In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Blue School educator Rob Gilson. Rob has been a teacher for the past 20 years and has spent the past 5 years building and teaching Blue School's STEAM programs. Rob shares ideas for families to bring the hands-on work (and fun) of the STEAM lab home this summer and invites everyone to participate in a design challenge.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents, while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you are finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous, and compassionate. I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together we’ll find our way.
Today I am so happy to be talking with Rob Gilson. Rob has been a teacher for the past 20 years and has spent the past 5 years building and teaching Blue School's STEAM programs. Rob's work with students, in addition to math and STEAM work, is also rooted in exploring student interests and community needs in order to deeply engage children in their worlds.
Rob, I am so excited to spend this time with you.
ROB GILSON: Thanks, Dawn. I'm excited to be here.
DAWN: So I wonder if you could start by defining this acronym STEAM for us?
ROB: Yes. STEAM. So acronymically, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. So STEAM is the space within which those disciplines get to play together, and I think of it as an intercurricular party of sorts.
DAWN: [LAUGH] And so I love that at Blue School STEAM is an intercurricular party. I know STEAM looks different and means different things at different schools. Can you tell us what it looks like, what it means to you, at Blue School?
ROB: Sure. So at Blue School, the STEAM party is an egalitarian party. So no one of the elements should exercise undue influence over the others. So tech can't be hogging the mike all night for instance. This party needs multiple DJs. No wallflowers at this party either, all the disciplines have to play a part in the experience. Mathematics too has to get on the dance floor. Shake that money calculator. [LAUGH] And each discipline within the STEAM framework contributes vital DNA to the experience. So engineering for instance. Holds the framework within which we play. And that framework is the design process. And the Blue School design process has five steps, empathy, research, development, prototyping and improvement. So we move through that as much as we can, we move through every step of that process with every project. So we begin any challenge by connecting with that challenge and that's the empathy. Why are we doing this? Who cares? Who benefits? And does that make me care more, right? So sometimes it's less about what we're getting out of it and suddenly, oh, wow, this is a really helpful challenge we're taking on. So from there, we can move into really enthusiastically and even hungrily into two subsequent steps, research and development.
And by the way, I love that we chose those terms for that, because it's — they're familiar. To the adults in the room and at home also. And that's important. It's a bridge. It's conversations that kids can have with their parents and teachers. And so after we've looked at what people have done and sort of really sketched out what we're thinking of doing, we'll move into prototyping and that's when we start building. And if you start building before that, or without giving due diligence to those other steps, you're probably making landfill, honestly. It has to have meaning, like intrinsic meaning. Not for a grade but for a purpose. And so you know, we should do our best to learn from the experiences of others before us, and make new mistakes for those who are going to follow us. Even ourselves as we redo something. And then the last step in the design process, improvement, is actually an ever present step. You should be improving every step of the way, was my empathy effective and thorough, did I research sufficiently, are my plans good enough to commit to some materials now. And it's important as a process point to help the product be its best self, but also as a review point. You know, it takes humility and genuine curiosity to look at something you've made to see how you might make it better. Especially if it took a lot of sweat and tears to get there.
ROB: You know, that's a skill in and of itself.
DAWN: Yeah. I mean, it brings up the fact that there are so many important skills. And I guess both academic skills and life skills that come out of your STEAM lab. Can you share what some of those skills are, maybe what some of your priorities are working with students around those skills?
ROB: I love the STEAM playing field, because it's an area where the academic skills and the life skills just weave in and out of each other so much. So measurement, for instance. Super important to be precise in your measurements. Bob Vila didn't say measure once, cut twice, right? It's — you've got to measure this and get clear. That said, making mistakes in your measurements happens to the best of us. I mean, I had messed up my waffles this morning, for instance. You know, so whether you're woodworking, sewing, baking, planning a trip or even just planning a meal, that — you're going to make mistakes. And managing those mistakes is a critical life skill. So I try to create opportunities in our projects as I'm looking through the trajectory that we're heading. I try to create these low stakes mistakes. I kind of want kids to make the ones that I can see they're heading to. I'm not going to stop them, necessarily, unless it's problematic. But mistakes are inevitable, and anticipating how and when they might arise is a life skill we can develop by making a few mistakes along the way. So someone who rushes through their work for example isn't going to slow down because I say so. That just creates tension. But they will internalize that having to redo something that was rushed and is now either non-functioning or not yet really meeting their intended purpose, that's slowing them down in a way that they don't want to repeat. So they start to develop more care in their work. And care is really the biggest life skill that I strive for. Life takes care, people take care. Like the more we can practice taking care of little things like wiring a circuit or sawing a straight line, the more we will take care of other things in our lives, like each other and the planet. So there are a lot of academic skills inherent in the STEAM work.
