Category: STEM (page 1 of 2)

5 Classroom Strategies to Build STEM/STEAM Skills

One reason I and others promote STEM or STEAM education so passionately goes far beyond the outstanding job opportunities the field affords. Beyond this is the abundance and importance in STEAM of so-called “soft skills”such as problem identification, creativity, innovative thinking, collaboration, critical thinking, etc. Creating a generation of students who are thusly skilled is not just vital to ensuring competitiveness in the current and future global economy, it equips them for life. This is particularly true when paired with other traits/skills, such as adaptability, organization, empathy, initiative, and grit.  As I am preparing for a talk at the STEAM Academy at TCEA next week, the following are some ideas and classroom strategies to promote STEAM-related skills, including critical thinking and problem solving in any subject area:

  1. Stimulate wonder. In any subject area, teachers should work to create situations that will make students scratch their heads and experience a certain level of confusion leading to curiosity. I don’t want to confuse this idea with what I was taught as a young teacher was the “anticipatory set”, which was basically review at worst and far from engaging or stimulating on a good day. Think of a provocative statement, an argument, a perplexing question, a quick but powerful video, or a dramatic demonstration. Our kids need more opportunities to get really engaged in a topic and experience fascination and wonder.
  2. Solicit questions. Once students have been hooked, get them asking good, probing, open-ended questions.

    Image Source: Right Question Institute

    As discussed here before, this is no given, since students all but forget how to ask such questions by middle school.  Re-teach them using a process such as the Question Formulation Technique and give them daily opportunities to practice.

  3. Be less direct. Let your students sort through processes without so much guidance from you. I know I was very guilty of step-by-stepping most of the labs in my science classroom to death when I was still teaching middle school. The best ones, though, were ones where I followed my own advice above and set the stage with a statement or demonstration, then let the kids figure out how to explain, prove, disprove, etc. on their own or collaboratively.
  4. Forsake the multiple choice. I have heard “assessment experts” defend the venerable A, B, C, or D (all of the above) test format for years, claiming it is poor question design that has weakened the art. I believe anything worth learning cannot be sufficiently expressed and assessed with such a format and with no opportunity to see into the student’s thinking. The product of such assessments has no relevance or meaning in the real world, and is I believe multiple choice assessments are a reflection of teacher laziness or inexperience (Before anyone gets your feathers too ruffled, I was as guilty as anyone. Remember those clickers? Ugh.). Leave the format to the people who are paid big bucks to construct shallow assessments and disengage our kids–the testing companies. Instead, utilize performance and alternative assessments, such as rubrics, face-to-face conferencing, self-assessment, demonstrations/presentations, physical products, etc.
  5. Failure doesn’t end with an “F”. There are times in life when you get one shot to get something right, like choosing when to cross the street in heavy traffic. Most of life outside of school, however, is based on a series of trial-and-error events and choices. Whether designing a science project, solving a math problem,  writing a narrative essay, or learning to shoot a basketball, students need to tackle tasks that require evaluation and improvement. Our obsession with grades (in the face of much research demonstrating their failures) means that we too often give students failing marks for a failed attempt, usually the first attempt, when we should be offering meaningful feedback into the process the student is going through. If your school/district requires grades, use them in conjunction with actual feedback that makes the numbers have actual meaning. But, as I advised a robotics instructor in my own district, be careful not to view a step in the process as the end, and be careful not to see a project that has not met hoped for goals as a failure. I watched a robotics team build no fewer than 20 prototypes of 1 model without achieving their very lofty desired outcome, but the group made strides and learned everything I could have hoped. An “F” would have been both crushing and inappropriate.

This is a work in progress, so please give me any ideas or feedback you might have. If I use your comments/ideas, I will even give you a shoutout in my presentation. Thanks!

STEM students image source: http://www.dfrobot.com.cn/images/upload/Image/20140306141707uca3mg.jpg

Introduction to Robotics, Semester 2 Plans

Our first middle school robotics courses got rolling back in August. It has been a learning experience, but it has mostly been very positive. The curriculum from Carnegie Mellon University via  Robomatter has been very successful. Teachers have sorted out management of robots, charging, etc. Assessment was a concern at first, as our district requires a minimum number of daily and major grades. Those concerns have been addressed by having students complete the curriculum lessons/quizzes, complete frequent reflection tasks in engineering journals, and assessment of completed projects. As for students , they have struggled nicely at times, but for the most part have fought through glitches and design errors to create a variety of successful robots.

