“Made at Sir Wil” – Beyond Consumers: Creating in Our Own Image

Looking under the hood can be a dangerous discovery; in the case of Richard Young’s robotics program at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School, it was an epiphany.

Richard is the polymath engineer-cum-educator behind the most innovative robotics program that I have encountered in the OCDSB.

A number of years ago, Ted Dintersmith’s educational documentary made High Tech High the talk of what learning can look like.  To a public school educator it seemed an impossible aspiration to imagine. 

It is around this time that I met Richard. 

In what began as a routine visit to a school in my role as the Leader of Experiential Learning I began my day full of skepticism. The Vice-Principal, Balazs Fazakas, invited me to see some of the innovative programming going on at Sir Wil under the auspicious that Sir Wil was the High Tech High of Ottawa. My cynicism ahead of me, I entered the building both curious and wanting to be underwhelmed. Suffice to say what I found at Sir Wil exceeded my expectations beyond imagination.

Richard is the polymath engineer-cum-educator behind the most innovative robotics program that I have encountered in the OCDSB. 

Richard takes his students “under the hood” of everything as the first step in imagining something that doesn’t exist, yet. The next step? According to Richard, it is creating that something in, making that something in, our own image. 

Of course, believing in the capacity of our learners to create and make from imagination is an equally important first step. And it leads to children thinking of themselves not just as consumers, but as creators as well. 

On a cold January morning in 2020, I returned to Sir Wil to connect with Richard and his grade 12 creators to witness first hand what imagination can accomplish.

In the videos that follow you will see what student agency, and capacity actually mean in the authentic process that Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez call inventing and tinkering to learn.

So, one might ask, “what is next?” I mean, mustn’t there be a ceiling to the innovative capacity of both student and teacher? The short, and elusive answer is no.

Richard likes to talk about a vision – that he often accents with a briefcase full of elaborate inventions – that is encapsulated in a brand that he has created: “Made at Sir Wil”. In what he imagines as Santa’s Workshop, Richard imagines high school students making custom robotics as a social enterprise to support other learning programs around the OCSDB, K-12. What if, we agree, rather than spending obscene amounts of money on products with very limited capacity – to engage coding, for example – students in Richard’s classes were tasked, each semester, with collaboratively developing any number of inventions originally imagined by students. As Richard explains in our interview (OCDSBXL Podcast (S2E7) – Everywhere a Missed Opportunity: For Inventing and Learning (with Richard Young))we can do better when it comes to the tools we are putting in the hands of students; in his vision, for-students-by-students achieves multiple ends: 1) it brings student inventions to a much deserved wider audience; 2) it fulfills a philosophical orientation dear to both our hearts: showing students that hey are not just consumers; 3) and, all along, it amplifies learning: not for the sake of a surface level exposure to coding, but a deep dive into what the human imagination can do when left to dream, tinker, and make.

Further Reading:

TEJ3M Robotics – Mars Rover Project: LIVE in Mr. Young’s Living Room

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