Thursday, September 30, 2021

Cardboard Arcade Returns!

For obvious reasons, there was no cardboard arcade at Sinclair in the 2020-2021 school year. That was a bitter disappointment for me as it has become one of my favorite projects. Typically cardboard arcade has been a 3rd grade project and that meant that this year's 4th graders missed out on it last year. Several students who were eager for their turn with the project asked about it last year. There were many dismayed groans when I said that cardboard arcade would not be possible.

When planning for this year I knew that I wanted 4th grade to do cardboard arcade first. I made some adjustments to the usual building guidelines we follow in the lab in order to keep with the current Covid protocols. One change that had to be worked around was the shift to 1 week blocks from the 2 we had pre-pandemic. In order to keep the Friday presentation students would have to be finished building and testing after about 3 class periods. I am pleased to say that everyone did a fantastic job of finishing within the time available. 

Each class had the opportunity to present their games to a visiting class of 1st graders. We did this outside so as not to overcrowd the lab. Our "customers" gave overwhelming positive feedback. Below is a short highlight reel from each class.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Third Gets Unstuck in Scratch

 Last year I got the chance to participate in the creation and piloting of the Creative Computing Lab's Getting Unstuck Curriculum materials. The Creative Computing Lab is part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and oversees a number of programs designed to support teachers and students in using Scratch. The Getting Unstuck materials grew out of a summer experience they organized for educators in 2018 and 2020. There are 10 modules, each with a variety of elements that help teachers plan for instruction and to guide students through the unit. One of the best things about the documents is how flexible they are. It is possible to pick and choose activities that are best for each particular group of students, and to fit the time available.

At the end of last year I introduced the second graders to Scratch. In a sense, they "graduated" from Scratch Jr, which they had been using since Kindergarten. They worked though several short projects that helped them become familiar with the interface and what it could be used for. I did not have them work in the online version of Scratch because of the distractions created by the ability to comment on projects and see inside other people's projects. This first unit of the year introduces the students to the Scratch online community, project sharing, and collaboration.

We started with a review the digital etiquette expectations and online safety guidelines. These have been part of every computer programming unit since these students were in Kindergarten, and I was pleased with how well they were able to recall them. Next students logged into Scratch for the first time. Once they were logged in, students have some time to explore and refamiliarize themselves with the coding environment. It has been amazing to see and hear their excitement as they create and share their work with others.

I selected the module on "parallelism" (2 or more things happening at once in a program) for this unit. It is an accessible concept for those students who are new to computer programming, and it has a lot of room for creative expression. We started by exploring some "inspiration projects" collected in a studio by the Getting Unstuck team. Students tried the projects, tinkered with code, and made observations about how they projects worked. This was also a chance for them to experience one of the most powerful features of Scratch, the ability to see the code behind someone else's project and to make changes to that code (without altering the original). It's a digital equivalent to taking your toys apart to see how they work without having to worry about putting them back together again.

Next students planned their own parallelism projects. The prompt reads: "Create a project that uses multiple green flag blocks to make things happen at the same time". I gave the students a planning page where they could write or draw their ideas. Then they got to work. So far, I have been impressed with how different the project ideas are. One of my goals in the lab is to give my students creative confidence. That is, I want them to feel safe to follow their own ideas and interests rather than looking around the room to see what others are making. 

Each day I introduced them to another element of Scratch and how I expected them to work in the community. They shared their projects to the studio. They completed the project page including instructions and a reflection. We discussed the importance of commenting one's code and the students added comments in their projects. The week ended with learning to leave helpful comments on other people's projects. For this we follow the Heart and Star model. A "heart" is a specific positive comment on project, something like "My favorite part of your project is...". A "star" is a suggestion for s fix or improvement. I stress to the students that the star is not necessarily a problem to fix (though it could be). A star could be a suggestion to add music or more challenging levels. It could also tell an easier way to accomplish something in the program. Each student commented on at least 2 projects in the studio.

