The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 16, 1998
Mar. 16 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 26


Engineering A New Way To Teach

No strings attached: An APL systems architect brings his skills to a kids' puppet workshop

Geoff Brown
Special to The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

It's another typical Friday morning in March: Richard "D.J." Waddell, a systems architect from the Applied Physics Laboratory, is trying to get a production review meeting to come to order and find out if any of the three assembled groups are on schedule. After reviewing their multicolored Gantt charts (named for their inventor, a JHU alumnus), which track progress in bar graphs over time, the group's reaction is unanimous: More time is needed.

"Now," asks Michael Lamason, who runs the meeting with Waddell, "raise your hands. Who still needs to paint their puppets?"

For the past five weeks, Waddell and Lamason have spent their Friday mornings in Room 304 of Baltimore City's James McHenry Elementary School, using the framework of a children's puppet show to teach fundamental technical management skills to Carol Ruzicka's third-grade class.

Through a workshop called "The Engineering of a Puppet Show," now in its third year, Waddell has teamed with Lamason and the Black Cherry Puppet Theater to bring the engineering and art project into city classrooms. Funded by a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation, and administered by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, the program represents an evolution of ideas that both men had been trying to bring to fruition in their respective fields.

Working with Michael Lamason and the Black Cherry Puppet Theater, APL systems architect Richard "D.J." Waddell developed "The Engineering of a Puppet Show," now in its third year. The project is funded by a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation. In the photograph, Waddell works with third-grader Tiara Eggleston to hot-glue her group's puppet costumes.

Waddell came to Baltimore 17 years ago, an elementary education major who had converted to applied math and joined the Space Department at APL, where he is now a Strategic Systems Department engineer. A lifelong penchant for art led him to the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where he gave lectures that combined science, art and engineering. Through his friend Michael Lamason, then a student at the institute, he learned of the Black Cherry Puppet Theater, which was formed in 1980.

"We were just brainstorming on how to broaden the theater's fund-raising base," recalls Waddell, "when we came up with the original concept, which was to create team-building exercises for working engineers. We wanted to get them together for team-building and thinking outside the box. As it turned out, after some more thought our interests were really with the public schools."

"One of the reasons we chose a puppet workshop to team with [engineering management] was that the two processes are so close together," Lamason says. "D.J. really recognized the similarities between them, which helped get us going."

Muhammad Williams and Joshua Green show off their hand-and-rod puppets. The workshop's primary goals are to teach the ability to turn an idea into a finished project.

After the first workshop was held in 1995 at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the program's original proposal to cover simple engineering concepts, such as levers and pulleys, in addition to creating a puppet show from scratch, proved to be too grand. "We shifted the focus of the engineering to engineering management, such as learning to work in teams and delegating responsibilities," Waddell says. The first year at McHenry Elementary, the workshop was held for fifth graders. Its success convinced Waddell and Lamason to try an even younger class.

The program now teaches modern management terms like "delegate" and "compromise" to third graders, using the creation of the puppet show to provide a real example of how much teamwork can achieve. Posters on the classroom wall present a primer for young managers in the language of the grown-up business world. It turns out that this educational process is a two-way street for Waddell.

After reviewing charts and analyzing their progress, the students decided that most of the group needed more time to paint their hand-and-rod puppets. Here, James Moss adds finishing touches.

"The poster material is right out of a project I'm working on now for the U.S. Department of Transportation," says Waddell, who is able to participate in the program through the help of APL's Robert Willis and MESA, the Maryland Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement program that brings professionals and students together. "We're developing materials for a training course on that project, and I was really amused to discover I could use almost the exact same material for the puppet workshop. In some cases, the children grasped things faster, probably because they hadn't been trained all their professional lives in ways things should be done."

In Room 304, many of the students are bouncing out of their seats, anxious to get to work on the puppets, sets and scripts of their shows. Small teams work on backgrounds, costumes and painting the elaborate hand-and-rod puppets they've built. One student, Tiara Eggleston--whose group is working on "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears"--is watching Waddell use hot glue to finish some of her group's garish puppet costumes. "We're on schedule," says Eggleston, "but we have to work on getting our sets done."

Tiara Eggleston and Justin Myers work with D.J. Waddell, one of four adults who join their class on Friday mornings. He and Michael Lamason are assisted by August DiMucci and Kristin Fetteroff.

This year is the workshop's second at McHenry Elementary, which has become a somewhat permanent host to the program. Black Cherry's building stands only two blocks from the school in a southwest Baltimore neighborhood of small rowhouses, corner stores and artists' spaces, mixed in with demolished buildings and weed-filled lots. Because of the limited resources of the school and the area, both Waddell and Lamason have found that in addition to the goals they set for the workshop, there have been unexpected collateral benefits.

"There's something going on out there," Waddell adds. "There's this intense focus on teamwork and cooperation. We've gotten a lot of good feedback from the teachers as well."

"I think they're amazed by what they can do," Lamason says. "The kids really want to do this. And it was pointed out to us that getting adult men into the lives of these kids is really important. Kids will see me getting lunch at Hollins Market, and ask, 'Are you the puppet man?' It's very satisfying to know that they can see me outside of school, too."

The workshop's primary goals are to teach the ability to turn an idea into a finished product, and learn self-assessment along the way, according to Waddell. "We want to instill a sense of pride in taking raw materials and turning them into something that meets a project's requirements, which have been set in advance," he says. "And the way we do that is by showing them the process of going from a common goal to a completed project by breaking it down into separate pieces. The puppet show is something kids can buy into."