Doing New Things

We have been busy this spring around here, with lots of good and important work to do, but the preparatory work for future classes never really stops either. A few weeks ago I took a major step towards developing a new class for Centre Term in 2020. Centre Term, as a quick reminder, is our intensive winter term: students take a class with an instructor for three hours of class meetings a day for sixteen class days. Students do not take other classes and the instructors will sometimes use this opportunity to experiment. I have decided I want to get students to build robots, or at least robot-adjacent historical simulations.

The basic premise is that students will use a raspberry pi computer board with an online software package, most likely IBM’s “Watson” program, to create a device that can hold a conversation with a human. The device will do this in character: as Napoleon Bonaparte, or Toussaint Louverture, or Ada Lovelace, or whomever. The big idea involves them attaching that board, its microphone and speaker to whatever they want: a bespoke 3d printed shell, a plywood cutout… it’s really up to the students.

At some point of course there will be some skills that wouldn’t typically be found in a history class: setting up a raspberry pi, downloading software packages and installing them in a linux environment, testing hardware, even using a soldering iron. I will have to be able to show students how to do these things if necessary. That means that I have to learn how to do them.

Things are progressing okay, and when I can find the time to do it, working on a different type of activity is quite energizing. It’s odd though, too. I get plenty of comments from colleagues about the 3d printer running in my office, prototyping away. I’m not sure people in nearby offices fully understand why I’m asking a little blue robot to tell me a joke. Progress is being made however.

It has got me thinking quite a bit about how we learn. I am not really in a place to write about this all that thoughtfully yet, but putting myself in a completely different position with regard to gaining knowledge has been enlightening. For example, I am currently teaching myself how to code in Python, with more potential computer languages down the line. This has been such a wildly different experience from what I am used to doing. For one thing, I do not feel any stress when I get things wrong – admittedly helped by the fact there is no test or tuition! More than that however, I have been struck by just how different learning about a historical topic and learning how to code in a computer language are. I am not surprised of course; we talk about these things in faculty discussions all the time. It is a whole other thing to experience, though.

Academics talk a lot about “experiential learning” and the extent to which we know what we are talking about can vary. We also talk about getting students out of their comfort zones and confronting failure. I am doing all of these things now with Python and am gearing up to do some more with a soldering iron. I am also thinking about how much I might be able to replicate this experience of learning in different ways at once in our History Bots class.

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