A surprise was sprung upon us when we learned that students who are currently enrolled in the course will be allowed to take it for another semester. While this is exciting, it is a challenge, because we don’t have a year’s worth of curriculum materials. So we are having to do a little scrambling. What we are planning to do is to make the class more of a project based, independent learning course for the students who took it in the first semester. I am working to prepare a list of resources and project prompts, with students also having the flexibility to design their own projects. Embedded below is the working document, which will see lots of updates in the coming weeks. Feel free to borrow, and any suggestions are very welcome. I anticipate projects will last anywhere from a couple of days to a month or more, depending upon complexity.

Computer Science Education Week Resources

National Computer Science Education Week is fast approaching–December 5-11. I have copied the text of an email I sent to our campus technology teachers to help them plan for the week. I thought there might be some usefulness to others out there wanting some options in terms of ways kids might participate in the week or in Hour of Code. If you have other resources or classroom activities that you have come to find particularly successful, please share them in the comments.

Good afternoon to all,

This one is a bit of a long-winded email, but I ask that you take the time to read it all. I wanted to clarify a few things for our new folks in the Tech Apps family regarding National Computer Science Education Week, December 4-8.

  • That is one of several weeks in the elementary and, I believe, middle school curricula in which we emphasize computer coding. You should already be planning to have kids coding.
  • Starting last year, I invited special area guests to attend a campus and participate in a lesson with kids that week. No big deal–they just come in, see how cute your kids are, and enjoy learning the tool they are using. Oh, and I’m sure a picture or two will be taken. If your campus would like me to try and arrange a guest, I would be happy to. I just need to know some good days and times. Feel free to invite whomever you like, just please keep me in the loop.
  • Speaking of the tool you will be using, here are some options for you to brush up on before then. Choose what fits each group of kids best. I have put an asterisk by the ones most often used in our district.
    • Daisy the Dinosaur — fun, free iPad app teaches basics of computational thinking. Emphasis here is on getting the right steps in the right order to complete challenges. There is also a free-programming mode for kids to experiment.
    • ScratchJr — free companion iPad app to the Scratch website focuses on primary kids. Commands are simplified and fewer in number, icons and sprites (characters) are bigger and more colorful to make it more engaging and user-friendly for younger students.
    • *Code.org — great site has self-guided lessons for absolutely any age group, from the kindergartener still trying to master the mouse and keyboard to the high school kid ready to tackle javascript. It is free, and you can set up your classes with an easy upload. The site gives you usernames and passwords–bonus!
    • *Scratch — if your kids are ready for more open-ended learning, maybe upper elementary and middle school, Scratch is a great tool to use. There are tons of how-to vids and lessons out there to help them (and you) get started. Accounts are necessary and free, but there is no bulk upload. You’ll need to do them 1 at a time. Most work is done by arranging blocks for specific tasks, but students can get pretty advanced–things like variables and functions.
    • Code Combat — see the statement above regarding accounts. This fun site does actually require students to type lines of code as they navigate medieval-themed challenges. Students can earn armor and weapons upgrades (Don’t worry–it is comical, not violent.).
    • Swift Playgrounds — fun iPad app that teaches basics of the Swift programming language. Students type code to complete increasingly challenging tasks, all the while learning important coding concepts. Also includes downloadable content to learn to program games, such as Rock, Paper, Scissors or a Running Maze. This is a great step up for middle school kids, and 5th graders would probably also successfully enjoy it. Swift is a great language to learn, because it can be used on any platform, including mobile, desktop, or even the Apple Watch. (Note to middle school peeps–I REALLY like the possibilities for this with middle school kids, and there is a ton of curricula on iTunesU. It might be enough to persuade someone to buy a complete set of iPads for your classes. I plan to lobby for that.)
    • Code Monkey — now included in our Learning.com curriculum, this game-based tutorial teaches kids the basics of coding and the CoffeeScript language and how to create HTML5 games. Probably a bit challenging for the K-4 crowd, but worth a look for older kids already using the Learning.com curriculum.

