Engineering Communication

Ben watches how Alvaro uses the drill press as a lathe to file a part of the trigger mechanism into a circle.

I’m teaching two kids, both 16, over the summer. They’re both great kids — intelligent, curious, funny, perceptive, creative. They’re working together on a project: to develop a nerf gun that they can use for physics experiments, and the device that measures the muzzle velocity of each version.

The first kid, “Alvaro”, loves building machines. But he has a hard time with theory and abstract logic, though he’s able to astutely apply logic to physical processes. He’s built some amazing machines, but has a hard time reasoning out how to refine them. He built a nerf gun last year, only to have it shake itself apart because of the amount of power he’d managed to store in the thing, only to have it grind its own trigger mechanism apart after a handful of shots.

The second kid, “Ben”, loves building theoretical structures. Math and programming are both within his talents. But he has a hard time communicating what he’s working on (though he loves to discuss it), and while he recognizes the value of learning to build things, he shies away from the practical toward the theoretical.

Both kids want to be engineers. Between the two of them, there’s so far one incredibly talented, creative engineer. I want to help them use their strengths to help each other amend their weaknesses, making two well-rounded creators.

For a brief moment, the chronograph, here assembled in breadboard form, was working! Then it stopped and the world became full of mystery. We’re doing a lot of “What’s changed since it was last working?” to avoid shooting in the dark (ha ha), which is an important skill.

So what I’ve been doing for the last three weeks (and finishing up next week) is designing our days around the two of them learning to collaborate. It’s hard for both of them, because neither is used to having to explain either why they’re doing what they’re doing, nor how they do it.

Here, they’re testing their chronograph with a simple blowgun. They’ve turned the lights  off to help reduce the light noise introduced by the overhead fluorescents. 

It’s a really interesting challenge, and I don’t have any conclusions yet. Alvaro and Ben are learning some important lessons about problem definition and communicating with each other, but there’s a long way to go. Fortunately, they get along great and are moving toward each other as they figure out how to explain the depth of what each understands.

We have only four days of summer makercamp left! I’ll let you know how it goes!