Ahoy! The Dinghy Derby Project
Middle School Teacher Lisa Skinner talks about her hands-on sailboat project at Maker Faire Bay Area and her Design Lab students.
At Maker Faire Bay Area last month, I met Lisa Skinner who is a teacher in her eighth year at White Hill Middle School in Fairfax, California. Along with Joy Forbes of Apple Education, Lisa organized the Dinghy Derby on the second weekend. Wearing captain’s hats and custom t-shirts, they worked enthusiastically to help kids build tiny sail boats from recycled materials. I followed up with Lisa recently to learn more about her and her experience. She is responsible for the Design Lab, a makerspace at her school.
Lisa’s Teaching Background
Lisa: I teach three different types of classes. one is a sixth-grade elective; one is the sixth-grade enrichment. Everybody gets it at some point in the year and then the other class that I teach is 7th and 8th grade in a combined class and I have free sections of that and they're all maker classes.
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Dale: Do you call it a maker class?
Lisa: We do spend time talking, especially at the beginning of the year about creativity. and what is a maker. We call it making.
Dale: What does enrichment mean in your school?
Lisa: It's a class that's every other week for six weeks so, building any kind of momentum can be challenging. So we try to do shorter things. I really want to focus just on their teamwork skills, especially since coming out of the pandemic. I've seen a lack of social skills and collaborating can be tough for kids that age anyway, and so we start with just kind of problem solving as a team and then building things as a team and talking about what it takes to involve everyone in the group and how to listen to other people's ideas. And how is there value in making sure that everyone is contributing, how you can do more with more people.
Dale: You're working with others and you're interacting with others, especially if you are on a team and do a project together.
Lisa: We do both of that in my 7th and 8th grade classes. They'll do individual projects and they'll do group projects. But I still stress the importance of being helpful to our classmates. We want to step in if we see someone using a tool improperly. We want to be a classroom community, even if we're just building individually because it's a shared space and so all of that has to go into it.
Dale: How did you get this program started at your school or did someone else start it?
Lisa: I actually didn't start it. Someone else started it and he wanted to move on to the private sector. He wanted to move on trying to make something to teach kids the sort of skills that we find valuable.
Dale: A product
Lisa: Yes, so he passed this on to me.
Dale: Was your hand raised or…
Lisa: I was yeah,…I just finished my teaching credential and I was in a really great place. When I was getting my credential and doing my student teaching, I had a really great principal that let me explore the kinds of things I was interested in. It was a second career already for me. So I just saw myself as doing the normal classroom thing. I just didn't know what grade yet. My mom was a preschool teacher for a long time and I was pretty sure that wasn't for me but I wasn't quite sure where I wanted to be and that's when I discovered the maker movement and I helped put together a mini Maker Faire at the elementary school where I was in Tiburon. We set up a little Design Lab with the fifth graders at that school. And yes, I was just able to explore a lot and found that I identify as a maker and I want to make makers. I really felt like that was a really good place for me.
Then this job happened to open up at the right time because I think these jobs are rare, especially at Middle School level. I know some woodshop teachers at middle school level in Marin. I know we kind of all know each other because there aren't that many of us.
Dale: Some schools maybe had maker programs before covid and then stopped doing it even coming back from Covid?
Lisa: Luckily, my district has definitely continued to support this. We have great music and arts programs. Our enrollment numbers go down each year a little bit and so it is scary for elective teachers, not knowing If their work will be valued forever, you know what I mean? Being smaller, cuts do have to happen but I'm really lucky that my district definitely supports me.
The Dinghy Derby
Dale: Tell me about your experience at Maker Faire with the Dinghy Derby. Where did you come up with that idea?
Lisa: Joy and I had done the Maker Faire in 2019, just with a couple friends and we wanted to do something that was hands-on because we like that part of the Maker Faire. In 2019, we just made a game that people could play. Iit was fun, but we really wanted there to be an opportunity for kids to actually make something.
We were inspired by the Nerdy Derby but didn't want to do something that already existed. We wanted to put our own spin on it. So we went on a hike one day and just brainstormed a bunch of ideas and thought it'd be really fun to make little sailboats. We wanted something that little kids could do and bigger kids could do. We were then surprised that even adults were into it.
Dale: For someone who wasn't there, can you describe the Dinghy Derby?
Lisa: We had a bunch of recycled materials set up. My students had been saving recycled materials for about a month and so you could choose to make the hull of the ship out of a food container. You could choose the mast, which was a skewer and then you could choose your own kind of sail, which would have been some kind of plastic bag that had been cut down. You put all these things together, trying to make sure that it will float and won't fall over and then you could test it out in the kiddie pools that we had set up.
We had a round kiddie pool with a bunch of wind-up toys that you had to sort of dodge and then we had a longer kiddie pool for doing races. We had hand-cranked fans that you could use to put some wind in your sale and propel your boat. It was really great to see how many people tried something and then came back to the table to improve and then go test again..
Dale: I saw the same at Nerdy Derby, too. It is the iteration of kids building something and then they get to look at how it performs and then they want to make changes. They think it could be better. Without teaching them, they kind of learned on their own how to iterate.
Lisa: Yeah, they don't want to give up after one try.
Dale: Sometimes it sinks, I bet.
Lisa: I tested it out with my students so that I would learn what might happen.
Dale: That's a good idea.
Lisa: We decided that we can't have the sails made out of anything that isn't waterproof. We ended up using plastic bags mostly because if your sail was paper and your boat tipped over, it's a little harder to fix. We wanted to make sure that people didn’t get frustrated right away.