I hope this helps clear up any confusion. If you feel worried about this unit of study, Code.org is where I would start. It has great classroom curriculum management resources and is super easy to learn. Please do not hesitate to email me if you need help getting set up or just learning the tool you want to use.

3D in Elementary: Our First Steps

dremel-3d

Img Source: http://tinyurl.com/hybzpt6

This fall, we are undertaking several improvements to our technology offerings. Elementary schools are all getting Dremel Idea Builder 3D printers. Middle Schools are getting courses in robotics. All K-8 tech apps courses are being updated to include a greater emphasis on coding, multimedia production, and 3D design. The aim is to make our offerings more current and engaging to our kids by taking them out of the keyboarding-and-Powerpoint routine.

The 3D design and printing aspects of the program are a work in progress, and we will be practicing what we preach by taking some risks, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. For the present time, we are only planning on piloting 3rd thru 5th grades. Here are the basic goals:

  • Foster creativity and innovation.
  • Develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
  • Develop visual/spatial reasoning.
  • Apply geometry and math concepts to authentic tasks.
  • Support core subject area curriculum whenever possible

Campus technology staff received their first round of training in September. I chose to train them on Autodesk’s Tinkercad for the design tool and Project Ignite  for the curriculum and introductory activities. Both are free and share 1 account per student. Accounts can easily be created by the teacher through the Project Ignite dashboard and require no student emails.  Project Ignite allows teachers to assign projects and enables them to monitor student progress. Students learn to use Tinkercad as they are taken step by step through the

Dremel's snowflake design tool.

Dremel’s snowflake design tool.

assigned projects within Tinkercad’s actual work interface. Dremel also has a few very easy, browser-based projects students can personalize and complete in just a few minutes, albeit without a lot of the real design benefits of the Tinkercad projects. Once a student has finished a project that will be printed, they simply save the .stl file to their Google Drive and share it with their teacher or save on a USB drive to move to the printing computer.

Here are a few of the starter projects our students may be taking on this semester to get their feet wet:

  • Fall symbols (leaves, pumpkins, ghosts, etc.)
  • Things for which they are thankful. These might be made into charms for rubberband bracelets or necklaces.
  • Personalized dog tags
  • Holiday ornaments
  • Election badges/get out the vote buttons
  • Pencil toppers
14481994_1045178792269119_4610051724678090713_o

5th grade 3D projects at RodrigueZ ES

For the time being, our elementary schools are focusing on 3rd through 5th grades. Primarily, this is to work out the kinks and give teachers time to develop greater mastery. We’ll eventually move to the primary grades, though (In fact, a first grade teacher approached me after school just yesterday with a specific project in mind for her kids.).

Because of the sheer number of student projects involved and the serious time required for printing on a single campus printer, we are implementing a staggered schedule for learning, designing, and printing. It works basically like this:

3d-printing-schedule

I am very interested in having classes create their own projects and purposes for 3D design and printing, and the details of that still must be sorted out. Will we require some sort of reservation? Will the printers travel (Most are on rolling carts), or will student projects have to come to them? Will the campus technology teacher print everything, or will the librarian or the classroom teacher be equipped to do so?

Down the line, our goals will evolve, as will our standard for these types of projects. Among the improvements  I will expect to see by the end of the year or beginning of next year:

  • Students in all elementary grades creating original 3D designs and projects.
  • Students create advanced, collaborative 3D projects (Think of different assembly lines creating one automobile.).
  • Student projects integrate other components, such as electronic lights, motors, sounds, Arduino computers, etc.
  • Create a 3D design competition fo elementary students.

I’rodriguez-3d-printing-studentll continue to periodically post updates as we move forward. If you have questions, please add them to the comments or shoot me an email. I’d appreciate the opportunity to connect!

