Saturday, September 14, 2019

Starting with Scratch

It has been a great first rotation in the lab! So much amazing making and learning is happening, and I will write about it all in due course over the next several weeks as new classes pass through the lab.

I want to start with the third graders for this post. Third grade begins each year by being introduced to the Scratch programming language and the associated online community. Students do finish their second grade year at Sinclair with a taster course in Scratch, but this is their first exposure to how the upper grades in the lab function.

We start with a lesson on proper digital etiquette with some videos and class discussions. The students learn about their digital footprints, and how to leave appropriate comments. Cyberbullying is also discussed. Students take notes in their journals to use later when they plan their final projects.

Before students are presented with their Scratch login credentials, we do a brief tour of the online community. We go over how to share and unshare projects, how to complete the project page, how to leave comments, and how to report bad behavior. That done, the students login an have some time to explore and create in their accounts. Over the course of the unit, I do give some direct instruction on how to use certain coding structures, but I also provide the students time to experiment. Problem solving is part of the learning process so rather than just tell students how to do everything, I am more likely to ask them guiding questions to help them move in the right direction.

Students worked independently or with a partner to plan a project that would share at least 2 dos and 2 don'ts of digital etiquette and online behavior. They made organizers in their journals showing the behaviors and the reasons why that behavior is acceptable or not. They also sketched the look of their project and the sprites they intended to use. Students had several days to work on the creation of their projects. I met with each individual/group to discuss their progress and offer feedback. As students finished their projects they learned how to add them to a class studio where their work could be viewed about the whole class. I left comments for each project and students practiced their digital etiquette by leaving helpful comments for each other.

This is is one of my favorite units each year just because of the unalloyed excitement of the students. Those who have been at Sinclair for a while have visited the lab to see projects created by older students using Scratch. This unit makes them feel like "the big kids" and they are overjoyed about it. For me, I am most excited about the endless array of possibilities Scratch opens up for the students. Scratch Jr. is wonderful tool, but Scratch has a far greater number of programming tools with which students can create. They can compose music, draw pictures, connect with hardware, and work with data structures like variables and lists. I cannot wait to see what these students will create this year as their skills grow!

Here's the studio where all of the projects are posted.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

STEM Lab Year 5

It is hard to believe that it this will be the 5th year for the Sinclair STEM Lab, but it is true. It seems like only yesterday that I made 5,000 trips back and forth to the 3rd grade T-buildings with all of my teaching possessions precariously balanced on a dolly of questionable structural integrity. I am excited to make this 5th anniversary year the best the STEM Lab has yet seen. I am looking forward to seeing all of our Sinclair families at Meet the Teacher next Friday afternoon. Hopefully everyone had a wonderful summer and is ready to make amazing things in the lab this year.

My summer included working with a great group of middle school girls on projects like Raspberry Pi physical computing and drone flying. I traveled a bit to visit family and friends in the Midwest which was wonderful. I was also fortunate to travel to Belize to do some snorkeling along the second longest barrier reef in the world. There were sharks, squid, and a dazzling rainbow of fish and coral.

As I am planning the year's instructional units for the lab, one of my guiding documents will be the National Geographic Learning Framework. I learned about this in the course of becoming a National Geographic Certified Educator last April. It outlines a set of attitudes, skills, and knowledge that make up the "explorer's mindset". The framework can be applied to any subject area and any grade level. At the end of last year I began experimenting with incorporating elements of the learning framework into the projects that 4th and 5th grade completed and I think it went well. I am excited to introduce it to the other grade levels.

As always, students will be working on both physical and digital projects, or in some cases projects with aspects of both. It remains my ultimate goal that the students learn to see everything in the lab as a construction material, whether it's a pencil, a cardboard box, or a computer, that they can use to share their ideas and learning.

Plans for after school clubs are not yet finalized. More information will hopefully be available in the next week or two. I can say that at this point my plan is to offer a section of digital making for 3rd graders only and another for 4th and 5th grade combined. This will allow me to develop the making skills of the younger students, and to guide the older students in more complex projects. If you have any questions, please let me know.

