The collections staff at the Peabody keep telling me that I can’t have a cat. Which I guess was fair, until I found out that all this time they have been hiding a jaguar in our basement!
A few weeks ago I was approached by Elizabeth Aureden, instructor in music, to design an interactive class for her Music 410 course, The Musical Brain. While looking through our collections for musical instruments, I learned from collections assistant Samantha Hixson that she had just found and catalogued some effigy rattles.
The objects were made of clay and painted a variety of colors, and some still rattled.
This new find seemed very promising and so I wanted to learn more about them. Research indicated that these objects were from the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and most likely date from AD 1000 – 1350.
The parts we have are clearly broken and part of a much larger artifact. These are the remnants of the tripod legs of a rattle effigy vessel. Each of the three legs would have contained three clay balls and had openings on the side for the sound. When shaken a rhythmic sound can be heard.
That’s pretty neat! But the story became even cooler as I found more information about this style of pottery.
The bowls were used to add a percussive sound to a ceremony. And the sound it made was not an accidental rattling sound, but rather a deliberate and meaningful one. When the bowl is shaken or moved about, and the clay balls rattle together, they create a deep, rumble. This sound is mimicking the low growl of an actual jaguar!!!!! Researchers have even noted that when the bowl is tilted and moving forward – like a jaguar lunging at prey – the sound is more prominent.
If your interest is now piqued about other objects from the Nicoya Peninsula, check out Dr. Rebecca Stone’s book, The Jaguar Within.
So next time you are at the Peabody be on the lookout, because you never know what other predatory animals might be lurking!!!
I recently received two requests from history faculty for our class on Westward Expansion. Unfortunately, we recently determined that the majority of the objects used for that class should be further investigated to see if they are potential NAGPRA objects – specifically items of cultural patrimony. Which meant that if I was to fulfill the requests of these teachers I needed to come up with a new activity FAST! I had less than two working weeks to formulate and flesh out what the seventy-minute class would do.
While I was scrolling online for ideas my colleague Samantha Hixson mentioned a Plains dress that we had – thus giving me an “A HA!!!!” moment. I had seen a lesson related to a Plains dress from the National Museum of the American Indian. That got me thinking and served as a foundation for my own lesson.
I decided to use multiple objects from the Peabody Institute’s collection to understand the long standing close connection that Plains tribes had to their surroundings and communities through traditions. Through the lens of one aspect of life – clothing – the impact that Westward Expansion had on tribes will be more clearly defined.
In addition to the dress I also selected a pair of beaded moccasins, one of the muslin pencil drawings (reproduction), a defleshing tool, as well as a bison skin rattle (reproduction). The class begins with students wandering around the room, simply exploring the objects scattered about before working together to dive more deeply into the material culture.
Some of the questions students are asked are basic observational ones: “what material is the dress made from.” Others begin to stretch their understanding of the process of making clothing: “what role did men and boys have in the creation of the dress and shoes.” We also delve into why decorations are important, not only in the culture we are studying, but our own as well.
We then pause as a class to talk about traditions and what they mean to us personally. We talk about the positive influence they have on us and how they bring us closer together as a community (Head of School Day was a favorite tradition that was mentioned. One can tell that the speculation amongst students of when it will be called is going strong!!).
We then discuss how the actions of white settlers and the government destroyed the traditions of Plains tribes and how this affected communities. This was a very emotional part of the class for many students. It is certainly one thing to read about atrocities in the past through the emotional barrier of a textbook – and quite another to “see” it when looking at the clothing that a real person wore. And based on an email I received from one of the faculty asking for more resources for students to further investigate the impact on tribes and how they are dealing with it today, it is a lesson that has already had a lasting impact on the students.
But I do not want to end my post on such a heavy note, so I will tell you about a great way that everyone at the Peabody supports the work of each other. For the first class Samantha sat in on the activity and was VERY helpful. While she did answer some of the student questions – which was very nice and I do not mean to diminish how helpful that was – but more importantly SHE WAS WEARING QUILL EARRINGS!!!!! And in the lesson I mentioned QUILLING!! So I may have made asked her to take them out so that I could show them to students.
She also noticed that I mention elk tooth beads in my lesson and shared with me that students had recently discovered one in our collections! SCORE!!!! Collaboration for the WIN!
During Fall Term I worked with Meg Bednarcik and Nick Zufelt – both Instructors in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science – to create a class that would focus on the computer science concepts of looping and parameters.
