Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Watching kids' eyes light up

The kids call him 'Mr Zee', writes Brian Byrne. In the American idiom for the letter 'Z'.

"Well, when you've got a Polish name like mine, it's not always easy to say it," says Scott Ziglinski, an American teacher transplanted to Ireland who just loves to teach primary school youngsters about engineering and physics.

Scott and his wife run a small business called Elementary Engineering, which is a hands-on 2- or 3-day science course that lets children as young as five work their own way through the process of everyday engineering and physics.

And they'll be running an Engineering Summer Camp in Kilcullen Community Centre between 9-12 August, for young people between five and 12.

When you think about it, it fits right in with the state education push over recent years to try and encourage second year students to consider science, engineering and higher maths subjects and related career choices. But Scott believes that effort is maybe too late.

"I got interested in the subject when I was a teacher myself," says Scott, who has been in Ireland since 2006. "I was a science teacher, primarily biology and chemistry, but we also had to teach things like physics. And that's where I found, demonstrating how things move and what energy is, was when the kids' eyes lit up."

From that experience he built up a specific children's engineering programme, and eventually got began providing it to other teachers under a state-funded training programme in the Evergreen School District near Vancouver in Washington state. "Washington and Oregon are two high-tech states, and the educators were putting money behind teaching youngsters the tech subjects."

Scott married an Irish woman, and their son was born in 2004. Two years later they moved to Ireland, specifically Tralee, where her parents were living. Scott brought his idea to local schools, and initially had some very good results. "Then the crash happened, and it all dried up," he recalls. "It meant I had to travel further afield, doing shorter workshops of two or three days in places like Westport or towns in the west."

That meant, of course, that the format of his classes was changing, to suit shorter durations. And in retrospect, Scott realises that what he was also doing was adapting to teaching in rural schools with small resources. "It was a lot different to back in Evergreen School District, with 500 pupils to a school and a lot of money being put into the ideas."

One thing about knocking on doors in rural schools was that principals would always talk to him, and even if they couldn't hire him at the time would always refer him to other nearby schools. When he moved to Dublin a year ago, he found it very different. "A huge culture shock, really," he laughs. "It was a lot harder to meet the principals. So I started knocking on doors in Wicklow and Kildare, where I found my rural schools experience much more useful."

His method of working is to establish a quick, kind of crazy, rapport with the new group of youngsters. He gives them absolute freedom to do their own thing, in pairs in the class, with a ground rule that when he gives them a hand signal or rings a cow bell, they quiet down and listen. "Otherwise I want it to be noisy. If it's not noisy, then they're not talking to their partners, not trying things out, not getting excited. That means the lesson isn't working. I want them moving, I want them using up energy."

His lessons are a lot about energy, what it is and how it works. "Teachers are sometimes scared of physics as a subject, but actually it's the easiest science to teach. I can take the kids to the playground and demonstrate a whole lot of physics in how they play." It can be as simple as playing marbles, demonstrating kinetic energy, the energy of movement. And how that energy is transferred when another one is hit. "The kids don't talk about energy transfer, they say it's 'shared', and discuss whether all of it is shared."

Over the day the teams build roller-coasters, little cars that can be powered by rubber bands, electric motors, or air. It's very much using the 'MacGyver' principle — a few toothpicks, a rubber-band, and a magnet can be made into almost anything. With a colleague from Oregon, Scott developed a multi-use 'gidget' which is simple, cheap, and can be used as a base for all sorts of movement and motive power engineering lessons. "You can have science class kits that cost $1,500 a time, but what I wanted was something inexpensive, which is equally usable by 5-year-olds or 12-year-olds and that can be shared through the school."

And which makes the eyes light up. Because that's what real teaching does …