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What does good learning look like?

A Teacher’s Passion Drives Student Engagement

Read how the 8th-Grade Tech Projects Class took a happy detour.

At the end of 7th grade, Watkinson middle schoolers are introduced to their first elective options in their Watkinson education.  Eighth graders have two sets of electives, one set for the fall and another slate for the spring. It’s an exciting moment as it’s the first time they get to choose their own path through Watkinson’s academic program.

In the spring of 2021, long-time Watkinson educator Tom Gromak — who is Watkinson’s Academic Technology Coordinator and a general technology expert — offered a class called Technology Projects for the first time. “Since I started here, not a year has gone by when I haven’t done some kind of tech project with a student. Now, I want to see how we might bring that experience to an entire class.” His concept: have 8th-grade students develop, engage with, and reflect upon independent projects of their own choosing that relate to computer technology. Six hearty students agreed to be the pioneers into this new, uncharted experience.

The theme of Mr. Gromak’s class is empowerment. As such, it follows that he is getting his students to understand the ways technology tools enable us to do what we wouldn’t normally be able to do. 

Tom describes, “When designing the class, I knew I wanted to be their coach. I wanted them to be the creators. I wanted them to be the ones to ask and answer questions like, “How do I chunk it down into doable pieces? How do I know if I am on track to finish in time?’” I wanted them to do metacognitive work, thinking about questions like: if this was a great day, why? Or who am I as a learner?” At different points in the process, they do share outs: here is where I am, here’s what I am concerned about, etc.  

Our six student pioneers are having loads of fun…and Mr. Gromak is, too! Like his students, he is doing a project and is modeling the mindsets and processes he expects of his students: here’s my idea, here’s my brainstorming, here’s my action plan. His project focuses on making generative art through programming, as he discovered AI art over the summer and was inspired. 

As the AI art was a spark for Tom he decided to do a quick drop-in project. He and his students explored using artificial intelligence to create art using Google Research’s Colab Python notebooks. The way it works is that the user gives the AI a prompt. The AI is trained on hundreds of thousands of images; so if you tell the AI to create art featuring a house, the AI interprets those thousands of images of houses and comes up with its own idea of a house from that.  The program has a creator and critic side that forces the AI to continually improve its output. “It was amazing. With this drop-in project, I hit the trifecta as a teacher.” 

  1. The kids were learning new tech skills, specifically how Google Colab notebooks work. (Sidenote for those unfamiliar: Google Colab rents out massive computing power to folks who wouldn’t ever be able to afford it and is geared toward people looking at machine learning and AI). 
  2. They were being creative and having a lot of fun. 
  3. The process and results opened up an opportunity for conversation about the ethical ramifications of this process. Who owns this art that is a collaboration between humans and AI? What does it mean to have humans and AI collaborate, who owns this intellectual property?

As is often the case, great teaching and learning begets more great teaching and learning. “I have been so inspired by the innovative work of my colleagues that I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to teach a class like this and give some of it back,”  Mr. Gromak said. “I’m also learning a lot from our amazing students, and can’t wait to see how their projects turn out — the results of which we’ll also be sharing with the community soon, so stay tuned.” 

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