Monday, September 28, 2020

Starting the Year in the Virtual STEM Lab

Now that the first 3 weeks of the strangest school year of my career are behind us, and we have settled into a rhythm of sorts, it seemed like a good time for the first blog post of the year.

The lab schedule and projects were created in order to minimize stress on families. Synchronous whole group meetings were set for Monday to introduce the projects and Friday to review and share. The projects varied by grade level of course, but the theme across the board was "plugged or unplugged". I wanted students and families to have a project choice that did not involve a computer because I am well aware of how much time the children are spending in front of the computer already.

The "plugged" option for my Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd graders had them working in their grade level courses. It was a bit different this year since the unplugged activities are a bit of a challenge to lead in a Teams meeting. The students who have chosen this activity have done a great job progressing through the lessons. I have been most impressed however with the quality of their responses to the reflection prompts. (These get submitted through our district LMS called the HUB.) It was great to see their excitement about successfully completing the puzzles at each level and to see them reflecting on what they had learned. So far my favorite response to "what is one thing you have learned this week?" is from a 1st grader who noted, "I learned that there is more than one way to do things". That is one of the key messages in the STEM Lab.

The 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders' "plugged" choice involved using the Scratch programming language to create a project. The 4th and 5th graders are familiar with Scratch for the most part and I challenged them to create an animated book review project. The 3rd graders missed out on their traditional introduction to Scratch at the end of second grade, so they are mostly new to the platform (though most have experience with Scratch Jr). Their task was to create a project that introduced themselves to others. In both cases I provided examples, but encouraged the students to be as creative as they wished with the form their projects took. I have not been disappointed so far. The 3rd graders are doing an amazing job of problem solving their way through this new programming environment, and the 4th and 5th graders are extending their skills through some playful experimentation.

The "unplugged" activity was the same for everyone, Kindergarten through 5th grade. The challenge was to use whatever materials they have around to build a 3 dimensional model of a favorite book cover. I showed the students a few examples, but again, they were encouraged to be as creative as possible. The only rule was no 2D products. I have gotten so many amazing projects back so far. This building project has proven to be a bit more of a popular choice than the coding project. I am not terribly surprised by this because when I told the classes in our meetings that they had a non-computer choice there were many looks of relief.


As I mentioned above, there is a reflection piece to these choices. The prompts vary by grade level a bit, but are all aimed at getting students to reflect on what they learned, the quality of their work, and to think about how they might improve their projects in a second iteration. One of my favorite prompts is the one that asks students to choose 3 adjectives to describe their work. Some responses I have enjoyed from a variety of students include "challenging", "surprising", "awesome", and "breakable".

We have a few weeks left of fully digital learning. Beyond that point there are many unknowns. But whatever may come, I have loved seeing the students' work, and I know that we will find a way to continue making together.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Getting Unstuck 2020

This has not been the summer that I imagined. I know that holds true for everyone, teachers, students, and parents alike. The ongoing uncertainty regarding the coming school year has been challenging to manage, and has become more so as June has become July, and July slides relentlessly towards August. The current state of affairs has created a paucity of things to get excited about. There are no trips to take, no conferences to go to, no gatherings to attend.

Enter the Scratch Ed Team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with Getting Unstuck. The Scratch Ed Team works to support teachers with incorporating creative computer programming experiences into their classrooms using the Scratch Programming Language. The Creative Computing Curriculum Guide shares ideas and strategies meant to be adaptable to any computing classroom, afters school club, and other educational spaces. This guide is paired with the Getting Unstuck strategies that offer ways for educators to support their students with problem solving their way through a creative project. Together they help answer the questions, "how can I engage my students in creative computing? and, "what do we do when we get stuck?". These resources are open source, available to all, for free. 

The Getting Unstuck summer learning experience was designed for educators, formal and informal, to connect and support each other through creative Scratch projects. Each week day, from July 6 through July 17 participants received an email containing an open ended programming prompt. There was a link to a studio for people to share their projects in. The studio serves not just a as a warehouse for projects, but as a place for people to draw inspiration, learn how to do things, ask questions, and to gather and offer feedback to each other through the comments feature of Scratch. In addition to the communication tools in Scratch, there was a Twitter hashtag (#GettingUnstuck) to follow and a Facebook group where participants could interact to work out bugs and share tips. Finally, there were two live video meetups for people to gather live to talk about their projects, teaching, learning, and anything else that came up.

I have long felt that the best professional development is teachers talking to other teachers. The Getting Unstuck experience is the best example of this kind of learning. Over the course of this 2 weeks I connected with many dozens of educators from around the world. I saw hundreds upon hundreds of inspiring Scratch projects. I learned new ways to use Scratch, explored elements of the language I am unfamiliar with, and collected inspirations for student projects to last me many years. 