There are a couple projects embedded below (just click the green flag to run them). The full studio of projects can be found here: 3rd grade parallelism.

Monday, September 6, 2021

It's Season in the STEM Lab

We have had a fantastic first 2 weeks in the Sinclair STEM Lab! Things are not exactly normal, but a bit more so than last year and I am grateful for that. I have enjoyed seeing familiar faces in person rather than on a computer screen, and it has been great to meet so many new-to-Sinclair students. 

Each year, my Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade classes begin with a computer programming unit based around activities. For the Kindergarten students this is their first taste of computer programming. The lessons are a mix of screen-based and unplugged activities. The goal is to develop their algorithmic thinking skills and prepare them for more creative computing tasks to come later in the year. 

I like to start 1st and 2nd grade with every year in order to review with the returning students, and to introduce students who are new to programming. These older students also participate in a mix of plugged and unplugged activities. Creative computing is a central part of what students do in the lab and the puzzles help those new students become comfortable with block based programming before they are exposed to Scratch Jr, and later to Scratch.

The last day of the week is what is popularly called Free Build Friday. Students get creative with whatever materials are supplied that week and build whatever they want. I am always so impressed by what they think to construct.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Is There Summer on the Equator?

 Greetings Sinclair Families!

I hope you have had a safe, healthy, and wonderful summer. I spent several weeks teaching computer programming, physical computing, and robotics to middle school students. It was a wonderful experience, but I have to say it REALLY made me miss my elementary age students. (Middle school teachers are a special group with a special set of skills that I must confess that I do not have.) 

The undoubted highlight of my summer was my time in the Galapagos Islands. This experience was supported by Fund for Teachers, a Houston-based non-profit that makes grants to K-12 educators for self-designed professional learning. The expedition my wife Kimberly Boyce and I made to the Galapagos was about deepening our understanding of the National Geographic Learning Framework and their GeoInquiry process. Elements of this fellowship will be incorporated into a number of learning units throughout this coming year, across the grade levels. You can read about our travels on our blog: Tortoise and the Finch and on our Instagram: Tortoise_Finch

There is still, of course, a bit of uncertainty about how this year will look in the STEM Lab. That said, I am so excited to have all of the students in person and hopefully with more opportunities to collaborate on projects. There were so many activities that have become staples of the STEM Lab that it was not possible to do because of the various health and safety protocols in place. Students missed out on Robo-mouse, cardboard arcade, Makey Makey, and Raspberry Pi, just to name a few. 

The Magnet Team will continue with our practice of sending weekly messages through Living Tree. These should arrive by Sunday evening from the Magnet teacher whose class your child will be visiting that week. If you have questions for any of the Magnet teachers, please use their Houston ISD email rather than Living Tree. We check our email several times each day, but we do not visit Living Tree with the same regularity. 

I am looking forward to a great year. As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Winding Down This Most Peculiar Year

My best intentions for keeping a schedule of posting have come to naught under the weight of other digital responsibilities. That is not to say however that we have been idle in the STEM Lab. Quite the contrary, we have been designing, programming, and building up a storm. 

So here is the short version of what the various grade levels have been up to these last couple of months. 

Kindergarten & 1st grade

We spent several weeks exploring the nature to be found on campus. Students used their senses (not taste) to make and record observations about the living and non-living natural things they saw. We walked around campus noting the different types of trees, the birds, and even visited the habitat to see the pond. One of the most exciting things was getting to monitor the progress of a robin nest in a crepe myrtle outside one of the kindergarten classrooms. We made leaf rubbings and created pictures using natural materials as well.

The next unit was a return to computer programming. However, the focus this time was on creative computing rather than solving puzzles as we do in We used the language Scratch Jr. for its ease of use. Each class began with a guided lesson followed by an independent practice challenge. Once students had completed the challenge they were invited to create their own programs with self designed characters and backgrounds. One of my main goals for the lab is that students see computer programming as a tool for self expression and sharing their learning. I start teaching them that lesson early and I am endlessly impressed with their creativity.

