HERNANDO BEACH — There are two schools of thought when it comes to education: teach students what to think or teach them how to think. Michael Zelin of Hernando Beach likes the second approach.
The Russian immigrant, who landed on these shores in the early 1990s, doesn’t just talk a good game — he’s done something to forward his philosophy. A teacher of math, physics and engineering at the college level who holds a doctoral degree and an experience science fair judge, he’s built an innovative website and platform that taps the potential of minds and the web by collecting knowledge, wisdom and artistic expression and storing it — for all time, he hopes.
It’s “project-based learning,” he said. “It teaches by doing and doing makes you think.”
The idea is that students, age 5 and up, can work on projects from math and engineering, to physics, music or art, recording the details via text, images, audio, video or still images and like Facebook and other platforms, share them on the site as a resource for others.
The projects are judged and rated by others, who can make suggestions or edits, and upload additional pieces they feel will improve the project. Like social media models, visitors can vote on the best versions of the projects. Even those rating projects can learn by comparing their assessments with others who have weighed in. The site offers reward points for those who produce things others value, prizes and even “E-jail” for those deemed to have stepped out of bounds. There also are opportunities for businesses to sponsor projects and have links to their businesses posted. Schools have a pathway to use the site for fundraising by courting local businesses and accepting donations from those who want to support the school by donating to their favorite projects. The website is http://www.sponsorschoose.org.
The idea, said Zelin, is that the projects on the site are malleable and ongoing. Those participating are actively involved in the process, which he says is a better way to learn than being outside observers. In addition, one of the virtues of the platform is that over time, a storehouse of information in a wide range of disciplines is created and available for research and use by others.
That’s important, said Zelin, because students at all levels only have so many hours to work on projects and assignments. Access to a similar projects to use as a starting point speeds up development time. The other upside is work that might otherwise never be available is preserved.
While the research work of college and graduate students at universities is routinely cataloged and made available, Zelin believes the work of children down to the elementary level has potential value and is worth hanging onto. Whether it is the simple art of a second-grader, a middle-school English essay or advance high-school science project, preserving such work for future students and researchers is important, Zelin believes.
He recalls a meeting he had with education officials where the artwork of children hung. He asked what would become of the art.
“Throw them away after a couple of weeks,” was the answer.
That’s a shame, Zelin said.
“There’s value in that work,” he said. “Essays, papers, language, art” all have great value. Information, he believes, is not something that should be discarded like paper cups, and he goes so far as to suggest that such work may help future generations better understand these times, the state of knowledge and thought processes of their predecessors.
Students can come to the website with nothing and use its resources — puzzle pieces arranged in galleries users can mine for data, art, music, images and more to build projects. It also has galleries of all previous projects, a science fair and engineering projects section and more.
Getting traction for the platform among educators has been difficult, Zelin admits. The website idea began 10 years ago, with a lot of time spent addressing issues and providing protections from abuses like those associated with many social media platforms.
The potential for good is there, if only those in education make the effort to step out of the box long enough to consider the possibilities, Zelin believes. One example of the value of his platform is a “wisdom-building” exercise. Wisdom can take a lifetime to attain, and it is learned by experience, failures and successes. Those using his site for a wisdom-building project tap into various resources on the site to develop practical, spiritual and other strains of wisdom. The beauty is, that as they build their project, each step is recorded and cataloged, making what is left behind that much more valuable for the next participants.
“There is no end to what can be built up over time,” said Zelin.