I can't wait to see everyone and to begin another year of learning and fun in the lab. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I will hope to see you on Friday for Meet the Teacher!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Imagining Adaptations

Fourth grade's final rotation in the lab for the school year begins with research into the Earth's biomes. Students started with some note taking on BrainPop and identified the different biomes and the variations in climate and elevation that define them. Next, students formed teams, or elected to work alone, and were randomly assigned one of the biomes. They continued their research using BrainPop along with National Geographic resources and online encyclopedias to learn about the plants and animals that inhabit the biome they were assigned. In particular they were to find the adaptations that organisms in that biome use to survive. The information collected was organized into a table showing the name of the organism, the adaptation, and the role that adaptation plays in keeping the organism alive.

Up until this point, I did not tell students what they would actually be making in this unit because I did not want the product to influence their research. However, with the note taking portion of the project complete, it is time to outline their task. The challenge is to imagine an organism that lives in the biome they were assigned with a focus on giving it the adaptations it needs to survive there. Students planned their organism in their journals complete with labeled sketches highlighting the adaptations. With their plans complete, students used the STEM Lab standard materials of cardboard and paper scraps to build a model of their imagined organism.

Students spent several days working on this part. One of the things I have been focusing on getting the children to understand when they are making things is that just because we are building with trash, it doesn't have to look trashy. It is sort of like a neatness counts idea, but really it is more about getting them to slow down and take their time. Their project being done well is more important than it being done fast.

The final step was for the teams to make a small model of their biome to to display their model in. They also filled out a display card to accompany their work. I invited one of the first grade classes to the lab to visit the imaginary menagerie and the fourth graders had to discuss their projects for a younger audience.

This was a new project for the lab and I am generally pleased with how it has gone so far. However, for future iterations, I am planning on direction students to include at least one adaptation from different categories into their imagined organism. That is, an adaptation for dealing with the climate, an adaptation for getting food, and adaptation for defending itself, and so on. As it was, many of the projects so far have focused on adaptations for doing just one of those things and I want them to think about adaptations helping organisms do all of things they need to survive.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Animated Artworks

It has become my habit in the STEM Lab to experiment, so to speak, on the 5th graders. When I devise a new project or new activity or practice, I find it useful to try it out on the group of students who will have gone on to middle school next year. That way, the necessary tweaks and alterations can be made for the following year. This unit is not entirely mine as much is adapted from a number of different activities I have seen done by my various Twitter friends.

Having said that, this is very much an experimental unit in which the 5th grade has been working. It is no secret that I do all that I can to bring concepts and skills from other subject areas into my lab projects. I have wanted to implement a unit with a fine arts focus for a while, and I felt like the 5th graders finally had the requisite physical computing skills to be successful. The project involves students creating their own interpretations of a famous artist's work, both digitally and physically.

Students started by doing some research into the life and work of a particular artist. The first two rotation groups got Vincent Van Gogh (because the first group was shorted 3 days due to various interruptions) and the third group is at work on Claude Monet. (I have not settled on an artist for the last group, yet.) These were chosen because they have a wide range of works to choose from. Students selected a work and sketched it into their notes. This gave me the chance to teach some basic drawing techniques which was a novel experience.

Next, students used Scratch to create an animated version of the painting they selected that also shared information about their artist. First they had to download an image of the painting. We used Wikimedia Commons for this because the images are free to use with attribution (which is another thing I have been working to get students in the habit of, citing their sources). They then uploaded that image into Scratch as a background. All of that is something they have learned previously. The next bit, however, took a little practice. They uploaded the image of the painting again, this time as a sprite and used the paint editor tools to erase most of the painting, leaving only the piece they intended to make move with code. In Van Gogh's "Starry Night" this may have been the moon or the clouds, in Monet's "Tulip Field" it was the flowers or the windmill blades. That sprite was then placed exactly over its corresponding place on the background so that it would only appear as a separate element when then triggering event key was pressed. Students repeated this process until they had at least 3 different animated elements in their chosen work. They also added a sprite that told about the life and work of their artist.