Rapid Reaction: Most Likely to Succeed

The latest education-themed book I have finished is Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. It is a compelling, challenging book that questions a vast list of things that we take for granted as being fundamental in education: subject areas, daily schedules, grades, traditional assessment, standardized assessment, college entrance exams, college in general, and much more. It should generate powerful, change-inducing discussions if selected for a school or organizational book study. It is a fascinating and entertaining read, as well, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I had the opportunity last night to view the related documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, at a screening in Austin. The film is much narrower in scope than the book, as is almost always the case. Rather than visiting a wide range of schools and taking on all of the issues of the book, the film focuses on 2 classes and, primarily, 2 students in the very non-traditional setting of San Diego’s High Tech High School. There is just enough historical background and future predicting to give context and purpose to the narrative of the students, then we are presented with a brief view into the day-to-day lives of the principle subjects. It is an entertaining documentary and has you rooting for the students to succeed. As a father and educator, it struck several chords with me and, honestly, made me a bit emotional at times. The following are a few takeaways from the film for me.

  • Traditional school curriculum is soul-crushing. We rely on perky or entertaining teachers to make our students’ days bearable and, occasionally, enjoyable. Make no mistake, though, most kids are riding it out, disinterestedly waiting for the bell day after pointless day.
  • The entire purpose of school as we have created it is to pass tests. Unit tests, benchmark tests, practice tests, state tests, college entrance tests, on and on. We don’t admit it, but that is our purpose as educators–not to help them succeed in life, but to help the kids pass tests.
  • committeeof10We are at the mercy of a bunch of rich, powerful men who died a century ago. The power and sway that a group of elite, white academics and industrialists still holds over education in the United States is baffling. Not that their intentions were bad–their world was simply an entirely alien place that bears no resemblance to ours, yet we still run our schools as if we arrived at work in our Model T’s.
  • Parents have a really hard time letting go of the past, Strangely, most adults do not recall how boring and meaningless much of our educational experience was growing up. Our lack of accurate reflection makes it extremely hard to imagine our kids surviving and thriving in a world without bells, subjects, and textbooks.
  • Students, especially high achieving ones, have the same hard time as parents. Top ranked kids know the routine, know what’s expected of them, and often don’t want their attention to be diverted to anything but gaming the system, getting a high SAT score, and getting into the Ivy League. New paradigms and routines can be very hard for these kids.
  • Is “college for all” really in kids’ best interest? This is especially thorny when kids experience a school like High Tech High or other bastions of creativity and imagination, then get to head off to the land of talking heads and academic loftiness (where they get to drop a couple hundred grand for the privilege).
  • Students engaged in meaningful, challenging work will exceed our expectations. It truly was staggering to see the quality of work of everyday, ordinary kids in the film. Likewise, the grit, leadership, and self-motivation they displayed was a beautiful thing to imagine.
  • hopeThere is hope! I see more evidence all the time of a trickle of  radical, powerful, completely new models emerging. They are models that put kids first, not tests, not rankings, not college acceptance. Strangely, their kids seem to do quite well on “the tests” and at the next level, probably because the challenges they have undertaken already are of greater complexity, difficulty, and meaningfulness than what they face in the established system. It is not an easy thing to achieve. It involves critical self-examination, humiity, open-mindedness, creativity, extreme working hours, new goals, communities with vision, and more. But it is occurring, and that gives me hope and faith in the profession I’m called to.

Image source, Committee of Ten

Image source: Hope

Mystery Maker Bag Challenges

The following are prompts for a set of engineering challenge bags I am putting together for our district STEAM fair tomorrow. They are variations on project ideas I have found in a variety of sites and resources. I thought they might be useful to someone looking for makerspace prompts or some quick, open-ended science projects.

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
World’s Slowest Marble Coaster

Using the materials in the bag, create a marble roller coaster that takes as long as possible to get from the top of a table to the floor. If yours takes longer than 15 seconds, you are an engineering genius!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Never Underestimate the Power of the Gumdrop

 Using only gumdrops and toothpicks, create a structure that can hold a textbook at least 6 inches off the ground for at least 1 minute. Feeling confident? How about 12 inches? How about 2 textbooks?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Foiled Again!

Using only the piece of foil included, create a boat that will stay afloat with as many pennies as possible. How much treasure will your boat float? 10¢? 25¢? A dollar?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
One Small Step for Man…

Using the materials in the bag, paper rocket that will go as far on a breath as you possibly can. Feel free to customize the design. Does the shape affect the distance? Would adding extra features, like fins help?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Beware the Bridge to Nowhere!