I had the great pleasure to serve as a facilitator for Getting Unstuck. As such, I spent many joyful hours checking out projects in the studios each day helping participants debug their programs, offering tips and encouragement in the comments, and feverishly taking notes in support of my own learning. During the two video meetups I acted as one of the breakout room small group facilitators. Getting Unstuck would certainly have been the highlight of my quarantine professional development schedule on its own. Getting to work alongside Karen and Paulina from HGSE, and Kimberly and Susan, both teachers with a wealth of experience teaching with Scratch, made the experience not just inspiring, but transformative. Heretofore it has been tough to muster much excitement about planning for the new school year given that so much of how it will go remains a colossal question mark. Now, at the conclusion of two weeks of intense making, learning, and connecting, I have finally found the energy and the sense of purpose I need to start crafting my lessons. 
Today's live meetup ended with each of the 50+ participants individually unmuting themselves and sharing one word for how they are feeling here at the end of our Getting Unstuck adventure. Inspired, grateful, creative, empowered, and joyful were just some of the words given. I am feeling all of those.

My words cannot fully express how grateful I am to everyone who participated in Getting Unstuck 2020. The energy and inspiration I have received from this community will sustain me through the many challenges that lie ahead. 

Each day's Getting Unstuck studio with everyone's projects linked from this page.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

From the Remote STEM Lab

Designing with lenses
This is not how I thought this year would end. I was looking forward to having my 5th graders create animated art works with Scratch and Raspberry Pi. Fourth grade was going to begin working on a Geo-Inquiry to accompany my upcoming Fund For Teachers expedition to the Galapagos Islands. My 3rd graders would be learning about physical computing with Micro:bit, and 2nd grade would be learning to use the full version of Scratch. Kindergarten would be using Scratch Jr. to tell stories. The Digital Making club would have just finished sharing their projects as a part of our annual STEM Night. I would be organizing projects from 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades to present at the Scratch Conference at MIT.

Instead, we are all sequestered away from each other. Students are sharing work from home on Scratch, Google Classroom, Living Tree, Teams, and email. My expedition to Ecuador has been pushed back to 2021. The same goes for the Scratch Conference. It is a less than ideal situation.

However, flexibility and adaptability are two of our core values in the STEM Lab, so we adjust our plans and do the best we can in a lousy situation. Here's what we have been doing in the Remote STEM Lab.

Building and Math Art Challenges
I challenged the Kindergarten and first grades to build towers and describe their design choices. Second grade made model animals and then compared and contrasted them. In addition to these, I sent out weekly guides for supplementary projects. These extra projects included building a chain reaction machine, a stabile, and a variety of activities that mash up math and art. (Credit for the math/art projects goes to Annie Perkins.) Those guides can be found here: Remote STEM Guides

Tons of Triangles


Animal models

Scratch Stories
The 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades were asked to use Scratch to tell a story. I gave them the freedom to decide what kind of story they wanted to tell. I got a wonderful range of projects, from biographies to retellings of fables to original stories. The students shared their projects to studios grouped by grade level. Links to each studio are below.
Kindergarten, first, and second grade worked on completing their courses. During our office hour meetings we worked on some of the lessons together.

I cannot wait to get back to school to see the amazing students of Sinclair Elementary. I am already planning for next year in the hope that conditions will allow us to gather in person to make, build, and program awesome stuff.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Let the Games Begin!

The cardboard arcade has become a yearly fixture in the STEM lab calendar for 3rd grade. I place this in the third grading cycle because it usually has an extra week and few interruptions to the schedule.

We start with a brief overview of what exactly is an arcade. I always include both definitions (covered passageway lined with shops AND place to play games for a fee), because I see myself as a teacher of all subjects. Then we watch and discuss the Nirvan Mullick film Caine's Arcade which is the original inspiration for the whole cardboard arcade phenomenon. The movie documents the arcade built by a 10 year old boy who was spending the summer hanging around in his father's auto parts store.

Next students get together in teams, or elect to work independently, and brainstorm ideas. I place as few limitations on them as I am able. The games must be table top size and must be playable by first and second graders. I encourage the students be be as creative and not just make a replica of an arcade game they saw at Dave and Buster's. Once an idea is selected, students begin planning in their journals. These plan include a list of materials, steps for completion, and direction for how to play the game. I insist on a detailed plan because I find that it cuts down on the amount of materials that are wasted. During the planning phase I meet with each group to offer feedback on their design. Depending on what they are trying to make, I ask questions to get them thinking about the details that will need to be included. That may be "how will you build the ball return?", "how will you stop the ball from flying across the room?", or "how will player know they have won?".