We decided to utilize the extensive Guatemalan textile collection at the Peabody, as they are brightly colored and engaging and most have repeating, or looping, motifs. We also liked the idea of incorporating clothing made and worn exclusively by indigenous women into a subject where they are woefully underrepresented.
Eighteen huipils (wee-peels) were pulled for the class, with the images of another twelve scanned. A huipil is a traditional Maya women’s shirt.
The first activity was a matching game to show students how huipils had silent information encoded into them about the wearer’s home community. Each village has its own distinctive design. The students were given twelve cards with images of other huipils in our collection and asked to match them to huipils that were laid out in the room. The following images are from three villages, highlighting how the differences between villages, as well as the variation within a particular village.
Huipil from San Mateo
Huipil from San Mateo
Huipils from San Mateo
Huipil from San Ildefonso
Huipil from San Ildefonso
Huipils from San Ildefonso
Huipil from Almolongo
Huipil from Almolongo
Huipils from Almolongo
Then students worked with either Meg or Nick to find designs that had looping designs, or nested loops. Then they worked on creating parameters for the designs they had found.
The third activity was asking students to identify certain motifs that are common in Maya imagery. Some, such as a deer, were more literal then others, such as the feathered water serpent or portals.
And as you learn in the write up bellow by Meg, this class served as the starting point for a term long project the students will be working on:
My AP CS A students ventured to the Peabody Institute to learn of Guatemalan huipils and the stories these women’s clothes tell of personal identity. The students will complete follow-up assignments to program their own design defining their personal identity here at the academy and beyond utilizing programming concepts learned in class such as objects and repetitions. Though many students were shocked to be at the Peabody for a CS class, they left reflecting on the many ways these programming ideas apply to other aspects of our world. I am eager to continue to utilize these resources at our fingertips to allow students the space to ponder their place in our interconnected world beyond PA, and consider the beneficial impact their work as computer scientists can have on others outside of the classroom.
~ Meg Bednarcik, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science
This has been one of the most interesting and fun classes for me to develop. I really enjoyed working with and learning about part of our collection that is underutilized. But most of all, I have been thoroughly engrossed by the current action Maya women are taking to ensure that their designs are protected and not appropriated. Based on the information I gleaned from my research, I included a huipil from Santiago Sacatepéquez, which is the only community so far that has been able to give legal protection to their woven intellectual property.
To learn more about huipils and their images, visit Guatemala City’s Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing website.
Below are symbols found in some of the huipils in the Peabody’s collection:
Serpent motif –geometric designs known as “kumatz’in”. “The Kaqchikel term kumatz means snake, or the feathered serpent.
Deer – Deer held particular significance in Maya mythology and the Dance of the Deer, originating from pre-Conquest times, is still performed at festivals today.
The Double Headed Eagle – The double headed eagle in Maya mythology represents the Great God with two faces, one looking to good and the other to evil, or to heaven and earth. Double-headed birds are motifs frequently used for decorating ceremonial garments. The image to the right outlines the shape of the double headed eagle.
Sky bands – represents the path of the sun with the Xs formed in the “empty” space refers to the end of the solstices.
Offering plate / Portal – “portal” or “door” was the Maya name for the entrance into the “other world” (spirit world). The dot in the center represents the door through which an ancestor can travel.
The Star That Proceeds The Sun – This motif has been a part of Mesoamerican cosmology since Olmec times. It can be seen in celestial bands along with the sun, the moon, and particularly Venus. It is also featured in codices, such as the Popol Vuh.
Bird – At the beginning of the rains, and when maize is sowed, they can be seen in large quantities on the rivers and lakes.
Sun – A sun is embroidered around the neckline. If a woman in the village just became a widow, she would wear her huipil without the sun around the neck, because she would have lost her sun
Lightning – Vertical zigzag lines are associated with rain and lightning.
Lion / Jaguar – The animal has been given a mane, indicating European influence. The cougar or American lion has no mane.
Since the announcement of Homo naledi’s discovery in 2015, this South African fossil hominin has made an appearance in the multidisciplinary science course Human Origins, taught at the Peabody and offered as a senior science elective by Phillips Academy.
Over 100 specimens of Homo naledi have been scanned and made available via Duke University’s MorphoSource website. This represents unprecedented access to the fossils. Typically, we rely on older casts (our plaster casts from Wenner-Gren’s twentieth century casting program have become quite fragile!) or models made from photos and measurements.