2nd grade

One of my favorite things to do with my second graders is to introduce them the "real" Scratch. Most of them have been using Scratch Jr. since kindergarten and stepping up to the full version make them feel like they are now the big kids. This was a 2 part unit (on account of the fact that I only have one week with the class rather than two. The first week was guided practice using the various commands and relating them to the Scratch Jr platform that they are familiar with. The second week involved planning and then programming an "All About Me" project in which clicking each letter of their name shared something about them.

Second grade's final unit of the year is, like their introduction to Scratch, about preparing for next year's STEM Lab projects. This one aims to develop the students' cardboard engineering skills. In the lab, our primary building material is cardboard. It is plentiful, easy to work with, and sturdy enough to build large structures. The students practiced constructing models using L-braces, flanges, and slotted pieces before combining these methods into a stabile. I have discovered that most students do not know how to effectively use liquid glue, so that is another one of the goals of this unit.

3rd Grade

The third graders also experienced a 2 part unit, this one involving the BBC Micro:bit device. This is a microcontroller that students program using a block-based language called MakeCode. The first week was spent becoming familiar with the various inputs and outputs found in the Micro:bit. The primary inputs students learned to use are buttons, the accelerometer (tilt sensor), and the I/O pins. They used these inputs to trigger outputs to the 5x5 LED screen and sound effects played through an add-on speaker board. The next time they visited the lab, students built a model animal with cardboard and construction paper and incorporated a Micro:bit running a program of their own creation to make their animal interactive.

The last 3rd grade STEM Lab unit was an introduction to the concept of "broadcasts" in Scratch. A broadcast sends messages between different elements of a program allowing the students to coordinate their these elements to create projects of greater complexity. Here are a couple examples.

4th grade

Our 4th graders spent a few extra units on Scratch this year. We were involved in piloting lessons and activities put together by the Creative Computing Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. These projects seek to develop students' coding skills while also developing their creative confidence. One of my overarching goals in the lab has always been to make students comfortable with open-ended tasks with many possible solutions. The general emphasis on standardized test results tends education toward standardized answers. Students display this training by point at whatever they are working on and asking, "Like this?".  A collection of the projects they created for these units can be found here: When Clicked, Broadcasts, Ask & Answer

After so much computer programming we took a break to do some purely physical making. This was the "biography bottles" research project. Students researched an important figure from the sciences. They then built a model of that person with plastic bottles, cardboard, and construction paper. They completed their display with a timeline of significant dates in that person's life and a notecard detailing their contributions and accomplishments.

The 4th grade is finishing the year setting up a project for next year when they are in 5th grade. My wife is also an elementary STEM lab teacher (at another school of course) and in 2020 we were awarded a summer study grant from Fund for Teachers, an organization that funds self designed professional development experiences for teachers. Our grant will help us visit the Galapagos Islands to create a model GeoInquiry project based on the framework created by National Geographic. This type of project engages students in geographic thinking and encourages them to take action to improve their communities. Students have been researching things to see and study in the Galapagos and will begin writing questions for us to ask the naturalists and guides we meet with on our expedition.

5th grade

My 5th grade students are often "asked" to be a beta testing group for new STEM lab units and this year is no different. Related to the aforementioned GeoInquiry project related to the Galapagos, I want to include GIS mapping next year when we review the data related to our expedition. Never having used this kind of technology with students, I wanted a test drive. I find 5th graders to be brutally honest about what works and what does not when given the chance (and when they trust the teacher enough to be honest with them). We worked with a number of resources including surveys and map explorations. I am extremely grateful for the feedback the students provided. Another part of this unit was a set of Skype-a-Scientist meetings. They facilitate connections between scientists in a variety of fields and classroom teachers. 

The 5th grade finished the year with a couple units based on art. In the first they used their skills in Scratch to "hack" a famous work of art. The result is a painting that one can interact with by clicking the different parts. Here are a couple examples: 

The other art-meets-programming project used Turtle Art, a language based on Logo that allowed students to draw with code. This drew (haha) not just on their knowledge of coding, but on their geometry skills as well. I was quite impressed with the things they were able to make.

