Sunday, February 18, 2018

Circuit Masters 2: In their Own Words

I meant to include these Scratch projects that some of the 4th graders made to share what they had learned during this unit.

For this first one, first click the green flag. When the Pi finishes talking, press the space bar, then the up arrow, and then the down arrow.

This one just needs you to click the green flag.

Same here, click the green flag.

One more.

This is a wrap up activity for the unit. I created a studio for the class with a project containing 4 sprites, a Pi, an LED, a resistor, and a breadboard. The directions were to remix my project to share what they had learned about the Raspberry Pi and pyhsical computing. The only limit I placed on the projects was that they were not allowed to delete the 4 provided sprites.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Circuit Masters

Last year I introduced my 5th graders to the joys and wonders of physical computing, using a computer to program the behavior of components likes LEDs and buttons. My hope then was to eventually push physical computing down to 3rd, or even 2nd, grade. This unit sees the 4th graders take the next step in their computer science learning journey.

Students started by learning to use a breadboard, LEDs, resistors, jumper wires, and batteries to build simple circuits. Electrical circuits are not new to 4th graders, having covered them in science class already. However, these particular components are. We identified each part, discussed its function, and went over the proper handling of each. Students were then guided through building a complete circuit. As always, when that first LED blazed to life, the room was filled with gasps and sqeals of delight. (That NEVER gets old for me.) With one LED in place, the teams immediately set about adding more.

Having gotten them comfortable with the breadboard and other components, I introduced the tactile button. We started with a short overview of how the button works and compared it to the switches they had used in science class when studying circuits. So far they have all done well recreating the first day's circuit with the button from the notes in their journals. They also have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the challenge of controlling multiple LEDs with a single button. We wrap up these first few days by identifying the differences between series and parallel circuits, both of which they have now built and recorded in their notes.

Using a switch or button to control the flow of electricity is a mechanical process and something of a review for 4th graders. Memories refreshed on the topic of circuits, we moved into the substance of the unit, physical computing. In the lab we are fortunate to have 10 Raspberry Pi computers. Each is equipped with 40 GPIO pins (General Purpose Input/Output) and it is these that make physical computing possible. Students began with a basic introduction to the Pi and how it like a regular PC as well as how it is different. Among the many languages available to students on the Raspberry Pi is a version of Scratch with an extension that allows for physical computing. For the first day, so that they could focus on programming, and not on juggling LEDs and resistors, we used an add-on board called Traffic HAT. It has 3 gumdrop sized LEDs and an adapter that fits neatly over 4 of the pins on the Pi and greatly reduces the time it takes students to get to blinking lights. I am so proud of how the students have been working together to debug when programs don't work as expected. The best thing to see is when one team gets the lights going in some wild pattern and calls across the room, "Woah! Look at that!". The inevitable response is a chorus of, "How did you do that?". Soon the room is full of the sounds of genuine engagement as teams call out programming tips to their friends.

Students complete the unit by learning to use the breadboard and other components with the Raspberry Pi. First they add a button to control the start of the light sequence on the Traffic HAT. This usually proves harder than most of them think it will be. Again, there is lots of cooperative debugging and problem solving. With that task accomplished, they use LEDs, resistors, and buttons and experiment with programming the components to behave in different ways. This generally becomes an exercise in making the lights blink as fast as possible in the greatest variety of patterns.

This has been a fun unit and I am looking forward to next year with this group and pushing their digital making skills to the next level.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Favorite Project Was...

The Year of Exciting Houston Weather continued with 2 unexpected days off for ice and snow. I am kind of hoping that we are done with interesting weather for the year.

At this point, I am two and a half years into the project of creating the Sinclair STEM Lab. Over the course of that time, I have been teaching a lot of what might be termed "tool use". That is, students learn how to use technologies like ScratchMakey MakeyMicro:bit, and Raspberry Pi by completing a series of set tasks. I have also worked on teaching a number of skills like how to follow a design process and how to use reclaimed/repurposed materials to create products. The units that have centered on these and other tools and skills have been sort of, but not very, open-ended. Students have had some creative freedom, but in the end they were all making variations on the same theme, be it a Scratch quiz, cardboard arcade game, or interactive poster. My goal however, has always been to get students to the point where, for each project, they select the tools and techniques best suited to how they want to present their learning, which brings us to the current unit in 5th grade.

This is the most open-ended project I have tried in the lab and I decided to implement it with the 5th grade first because they have the most experience using the widest variety of tools. Also, they will all have gone on to middle school next year so I can adjust the unit plan as needed and roll it out with next year's classes and it will be new to them. I began by asking them to reflect in their journals about their all time favorite school project, not just from the lab, but throughout their school careers, and to say why it is their favorite. After a few minutes I shared about my favorite project from high school microbiology. (We each received a culture of an unknown bacteria and had to use all the skills we had learned to identify our mystery germ. Thank you Mr. Rohn!) Several students then shared their reflections which included projects from every content area and ranged from kindergarten to 5th grade. As to why that particular project was their favorite, every student said that it was because it appealed to a particular interest of theirs and because they were able to make or do something that was personally relevant. 

