(Originally published December 2011)
I often ask myself while teaching students about renewable energy "what is the goal?" I have come to understand that the 'Solar-Show' contains much more than simply information about renewable energy. In it exists far more value than mere information can provide: face to face, smile to smile, hands on learning; real experience at a student scale with small solar cells in their hands rather than an abstract idea. The underlying intent is to provide a quality of learning that is experiential, inspiring towards curiosity and self discovery.
Labels like creativity, curiosity, generative, and kinesthetic learning are circulating themes around one central idea: learning happens best when one is genuinely curious, physically connected, and allowed to discover. Open ended discovery seems like such a normal learning experience yet it is all but replaced in school by packaged curriculum, seemingly with the good reason of time constraints and standards. What have we lost along with discovery learning? Most fundamentally, I think that we have lost the joy of learning, an ability to empathize with the real world (which has far fewer black and white answers than any text book), and the creative confidence to deal with our constantly evolving reality.
I have taught the same class to first graders and high school seniors, when I give a solar cell and small fan to elementary aged students and say, "try to make it work..." they do. Giving the same solar cell and fan to high school seniors with the same instruction they ask, "how" or "when" ostensibly looking for a prescribed learning path to follow. This is not about intellect or knowledge, rather a willingness to try multiple times while allowing that many, perhaps most of those attempts, may not work. As if the risk of being wrong, traversing an intellectual dead end, is not worth the attempt. This experience has been so stark that I correlate the grade of the students with how long it takes to 'warm them up' to the idea of trying without specific instructions.
Life seems to be defined according to successive versions, iterations, and prototypes, improved upon by each creative insight. To me, it seems axiomatic that life is about the process not the arrival. Whether it is a rock climbing route, reading a book, or solving world-wide energy challenges of the future, there is always another peak that builds on the last, each success is a milepost in a process.
I hope that by connecting with students during a "Solar Show" renewable energy, conservation, and efficiency becomes a part of their vocabulary. Most importantly though, I hope to provide an opportunity and permission to explore, try, ask, then answer questions with no expectations: creative discovery.
Which is why I am so happy I got a manila folder filled with thank you letters from Mrs. Carter's 6th grade class in Fairview Utah. Reading letters filled with enthusiasm and awareness suggests I have achieved my own evolving goals for the classroom!