So coding, for instance, is loaded with academic skills, from coordinate planes to angles of rotations for graphics and animation to sequential reasoning. But the patience and persistence and pride that accompanies that work are the invaluable life skills and show up all the time in our projects.
DAWN: I'm just reminded of the fact that you come to STEAM from a math background, is that right?
DAWN: You were teaching — can you share a little bit about what that — I guess the transition into the STEAM space was like for you?
ROB: Yeah, it's funny, I was just combing through some old photos and found some video clips from the first woodworking club that I set up in the public system. And you know, it was wood that somebody got off the back of the truck, there were some saws, like — and people — the kids were standing on giant plywood while somebody else was sawing. [LAUGH] And it was brilliant, they were dancing. Like it was a really fun — I could tell the buy in that these kids had was unbelievable. So it sourced out of teaching a very predictable — you know, you were given the content at the beginning of the year, and there's something a little bit like — you know, you kind of give up a little bit when they tell you here's where you're starting and here's where you're heading, and there's really not a lot of room for spontaneity. Especially with the pace that shows up in some of the hyper testing environments. So I was trying to create something beyond that. You know, we started a club after school. And it was started with the Tinkering School. So there's a Tinkering School in San Francisco started by Gever Tulley and one of the administrators at the school I was at was — had worked with him and was good friends with him and sort of gave us their blessing to open up a little tinkering chapter at the school I was at.
And so we started with things like you know, Diet Coke and Mentos, microwaving CDs. He actually has a book, 50 Dangerous Things to do With Your Kids. Most of which are not super dangerous, so it's okay to proceed cautiously with that. But from there, it was clear to me that not only did the kids really enjoy some woodworking, but there was so much math in there, and I was, you know, specifically a math teacher, so we designed bird houses and doll houses and suddenly every kid in the class, we had enough wood left over so that every kid could make a dollhouse. We made cornhole sets, Adirondack chairs. It just suddenly became like oh my gosh, there is so much content in here. And if we lead with this, well, then they're going to be looking — you know, the kids are going to be asking for the information that otherwise just goes in, you know, like dry sand, you know, it's really tough to get the content when you're marching through it, you know, on a real schedule like that. So it came out of that, and then I found Blue School and they offered me the chance to do this full time [LAUGH] and I thought wow, what a lucky break this was. And away we went. And woodworking that first year was the meat — you know, I really wanted to get every kid's hands on a saw, get them experiencing just that feeling, that texture, that process, and get those muscles pumping, right? City kids don't often have a woodshop in their spare closet, so it was really rewarding to get that happening. And to have that opportunity for kids to do that at school.
DAWN: Totally. And then like we're in this moment now where school has been happening at home for so many kids for so many months now. I wonder if you could share a little bit about how parents might be able to hold and, I don't know, sort of underscore the importance of the design process at home with their kids?
ROB: Yeah, great question. And first of all, I want to give a quick shout out to all the parents in general for all they did this past spring to hold that space for learning to occur at home. And holding hands with their kids when that learning was hard, right?
ROB: And holding each other close to remind ourselves of what doesn't change in these tough times. So parents, you are incredible, and thank you from all of us at Blue School. And as far as STEAM at home goes, so in the spring, I tried to choose projects for our distance learning that were inherently interesting and fun so that the parent might scooch a little closer and get involved if they chose, which is totally fine. And if the child was working completely independently, the project was still inherently interesting and fun. So like the recycled roller coasters for instance that the fourth grade did, it was a blast. And it took up a lot of space, so I really applaud parents for allowing that to just grow out of the curiosity and enthusiasm of their kids. We'll be doing that one again, so heads up to the [LAUGHTER] fourth grade parents.
DAWN: Right now.
ROB: Clear some space. But as a parent of an 11 year old myself, I find that my support and participation works best when I'm busy with something else, but I can jump into her work for ten minutes or so, right? Just to maybe help resolve any catastrophes, set a course for further accomplishment, if I can see oh, we just need to get here and then I can launch her off and then get the heck out, right? So that her momentum is authentically hers, she experiences the triumphs and maybe a couple of small breakdowns on her own. It's a fine balance. Because we want to be helpful, but it doesn't always land the same with parents and it's just a better — it's such a good experience to see — well, really to see how the parent responds to failures, and redo’s and frustration, right?