The construction and testing phase lasts several days. While I do help with some of the tougher cutting tasks, I make the students do as much of the hard work as possible. Last year I banned the use of tape in construction because it is wasteful and fails to hold the game together anyway. I spend a lot of the building class periods teaching students to use white glue and structural elements like L-braces and flanges to attach pieces of cardboard to one another. There is much gnashing of teeth in the beginning when I refuse to produce a roll of tape for them to mummify their project with. However, once a few students get the hang of the glue techniques, they are eager to share their skills with others.

The final phase of the project is always the presentation. I invite a class from a lower grade to come and play the games. I never know who will be available from which grade level, so I prepare the 3rd graders for the fact that they may end up entertaining anyone from Kindergarten through 2nd grade. They are always so excited to show off what they have made and the only disappointment ever voiced is that I did not invite their former teacher or the class with their sibling to participate.

There have been some really great projects so far in this unit including a 3 story escape room game, a pinball machine, and a nicely done soccer/hockey mash-up game.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Digital Dioramas and Skype-a-Scientist

This rotation in the STEM lab has the second grade taking their first steps into combining physical elements with digital ones to create projects. In my almost entirely self-designed curriculum, this kind of fusion is the ultimate goal for the students I work with. 
The students began by selecting an animal to research using the National Geographic Kids page about different species of animals. I let them explore an bit before choosing and starting to take notes in their journals. They also selected partners for this project. I provided the students with a list of facts that they needed to read for and record in their notes, but also encouraged them to include any information that they found especially interesting. Required information included what their animal eats, where it is found, and what threats it faces. We discussed how threats may be natural (predators) or human-caused (habitat loss/ poaching). Finally, they drew a picture of their chosen animal and its habitat in their journals.

Next, the teams worked together to create detailed drawings of their subject animal, its food, and its habitats. They cut out their pictures and practiced animating how they would move around in a Scratch Jr. project. Students used the camera function to photograph the pictures they drew of the habitats as backgrounds. They also added photos of their animal drawings as well as drawings of what it eats and the threats it faces.

Finally, the students programmed their hand-drawn characters to move around and to share facts they gathered through their research. This process was a great opportunity for me to teach the students about a number of different computer science concepts. They are already familiar with the primary event block in the Scratch Jr language, the Green Flag. This event is a general purpose "go" to all of the characters students have added to their programs. However, most of the teams discovered that the Green Flag event has its limitations because it makes everything move at once. When they wanted different characters to move and speak at different times I showed them the messaging events. When they wanted a prey animal to disappear after being eaten, I was able to show them the uses of the "when characters touch" event which is the beginning of understanding conditionals. 

We finished the unit by having each student team share their work on the SMART Board so they could practice providing each other feedback.

Another element of this unit that I personally find super exciting is our video chat with a scientist. This is facilitated by Skype-a-Scientist, a program that matches classrooms with scientists working in a variety of fields. Skype-a-Scientist connects teachers and scientists and they coordinate the scheduling of a video call. This program lets students see and engage with "actual living scientists" who were once sitting in a classroom as they are now. Each class gets to speak to a different scientist with a different area of study, so each conversation is unique. The first group spoke with a conservation biologist in Seattle, and the second group will be speaking with a geologist from the UK. Skype-a-Scientist is a non-profit run by Dr. Sarah McAnulty. I am proud to support this program with a monthly donation, and I would encourage our Sinclair Elementary families, and anyone else who cares about supporting science education to do the same at

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

I, Robo-Mouse

It's a new year and the beginning of a new rotation in the STEM Lab. The third grading cycle finds our Kindergarten and first grade students discovering the joys of programming robots with our old friend, Robo-Mouse.

This is Kindergarten's first robotics experience in the lab. It builds on the introduction they had earlier in the year to computer programming via and Scratch Jr. The first day involves an overview of the proper care and handling of the robots. The Robo-Mouse is quite affordable, but it is not terribly robust and the axles can be stripped a little too easily if students are too rough. Over the years I glad to say we have only lost a few robots to this kind of abuse. Following a brief introduction, students break into groups of 2 or 3 and build mazes and practice programming.

After an exploration day, the students spend a day working with the challenge cards. These two-sided card have a drawing of a maze showing the position of the mouse and the cheese as well as the walls and tunnels. Part of the challenge for students is cooperatively building the maze according to the picture on the card. Once the maze is assembled, the teams work on the programming. The biggest stumbling block I have found in the transition from the puzzles to Robo-Mouse is that with the robot a turn and a move requires two commands. In the puzzles, at the Kindergarten and 1st grade levels, students only program movements. Turns as separate commands are not introduced until the 2nd grade.

Once students are comfortable with programming the Robo-Mouse, I introduce them to the algorithm cards. These cards have arrows corresponding to the buttons on the robot that are used for writing programs. Continuing to use the challenge cards, students have the added task of creating their algorithm using the those cards and then programming it into the robot. This helps the teams debug their programs as them can follow along step-by-step and identify where they went wrong.

