Get Real

by David Peins

Showing students what you-and they-can do makes learning relevant.

Every teacher I have ever met knows-and hates-the phrase, "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach." It's not true: Teachers can do. And our students need to know that. Kids are uneducated, but they are not dumb. They need a reason to learn-especially those who aren't academically motivated and just want to get on with their lives. So we need to show the relevance of what we teach by applying what we "can do" in our classrooms in a way that involves the world outside.

How I do it

Every year, I select final projects for my electronics students that require them to synthesize and apply what they have learned-real-world, cutting-edge projects.

I started the Central Jersey Amateur Robotics Club where robot builders from local universities, engineers, and hobbyists work with my students every month. For our annual Robot Madness Day, students and professionals work together in competition to build robots that can overcome challenges. The students learn relevant job skills, presentation and social skills, and can find opportunities for internships.

I also started a manufacturing company that supplies robots free to my class. That took considerable effort and I do not recommend it for everyone, but it has kept me current in my field.

How you can do it

I am certainly not unique. The English department at my high school requires students to interact with people outside of school to complete a personal quest assignment. Students commit to accomplishing something they have wanted to do but thought was out of their reach. They research and plan their quest and meet the people that can make their dreams come true. In the process, they gain a lot of practical writing experience.

History classes can interview residents who took part in historical events and compare their versions to the text. Foreign language students can interpret for or teach English to non-English-speaking people in the community.

Science and mathematics abound with opportunities to mesh with the local community: Collect environmental data and analyze and present it to the community. Ask local companies and universities for help with projects. They get a chance to look over your students and you have another resource in your classroom.

Does it work?

There was a student some years ago who did not see the relevance of school learning. He worked on car motors, made things out of wood, and played his guitar. Today, we call kids like him "disaffected," but back then, they just called them "lazy" or "out of step." The student's guidance counselor suggested that he drop out of school and become a gas station mechanic.

And most of his other teachers agreed-except for one history teacher who saw that what this kid was doing was relevant to him and that he was learning. Mr. Morgan allowed this student to do alternate assignments that related to his interests. At 19, by some miracle that New York calls "social promotion," he was finally awarded a diploma.

So what happened to this pain in the collective necks of his teachers? Well, he-aka me-grew up to become a teacher himself, and I've told you a few of :he other things I am doing now.

As an educator, I am determined to show the application first, the method second. I do have suggestions for my students about unwise choices, I present many alternate paths, and I ask what students are interested in. Robotics is probably the best context for teaching electronics I have found, but not the only one.

So ask yourself, what can I do best in my content area? What experiences have I had that I can use to bring reality to my subject? Whom do I know, or whom can I contact, who is using the skills that I teach?

We became teachers to make the world a better place and we cannot do it alone. Involve your community, parents, and future employers. Most of all, listen to your kids!

David Peins teaches electronics at Manalapan High School, Englishtown, New Jersey. Visit and www for more.