The more they see us manage that, the better equipped they are. So knowing when to step away for a minute, for example, and then returning to the task. So another thing that's changed for me over the past five years that I would lean into for any — invite any parent to lean into as well, is to notice — around the house especially, how many things are pre-packaged or even part of a kit. And you know, I grew up with boxed cereal, boxed this, you know, pre-packaged whatever. Like in the kitchen, take a look at some favorite snacks or tasty treats that might be in a box. And look up how to make it from scratch. So cookies and pizzas and banana breads. They're really not that hard to make. But we've been cultivated to think, as a culture, to think that things that come in boxes are somehow better. But they're worse, right? They're worse for our health and the health of the planet. So deconstruct those things and make them from the individual ingredients.
Because that's STEAM, that's what it's all about. Taking apart broken appliances is another thing to do together. And by the way, never throw anything away that you could first take part and keep those inner workings because we use them for our future cities. But that has been one of the things that I for some reason forget about because I don't always have the right things and I can't predict when something is going to show up, but as soon as printer shows up or something that doesn't work shows up in a STEAM lab, I've got 5 to 15 kids at any given moment grabbing screwdrivers and jumping in. It's a really great way to demystify the world, and that really is a big piece of what the Blue School STEAM is about. I don't want kids to think that's something that's happening in STEAM could only happen with these special ingredients and these special machines and we're only in this environment. It really needs to be opening their eyes up to the world around them and just seeing, you know what, I know how that works. I can get a sense of how that bicycle's gear is shifting because I did some gear work in seventh grade. You know.
So yeah, there is really more to say about that in fact, and because there's so many things that we have to untangle about how we look at the world, and STEAM helps us just break those things down. So I would encourage parents to even it out, but to keep it loose. [LAUGH] You know?
DAWN: Yeah, wise words. so in the STEAM lab throughout the year, you are always inspiring kids to have these big ideas or to acknowledge their big ideas and to see them as buildable. And that's, you know, Rube Goldberg-y machines and trebuchets and puppets that tell jokes or air hockey tables or skateboards. I [LAUGH] so I think of summertime, even this sort of strange summertime, as this opportunity for day after day of planning and building. Do you have any thoughts about how parents can scaffold their kids in these kind of big idea projects, and then how they can support their kids to see them through? I feel like as a parent, that's always something I'm curious about. Like where you sort of talked about it just now, the sort of weaving in and backing up. But I watch you do this all the time with kids, sort of make space for their ideas and then keep scaffolding them forward. Do you have any words of wisdom around this?
ROB: Yeah, that's a great one, and it's a tough one, because I mean, A, kids are so different. But by the way, B, they're super different around their parents than they are around schoolmates and teachers.
ROB: So home projects can be trickier. You know, parental support can be less well received and the seeming willingness to give up can bubble closer to the surface. You know, I see it as well. It's just — really just being patient, letting go, letting some things go. What I've found is, you know, doing steps with them along the way that you know, maybe you want to print out a design process outline of sorts. Even just listing those categories like empathy, research, development, prototyping and improvement, with space between them or even on separate pages for notes. But you know, make a sketch or two together, or on your own. Like if there's a frustration that gets hit, maybe you leave a couple sketches or some notes, and then just leave it where the kid can find it and discover it on their own, and see if that sparks a little interest, move on when it's time, though. Because you know, maybe you'll come back to it but maybe you won't. I think you know, it's going to be a lot harder to hold a scheduled design process at home, and you might find that kids just want to jump straight to prototyping, which is great, that's actually okay, too, especially if you're using recycled objects, anyway. You're doing okay by the planet. You know, but I would say try to keep it feeling natural, the way that you might take on a challenge, and don't get caught up in any particular process. This is the time to wing it a little bit, [LAUGH] and kind of see where your wings can go. And it's interesting to see that sometimes especially when you've got these low stakes mistakes happening and the low stakes materials as well, kids will jump into the prototyping on a hunch. And then they're a certain way, and then they double back to the research or they check online to see like, wait a minute, you know, has somebody done this already, or you know, there's a couple great websites out there that everybody — you know, how do you and I learn, right?