Using the materials in the bag, create a platform that extends out as far as possible from the edge of a table or chair. The catch? There can be no supports or other parts of the platform touching the ground. If you’ve ever seen the Grand Canyon skywalk, you will get the basic idea!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
A Bridge over Troubled Waters

Using only straws and pins, build a bridge that can hold as much weight as possible without collapsing. To test the bridge, use the cup and add a few pennies at a time. Don’t look down!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Ping Pong Zip Along

Using the materials in your bag, create a way to transport a ping-pong ball safely to the end of a zip line. If the ping pong ball falls or gets stuck, it’s game, set, and match!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
The Paper Elevator

Using nothing but paper and tape, create a structure that will hold a textbook at least 12 inches off the ground. Can you achieve this using the fewest pieces of paper necessary? How about TWO textbooks, smarty?

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Paper Helicopter

Using the materials inside your bag, create a helicopter that will fall to the ground as sloooooowly as possible. Make that landing as soft as possible!

Mystery Maker Bag Challenge
Launch Catapults!

Using the materials in the bag, create a catapult that can launch a pom-pom as far as you possibly can. Want an extra challenge? Try making the pom-pom hit a target or land in a specific place!

 

47 (and Counting) School Maker Prompts

towerbuildingThe following are a few ideas to get kids’ (and your) wheels turning and creative juices flowing in a school makerspace. They are from my own mind or have been adapted from a wide range of sources, including websites, blogs, conference sessions, and personal conversations, too many to recall. The vast majority of the ideas require little in the way of expensive technology tools, instead using paper, tape, glue, cardboard, etc. A few utilize tools such as MakeyMakey, Arduino, etc. Materials can be kept in a specific room, if you are so fortunate, or can travel in storage tubs. The prompts can be written on challenge cards in the spaces/tubs.

  1. Create a paper chain that can support as much weight as possible when suspended between two chairs.
  2. Make a book light that automatically turns on when you open a book.
  3. Write and construct a popup book.
  4. Using 20 sheets of paper and masking tape, construct the tallest tower you can build.
  5. Use Circuit Stickers to make an electronic “choose your own adventure” book.
  6. Make an “Operation” game using MakeyMakey.
  7. Construct a class doorbell.
  8. Build a model vehicle that can move across a flat surface without being pushed or pulled by you.
  9. Design and build a usable and attractive piece of furniture from cardboard.
  10. Build a carnival game (a la Caine’s Arcade).
  11. Use typical household objects as brushes to paint a work of art.
  12. Make a keepsake box that lights up when opened.
  13. Use fabric scraps to design a piece of jewelry or accessory.
  14. Re-purpose “failed” 3D printed objects.
  15. Make a flipbook animation.
  16. Make an everyday object better.electronic book
  17. Complete the Mystery Bag challenge.
  18. Draw a picture or write a message using “invisible ink” (lemon juice).
  19. Create an original design for a paper airplane.
  20. Sew a pillow.
  21. Make a musical instrument and compose an original song.
  22. Design your dream house, then use paper or cardboard to construct a scale model.
  23. Make a toothbrush robot (“bristlebot”) that can actually move in a specific path.
  24. Make a paracord bracelet.
  25. Build a sound cannon.
  26. Make a balloon and sand “stress ball”.
  27. Create an origami menagerie.
  28. Make an avatar mask.
  29. Construct a catapult that can launch a ping pong ball into a specific target (bucket, can, etc.).
  30. Modify/customize a toy.
  31. Construct a newspaper geodesic dome.
  32. Make an automatic plant waterer.
  33. Learn to knit.
  34. Make your own hard-bound book.
  35. Customize a piece of clothing.
  36. Using a Lilipad, create an article of clothing to make people safer at night.
  37. Use Scratch to make a racing game.
  38. Make a stop-motion movie.stopmotion
  39. Create an electronic sculpture from aluminum foil and basic electronic components.
  40. Make an article of clothing or accessory from duct tape.
  41. Make a piece of recycled art.
  42. Create a sound amplifier.
  43. Construct a homemade flashlight.
  44. Solder a circuit.
  45. Create a flashing sign.
  46. Make art from an old book.
  47. Build a Lego marble maze.

Don’t forget, of course, that students will have their own, amazing ideas for projects if we equip them with the time and materials. I would love to hear your ideas! What other prompts could you share?

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