Saturday, November 24, 2018

Once Upon a Time... Math

One of the many things I love about teaching in the STEM Lab is helping students make connections across the curriculum. STEM, STEAM, STREAM, whichever acronym you prefer, are all, at their core, about breaking down the walls of the "knowledge zoo" that school sometimes feels like. That is the mindset, unfortunately increasingly prevalent the higher up one goes in the elementary grade levels, that these 90 minutes are for math, not literature, not writing, not science. The next 90 minutes are for another subject in isolation, and so is the next 90, and so on. It is not a realistic model of how anyone uses their learning for an actual purpose. Just about everything everyone does, cooking, assembling furniture, planning a day trip, etc. draws on knowledge from across disciplines that are made for the most part to inhabit lonely cages in a school setting. The STEM Lab is the Serengeti where learning from all subjects roams free.

This rotation in the lab, kindergarten and first grade are being introduced to various math concepts through literature. I have done similar units in years past, but each time the books change, sometimes even from one class to the next. I do my best to avoid the types of contrived stories written by textbook companies. Children can tell the stories are phony and they generally are painfully dull.

I will not launch into a detailed description of each book involved in this unit. I will however share a few of my favorites.

Inch by Inch by Leo Leoni. This one is about a clever inchworm who uses his ability to measure and his wits to avoid being eaten by birds. After reading, the students practice measuring classroom objects with inch tiles and record their data on a table. What I especially love about reading this is that the book also illustrates a number of bird adaptations. We discuss why a flamingo has a long neck and a bill like a shovel and why a hummingbird has such a long and pointy bill.

The King's Commissioners by Aileen Friedman and Susan Guevara. In this book, a king decides that he ought to know how many royal commissioners he has appointed. With some help from the Royal Advisors and the Princess, each employing a different method of skip counting, the total number of commissioners is found. The students are already familiar with the concept of skip counting and know that it is a way of arriving at a total more quickly. What I like about this story is that it illustrates how one handles skip counting when there are "left over" items that are not enough to make another group. When we finish reading, students practice making different sized groups with inch tiles, counting them by the group size, and then adding in the left overs to get the total number.

The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns. This is the story of a triangle who gets tired of doing the "same old things" that a triangle does, namely being roofs for houses, sails for sailboats, supports for bridges, and so on. The triangle decides to visit the Shapeshifter and asks for another side and another angle to make his life "more interesting". The request is granted and, now a quadrilateral, the shape enjoys being books, movie screens, floor tiles, and much more. Eventually though, the shape becomes bored being a quadrilateral, and returns to the Shapeshifter for another side and angle. The pattern continues, the shape is happy for a while as a pentagon, then a hexagon, and on and on, but always goes back to the Shapeshifter for another side and angle, and another, and another. Fortunately, the shape realizes that more sides and angles is not the answer to its dissatisfaction. This book is a great way to introduce students to the concept of shapes being named by the number of sides and angles they have, not by what they look like. The sooner students learn that there is no such shape as a diamond or a house, the better. Following the story, students use pattern blocks to create colorful pictures like those from the book.

I'll stop there, but I really could go on and on. I love this unit so much because of all the math, science, literature, and art that fit so naturally within it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

History, Language Arts, Programming, and Making: Cross-Curricular Candescence in Grades 4 and 5

The first cycle of the year is officially behind us, so it is time to detail the learning adventures our 4th and 5th grade students undertook this time around in the lab.

The 5th graders had a project that is something of an extension of the interactive posters the 3rd grade worked on. Students had their choice of several historical figures to research. Each group had a somewhat different set of people. There was some overlap, but each list was more different that it was similar. I wanted to have a variety of topics, and students, when given a choice of topics like this, tend to latch on to the names they have heard before. They used a variety of sources to gather information including BrainPop and Worldbook Online.

Once they had conducted their research, students set to work creating a Scratch project that shared details about the lives and contributions of their selected topics. Their programs were required to have a minimum of 5 key press events in order to make the final product interactive. They were also required to include at least one image of their person.

The final piece of this project was to transform an old soda bottle (or other ) cylindrical container into a model of their chosen historical figure. They were to make every effort to match the clothing of the time period in which their subject lived. That proved to be an interesting challenge as students tried to make Victorian dresses for Ada Lovelace and aviator goggles for Amelia Earhart with construction paper. These models were then placed on a stand, or in some cases fitted with buttons directly and connected to the Scratch program with a Makey Makey (an input/output device similar to a keyboard, but with conductive pads instead of keys).

I am really pleased with how well most of these projects turned out. The students created a number of clever programs and models to share their work. It is always wonderful to see students take a project in a completely unexpected direction. The Scratch projects are collected in this studio.

As for the 4th graders, they took a big step forward with their Scratch programming skills and learned how to use lists and variables in new ways. In a computer program, a variable is a single value that can change while the program is running. Examples of variables include a player's score, number lives, and timers. A list on the other hand stores several pieces of information, as the name implies. A program might have lists for questions and answers, or one to track the highest scores.