We learn just jumping on YouTube. So there's a lot of opportunity to sort of bob and weave in and out of this, so I don't want it to come across too much as we have to do this, we can't do this next. You know, in a classroom, I hold that integrity as much as I can. But I allow for that movement. And really, I mean, it should be fun. If the kid's interested already, you can certainly help with some of the research and some of the development. And by using those terms, I think, will be helpful for the kid to realize that oh wait, I know how to do this too, I know how to research. Like so if, you know, say — my personal experience with researching is it's a wide, wide, world, right? So my daughter doesn't necessarily have that savviness that I might already have. And so we'll go on together, you know, she might be on a device, I'll be on a device, and we're searching a few things and then we come back and see what we found, and I'll — you know, we'll check and see do we trust these sites, are they good, do they run the whole project through to its campaign, that kind of thing. But yeah, that's — it's really, really important to keep it fun in the summertime. And if it doesn't go the way you want it, don't worry. They're still learning. The kids are still building up some knowledge, some either physical muscle memory or just familiarity with a process that will be helpful and will support you later.
DAWN: Yeah, it's interesting hearing you say that. I'm reminded that even at school you sort of make space for both, right? Like you have your classroom experience and then so many kids who want to spend extra time in the STEAM lab, and they're there during lunch and they're there after school and it feels like during that lunch and after school, there's much more — maybe not much more, but a different kind of trial and error. [LAUGH]
ROB: Yeah. Yes.
DAWN: Different than sort of having an idea and slapping something together and seeing what happens.
ROB: And they go through waves, right? The kids inspire each other. So in the after school and in the lunches, the inspiration that kids get from each other is often all the research and development they need, and away they go. maybe they've researched a design but they don't know how this — suddenly they're using the tool and they realize oh, wait a minute, this tool isn't doing what I thought it was, and they have to go and research the tool. It's fun to be a part of that real organic process. That's sourced wholly in their interest. Before last year, there wasn't a single sword in the — I mean, it wasn't on my curriculum, it wasn't certainly in the shop, but kids got into it and ran with it. the air hockey just came out of some kind of mojo that was pumping in that first class. It was so great, yeah. Super fun.
DAWN: So I know that you think a lot about the both/and of STEAM as a space for engineering and building with real materials in the real world. And then for coding and online design. Can you talk about that marriage or that tension? And about how STEAM at Blue School plays out through the years?
ROB: Yeah, sure, like screen time as a thing that we have to consider? Yeah.
DAWN: Yeah, like some schools when they think about STEAM, they're thinking about robotics and 3D printers and coding, period.
DAWN: And I see you acknowledging and making space for that, but also continuing to really think about the importance of getting kids' hands on things.
ROB: Yeah, that's that — I think it's a lot of the A, the arts piece of STEAM that helps me remember to steer away from things that are a little too similar. Like if everybody's making the same robot, okay, but you know, are they really invested? Sometimes they're not. To give them the opportunity to express themselves was so important and so that first year when we came in, it was primarily hands on. We were making things. We were soliciting input from the community at large to say what do you need, what can we make that would make things here move better or be more fun. And I just think of those things we made out of branches. Some branch fell down outside the front of the school and we made a climbing apparatus for the twos and threes out in the play space there. It was so great. [LAUGH] So yeah, appropriate screen time is definitely something I've wrestled with my whole life, and especially more as a parent. And I think Mollie in one of the earlier podcasts touches on this. Where really not all screen times are created equally. So I mean, just like some food is finer than others, some music is finer than others, some screen time is finer than others. So the finest screen time television wise for instance that I found are typically PBS based. I mean, they're incredible. They're not trying to sell you anything. Their motivation is sharing information, period. So yeah, combing those resources, I tend to let that move with the interests, rather than with limitation. But other screen times can also be beneficial, so coding is an incredible way to develop computational reasoning. By the way, which is a fancy way of saying first this, then this.
DAWN: Right. [LAUGH]
ROB: Troubleshooting skills, iteration, which is a fancy way of saying try it again. You know, the brain is highly engaged. So I relax a lot on measuring time spent on a coding endeavor, for instance, or a PBS binge, right?
