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Teaching Technology, Old and New

Written by Bernie Zubrowski

My work with kids in these toolmaking programs slowly revealed some pedagogical approaches that for me would change the structure of informal and formal science education activities. Two major emerging concepts were that: 1) technological devices could provide a context for introducing basic science concepts; and 2) extended activities over multiple sessions could be shaped into a learning progression.

In addition, I became convinced that the artifacts resting in cases in museums could become more meaningful when students had the opportunity to experience how these artifacts were made and how they functioned. But artifacts need to be contextualized to engender meaningful connections with students, and museums were the perfect places to provide that context. Students need to have direct experiences with similar kinds of artifacts that they have made themselves. Artifacts that are more than just replicas, but actual working models of tools as they were used in the past. In programs about water wheels or windmills, for example, basic science concepts could be introduced that grew naturally out of attempts to make a more efficient working device. Much later I took this thinking further, producing curricula that made these concepts more explicit.

In the mid 1970s when I was doing these kinds of afterschool activities, "technology" was not associated with the "high technology" of computers. Back in the 1950s, there was some science curricula, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, that took a practical approach. Attention was given to how things worked and how scientific principles were exemplified in various technological devices. But the major reforms in science education that occurred as a result of Sputnik almost totally displaced the Popular Mechanics approach to figuring things out. During the 1960s and 1970s, major science curriculum development programs gave little attention to older technologies. There had even been a distinct emphasis on science divorced from technology. However, in the late 1970s, a movement emerged focused on the relationship between technology and its impact on society, although the focus was on the social and environmental impact. It seemed to me that older technological devices still offered certain pedagogical advantages.

  • They were very accessible to students.
  • Basic operations were visible and understandable.
  • They provided a context where science, technology, math, and even history could be brought together in a natural manner.

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