Here are a few example projects:
Van Gogh, Irises
Van Gogh, Starry Night
Monet, Boat on the Epte

The second part of the unit moved us into the realm of physical computing with the Raspberry Pi. First I introduced students to the Explorer HAT add on board. It is a self contained set of inputs and outputs capable of running both LEDs and motors. It has a small breadboard (which students learned to use last year) on top for building the circuits. Students are able to program the lights and motors using Scratch, albeit an older version which takes a bit of getting used to for them. Armed with their upgraded skills, students worked in teams to use the Scratch paint editor to create a digital interpretation of their chosen painting. This too takes some practice, but it also allows them to get creative with how they accomplish the drawing. Some use the shape drawing tools and fill them with color, while others use the line drawing tools. Meanwhile, the other partner is drawing the same painting on paper with colored pencils and markers. Both drawings done, the physical and the digital, teams added 2 LEDs to different places on their drawing, wired them to the Raspberry Pi, and programmed them to light up on different key presses. They also drew and cut out a detail from their painting, attached it to the the axle on a motor, and added the motor to the drawing as well. This was programmed to spin on a key press. The lights and motors matched elements in their digital drawing that they had animated on screen, similar to what they did during week 1. They also added a sprite to talk about the artist and the painting.

At this point the rotations are about half over and I am generally pleased with how it has gone so far. I think for the future I will create a gallery of paintings and artists for the students to choose from. Hopefully that will lead to a greater diversity of projects in the gallery.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Robo-Mouse Runs Again

For Cycle 3 in the STEM Lab, our friend Robo-Mouse returns to play with our kindergarten and first grade classes. This is a new experience for the kindergarten, while first grade was introduced to Robo-Mouse last year. In either case, this is a chance for students to apply their computer programming skills without the screen.

For kindergarten, the unit started with a review of the skills and concepts they have learned so far this year using They are reminded of the difference between and algorithm and a program. We go over the strategies they use for debugging their programs. After having their memories refreshed, they worked in their courses taking turns as the driver (person operating the Ipad) and navigator (person who watches for errors and offers advice).

Next, students are introduced to the Robo-mouse and how to appropriately handle it. (This is an important lesson as the Robo-mouse lacks in durability what it gains in affordability.) This first day is, for the most part, an exploration and discovery kind of day. Their only assignment that day is to build an L shape with the mouse at one end and the cheese at the other, then to program the mouse to the cheese. It's simple and it gives them a feel for assembling the maze pieces and understanding the difference between the turns in and on the Robo-mouse. In "turn" and "move" are accomplished with a single command while on the robot "turn" is one command and "move forward" is another. This is a bit of an adjustment for them, but they have mostly figured it out pretty quickly.

After a day of exploration, students practice building mazes from cards and programming the solutions to those mazes. The mazes become progressively more challenging as their skills improve. One of the challenges of the cards has nothing to do with programming, just building it to match the picture. I have found over the last couple years of teaching with Robo-Mouse that this is good for their spatial reasoning. A couple days into this, once they are comfortable using the cards to build their mazes, I introduce the algorithm cards. These are a way for them to keep track of the steps of their programs as number of steps in each solution increases. In a program every step is easily visible on the screen. Using Robo-mouse, however, once they enter a step into the robot, it is invisible. They can only see if a step is correct when the machine executes it at the intended time. When they watch the cards while the robot runs the program, they are able to see where the program breaks down and make adjustments at that pint rather than returning to square one.

As for the first graders, the unit starts in a similar fashion. Students review programming concepts in their courses before having an exploration day with Robo-mouse. They are reintroduced to the algorithm cards and debugging strategies. One thing I have them do is record an original maze on grid paper. Basically they are making their own maze cards. I have them record a solution to their maze on the card using arrows like those on the algorithm cards.

First grade's big task with Robo-mouse was using it as an element of a story retell. This started with them creating a story map for a fairy tale or story they like. (I used "This Is Not My Hat" as my example.) The then quartered that paper so that one part of the story was at each corner of a square. Students programmed the robot to go around the square, telling the main events of the story at it traveled from one corner to the next. They found that it is is not as easy as it sounds to tell summarize a story in the 30 seconds it takes Robo-mouse to run the perimeter of the square. It was fun to watch them practice finishing what they were saying before the mouse turned the next corner. I think that in the next iteration of this unit, I will let them design pieces to be the setting and costumes for the robot so that it can act as a character in the story.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Giving 5th Grade a Hand

This STEM lab rotation find the 5th grade faced with an engineering design challenge. We do a lot of work with the design process in the lab, and even when it is not the focus, it is at the heart of every unit. 