The first program the students worked on was a random compliment generator. They created a list of kind adjectives and another list of animals. First, the program had to ask the user for their name and store it as a variable. Then it replied with the user's name and a compliment created by joining a random adjective and a random noun from the two lists and joining those elements with the rest of the sentence. For example: "Quentin, your are a shiny unicorn!" They learned a number of things about sentence structure and that computers do not know when you want a space between words and when you don't. Some students even added a second list of adjectives for for fulsome compliments.

The second program pushed the classes' knowledge of parts of speech and sentence structure to the limit. They coded a mad lib. They began by writing a 4 sentence story and then selecting the words that would be replaced by user input. The program asked the user for those words based on the part of speech and stored them in a list. Then the program inserted the user's words into the story the programmer wrote. It took a great deal of trail and error and no small amount of problem solving to get the words placed correctly with proper spacing and punctuation. It was a huge challenge and the students were rightfully proud of themselves when they finally got everything functioning as intended.

Here is the studio where the projects are collected.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Makey Makey That Poster Interactive!

The first grading cycle of the year is nearly over, and I find myself a little bit behind on my blog posting schedule. I will do my best to get caught up and to stay on track starting now.

The third graders started the year by "graduating" to the full version of the Scratch programming language. Student who were at Sinclair for second grade got an introduction to Scratch at the end of last year. They only used the offline version and so were not able to share projects or interact with the Scratch online community. So before they began their projects for this unit, they logged into Scratch for the first time. That was after a thorough discussion of the responsibilities of being a member of an online community and correct digital etiquette.

That done, students got to work on the actual project. Students selected a topic to research. Each class had different topic choices in order to have a greater diversity of projects. They used BrainPop and Britannica School to gather information on their chosen subjects and took notes in their journals. The next step involved planning and programming a Scratch project to share their learning. Their programs were required to utilize key press events to run different scripts to share information. I also showed them how to import images to Scratch that were downloaded from the online encyclopedia, and how to cite their work.

Once the programs were finished, students moved on to creating a poster that complemented their programming project. The poster designs were entirely up to the students, and it was interesting to see the choices they made about what information to highlight.

The final step of this project is to make the project interactive. This is done by adding brass fasteners as "buttons" and using copper foil tape as wires. We use a device called a Makey Makey to connect the poster to the Scratch program. It is an input/output board (sort of like a keyboard). The board interprets contact with the buttons as key presses triggering the scripts in the program. So as users touch different points on the poster, different elements of the program run on screen.

Projects like these that use Scratch as a means for students to share their learning are an essential element of the Sinclair STEM Lab program. One of my goals is that students learn to use computer programming to complete tasks, as a tool for doing work as well as for personal expression. Only a small fraction of the students who pass through the lab are likely to become computer programmers or software engineers. But every student that spends time in the Sinclair STEM Lab leaves knowing that computer programming is something that they CAN do, even if they choose not to.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Foundation of Code

The new school year is well underway and work in the lab is humming along. It has become my habit to start the Kindergarten, first, and second graders with a computer programming unit to kick off the year. It serves as a good introduction and refresher on algorithmic thinking and problem solving skills which are an important part of everything we do in the lab.

For the Kindergartners, this unit is their first experience with computer programming. I start this group of with a number of unplugged lessons designed to provide concrete examples of algorithms and hands on practice with algorithmic thinking. We then move on to turning algorithms into programs in order to give directions to the computer. Students work with the platform using a programming language called Blockly. This is a block-based language that hides the computer code behind colorful blocks. Students use the mouse to drag these blocks into vertical stacks to create programs that solve different puzzles. The Kindergarten students are in a course designed for pre-readers, so they can create computer programs even though they are just beginning to read. This course also touches on staying safe online and on good digital citizenship. Later in the year, these students will be introduced to Scratch Jr., a programming environment similar to, but far more open-ended which allows for greater creative expression.

The first and second graders are likewise working in and using the Blockly language. Their work is also divided between computer-based lessons and unplugged activities. The courses designed by are leveled for each grade. They are appropriate for complete beginners but also for students who worked in the preceding course the year before. A difference between the blocks that Kindergarten and first grade use, and those used by the second graders is the amount of text. The Kindergarten/first grade block use arrows labeled with the cardinal directions. These initiate a turn as well as a movement in a particular direction. The blocks used in the second grade course separate the turns and the motions, which encourages them to create more finely detailed programs. These students were introduced to Scratch Jr. last year, and will use it later this year to share their learning about different topics. That is my main goal for the computer programming skills students work in the lab, that they learn to use coding to demonstrate their understandings and express their ideas.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

STEM Lab Year 4 Approaches

August is upon us, and my teacher summer is almost over. I hope everyone had a great summer, and I am looking forward to seeing our wonderful Sinclair families at Meet the Teacher on the 24th. As the title of the post indicates, this will the be 4th year of the Sinclair STEM Lab. Time definitely flies when you're having fun!
Pi Camp Minecraft Selfies

Making friends at Smither Park Houston 
My summer was fairly low key compared to some other years. I spent a week leading a Raspberry Pi camp for middle school girls. That was a great experience. The girls learned several physical computing skills with both Scratch and Python. They built and programmed motion sensing cameras learned to render selfies in Minecraft blocks. At the end of the week the girls got to take everything home along with some resource books so they could continue learning.