Dale: It is a great hands-on activity. You get to make something and your boat is yours. It looks different from other boats in the kiddie pool and you can see how it performs for you.
Dale: It's very engaging. Parents don't know that their kids could enjoy something as simple as building a little boat and putting in a pool, right?
Lisa: I heard that from some parents. They'd be like I have this stuff at home. I usually reuse these containers for leftovers.
Dale: I know.
Lisa: I didn't think of using it for a project and so I really sparked some ideas.
Dale: Yeah. Yeah, that's great.
Dale: I feel like we are showing parents how to do this kind of stuff. It's like reading with your kid. it's another kind of thing that you can encourage and develop and do it. And to do it without hovering over them and doing it for them.
Lisa: I would see some parents building alongside their kids, which was really cute…
Dale: That's a good idea.
Lisa: Because then they weren't taking over their kids' boat. They were doing their own boat. I really felt like that was nice to see as a parent-child interaction.
Tips for Teachers
Dale: Do you have any tips or ideas for other teachers out there? Sometimes this looks like a heavy lift to teachers..
Lisa: I would say getting parents involved if you're looking to start. More hands-on building projects at elementary level because everyone at home has materials that they don't even think of as building materials. If you can reach out and collect leftover takeout containers and cardboard tubes from your toilet paper rolls and just be able to save those things for a hands-on project, that is a good first step. The other thing, once you do have stuff to make with, even just cardboard is great. I know spots around town where I can go pick up cardboard from the side of the road. You can do a lot just with cardboard and…
Lisa: Getting started can be a little bit challenging, if you're a certain sort of teacher. I'm definitely a teacher that has control issues. I mean it's a tough to lean into the chaos of a building project and so every day my classroom is chaos but you have to just accept some amount of chaos and be okay with it in order to do a building project and 95% of the students will be capable of following your instructions and staying with whatever project you're doing.
As long as you're able to get your students excited about whatever they're building,. then you can manage whatever other behaviors you see. Teachers know their kids.
Dale: but it does involve some preparation.
Lisa: For certain ages, I feel like it's helpful to have the materials at their table for them. That's why we set up the Derby that way where they didn't have to go get materials and then come back to where they were working. Everything they needed was right there. Set up takes organizing ahead of time. Older students are somewhat capable of getting the things that they need and going back to their project. I am able to have quite a bit more stuff out and available to them and that makes things more creative.
During our first week of school, students were supposed to make an animal that represents who they are. That was our way of practicing learning where the things are in the class. Where do I get popsicle sticks? It was a good way to just sort of introduce them to the room itself:
what is required of them?
how do I clean up properly?
what do I do with a tool when I'm not using it?
It is a bit of work for the teacher. but It's really worthwhile to see them engaged in build things
Dale: The big thing is engagement, to see them doing things. Sometimes people will ask: what is it they really learn doing this? There's all these other things that require focus and understanding of a process.
Lisa: Even just motor skills.
Lisa: We did propeller cars one of the first couple weeks of school. It was interesting to me. I could tell which kids had tinkered before and which had not. They didn't realize that if you attach your car’s axle directly to each other and then the axle doesn't spin, the wheels aren't going to spin. I let them figure that out for themselves, but it's really interesting to see. It's really valuable for them to do that problem solving and figuring out how things go together, and physically put things together in a way that you might not do if you're always on your computer or just doing your homework with a pencil. It's just beyondt like normal school work.
Dale: Before we close, I want to give a shoutout to your colleague, Joy, who was helping you with Dinghy Derby.
Lisa: Joy was a big part of finding the idea and figuring out what would make a good Maker Faire project. And all of my students helped in class, even ones that weren’t helping at Maker Faire. They were organizing materials and making the decorations. As I said, they tested out the project and that really helped me see everything from the kids perspective. If I don't cut the sale into a square, that’s a problem. They were doing the silliest things …
The creativity and energy of a maker educator is why hands-on activities happen in schools. It is not easy, but it is rewarding in so many ways. Doing it at the scale of Maker Faire requires planning and dedication.
In a talk with Godwyn Morris of SkillMill NYC and Dazzling Discoveries, she said that what distinguishes maker projects in the classroom from other kinds of maker projects is that they are group projects — 20 or 30 students at a time may be engaged in the project. Dinghy Derby is a great example of a hands-on project for a group of students. Students have the goal to build their own boat and there a lot of choices they can make in doing so. A group of students will come up with different designs and ideas and they will learn from each other. Because they can test how well their sailboat works in a kiddie pool, they get feedback on their design and they can iterate to improve it. Students are all basically doing the same activity but there are some constraints on their creativity (materials, tools, etc) but they get to create a boat of their own. Lisa proves not only can you do Dinghy Derby in a classroom, which she used to test the project, but she can do it with hundreds of people in a day.
Lisa talked about creating a classroom culture where students help each other. It seems obvious but worth mentioning nonetheless. Doing your own thing needs to be balanced with sharing and helping others, so called do-it-together (DIT). “We want to be a classroom community,” said Lisa. She is intentional about building that community.
Lisa mentioned another idea prompt for a project that she does with her students: “make an animal that represents who you are.” She provides simple materials such as cardboard and a bunch of recycled materials such as buttons and bottle caps. This is an open-ended group project where the outcomes are personal. She uses this project to kick-off her making classes and then these animal constructions are on display in the classroom throughout the year.
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