Department of Educational Psychology
University of Illinois
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Champaign, IL 61820 USA
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Education, K12; Education, higher; Research, academic
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; More equitable access to technology or electronic information; Creation of new ideas, products, or services; Leverage of public funding; Partnerships between public and private sector
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This story was collected as part of the “Teaching Teleapprenticeships” research project at the University of Illinois, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
This is a story about children’s design projects for a zero-g environment. In particular, we will study how one child was able to utilize the real audience of a computing network to design a form of “space tennis”.
The Zero-G World Design Project began on May 3, 1991, by Jim Levin at the University of Illinois. It was designed to be an activity for anyone with access to the Internet or FrEdMail. Raoul Cervantes investigated four classrooms that participated in this project. Zero-g was a network- based design project in which students and teachers selected an aspect of everyday life and considered how to redesign it to function in a zero-g environment. Participants exchanged their designs on the network. The participants in this project worked to construct designs appropriate for a large-scale orbiting zero-g space station. In addition to school children and teachers from around the country, other participants were university researchers, NASA experts, and outside experts.
One design challenge was recreation in a zero-g environment. Many novel ideas were presented, which usually were unfeasible at first but evolved through classroom and network communication. One group of fifth graders came up with “roller tennis”, which, in their own words:
“..is played on a wooden board with 6 horizontal slits. Inserted in these slits are types of roller skates that look like slippers. Attached to these slipper like shoes are metal canes in the shape of a “T”. Wheels are attached on the ends so that the roller skates move sideways and the wheels stay under the board. There is a pair of skates on every slit, 3 pairs on one side facing east and the others facing west. The players move around by “skating” from side to side and stopping by quickly turning their feet. When a player needs to get closer or farther from the ball, he changes skates.”
The biggest obstacle in realizing workable designs from this age group was their contextualized understanding of gravity-dependent sports and lack of visualization of what could be possible given the unique characteristics of a space station. The students lacked the scientific background necessary to see why their ideas would not work, but with each iteration of their designs, the knowledge and understanding of the real constraints of the zero-g environment advanced, albeit in small increments. Sometimes, however, these small increments are the result of “giant leaps” in cognition.
Once such example of these cognitive leaps occurred when one student, Pablo, a member of the roller tennis group, determined that some critical information was needed for their design to evolve. He asked if a tennis ball would move faster in zero gravity and was encouraged to send this question out on the network.
Sometimes, as in Pablo’s case, it was more important to provide a method for the student to find out the answers to critical questions for himself. Other times, collaboration within the classroom was an equally motivating means, especially when two groups hit upon similar ideas. In the pursuit of a space basketball, another group came up with “velcro basketball”. During its course of development, they too made cognitive leaps. This is where Pablo’s network exchange was able to lend support. With Pablo’s summary of his network messages, teach group was aided by one child’s newly acquired comprehension of a few scientific principles of zero-g.
Zero-g centered on design projects, in which students worked independently or cooperatively, performing higher order thinking skills, including problem solving, composition, and reading. Most importantly, zero-g provided a real audience for student writing. Motivation arose from the fact that experts were interested in what they had to say. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the network’s ability to foster a new kind of learning environment, one where children and “experts” communicate to achieve common, real, goals.