But hands are for handling, not just poking buttons. So it's really important to make stuff. And that — it doesn't have to be robots — you know, kneading dough for example is so — it's tiring work, you can feel it in your wrist, your forearms. I mean, I feel it in my shoulders and my back. So at Blue School, we focus a lot on hands. What can I do with my hands? What can I create? Especially what can I create that is something that I see around me all the time? And deconstructing food is science, and it's so useful. And it's empowering. Suddenly kids are looking at ingredient labels in the store. They're like, well, why did they put that in there? I didn't need that when I baked my cookies. You know, those kind of conversations are really great. So when we make boxes, for instance, at school, or clocks or even interactive electronics, you know, with copper tape and batteries and wires and things, we let the kids explore what they want to create with those materials. Like what boxes inspire you? What shapes seem interesting to you? What do you — what does this remind you of? What do you want to — who is this for, what do they like? Like it's really important to get those questions going. I think the tech — at Blue School, it has been really about staying away from something that feels exclusive to a location, a situation, and more about empowering kids to manage all of those things anywhere. So coding for instance will do things that they can do at home. Right? It's not really a localized experience. It's a universal one.
DAWN: So when you think about what skills students need, and I'm thinking specifically about middle school right now, and you've thought so much about the curriculum and the arc and sort of the narrative and the relationship of the STEAM curriculum to the other curricula students are invested in during that program, what are some of the things you want a student to leave eighth grade with? From STEAM?
ROB: Yeah. I want them to see that they are agents of action. That no matter where they end up, they are going to be creating things that are highly individualized and highly important. You know, I don't want them to fear any technology. I want them to understand the specific materials that they see. I mean, one of the things I hold to myself as a guidepost for myself is have the kids touched every single tool in this shop by the time they leave. Because if they haven't, I've missed an opportunity there. You know, I think of some of the sixth and seventh graders who are operating the table saw. You know, that's a really loud machine and it's intimidating, and dangerous, but you know, to teach kids how to handle risk and danger, risk and danger are two different things.
ROB: And so, you know, managing risk is a life skill. Dangerous is like I'm just going to run out in the middle of the street, right? That's dangerous. But risk is like, well, there's a risk there. How can I remediate that risk?
ROB: And so getting kids to say like, well, that's risky but I know how to be safe, I'm going to exercise these steps to keep myself and my friends safe, that's really important. So that the actual hardware, I want them to be open to their skills or their potential skills with it. I also want them to get these bigger concepts. And I'm talking bigger concepts like the future, right? Our seventh grade, we started with future city. And that's a huge — I mean, we could have spent all our time in that, certainly. A city is a massive — there is so much in there. It's a rich environment to [OVERTALK] —
DAWN: And can you talk a little bit about what that project is or was?
ROB: Yeah, so the future city was in a bit of a collaboration with the futurecity.org organization, they help frame this out for you to move through a process, and it's really up to you to figure out, well, which pieces of this do we want to explore? Is zoning something we want to look at? Is — you know, what particular challenge of a future city are we looking at? Is it going to be public spacing? Is it going to be caring for the elderly? And you know, we have a massive, growing elderly population, it's only going to get bigger. So what are we doing about that? Like what does it — New York is notoriously unmovable for people who need, you know, some support with that. So you know, we looked at all of those pieces and along the way were playing with some electronics and tools that I feel are going to inform this exploration. And it culminates in this really cool city, right? So there's this — they've made a model city, where every kid's hands have been in it and on it, and they've wired it for lights and for sound and maybe something's moving. You know, really to get to share with what they've researched and learned with the public. So it becomes an interactive display. So that when they go to another place, they go to a museum and they push a button and that thing over there lights up, they see, oh, wait, I know how to do that. Like, they can see — you know, everything is suddenly more familiar. And so you know, eighth grade, just to touch on that real quick, because biomimicry is really such a love of my own. I mean, I didn't even know it existed five years ago.
But now, it's such an inspiring platform for design process, for connecting with the world, and solving challenges. Right? So the biomimicry piece — like nature is amazing. In and of itself, it's amazing. It's spent 3.8 billion years researching and developing and prototyping and improving every single element of life. Like everything you see around you in the natural world is perfect. Otherwise it wouldn't be there. Like each organism is perfectly suited to its environment. And that includes the fluctuations within that environment, right? Droughts and floods and these things. So biomimicry allows us to see how nature takes on challenges. Whether it's climate or stress or predators. And lets us explore ways that we might apply that wisdom towards the challenges that we face. And biomimicry then also stretches us globally because we can look at ways that we might design houses for instance that can help communities affected by climate change, that are affordable yet durable, we might draw upon the way tap roots and the curve of a tree and the woodpecker's skull do what they do in nature, and Dawn, if you don't know, I'm referencing the design of two of this year past's eighth graders who took first place in the National Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge this year.