Last year in Human Origins Phillips Academy Makerspace guru Claudia Wessner helped us 3D print Homo naledi’s femur, which includes some unusual features, including a distinct sulcus or furrow on the femoral neck that is not known in other hominins. Students and instructor alike puzzled over the femur, and compared it to other casts and models in the Peabody collection.
This year Ms. Wessner was kind enough to host us again and discuss different types of 3D scanning and printing and help us think how these might be useful in paleoanthropology and physical anthropology.
Instead of the femur, we chose to do a 3D print of Homo naledi’s hand, also available via the MorphoSource website. We were treated to side by side 3D prints using the Makerspace’s filament and resin printers. While the prints with the filament printer were interesting, the resin print is at a level comparable with a cast or model, in terms of finish and detail. Lee Berger and his colleagues, involved in discovery and study of Homo naledi, have pointed out that the hand is quite similar to that of a modern human, but also has curved bones likely related to tree climbing. Students in Human Origins 2017 got a chance to see Homo naledi’s hand up close and compare with bones of a modern human, noting the similarities and differences.
In the intervening months between the 2016 and 2017 Human Origins classes we’ve learned a lot more about Homo naledi. Lee Berger’s book, Almost Human, was published, adding lots of exciting details to the discovery and quest to date the remains, and perhaps most important, we now understand the dating of the fossils. In May 2017 we learned that Homo naledi dates between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, making them a cousin, rather than great-grandparent of modern humans. It is fascinating to imagine, however, that a hominin that combined aspects of Australopithecines and much more modern features existed around the same time as the earliest anatomically modern humans.
An end of the term assignment, Human Origins in the News, asks students to find recent and relevant news stories and share them with the class. One story—from September 2017—reports on new fossils found at the Rising Star Cave system. Also members of the new genus and species, these fossils may help understand how Homo naledi accessed the cave and if they were being interred there.
Beyond the classroom, Homo naledi inspired some excitement in one of the seniors who took the course in 2016. I was delighted when she wrote to me in May 2017 to report that Lee Berger’s Almost Human book was out–she had pre-ordered on Amazon and her copy had arrived. A few months later she had a chance to hear Dr Berger deliver a lecture on Homo naledi at the Chautauqua Institute in New York.
The Peabody has a new name! The Phillips Academy Board of Trustees, at their November 5, 2017 meeting, approved the Peabody’s new name. We are now known as the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. Part of our proposal for a name change–included below–addresses the history of our institution’s name, issues of identity, and practical concerns:
Throughout the Peabody’s strategic planning work in 2014 and 2015 there was frequent discussion about the need for focused work on branding. These conversations included Museum personnel, members of the Peabody Advisory Committee, and the broader Phillips Academy community. There was general agreement that one issue was the name Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology. Discussants pointed out that the name “Peabody” often leads to confusion with the other, larger institutions in Salem, Cambridge, and New Haven, and that the term “museum” is misleading.
The topic of branding was revisited during the Peabody Advisory Committee’s 2016 summer retreat and November 2016 meeting and the group proposed a name change.
The topic of a potential name change has been considered in three ways:
1) Historical— Past names for our institution include Department of Archaeology (1901-1938); Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology (1938-1995); and Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology (1990-present). The most recent name change occurred in the 1990s and was made to reflect the interest in creating an exhibition driven institution like the Addison Gallery of American Art. That program ended in 2002 with a shift to our current focus on teaching and learning.
2) Identity—Museum personnel and advisory committee members have discussed whether or not we are a museum. For example, Eugene Dillenberg’s 2011 article in Exhibitionist emphasizes exhibitions as the core defining aspect of a museum, with exhibits as the primary mission and goal of the institution. The Peabody’s current mission is to provide archaeological and anthropological learning opportunities to the students of Phillips Academy, returning to Robert Peabody’s original vision for the institution, which was to introduce students to the emerging disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, to conduct scientific research, and to provide a place for student activities. There also was general agreement that it was important to retain the name “Peabody,” despite the proliferation of Peabody museums in New England. The sense was that we would continue to be called “The Peabody” on campus and in the broader Phillips Academy community.
3) Practical—the word “museum” creates considerable confusion as people come here expecting a more typical museum experience. While we are happy to have people come for tours and events (and classes, of course!) we are a pretty disappointing experience to a growing number of casual visitors. As we become more well-known in the area more people have become curious about what is inside the building and come in to find out.
