Sunday, 4 June 2017

Working with the Walton Club

The other day, an excessively tricky-to-open and highly confidential-seeming letter from Trinity College arrived and scared the life out of me as I was convinced I'd been expelled from college somehow. As it turns out, it was my payslip for the work I did at the start of April for The Walton Club, so let's talk a bit about that. 

The Walton Club is Trinity's science, technology, engineering and maths club for Junior Cycle students, run by Arlene O' Neill. I know of it in three ways: (a) seeing my friend Ollie take part in it (b) seeing the Walton Club kids (Alphas) exhibit their work at Inspirefest Fringe (c) working for Walton Club for a week.

I have discovered that they're pretty awesome. Here's why. 

Real Science

Their task for the week I worked there was to program a moving robot that could carry a load. In Physics they learned about forces and motion, in Technology about programming in Python, in Engineering about building things and in Maths about co-ordinate geometry, among other things. It was super cool that they were making a robot, but I think the best part was that it actually did teach them some science, as in the scientific method.

Their challenge at the end of the week was to do a bunch of tests on their robotic cars to see how far they travelled in metres given varying travel times and varying loads and to make graphs and predictive models, then, given at the last minute the load and duration of travel, to predict how far their car would go. The team with the closest prediction won. 

So science (measurement and prediction) won out over engineering (it didn't matter how good your robot was as long as you predicted it), but honestly I'm impressed at how well all the strands (science, tech, engineering, maths) were integrated into that final challenge. 

Creative Challenges & High Expectations

One of the sessions had Arlene ask the Alphas to estimate the number of jelly beans they could fit in the room using Fermi estimation. I watched and was amazed at the thoughtful, considered answers the kids gave to this question where they weren't given the volume of the room or the volume of a jellybean, as they estimated the height of the room from the height of the door and used their legspan to measure the length and accounted for the fact that the room is essentially triangular so a lot of the room wouldn't be available for jelly beans. 

Arlene pushed the kids but was kind about silly answers and always kept it fun. She also brought it back to science and maths, teaching about scientific notation and orders of magnitude through it, as well as talking about ways to estimate the accuracy of your answer and see if it sounds reasonable.

What Happens when You Don't Underestimate Kids

These kids were about 12-15 years old and honestly I wasn't sure if I could've done as well in some things as they did. The course wasn't about using difficult maths, it was about creatively solving problems, and it was great to see the kids being pushed and trusted. I'm sure it was something to do with the selection of kids -- they do have to do an entrance test and are all very intelligent -- but it was still cool to see how well they did. Instead of just teaching them facts, the instructors guided them to experiment and figure it out.

The Alphas Make Cool Things

I was impressed at how modern and interesting the challenges were -- a lot of courses would start with C or Java and something boring in Physics, but this went right in with Python and relevant physics and robots.

In the exhibition of their work over a longer period I saw at Inspirefest Fringe, I saw a variety of awesome things including a fingerprint scanner that opened a wooden door. Lots and lots of creativity.

Fun atmosphere

I sat in on a lot of the classes (my job was to ferry students between locations) and it was cool seeing how fun the instructors made it. I'm sure it was also down to the students' willingness to engage, but something has to be said for the instructors' sense of humour and energy. They were also super timely -- one of the Maths classes was the day after that United Airlines scandal and the example word problem for a very negative slope in co-ordinate geometry was United Airlines' finances.

In short: Cool program, may be expensive though, would be awesome if everyone (not just Junior Cycle students) got to learn science that way. 

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