Lance Akiyama is a journeyman engineering instructor who travels from school to school teaching elementary school kids using hands-on projects. He uses everyday household items to make projects with students ranging from paper rockets to wrestling “judo bots” that illustrate concepts of force, momentum, aerodynamics, and other physical concepts that most of his students won’t learn formally until high school. He dropped by the lab, provided us with enough mousetraps to make April Fool’s Day in the office legitimately dangerous, and chatted with us about what he’s doing in classrooms.
If you’re in the Bay Area and want Lance to teach engineering skills to YOUR students, check out his site
How did you get started with Instructables?
I’d like to say it was some noble or gracious thought that prompted me to create my first Instructable, but no - it was the first teacher contest. Of course, over time I reflected upon why I was making Instructables and realized the value in sharing my ideas with others, but it was the thought of winning something that got me started.
Tell us a little bit about how you started teaching engineering to kids.
In some ways, I have no business being a teacher. I have no credentials and no college education, no formal teacher training whatsoever. But I’ve always found fulfillment in working with kids in the past 5 years, and I enjoy tinkering. So I approached the admin of a local after school enrichment program and said, “I’d like to be a teacher.” I pitched her a few class ideas, one of which was engineering, and it stuck. Although the first lessons were sloppily planned and several projects flopped, kids and parents loved it even then. At that point I quit my regular job and focused on developing my program. I’m an experiential learner, so I became a successful teacher simply by teaching again and again.
Why use projects as the method for teaching kids? Do some kids miss the point and just play?
Mixing education and play is the point. Is it necessary to separate play from learning in order for kids to be educated? It can be counterproductive. Many kids I’ve met dislike aspects of school because it feels like work. So I choose to use project-based learning because I find it’s an effective way to engage kids. Delving into an awesome project and allowing it to become an outlet of creativity is a wonderful experience. Kids will naturally learn valuable hands-on STEM skills when they build things, test their ideas, and observe the results.
What defines an awesome project?
The students have to find value in it. It’s very difficult to get a child to learn about something that they’re completely uninterested in. A great project can’t be one-dimensional or kids will be bored, but at the same time the project can’t be overwhelmingly complex. The emphasis of the project should be the project itself, not the lecturing that surrounds it. The kids should be allowed to explore the project in whatever way gets them excited about the lesson at hand. As long as the project engages a child’s whole experience and challenges them in new ways, it’s awesome. And… if it’s inexpensive enough for kids to take home, well that’s the icing.
What is the goal of your Workshop for Young Engineers, both pedagogically on a per-class basis AND long-term as a business?
Fundamentally, The Workshop for Young Engineers doesn’t dispense information. It’s more like a creative medium for kids to explore, like paint. You can learn a lot about color just by making a few paintings and thinking what looks good and what could be better. Similarly, my program allows kids to build and experiment, which naturally results in comprehension in one form or another. At the end of the day, each child walks away with newfound knowledge that is formed by his or her natural inclinations and sense of curiosity.
And here’s the big picture: I’m seeking to hire more people and reach out to other after school enrichment organizations. Eventually I’d like to be able to establish a strong local presence, and then I could point at my program and say, “See? This is working really well. Now will you let me try teaching this during school hours?” (Well this will probably involve writing grants and whatnot, but that’s the general idea). Ultimately I’d like to help revolutionize the public school system with projects like mine that blur the line between play and education.
Instructables has a large community of people who like to teach stuff, and schools are a place where kids could really use some project-based learning. Do you have any advice for someone who might want to make a difference for kids in their community?
Well, obviously if you’re a teacher or somehow in a childcare leadership position, try out some of my projects in your class. It’s all designed to be easily implemented in a classroom. I’ve received emails from teachers who have already had success with my projects. After school programs and summer camps are great settings as well. If budgeting is an issue, ask the parents or PTA to fund it. In my experience, parents are willing to spend a few extra dollars if their kid comes home with some awesome engineering projects. If you aren’t a teacher but you’re good with kids, try being an enrichment teacher. You don’t need any experience or education, but you get to teach a class – it’s great! I’ve written an Instructable called How to Teach Project-Based Engineering to Kids that might be able to help you out. Parents reading this can offer to volunteer their time and resources by contacting their kid’s teacher and asking to conduct one of these projects at school.
How would you go about beginning a class at a new school?
I typically make a lot of cold calls to get in touch with the after school coordinator. Most of the time I need to contact a coordinator many times before I get through to someone who wants to hear about my program. If anyone decides to try this, be persistent. It’s not that people don’t care or ignore you intentionally, it’s just that they’re busy and what you have to offer isn’t the most important thing to them… yet :)
What projects will we be seeing from you in the future?
I want to explore more uses of simple hydraulic systems – it’s such a cool idea, but it seems to be limited entirely to high school robotic arm projects. I’m also developing some simple electronics projects. And of course I’m always trying to discover new combinations of craft sticks, hot glue and other materials to make things like propeller-powered zipline racers. The new education contest has definitely motivated me to come up with some grand ideas…