Big Bambu at MFAH
I spent some time working on some personal making skills projects with an eye to adapting them to the lab. Some were successful, others I'm still working on. I also took time to see some of the great places in Houston, and beyond. I returned to Smither Park which is coming along nicely and visited the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Big Bambu and the Digital Worlds exhibits. I spent some time in Austin where I checked out the Blanton Museum and went to Corpus Christi to watch a hatchling sea turtle release at Padre Island National Seashore.

Posing with Lego Scratch Cat
At the end of July, my wife (also a STEM Lab teacher in HISD) and I traveled to Boston to lead a workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about how our students use the Scratch programming language to create interdisciplinary projects. Our workshop began with an overview of how we go about planning projects for our labs (all the teacher stuff). The second part was a gallery of projects created by the students at Sinclair and Piney Point. Many of these were interactive displays, and yes, we did cart 18 or so student work samples from Houston to Boston. We had about 50 people attend our workshop, which I confess is at least double the number I was expecting given how many amazing sessions were running concurrently with ours. I do not think it is overstating things to say that everyone was deeply impressed by the work of our students. So bravo Sinclair Superstars (and Piney Point Panthers)! Your work was on show at MIT and amazed the audience!
So many people 

Friday at 11, we're up
This was part of the Scratch@MIT Conference. Scratch was developed at the MIT Media Lab 11 years ago, so this was very much a pilgrimage to the home of one of the most central tools for the work we do in our labs. It was also a chance to connect with and learn from teachers, educators, and developers from around the world who use Scratch. It was a truly amazing experience, and we left with our brains completely overloaded with new ideas. 

Storm King Art Center is amazing!
On our way back to Texas we stopped here and there to visit family and friends in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. These included stops at Storm King Art Center, the Finger Lakes, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Beech Creek Gardens.

So now I am home and feverishly planning for the upcoming year. Students at all grade levels will make and do amazing things. I am so excited to get back into the lab and see all of wonders the students create. There will be computer programming for all! There will be robots! There will be so much cardboard!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Games 5th Graders Play

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. Along with with the delicious food, thoughtful cards, and other gifts, I received a number of notes from 5th graders thanking me for their time in the lab and in various after school activities. One expressed gratitude for teaching "programming and how make cool things", but also stated it was time "to move on to bigger and better things". Yes it is, and I fully expect to see great things from this group of 5th graders.

Before moving on though, the 5th graders got one last chance to the test case for a unit. (I usually experiment with new ideas and units using the 5th graders because they will be gone the next year, and they can mostly be counted on to give good feedback.) So for their final rotation in the lab 5th grade has been engaged in video game design with Scratch.

We started by making some familiar games and adding new elements like timers, bonuses, lives, and power ups. They experimented with different ways of controlling sprites to find the best one for their designs. Game elements that they take for granted like scores and backgrounds resetting when a new game is started had to be coordinated. Several wanted to make 2 player games which provided a host of challenges to overcome.

The second part of the unit required them to make a game that teaches or provides practice for a skill. I deliberately left this requirement open so that students could follow their interests. For the most part it worked out, but I did get an unnatural number of math fact practice games, probably because it is something they have done before. Still, many branched out making American history quizzes, a piano playing memory game, German language trainers, and one curiosity that purports to teach good tooth brushing habits. A few projects are embedded into the post, but the studio can be found here. There is one more group of 5th graders who have not completed the unit, so there will be more games in the next couple of weeks.

Come Fly With Us

The fourth grade project for this final rotation is out of this world! Students were challenged to create an advertisement for a vacation to one of the natural objects in our solar system. To ensure that I did not end up with nothing but projects about Uranus (ha ha), I created a topic randomizer in Scratch with 3 lists, the planets that are not Earth, moons that are not the Moon, and dwarf planets. When students pressed the switch, they were presented with 3 objects to choose from. 

First came the research. Students gathered basic data about their object like size, distance from the Sun, composition, and temperatures. While researching the basic information, they were also on the lookout for interesting facts and sights one might see there. They had to think about how they could use all of that information to to persuade their audience to choose their object for a vacation. I did not assign any particular product, so long as it was persuasive. I did give them some ideas and reminded them of projects they have done in the past. 

The most challenging part seemed to be need to be persuasive. As the groups and individuals worked, many needed to be reminded that they were not making a presentation to teach about their object. While some groups took to the idea of selling a trip into space easily, the majority needed some coaching in order to turn their raw information in to arguments in favor of making a trip. Another struggle for some students was making sure that their product was interesting to look at and that it could hold the viewer's attention. 

The freedom of choice I allowed in terms of work product yielded, for the most part, excellent results. There were dioramas showing the view from the surface, interactive posters leading virtual tours, a few wonderful skits, some excellent Scratch animations, and one that used a Lego tilt sensor and Scratch. 

This project is adapted from one I did with my class when I was teaching 3rd grade. Sadly, in the lab I do not have time to do the other part of that project with each class, learn to sing "Space Oddity" by David Bowie.