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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

A 3D Design and Printing High 5 Moment

This is why you write the grant, buy the equipment, train the teachers, and plan the curriculum. 4th  and 5th graders on an after-school robotics team at Rodriguez Elementary had recently learned the basics of 3D design using the Tinkercad platform during their weekly technology applications class. When faced with a robotics challenge of rounding up some objects and holding them in their robot, one team came up with a brilliant idea: design a containment system using Tinkercad and print it with the school’s Dremel Idea Builder 3D printer. A couple of prototypes are seen below.

A final, top-secret version is coming before this weekend’s TCEA Area 13 competition. The team’s coach, an outstanding teacher at the campus, keeps telling me, “They have not spent much time on the programming, so I don’t think they’ll do very well.” Do very well? I’d say they have nailed the innovative spirit of the event perfectly. This is amazing on so many levels:

  • Based upon a real, relevant problem, kids came up with a completely original solution.
  • Students did 100% of the design work, including carefully measuring the dimensions of the robot and the mount where the scoop will be placed.
  • The 4 students worked together as a team and truly collaborated.
  • They made numerous mistakes in their design but pressed on, improving their product each time.

This collectively is what problem solving looks like, and it results in real, enduring learning. The teacher’s role, by the way, was primarily to answer questions and manage the printer–she let the kids develop the expertise here. I’m super proud of this team and look forward to many more moments of this sort in coming days around the district!

UPDATE: The final design, with some significant modifications is seen below. Students will get to put it to the test on Saturday.

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.

Local Leaders Get Hands-on With Coding

Elementary campuses in Seguin this week have had several visitors attend technology classes to participate in Hour of Code activities. We have been privileged and excited to host current  and former school board members, a city councilperson, the president of our local chamber of commerce, the mayor of Seguin, and our county judge. Our guests tried their hands at a variety of coding tools, including Code.org, CodeMonkey, Lightbot, and CodeCombat, were introduced to the campuses’ 3D printing and design programs, and got a first-hand look at some of the ways the district is trying to give students a wide range of computer science experiences.

Block coding tools like Code.org have been used to intruduce basic concepts.

Block coding tools like Code.org have been used to intruduce basic concepts.

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City Councilwoman Fonda Mathis joined Jenifer Wells’ students at Rodriguez Elementary.

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Trusty Cindy Thomas-Jimenez received pointers from a Rodriguez Elementary coding pro.

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Trustee Ben Amador observes student coders using CodeMonkey at Patlan Elementary.

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20 levels of CodeMonkey have been added to Learning.com resources this school year.

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Code.org resources include educational videos, such as this one featuring one of the founders of the videogame Minecraft.

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Seguin mayor Don Keil joined students at Patlan Elementary for his second Hour of Code.

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Patlan Elementary students are excited about learning about coding!

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Mayor Keil and team work through a particularly challenging task.

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Seguin Councilwoman Fonda Mathis brought her computer science background to Rodriguez Elementary.

Trustee Amador also paid a visit to Mrs. Casiano's lab at Koennecke Elementary, where students were learning Python code using CodeCombat.

Trustee Amador also paid a visit to Mrs. Casiano’s lab at Koennecke Elementary, where students were learning Python code using CodeCombat.

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Trustee Cinde Thomas-Jimenez joined Rodriguez Elementary students in an Hour of Code.

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.

The 2016 Election and Information Literacy

Wow, what a year! This year’s presidential campaign was simply…indescribable. Among the highs and (many) lows this time around, the election results have produced an interesting and important dialogue that relates to our work as educators. Social media companies, Facebook in particular, have come under substantial scrutiny because of the proliferation of “fake news” stories on their platforms and the potential impacts these stories may or may not have had on the outcome of the election. Here are a few examples:

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Trump duped the GOP–egads! Trouble is, there is no record of this statement ever being made…to People magazine or anyone else. That didn’t stop it from spreading like wildfire among upset Hillary Clinton voters in the past 2 weeks, though.

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The Clinton dynasty crushes dissent once again. Not so much. The Denver Guardian sounds like a legitimate news organization. It isn’t, and neither is the story.  Regardless, it made the rounds among Trump supporters.

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This one showed up just today in my Facebook feed. Besides being pointless, the data is completely and entirely fabricated, something the original poster refers to as “projected”. Besides, the electoral vote is not “final” until January 6.

These are just a couple of examples of fake news stories that ran absolutely rampant, often picking up hundreds of thousands of shares and millions of likes. Whether or not they influenced the results will continue to be debated. However, if I was a librarian, a history teacher, or anyone teaching research skills, I would find a way to leverage this discussion into a life lesson about being a discerning and skeptical consumer of information and a person who engages in fact-checking of “breaking news”, particularly the kind that evokes such passionate, emotional, and important responses. I might start such a lesson this way:

  • What is your immediate reaction to this story?
  • Is it true? How can you tell?
  • For what purpose(s) might someone fabricate a story like this?
  • What strategies and resources did you use to determine the veracity of this story?

 

First Things First?

Img source: http://tinyurl.com/gq3jmx5

Img source: http://tinyurl.com/gq3jmx5

Last week, I attended and presented at Tech and Learning Live in Dallas. This is one of my favorite events of the year, because it is by its very nature extremely collegial and conversational, whether in sessions or in the numerous snack breaks (another reason it is a favorite). After a morning session on blended learning, I got into a discussion with a colleague who I highly respect on the goals and potential of blended learning. I had heard much during the session on how the district from which he came was looking at blended learning as a tool to increase student literacy levels and, of course, test scores. I see lots of potential for blended learning as, optimally, a tool for increasing student choice, creativity, and engagement, with test results being a positive side effect. During our discussion, my friend stated something to the effect that schools had to get test scores up “so they can then do the fun stuff.” Knowing the realities of the very oppressive accountability systems we have in place, I sympathize 100% with this point of view, but I don’t necessarily embrace it. Which brings me to the question of the day:

Which is the right approach?

  • Go for high test scores using whatever means necessary with the belief that more engaging, authentic learning will be possible once the unappealing stuff is knocked out.
  • Go with more learner-centered, engaging, and authentic learning and have faith that the tests will turn out fine.

While there is an obvious, pie-in-the-sky ideal answer here, the tough realities faced by schools make this a much harder question to answer than at first glance. What do you say? What is your school or district’s philosophy?

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