02/28/2011 01:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fostering the Wonder of How Things Work

There has been a great deal of discussion about what we need to change in K-12 education; our urgency to integrate technology into the classroom is just one example. But as we talk about what needs to be different, let's not forget what has worked in the past. There was a time when we taught kids how things work, and we can't stop now that we've moved into the digital age.

Teaching kids what's inside the box wasn't as much of a challenge decades ago. When a family bought a washing machine, it came with the schematic drawings. People expected to fix the devices they owned themselves. Now we can't even open up half the machines we buy. If something breaks, we turn it over to an expert or replace it.

So why teach kids how things work if they no longer need to know? The short answer is that they're losing their sense of curiosity and wonder. The longer answer is that there's an important intersection between the virtual and physical worlds where invention relies on the kind of inspiration that comes from knowing how things work. And since the theme of this week's TED conference is the rediscovery of wonder, it's not a bad time to examine practical ways to bring it back.

In Northern California, one example is an exploratory learning project at Oakland Tech. The high school's pre-engineering students are sent to the junkyard to bring something back. Not a calculator --something big. One hauled away the engine from a Mack truck. The students disassemble what they find and model it using CAD software. The next step is obvious, let them propose, model and test an improvement to the thing that they just disassembled. Students with that kind of lens on the world might go on to invent the next big thing.

Finding joy and wonder in discovering how things work is something we need to cultivate in the children who will grow up to design the things we use. That's what this week's TED is all about. And the best part is that we already wrote the curriculum; all we need to do is dig it up and use it again. We can go back to the future -- by way of the junkyard.