In his gift letter to the Board of Trustees and the Academy administrators in 1901 Robert S. Peabody shared that he did not want to create a museum on campus, but rather to find ways to introduce students to the fields of archaeology and anthropology. We’ve come to recognize the prescience and vision of Peabody’s original idea for our institution. We trust the name change will help avoid confusion and emphasize our commitment to teaching and learning on campus and beyond.
Packing up my car with artifacts always signals that I am off on an adventure!
Recently I traveled to Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea to work with the 4th grade classes. The students had recently begun learning about ancient cultures and how historians and scientists study them, particularly when there are no written records – or at least ones that we can read!
To help everyone better understand how archaeology allows us to investigate cultures of the past, I brought our mock excavation site. The faux dig is made up of painted canvas squares and real artifacts. It is based on a real archaeological dig that took place in Andover decades ago at a pre-contact Native American site, approximately 500 years old.
Working in groups, students rotated around each square or “unit” to look at the artifacts and to hypothesize what human activities were taking place. The groups were able to correctly identify which unit was similar to a kitchen, where the house stood, and where pottery was being made – proving that they had become experts in deciphering the clues left behind!
In June 2017 I had the opportunity to visit China in preparation for a potential student trip—part of the Phillips Academy Learning in the World program. My traveling companions included Anne Martin-Montgomery and Jingya Ma, who aided in developing the itinerary, which delves into China’s ancient past. With a dizzying number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (52 on the list, with even more proposed sites), our goal was to create a student travel experience that blends adventure, archaeology, and learning.
Distinctive pointed bottomed water jar from Banpo site.
Painted Neolithic pottery from Banpo, showing an anthropomorphic fish or “mermaid.”
Holographic exhibit at Banpo.
Burials at Banpo site.
One destination was Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Xi’an boasts lots of historical and archaeological sites, most notably the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. The mausoleum is best known for Emperor Qin’s terracotta army, which doesn’t disappoint. Pictures don’t do it justice and it is fun to look at the sea of soldiers lined up, ready to march up ramps and out the false doors. The site—located in Bingmayong outside of Xi’an, was mobbed with visitors, all ready to pose for a selfie with some of the emperor’s immortal warriors. Xi’an, however, includes other ancient sites, which can be found in other suburbs like Bànpō.
Bànpō Neolithic Village is tucked into a neighborhood of this Xi’an suburb. It was found in the 1950s during construction for an industrial site, and if you peek over the fence today you will see a factory complex, including a billiard table manufactory.
Bànpō was the oldest site on our itinerary, dating to the Neolithic Yangshao culture, with occupation going back to 6,500 years ago. Like Emperor Qin’s mausoleum, the excavation site is covered by a fairly substantial structure, so visitors can observe the outlines of houses, the moat, burials, and in place features. Exhibit halls showcase artifacts from the site, along with dioramas of Yangshao life. Markings on the early pottery from the site have suggested to some precursors to the writing systems known from the Bronze Age.
At the rear of the museum property are the remains of the Bànpō Matriarchal Clan Village, which apparently offered a living history interpretation of Neolithic life. This has been replaced with a newer area that showcases Neolithic activities on the weekend, including thatching your hut, fire making, and other early technology and skills.
Marxist ideology has heavily influenced the interpretation of Bànpō, emphasizing that this was a matriarchal culture. This is not surprising, since in Marxist thought matriarchal clan based society was a hallmark of early stages in a unilinear social evolution that moved inevitably toward patriarchal family based society. These ideas have been largely abandoned today, though the site is replete with signage that emphasizes this interpretation.
A cute 2015 graphic novel style guide book tells the story of the site and the Yangshao culture. The matriarchal focus is still there (one of the main characters is Bànpō girl), but there is lots of accessible info on foodways, pottery making techniques, and the layout of the village.
We are looking forward to visiting Bànpō again and catching some of the Neolithic lifeways demonstrations. Interactive and hands on activities have become the norm in US museums, but we encountered few such programs in China.
On Monday May 22nd students and teachers from Brookwood School came to the Peabody Museum to kick off their “Steep Week.” During Steep Week, students immerse themselves in an intensive program related to an area of interest, in this case archaeology.
When the students arrived they were very proud to announce that archaeologists “DON’T DIG DINOSAURS!” Clearly their two teachers (one of whom is a trained archaeologist) had worked VERY hard to prep them for their visit to the Peabody, as well as for the rest of the week’s activities.
