closed, I could hear kids screaming around me. Screaming with energy,
enthusiasm--cheering. I opened my eyes not to a Justin Bieber concert
with flashing lights, but to a school cafeteria and the sight of two
hand-made cars careening down a track.
“Go, Pink Package!”
“Go, District Twelve!”
Students, teachers and parents chanted deafeningly for their
top picks until their throats were raw and the results final: X-Solo, the only three-wheeler in the competition had taken first place in the first Marymount Nerd Derby.
doesn’t usually happen in a school setting, much less the cafeteria of a
private all-girls school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This
unique and intense experience was due to the energy and passion of
teacher-maker Jaymes Dec, who is the Technology Integrator and FabLab
Coordinator at the Marymount School in New York City.
this age of accountability and standardized testing it can be
challenging to find pockets of authentic innovation occurring within the
school setting. Innovative pedagogy takes a careful balance of
risk-taking, teacher confidence and support from school leadership. A
visit to Marymount and some deep conversation with Jaymes, shed some
light on exactly what can happen when that balance is achieved. The Nerd Derby
project is a perfect example of the type of balance needed for real
educational pioneers to innovate in schools. Working closely with Lesa Wang, Marymount’s Art & Design teacher,
Jaymes was able to bring the Nerdy Derby to Marymount.
Nerdy Derby Goes to School
The Nerdy Derby is a miniature car building and racing competition organized and designed by a group of students at NYU’s ITP program. The project was inspired by the Pinewood Pro derby used by the Boy Scouts of America,
which is part of what made it so clever that Jaymes and Lesa brought
the Derby to an all-girls school. The first race was held at the World
Maker Faire in September 2012 and currently the derby continues on at the NY
Hall of Science. At this point, you might ask: “How do I get an
installation from the Maker Faire into my school cafeteria?” Jaymes offers a few words to describe the process: asking, hounding and begging
spent a week building and iterating their vehicles with partners.
The "Garbage Truck" raised a few eyebrows when it demonstrated its speed and agility. The crowd
roared approval for best-named contenders, Hunger Games-inspired "District 12" and the ever-so-chic "Pink Package." Yet in the spirit of such crowd pleasers, the three-wheel car, "X-Solo" won. The builders of the big winner think it was a mixture of
creative thinking and a certain weight added to the side of their car
that made it undefeatable. They also admitted that it was their fifth
car and completely different from their original design!
momentum for this mini-unit stemmed from an authentic and undeniable
enthusiasm amongst staff and students at the school. There was a
seriousness about the competition that made every participant-- whether
builder or audience member--lose themselves in the moment. Fourth and fifth graders showed their support by making flags to
represent their car picks. The Marymount school maintenance crew got involved, bringing risers into the
cafeteria to create the vibe of a real competition. There was a Marymount Derby
bracket built on Challonge that projected real-time updates. Every heart in that cafeteria was captivated, including mine.
It Takes a Village
Jaymes is quite an innovative character, he did not make
Marymount’s first Nerdy Derby happen alone. In fact, it is his team and
their process that make this project so challenging to replicate at
other schools. Jaymes and Lesa developed a plan to get teachers across
the curriculum involved. The Nerdy Derby project reach across content
areas to include ELA, Math, Science, Art and Technology. In fact, while
the designers were setting up the derby in the cafeteria, adults from
around the school seemed to find their way downstairs, cars in hand,
eager to race. Every teacher in the building knew what was happening and
wanted to partake. Today, teachers are often overwhelmed and bogged
down by paperwork and bureaucracy that there is little time to feel
enthused over teaching and learning. This project brought out the
competition, the underdog and the maker in many of the staff members at
let's evolve the Derby a step further. Imagine working in a school where the
school leader, in this case Headmistress Concepcion Alvar says, “Let’s
bring the Nerdy Derby to our school. We’ll do it in the cafeteria!”
During the competition, I sat with Headmistress Alvar, who is a true
visionary. She explained how in sixth and seventh grade, teachers start
to lose student engagement. She encourages them to look towards
projects like these to bring them back. Alvar was glowing the entire
time, raving about her staff and how they came together to do something
that represented the best kind of learning. It reminded me of how a
school leader’s role is to inspire and encourage the staff to hone their
teaching practice. At one point she said, “Just the other day we were
setting off rockets in our other building, on this grand staircase…it
was such a sight!” In that moment, it became clear how closely
correlated school leadership and innovation really are.
this point, you might ask yourself: “How challenging would it be
to replicate this project in my school?” According to Jaymes and Lesa,
it took three weeks to plan and purchase the supplies, and one week to
implement in classrooms. A $1,000 budget provided 40 sixth grade girls with the experience of building and
iterating their cars to prime them for the big competition. Many of the
materials are reusable; in fact, the budget covered extra materials
that are now left for a new project. The cars were built out of
inexpensive, crafty materials such as clay, Popsicle sticks and washers.
During a post-competition student feedback session, the students
advised teachers to buy more washers next time, as this was a
favorite material that caused some hoarding amongst the tweens. Teachers
took notes on the student feedback so I’d guess there will be a
meeting about reallocating funding for next year.
Can We Measure Maker-Learning?
teachers put student growth at the forefront of everything they do and
Jaymes, Lesa and the team at Marymount definitely did with the Nerdy
Derby project. During the opening, Jaymes invited sixth graders to share
some of their findings with the fourth and fifth graders in the
audience. Let’s just say their dialogue was flooded with content-area
vocabulary: aerodynamics, friction, center of gravity and
iteration. Their competency was remarkable.
chatting with teachers, some of the biggest lessons learned were about
risk-taking, mistake-making, iteration and collaboration. There was
even a lesson about values in how they awarded the cars: there were winners for
speed, best design and best collaboration rather than simply 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. One
builder was completely flustered at her vehicle’s slow performance,
expressing that she had done extensive home-research on the Nerdy-Derby
website to maximize her vehicle’s speed. While some might console her, I
was just in awe of the fact that she had taken control of her learning
and allowed it to follow her home.
student learning was evident, the major challenge for these types of
projects is finding ways to measure progress. Jaymes was humble instead of his victories:
“The first time you try something of this scale, you learn a lot--assessment is one of the pieces I’ll reflect on for next year.” There
are clear areas to measure but its about defining how to measure growth
and finding a way to ensure that measuring growth doesn’t compete with
enthusiasm for learning and heightened engagement.