The first part of the process is to understand the task. That includes making observations and gathering information through research. I did not tell the groups what the challenge would be at the start of the unit. However, I did tell them that we would be building several models of mechanisms that move. I also let them know that these activities were meant to provide them with information and ideas they could use for the challenge.

The first make was a two fingered pincher similar to one people use to reach objects on the ground without having to bend over. The two fingers are attached to a piece in the center that the user pulls back bringing the fingers together. Conversely, pushing the center piece forward forces the fingers open. Next, students used card stock paper and brass fasteners to make a scissor mechanism. This is an excellent device for extending the reach of something. Several students had seen the scissor lifts frequently used to reach light fixtures in rooms with high ceilings. Finally, the students made a model of their own hands with independently controlled fingers. Short lengths of straw were attached between each of the joints of the fingers as a stand in for the bones. A string was threaded through each straw and attached to the tip of each finger to mimic the actions of muscles and tendons contracting to pull the fingers closed. Each build was accompanied by a descriptive journal entry of their observations on the device's function and possible uses.

At the start of week two, I introduced the building challenge: design and build a device that can individually pick up a tennis ball, golf ball, cotton ball, and plastic cup and drop it into a bucket. The device must be operated from a distance of at least 24 inches from the objects being picked up. Groups were limited to using a meter stick, cardboard, string, tape, and a few toothpicks or bamboo skewers to make their device work. They started by brainstorming solutions and planning in their journals. Once that was done, they were allowed to start building and testing. Throughout the unit, many groups attempted to make a scaled up version of one of the previous week's models, and some succeeded in doing so. However, the most successful devices were those that adapted the designs in some way. Not every groups was successful, but in the STEM lab that is OK so long as students can articulate why they failed and how they might improve their design given more time. 

I had not done this unit for a couple of years, but I love it because of the variety of designs students create that all complete the same task. It is so important for students to see and to experience that for many questions or problems there are many correct solutions.

It's Time to Light the Lights

For their second turn in the lab, fourth grade is taking their knowledge of circuits to the next level using the Raspberry Pi computer. During their classroom science lessons on electricity and circuits, students learned to create complete pathways for electricity using regular light bulbs and D-cell batteries. In this unit, they used the kinds of electromechanical components employed by digital makers, LEDs, breadboards, resistors, and tactile buttons.

We started by spending a couple of days getting acquainted with these new components. Students built simple circuits using a battery pack and an LED. Then they added a button that could be used to turn the light on when it is pressed and off again when it is released. They had a good deal of time to experiment and tinker adding more LEDs. An interesting discovery many students made is that the LEDs require slightly different voltages so depending on how the circuit was set up, some lights would not light together. My favorite part of this segment of the unit is, after getting all 4 of their LEDs glowing, the teams start clamoring for more lights.

After learning to control their circuits mechanically (with moving parts like a button), students moved to the Raspberry Pi stations to learn how to take control digitally (with computer code). They started by using an add on board called Traffic HAT. Traffic because it is a set of 3 LEDs in red, yellow, and green resembling a stop light, and HAT for Hardware Attached on Top. This saves them from the distraction of learning a new way of wiring the LEDs while also learning the programming constructs that are used to control the circuits. The versions of Scratch that are embedded in the Raspberry Pi operating system have extensions that allow for physical computing (using a computer to control or gather information from physical components like LEDs, motors, buttons, and sensors). This is my favorite part of the entire unit solely because of the excitement that sweeps the room as LEDs begin to blink. What inevitably follows is students tinker with their code creating new effects, then call out to their neighbors to show what they have done.

Next, after becoming comfortable with the coding and still using the Traffic HAT, students use a breadboard and wires to add a button that they can use to control their LEDs. They also learn that the button can be used to make things happen on the computer screen. It can make characters talk or move, backgrounds can be changed, and just about anything else they can imagine. After that, I remove the Traffic HAT and provide students with a box of components like those they used at the beginning of the unit so that they have to build all of their circuits from scratch. Their final task for the unit is to create a game of some kind that uses at at least two LEDs and one button. I provide them with a guide for making a multiplication facts game, but they have the freedom to make any kind of game they want. Some make the math game, while others make quizzes about dinosaurs, Texas history, or Pokemon.

As always, I have been genuinely impressed by all of the creative ways the students have applied their new physical computing skills to the creation of projects that represent their interests and personalities.