The students began by learning how to “read” modern trash to make a biography about an individual based solely on the objects that the person had thrown away. The clean trash that the students looked through was mine that I had split into three different bags related to different activities that I do: kayaking and running, cooking, quilting and reading. The group that had the container with an old Doritos bag declared that their person (me!) was a guy who was either “failing at adulting” or “had student loans” – very interesting assumptions they were making!!! They were then shocked to learn that the person who had the Doritos was also the same person who had run a half marathon and made quilts. This allowed us to have a great conversation about assumptions that we make and how that can impact our understanding and interpretation of the past.
The next two activities were mock excavations of a prehistoric site as well as a historic one. Both helped the students prepare for the real archaeological dig that they were going to conduct on their school property later in the week, particularly the historic example, since they had already been looking at old maps of the school’s property to see what they could learn about it before putting a shovel into the ground.
Students looking at a mock excvation unit that has evidence of pottery making
Students working in the “lab” to identify artifacts found from the mock Katherine Nanny Naylor site
The rain mostly held off for the group and we were able to conclude the day with a fierce atlatl competition!
“Our introduction to Archaeology at the Peabody Museum at Phillips Academy, Andover successfully prepared our students to investigate archaeological problems at a high level by concentrating on the conceptual basis of archaeological thought and filtering it through readily understandable, local examples. Our students enjoyed themselves while having their minds opened to a different way of investigatory thought that they relied on heavily to ask questions and achieve understanding.” – Mike Wise, Brookwood teacher
I’ve been interested in indirect cooking technology since the early 1990s when I worked with archaeologists Barbara Purdy and Ray McGee in an excavation of an Archaic period site in central Florida where we found evidence of this ancient American Indian culinary technique. At the site, submerged beneath the waters of Lake Monroe and not too far from Orlando, in levels pre-dating ceramic pottery, we found fragments of fired-clay objects. Ray and I were fascinated by the shapes—balls, patties, cylinders, and biconical forms—and speculated about their purpose. They were similar to clay and stone objects found at other early sites and thought to be used in a variety of indirect cooking, either for boiling or steaming. Ray ultimately studied the clay objects for his 1994 University of Florida master’s thesis, which combined aspects of experimental archaeology and materials science. I was lucky enough to be around to help with his study, which began with replicas of the Lake Monroe clay objects. We dug clay from near the site, it was processed to remove impurities, and used to make numerous clay object replicas, which were then subject to extensive experimental trials. Ray demonstrated that not only could the clay objects be used for boiling, but that the different shapes had different thermal properties. And, not only did the clay objects survive successive heating and drenching cycles, the objects fragmented to closely match the fragments we had found in archaeological deposits. Thousands of years before the first pottery was made and used in the Southeastern United States, the clay ball chefs understood how to manipulate clay into ceramic objects and the distinct differences between shapes with greater and lesser surface area and other details. In a final experiment Ray and I tried to cook with the clay objects, heating water in wooden bowls to boil shrimp and corn meal. The meal was successful!
During spring term 2017 I’ve been fortunate to mentor a senior independent research project, or IP. The student’s spring project is a continuation of a project begun in winter term, which investigates ancient pottery making technology, with a particular focus on temper—additives to clay that help with making pottery vessels, firing survivability, and use life after firing. I shared Ray McGee’s thesis with the IP student, who was equally fascinated by the clay objects and their use in cooking. Much of the student IP focused on collecting and using native clay sourced from West Newbury, MA, and then experimenting with firing vessels made using a variety of traditional tempers, including sand, crushed shell, and decomposed granite, as well as untempered clay. The almost innumerable variables have presented some real challenges, but also open a tiny window into pottery making thousands of years ago. We agreed too that part of the project this spring would include making, firing, and using replicas of the fired-clay objects, using the varying tempers and shapes described above. An article in Indian Country Today indicates that hot stones were used by American Indians in the Northeast in both steaming pits and boiling.