DAWN: That was amazing.
ROB: Yeah, all of the proposed projects were awesome and inspiring. Because the kids cared a lot. It was important work. So I strive for them to look at nature and especially if the city kids, right? So look at nature with more reverence and care because it is our ally. We used to — you know, I've just read Sapiens, Harari's book Sapiens, and I'm now reading Homo Deus, and I've got the next one lined up, 21 Lessons for A 21st Century. But we used to do that. We used to look at nature with love and reverence and an appreciation that it was an ally. And we've — you know, he discusses it brilliantly that it's — we've commodified it. We've — what can it do for us? And otherwise, get it out of the way. And that's an imbalance. We’re just out of balance with that. And it's not disastrous. We can achieve balance. There's a lot of pioneers in the biomimicry field or certainly in any of the micro fields in there, Paul Stamets in Mycelium, where look, nature will fix — nature wants to fix this, if we just stop making it so tough for nature to do so. And we can integrate some of nature's wisdom into things that can help facilitate that and expedite it.
DAWN: So like most schools, Blue School pivoted to online learning in March. Can you share some of your reflections on the spring, some of what you're holding in your thoughts that you've planned for, hopefully, fingers crossed, on site and online learning in the fall?
ROB: Sure. Yeah. And honestly, like, there's a piece of this that resembles how I and probably you and many listeners have learned things over the past five to ten years or so, right? I mean, if we want to learn something, we do our best to comb through websites, we find some videos we hope are quality videos. We maybe take a few notes. I mean, the worldwide web is hit or miss, but if we persist, we can become pretty well versed in whatever topic we had the interest in, so in fact, we might even realize we're more interested in something else we discovered along the way.
And so I'm actually kind of excited for any distance learning that arises, since it's really great prep for a life of continuing and basically never ending learning. You know? I mean, really, the future is coming at us like a tsunami, just ask any of our seventh graders who are studying the future. And so much of what we need to know to pivot on a dime and catch those waves, we don't even know yet. And we have to get really comfortable with that self direction, self reliance, self motivation, and those are so hard — you know, it leans on the parents unfortunately a lot at home, and we will do everything we can to help hold those kids in this space. But we don't know what's coming, so we need to be ready. I mean, fun fact, Back to the Future Part II, right, was made in 1985, I think it was meant to take place in 2015. They did not anticipate cell phones in the future. Not a single character is carrying a cell phone. So life will only have twists and turns from here on out. We're not going to be coasting, you know, [LAUGH] at least for a while. And the Blue School model really that we're practicing helps kids practice those capacities of acumen and agility, right? I think the advantage of being in a school environment either online or in house is the collaborative learning piece. I mean, I love learning with others, most do if they feel supported or encouraged. I think it's in our DNA to work together. So in the STEAM content, I expect that what we finish the year with will probably differ from my vision from where I'm standing right now, right? And that's exhilarating. That actually takes some pressure off. Because I know that kids are going to be pursuing projects that interest them. And who am I to assume to know what that is right now? So it's way better to let them lose with some form to hold their freedom, right? It can't just be research anything. But watch what they go and learn with them. And it's really fun to discover the variety that can emerge from, you know, a fertile foundation of exploration.
I think of — you know, the graduating eighth grader that taught himself Blender, right? Taught himself a graphic design program. Because he had a little extra time at home. And that was great to learn that — you know, to pick up what I could with him along the way. And to see the fruits of his experience. But one challenge that I had my sights set on for this distance piece is just how to keep kids talking with each other during the distance learning. You know, they love each other. They need each other. And that's such an important part of the educational experience. So as much as I am researching what are we going to look at and what are we going to study, I'm also pulling out like, there's a handle, there's an opportunity for somebody to break out and chat and that's going to be something that I'm looking forward to weaving throughout our content.
DAWN: Well, hearing you say that you're exhilarated about next year has me smiling thinking about the future.
ROB: Good. [LAUGH]
DAWN: And I haven't in a while. So I really appreciate those words. So I have to tell you, Rob, one of my highlights of last summer was the kayak challenge.
ROB: Yes. The kayak challenge.
DAWN: And a bunch of Blue School kids building a kayak out of cardboard and tape on the hottest day of the summer last year.
ROB: Oh my God.
