What if they all just copy you?
This is a phrase that I heard a couple times when visiting teachers would ask about my most recent project, Lakeview. While the kids are working, my complete prototype is hanging on the wall behind them. I use it a lot to show the class how I put something together or what size hole I drilled or whatever. While some might see imitation and copying as a problem, I see it as an essential part of learning.
When I started work on Lakeview I had seen a piece of art that I thought was really engaging. My way of appreciating the work was to make a copy of it. By copying the sculpture I learned about it's structure and design. I gained insight into decisions the artist made by recreating parts and measurements as I deeply engaged with the mechanisms involved. In other words, I learned.
My model then served as guidelines for the class and set constraints for the work when everyone started working on their own sculptures. Students would ask "How big should my off set blocks be?" and I could hand them a ruler and walk with them over to my model. Somebody wanted to know how big their project could be. I hadn't thought of that yet, so I had the class measure how much material I had used and told them that they could use no more than I had.
Rather than being a burden during a project, a model gives me space and ease during a project because I don't have to make decisions on the fly, but I can speak from experience. If I had tried to write a set of instructions and guidelines for how to make this project, students would inevitably have questions that I hadn't addressed. With a model, I can put the burden of decision making on them and give them an opportunity to think critically. They can see how I did something and compare it with what they want out of their own project.
In fact, I did have one group completely copy my project in the end. Their group was functioning poorly and members split up to do Rebellion projects at the end of the semester. I met with the remaining team who were 2 members short and hadn't finished a proof model yet. They were close to falling way way behind. I told them to scrap their design and make a replica of my model. I don't know what I expected them to say, but they went from feeling irritated and stressed to feeling confident and capable. "Oh we can definitely do that." they told me. They took pictures and made measurements of my project and consulted me as they made the various components. We frequently took my model off the wall to look more closely. I would have been happy if they had submitted an exact copy of my example, but part way through the build, they had different ideas than I about how a few parts should be made. "Yours looks like this, but can we do it this way instead?" they asked. "Will it still work?" I asked.
They thought about it.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.