks. Then, in that last week, he was describing the amount of force (I think he called it “power”, but we can talk about that later) involved, and he got tired of gesturing with his hands, an drew a Cartesian graph on the board, completely correctly. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture. It was so correct, so much a part of the conversation, that I didn’t think to take a picture until the very moment I’d erased it to work out something else on the board.

Ben, on the other hand, is fantastic at math. He loves theoretical work. He’s finding himself convergently taking Marvin Minsky perspective that robots should be designed in a completely simulated environment so they don’t have to deal with the vagaries of the physical world. We had a couple of talks about that, as he experienced that kind of peculiarities that exist in the real world: Uneven floors, photoresistors with different resistances, the inconvenience of dead batteries vs. Inconvenient electrical cords. And yet, solving those problems helped him understand what it was that he was representing in his robot’s “mind” (to grossly overstate what was going on in there).

Ben’s big challenges are that, while he’s very social, friendly, and compassionate, he has a hard time explaining what he’s trying to do; and, while he’s physically coördinated and graceful, he’s sort of indignant about the messy, uncoöperative physical world as he’s building and designing.

So one of the challenges was to get them to work together, to supplement each other’s weaknesses with the other’s strengths. Alvaro’s job was not only to build stuff, but also to help Ben learn how to do it. To cut circles, to keep from burning materials as you drill them, to tap threads. Alvaro found it frustrating to have to slow down for Ben, but they did a pretty good job.

Ben’s job was not only to program and assemble the chronograph that would measure the muzzle velocity of the nerf gun, but also to help Alvaro understand the reasoning and programming. We wound up talking a bunch about explicit problem definition, and how it helps not only refine the project design into a better project by itself, but also helps others help us. Diving into the middle of a problem with someone almost never works; you have to tell them what you’re doing and why. It was equally difficult, but very valuable.


Project: The nerf gun shoots so fast, it takes less than one millisecond to pass between the sensors in the chronograph. When we closed up shop for the summer, Ben was going to reprogram it to calculate in microseconds, instead. We could also have made the chronograph longer. Doubling the length to 20cm would have doubled the precision of the measurement, but reprogramming it gives us the option of an additional three orders of magnitude of measurement, which means we’ll get to talk about how to use precision in future projects.

You’ll note I’m burying the lede here a bit: The nerf gun, which shot at a leisurely pace across the Makerspace in its previous incarnation, now shoots faster than 100m/s (328fps)! We don’t know how fast, exactly, of course. It is definitely too fast to safely shoot at a person. It shoots fast.

You might recall from an earlier post that we have some Makerspace special rules about guns: You may not point anything that works like a gun or looks like a gun at anyone. The kids in class often find it sort of a silly rule. When we first fired this machine, though, they suddenly both understood at least the first part of it. Fortunately, neither lives in an environment where they have to deal with the trauma of gun violence, so the second part is a little abstract to them. But they now understand that it’s really important to know that no one is going to shoot you.

Socioemotional development: The two worked really hard to overcome the general lack of social training that boys get, since that’s how they have both been raised. They’re starting to learn how to listen to and respect each other’s questions, which is an important part of respecting each other’s perspective.

I think Ben, whose talents are particularly well-recognized in our society, has gained a lot of respect for Alvaro’s talents, too. 

Future work: First, we’ll be doing the experiment that these mechanisms were designed to do. We’ll try different barrels on the nerf gun to determine what effect the length has.

Then, The two are going to be in my experimental math class starting next week, called Understanding Shapes. Ben will be with us to learn how to teach, since he has a perfectly decent understanding of geometry already, and Alvaro will be with us to start learning how to annotate ideas that he’s already starting to correctly derive on his own about how triangles work. I should have another couple of students in the class, as well. I’ve requested students who have a particularly hard time in math, and we’ll see if we can develop some pedagogical best practices in the coming year!

If you want to help me in this project, complete with these reports about it, you can support me and my students by backing up Punk Pedagogy and by buying some tools and materials for the LightHouse Makerspace!

See you in September!