For 1st grade, the unit begins in a similar fashion, with an introduction to the proper handling and a review of the programming. This is partly because it has been about a year since most of the students used Robo-Mouse, and partly because there are inevitably a few students in each class who are new to Sinclair and have no prior experience with robotics.

They too get a few days to explore and then to practice with the more complex challenge cards. First grade also reviews the use of the algorithm cards. As the students become more comfortable with programming the robot, they seem to become less interested in using the algorithm cards to show their work. I keep on them about it though as it forces them to check and recheck their programs. Otherwise their programming successes look more like trial and error rather than a result of deliberate choices.

The 1st grade only spends a couple of days on the challenge cards. Their real project for this unit is to use the Robo-Mouse as part of a story retell. Students create a story map of a tale of a familiar tale. They then illustrate the important points in the story and place these along a path that they build for the robot. The robot gets programmed to move along the path and as it passes each illustration, the students recount that moment in the story. I model every part of this process using a book that I read to them at the beginning of this phase of the unit. This year I have been using I Want My Hat Back by John Klassen. The story the students have been retelling this year is The 3 Billy Goats Gruff. In most things I give the students choices about this kind of thing, but I have found that for this kind of project, with 1st graders, a choice of stories leads to overly ambitious choices and students do not have enough time to complete the story they want to tell.

So far this rotation, the best thing I have overheard is a couple of first graders struggling with a particularly complex maze of their own design. The student whose turn it was to program groaned, "Ugh! This is so hard!". Their partner agreed, "Yeah, it is," and then added, "but it's fun too." The first student replied, "Yeah, I know" and then they both went back to work debugging their program.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Two for One Blog Post - Interactive Posters and Math Stories

The run up to the winter break is is always a busy time. Mine was even busier than usual and the first casualty was my blog posting schedule. So this one will wrap up the work done by the kindergarten, first, and third graders during cycle 2. Then I'll be all ready to go when cycle 3 starts in another week.

Third graders got their first taste of true digital making during this rotation with the interactive posters project. Each class had a different set of research topics to choose from. I try to do this with all of my groups and grade levels. It gives me the chance to see how well various topics work for a particular project. Also, speaking for myself, I like to have some variety in the projects over the course of the unit since I am implementing the same lesson plan 4 times in a row as the classes rotate through the lab. The choices ranged from recycling and energy conservation to birds and fish to objects in our solar system.

Students had the option to work independently or with a partner. They researched their chosen topic and recorded notes in their journals. They then planned a Scratch project to teach about their topic. The plans needed to include backgrounds and sprites they would use, what facts from their research went with each background, and how the sprites would move and talk. I introduced the students to computer programming vocabulary like "event" and "comment". Events are a key part of how their programs for this project operate and commenting one's code is a good habit to get into and one I have been lax in training my students in acquiring. The students also learned how to add pictures from other sources to their Scratch projects. An important part of this is finding pictures that are open source and giving proper attribution in the project notes.

Teams start on the Scratch project together so that both partners are familiar with the basics of its function. After a day or two one partner steps aside and begins work on a poster that complements the Scratch project. When the poster and program are complete, brass fasteners and copper foil tape are added to the poster to create touch points that can be used as key press events to run the various parts of the Scratch program. Turning these conductive materials into "buttons" is achieved by using the Makey Makey input/output board. It is essentially a keyboard connected to the computer via USB without any keys. Wires with alligator clips connect the poster to the Makey Makey which, once plugged into the computer, allows the brass fasteners on the poster to function as key presses when touched.

One of the things I have come to love most about teaching in the STEM lab over the last 5 years is the pure excitement and wonder that students express the first time they try out something made interactive with the Makey Makey.

I wrote a guide to this interactive poster activity that can be found here on Instructables.

Kindergarten and first grade had a unit that centered on math and literacy. Each day we read a story in which some kind of mathematics is involved, different books for each grade level, and then worked on an activity related to the math concept from the book. The books vary a little from one class to the next. Partly that is because of the various interruptions like fire drills and holidays that occur, and partly it is because I do not own a copy of all of the books I would like and have to request them from the public library. Regardless of the books read, the math concepts covered are generally the same. We touch on things like doubling and skip counting. We look at strategies for decomposing and grouping numbers. There is always some measurement and some geometry as well.

I have done some form of this unit for the last few years in the lab and it is always one of my favorites. This unit was born out of my realization that after a couple of year out of the regular classroom I missed teaching literacy, and more specifically books, to my students. My two week units do not allow me to teach novels like I used to, but this unit gives me the chance to read with students again. More importantly, I get to make clear to them the connections between mathematics and literacy that I fear they miss during their classroom reading block.