So there you have it, everything we have been up to the last few months. It is certainly been a strange and taxing roller coaster of a year and I certainly hope that the 2021-2022 school year will be a bit more normal. 

Check here for updates on the Galapagos expedition.

Have a wonderful summer!

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Papercraft with Kindergarten and First Grade

 The Kindergarten and first grade classes have spent their last trip through the STEM Lab working on some creative paper crafting. Most of the week was spent creating basic origami models. I have taught origami before, but never to students this young. I confess to not being sure how well this would go, but the children far exceeded my hopes with their skill, creativity, and perseverance when they faced challenges. 

Our first model was a cat. There were so many fantastic creations!

Next we made dogs.

We switched gears a bit for our next model. First we decorated our paper squares and then we folded them into tulips. Students drew vases with flower stems in them and then attached their flowers to create a 3D work of art.

All of the origami links are from

After a few days of origami we did something completely different and made animations following a guide for 2 page flipbooks from the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium. These were all completely amazing and the students were so excited by what they made.

Check back soon to see what the other grades are up to these days in the lab!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

What We Have Been Up To In the STEM Lab

 What a year it has been thus far in the STEM Lab. Despite my best intentions to keep up with this blog, the fast pace brought on by 1 week rotations (rather than 2 week), and the challenges of teaching both in person and virtual students simultaneously, defeated me.

We have been busy as usual in the lab (which is to say on a cart that I have been pushing around the school since October). Here's the short version of what has been going on with the STEM Lab.

Computer programming

As always, developing computer programming skills is an important element of our practice. Coding helps build critical problem solving and algorithmic thinking strategies. My approach in the lab places equal emphasis on instilling a sense of creative confidence in the students. I want them to thinking of programming not as an activity, but as a tool they can employ to share their learning and express their ideas. 

Kindergarten, first, and second grades have been using and Scrach Jr while the third through fifth graders have been using Scratch

Math Stories and Math Art Challenges

Kindergarten and first grade recently finished up an unit on math stories. Each day we read a book that combined literature and a math concept. Following the book students completed a an activity related to the book's theme. 

Earlier in the year, all of the students in Kindergarten through fifth grade enjoyed a unit of math art challenges. This unit was a playful exploration of the connections between mathematics and art. We looked at elements of geometry and probability along with patterns. Most of the math art challenges were adapted from a project maintained by Annie Perkins on her website: #MathArtChallenge. Many of these are geared towards middle and high school math students, but there are several that work for elementary students.

Skype-a-Scientist and Research Projects

One of my favorite additions to the STEM lab over the last couple of years is Skype-a-Scientist. This organization matches K-12 educators with scientists working in a variety of fields. This gives students the opportunity to have a conversation with (as many say) "a real live scientist". They learn about the diversity of careers paths in the sciences and see that science is open to people of all backgrounds. Over the years we have spoken with ecologists, biologists, paleontologists, speleologists, and more. We have met people from the USA, UK, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, and Brazil. 

I incorporate Skype-a-Scientist meetings as part of projects that have students researching and sharing their learning. This year so far all of second (learning about food webs) and third grade (coral reef ecology) have had scientist meetings. By the time spring break gets hear, fifth grade (cartography) will be part of that list as well. Going forward, fourth and first will have their turns.


One activity that has fallen by the wayside during the pandemic is physical building and making. The projects cannot involve materials that are not common household items and for the in person students, they have to be simple enough that students can complete them independently. Then there was the issue of being on a cart and necessity that the materials be easy to move between classes.

Second grade is currently completing a project in which they are building 3D models of animals by combining 2D slotted cardboard pieces. The last day of the project has them mix up their pieces to create fantasy animals that they name and describe for science.

This has certainly been the strangest of school years. I am excited nonetheless about the projects I have planned for the rest of the year. Check back soon to see what we work on next.