DAWN: And then racing it in the East River and surprising us all by winning third place out of many competitors and almost no other children. So I wish we were all together right now watching the kids kayak race in the East River. [LAUGHTER] But I wonder if in the absence of that, if you might have a new challenge that you could share with folks today.
ROB: Yeah, and I can just say the word "epic" is overplayed these days due to some meme that I have no knowledge of whatsoever. But Dawn, you know the kayak challenge, the cardboard kayak challenge, was absolutely 100% grade A certified USDA approved ten out of ten dentists agree epic. I mean —
DAWN: It was epic.
ROB: I mean, it was epic. [LAUGH] Whoa. I mean, it blew me away.
DAWN: Yeah, yeah.
ROB: I could talk ten minutes about that. That was an experience
DAWN: I know, those children were epic that day.
ROB: Yeah, they were. [LAUGH] They rose to the occasion. We walked in there thinking it was just a sort of a recreational thing, and there's an engineering firm with design plans they've printed out. And there's the Coast Guard with a team that's making a cardboard, you know, vessel. What we decided to do which was the best move is we said look, let's play to our strengths. We're smaller than they are. Let's make a small boat. We don't need a big boat. We just need to kayak out there and back again. And away we went. And boy, they were so tenacious on that cardboard. So do I want everyone to build a cardboard box and hit the open seas? [LAUGH] Kind of. Right?
DAWN: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
ROB: Unsupervised, I'm not sure how I can endorse that fully. But yes, so with regards to something like that, something that is a stretch, right, I mean, we had to really push ourselves and think beyond what we thought we were going to be doing. I sort of can think back right now to like my first year at Blue School. Actually the summer before I began here. And I decided to take on a stretch goal myself of making a cigar box guitar. And I had never made one. I had never even thought about it. I don't even know how I found out about it, but there was something about it that was really interesting to me. I mean, it was intimidating.
We were living in a 700 square foot apartment in the Lower East Side. But I took it on and I was doing my woodwork on the fire escape, you know, sourcing all my materials locally. I made two. One for me and one for my daughter. So I could see playing with this in the — I guess with the word concert. So you know, not necessarily a musical concert but like the definition of concert where everyone's in agreement, or a union like of opinion and views. Of, you know, where we're all in concert with each other.
ROB: And it can move into a concert, a musical concert, because if we're going to get through all this mayhem right now, this craziness, we have to do it together. So maybe we celebrate, and encourage that concert of humanity, and perhaps we — you know, like maybe we can take on an instrument, and everybody could make their own instrument. It could be anything. Like search on DuckDuckGo for weird instruments. By the way, that's weird. If you do that, like look at what people have created. There's even a — what's it, a humanotone, aka a nose flute, right? [LAUGH] Which is a legit instrument. They realized it's some kind of middle age construction, where they realized that they could control the pitch differently if they used their nose or something. [LAUGH] But don't buy one. Like, just make it. You know, make an instrument. Like I could see this being something where if everybody could make an instrument that stretches themselves, that plays let's say five notes, at least five notes, see if you can create a little jingle or a ditty or just a hook. It could be an uplifting one or like a haunting one. It could be a march or a mosh. And we could connect with Keith, you know, our music teacher, who I bet would be totally psyched to collaborate. He's already expressed interest of doing — of working with me on things in this regard.
So we could collaborate on something like this. And if you create a new instrument, give it a name. When you search weird instruments, you'll find it's just these people making weird instruments [LAUGH] and giving it a name. And Instructables.com is a great resource to find ideas like that. I don't know, what do you think?
DAWN: I think it sounds so good. Let's do it. So officially let's do it.
DAWN: Let's have a challenge to anyone who listens to this, and we'll put it out on Blue School social media, too, saying create your own, at least five pitch instrument, five tone instrument, give it a name and share it with us.
ROB: That would be awesome, yes.
DAWN: Great, okay.
DAWN: And if you do it in a kayak [LAUGHTER] —
ROB: Yeah, just notify the Coast Guard if you're heading out.
DAWN: Well, Rob, thank you so much for today. It was — this has been a joy.
ROB: Oh, thank you, Dawn, I really appreciate it and I enjoyed it and I just wish you all the best this summer, and everybody listening, just really enjoy yourself and look closely at nature, look closely at your lives and just see what can I do a little differently, how can I reengineer something about myself and my experience. We're going to get through this.
DAWN: Yeah, I think so.
ROB: Thanks, Dawn.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.