Our attempt today to use the fired-clay objects in boiling followed much like the experiment that Ray McGee and I conducted during his thesis research in the early 1990s. The clay objects had been prepared, dried, and pit fired several weeks earlier. We noted that the cylinder-shaped objects were rather delicate, and many of the objects had small cracks. In general, the ball and biconical forms were intact, while the patties had more cracks. A supply of the fired-clay objects were added to a small oak wood fire, which quickly climbed in temperature, ultimately leveling off around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. After objects had been in the fire a small number were cycled through a wooden bowl containing about a quart of water. The water temperature rose quickly, though it got a bit murky from charcoal. We decided that we had the capability to boil water. We prepared a fresh bowl of water and corn meal grits—three cups of water and one cup of grits—as directed by the package. We cycled fired-clay objects in and out of the bowl until the water was absorbed and the grits were cooked—about five minutes. A little salt and butter made the grits a tasty treat. Next we replicated the experiment with about half a pound of shell-on shrimp. More water was used and by this point we had become more proficient at cycling the clay objects from the fire to the bowl and back. The water boiled and shrimp were quickly cooked. Lemon and butter completed this course. For the most part the clay objects were holding up, though more of the cylinders broke and some of the patty shapes also cracked and split in the fire. Some broke while they were in the wooden bowl. The ball and biconical shapes seemed to hold up the best and were perhaps best suited to our purpose—getting the water boiling quickly. After the shrimp, we were a bit more ambitious and agreed to try a handful of spaghetti pasta. This would be a real test, since the water would have to boil continuously for 9 to 10 minutes. We added more clay objects to the fire, recognizing that we might need more to keep the water going. Quickly cycling the clay objects in and out of the fire produced a rolling boil that easily cooked the noodles. Our wooden bowl, however, suffered, and we had two pretty substantial cracks that developed on either side. Adding more water and fewer cooking objects may have helped—it seemed like 2 or 3 at a time in the wooden bowl were enough to keep the boil going.
Data crunching and correlating is ongoing in this student project, and at least one additional outdoor firing is planned in order to test a few additional variables and observations gleaned from experiment and research. The fired-clay cooking objects, however, are evidence of indirect cooking in antiquity, long before the creation of pottery vessels. It’s not clear if fired-clay cooking objects were made and used in the Northeast in the long distant past, and the more recent accounts mention cooking with hot stones. Pottery was adopted in the Northeast around 3,000 years ago, perhaps introduced from neighboring areas. In Florida and other parts of the Southeast, pottery is much older—made and used at least 5,000 years ago—and appears to be an in situ development. Perhaps the fired-clay cooking objects were precursors of pottery and gave people insights into manipulating clay and the properties of fired-clay. As this student project has demonstrated, making pottery by hand and firing it in the open air presents considerable challenges that could only be overcome with significant knowledge of clay, temper, fuel, weather conditions, and more.
When you think of the binary search algorithm you immediately think an archaeology museum is the perfect place for students to get a hands on example. Right?
Well it certainly was not what students in Nick Zufelt’s Computer Science 500 class expected when they showed up at the museum. To many of the students who had been to the Peabody with their history or science class to look at objects, it was a bit perplexing how they could be combining archaeology with computer science.
What many do not know is that the Peabody has many other resources that PA faculty can tap into. Mr. Zufelt discovered something that Peabody Museum still had that no other place on campus (not even the OWHL!) still had: our card catalog.
When Nick first came up with the idea to use our card catalog in an interactive lab activity for his students, we were ecstatic. We love when Peabody resources are utilized for learning in such out of the box ways. The card catalog was a perfect hands on example for students to understand the binary search algorithm.
To those who are not familiar with this concept (and I was certainly one of them!) Nick began the class with this simple introduction:
When you look up a word in the dictionary, do you start at page 1, look for the word, then move onto page 2, etc.? No, of course not. You have a more sophisticated way of searching through the massive list of words. This activity hones in on the algorithm underlying this process: the binary search algorithm. The basic idea is: chop in half, go to the half that will have your item in it; repeat.
Each student was then given a page listing 23 different cards from our card catalog system and told to pick one of them. Then they had to find the card and write down the process of how they found it, but in a manner that a computer could follow.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “wow that seems like a pretty easy project….” WRONG!
While this activity may strike us as simple, it actually turned into a battle of the wills for many students as they struggled throughout the period to create a very simple process that was also accurate. And when some students had a friend try their process, they often found that what they had devised was incorrect (Arrrgggg!!! The FRUSTRATION!!!!)
This type of learning helps to make abstract concepts more accessible for students as they begin learning something that forces them to think in a completely new and different manner.
Mr. Zufelt has already talked about bringing future students back for the activity and we look forward to working with him and his students on this and other computer science adventures at the Peabody!
NOTE: Despite still having a card catalog, the Peabody library is completely cataloged in the system used by the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. Our librarian Mary Beth Clack is currently updating records to make monographic series more accessible.