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Akst: Tinker a bit, you’ll learn more

It didn’t get much media attention, but a couple weeks ago at Northern Illinois University, about 45 kids in first through sixth grade helped solve significant global problems.

Also, they created awesome rubber duck launchers from stuff around their parents’ houses.

It was all part of Camp Invention, sponsored by NIU’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Outreach Program.

The goal: Teach in such a way that it felt like fun. The kids got to mess with a bunch of stuff to see what happened.

For example, campers investigated problems such as congested traffic in Paris, diminishing living space in Singapore, and converting marine debris into power in Honduras. Our son’s group worked on the marine debris problem. They designed a ship that gulped up garbage the way fish scoop up food.

Campers invented a “glacier digger” and discovered how challenging it is to bore through ice and examine ice samples. They experimented with acids and bases. They studied sandstorms, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Along the way, they kept a “design journal” of notes and drawings. They even filed a mock patent application for the “duck-chucking” devices.

How successful was camp? One, our son asked if he could go again next year on the first day, and two, I keep asking, “Why don’t they have stuff like this for grownups?”

In a way, they do. Some forward-thinking companies allow time for employees to tinker and work on pet projects. Doing so improves morale, productivity and, every once in a while, births an awesome invention.

But for most of us, it’s work, work, work. No time to explore and see what happens.

And increasingly for students, it’s task, task, task. Not enough hands-on learning.

Why is hands-on learning so important? Because according to some experts, the lack of hands-on learning is a primary cause of student disengagement.

Between kindergarten and high school graduation, students become more disconnected from what they’re supposed to be learning. This happens because classroom material becomes abstract, less tied to actual life and more rote.

With respect to STEM, hands-on learning is crucial. One Purdue University study of eighth-graders found that students (including those for whom English is a second language) showed significantly better understanding of how humans affect water and water quality by designing a water purification device, compared with traditional methods of study. They also scored higher on tests.

Cindy Warren-James, a retired DeKalb elementary school teacher who directed this year’s camp, underscored the importance of learning by doing.

“What we saw at camp is that this [play and hands-on learning] is how the brain works,” she said. “Little by little, you get to the point of meeting the challenge. It takes tons of time and the right instructional setting. Kids need to ... get the experience before they get the background.”

The problem is time. School systems, under increasing pressure to cram more and more content into a finite school day (and with diminishing resources) obsess about timelines and assessments. Master this task, take the test, move on.

By contrast, the value of play and hands-on learning, Warren-James said, is that it makes the learning real. However, she said, “all of that takes time, and unless you’re willing to put in that time, you might not get the long-term benefits.”

She urged parents to buy small hobby motors, get parts from stuff around the house, and just tinker.

Sounds good to me.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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