Students explore what makes electronic devices tick

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Above, Willamette Primary's Michael Diltz works in the Deconstruction Zone with, clockwise from bottom left, Kearina Simpkins, Maya Gardaphe, Payton Heth, Levi Minch and Angelina Garcia. When students in third through fifth grade at Willamette Primary School received their own personal electronic devices this year — either mini laptops or iPads — school librarian and instructional coordinator Michael Diltz noticed something about their behavior.

They appreciated the devices, sure, but only at a pure functional level. The learning tools available were nearly endless, where they came from remained a mystery.

“They took pretty good care of the devices,” Diltz said. “But they didn’t understand what they were given.”

It was a void in their curriculum that Diltz decided to fill with what he calls a “Deconstruction Zone” in the library, where students can stop by during their free period to take apart different electronic appliances and learn what makes them tick.

“I really wanted them to understand that this wasn’t some magic box that you plugged in and charged and then you got on the Internet,” Diltz said. “Because they’re so far removed from the days pre-Internet that everything’s wireless now. So we really wanted them to be exposed to how things function.”

The idea has been a hit, as was evidenced on a Wednesday afternoon free period. While many students played outside and a few others gathered elsewhere in the library to make movies, Diltz supervised five third-graders at a table that looked as if it had been moved straight from a repair shop.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Here's the inside of an electric toy car that Michael Diltz and the students hope to make run again.

Of course, there wasn’t any repairing going on — quite the opposite, in fact — but in a supervised and constructive manner students were deconstructing devices. The students gave Diltz frequent updates about what they’d discovered, asking specific questions along the way.

“You can cut the wires on that, just not the electronic toys,” Diltz said to a student at one point. “Or speakers if you want to use them again. And if it breaks on its own, it’s no big deal.”

Indeed, these were mostly old and outdated appliances, some of which as foreign to the students as algebra. There were boom boxes, landline telephones, even a VCR.

“None of them had even seen one,” Diltz said. “I was like, ‘Oh, it played tapes.’ They said, ‘What do you mean tapes?’

“So to pull those open, they were amazed.”

One of the most important lessons was that the devices had more in common than the students might have imagined. On the outside, they couldn’t have been further apart, but beyond that exterior design — where the true magic happened — the commonalities proved shocking.

“When they open up a computer and realize this Goodwill toy has some of the same components,” Diltz said, “really it kind of blows their mind.”

Behind the deconstruction table, Diltz posted two words and their definitions. There was “Deconstruction: understand how things work,” and “Construction: using available materials to make something new.” The second phase of this project concerns the latter, as the students will use their deconstructed parts to build new creations. It won’t be anything that serves a function — just a final product to show students what they are capable of.

“A lot of the older students are thinking about building a robot,” Diltz said. “It won’t have working limbs or anything; it will just be in look only ... just (for the students) to get used to putting things back together.”

As he spoke, the five third-grade students weren’t thinking about that stage of the process. Their attention was devoted solely to the boom boxes on the table, which were coming apart piece by piece.”My dad’s a welder,” said Angelina Garcia. “And it’s interesting what parts I can see.”

“I didn’t know your dad was a welder,” Diltz replied.

“I bet my dad could come into our class,” Angelina added.

“That would be awesome.”

Others, like Angelina’s classmate Maya Gardaphe, were simply happy to have such an activity available during free periods.

“We can’t do this at home,” Maya said.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - The inside of a telephone that Michael Diltz' students broke apart. Many of them had never seen this model of phone before.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Angelina Garcia watches as Michael Diltz shows her the best way to break into a boom box.

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