Following that discussion, I outlined the project. Students would choose an ancient civilization from a provided list to research with a focus on the artifacts of that culture. They would then follow the design process to generate ideas for a work product that they would use to teach an invited 3rd grade class about their chosen topic. I reviewed some of the tools, skills, and technologies that they were familiar with from their time in the lab, but I made it clear that they could create whatever they wanted to so long as it served the purpose of teaching others about their research topic. Students were allowed to work independently or in teams of up to three. As students began gathering information and brainstorming presentation pieces I was bombarded by questions that all began: "Can we make a...?". I expected this as it is very much like to questions I got when the STEM lab was new and students not yet comfortable with the idea that their work product looked different from all of the others. This project represents another step towards the goal of greater creative confidence. This is the first project that I know of them completing where each product could be of an entirely different sort.

Only one of the four 5th grade classes have come through the lab at this point, so it is a small sample, but so far this unit has been a success. First, the projects by and large turned out quite well and when the groups presented their work to the visiting 3rd graders, they were genuinely excited to share what they had learned and made. Second, there is the information from the Google reflection form they completed at the end of the unit. One question asks what they would have me change about the unit and most said "nothing" with several adding that it was "good", "great", or they "really liked it". Another reflection item asked them to rate their performance from 1 to 5, with 5 as the best. I always include this to encourage them to think critically about their work. usually the bulk of each class rates their work as a 3 or 4. For this unit however, 75% of the class rated their work as a 4 or 5. As I said, it is a small sample, but I am now very interested to see if this continues, increased creative freedom leading to increased student satisfaction with their own work. 

I am so excited to see what students in the other groups create! Check out the album for this project here. I will continue to add photos throughout the unit.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Wrapping Up 2017, Looking Ahead to 2018

Happy 2018! I hope everyone is having a wonderful break. It has been great to have time to relax with friends and family, and hopefully you have been able to do the same. With all of the awesome things going on at the end of the year, my blogging fell by the wayside. Now it is time to get back on track!

During the second magnet rotation, the third grade took a bit of time to continue building their programming skills with Scratch. They were introduced to the Makey Makey input/output board. This device allows one to use conductive materials like Play Doh, paperclips, and even classmates as inputs for their programs.

Their main project however was to design, build, and present a tabletop cardboard arcade game. This project was inspired by Caine's Arcade, the wonderful story of a 9 year old boy who created his own arcade with cardboard boxes in front of his father's auto parts shop. Students worked in teams of 2 or 3 and started by brainstorming ideas for games and designs. From there they began building, testing, and improving. Many groups discovered that getting a game that has just the right amount of challenge was not as easy as they thought it would be. A great many groups learned that masking tape is not always the best choice for joining two pieces of cardboard. My personal favorite part of this project is watching students work through the design process on a personally meaningful project. each group is authentically invested in their game. That was evident at the conclusion of each unit when a first grade class (along with the administrative team) visited the lab to try the games. Students were so excited to talk about their work and have others try out their games. 

The 2nd grade classes spent this rotation working on a series of design challenges using a variety of materials. My focus for this unit was on the elements of the design cycle and on having students record their work in their journals. Each day they were assigned a particular task, build a bridge to span a distance with craft sticks, build an animal in its habitat with Legos. Some of these challenges were independent, while some involved teamwork. Some were deliberately quite advanced because I wanted to be able to teach students about the lessons of failure and the importance of perseverance. 
Kindergarten and first grade completed a unit of math stories. Each class started with a read aloud book and discussion. The books selected included "How Big is a Foot?", "Inch by Inch", "Two of Everything", and "The Greedy Triangle", just to name a few. Each book illustrates a particular math skill or concept which we discussed and connected to our classroom work. Following the reading, students worked on a project which allowed them to work with the math that played a part in the story. Students made input/output tables to show doubling, built pictures with different polygons, and measured the dimensions of birds that they drew. I personally enjoyed this unit because I love to emphasize to students the connection between math, science, and literacy.

Looking ahead to the 3rd magnet rotation starting next week (Yikes! Yay!), Kindergarten and first grade will be participating in a robotics unit. Second grade will be working on a research project, while 3rd grade will be introduced to the BBC Micro:bit board. The 4th graders will be working with electrical circuits. To start, they will use batteries and LEDs, but they will finish the unit with building programmable circuits using the Raspberry Pi computers. The fifth grade will be working on a history-based research project that will include interactive displays.

Check back in a few weeks to see how things are going. You are sure to be impressed with the amazing things the students make.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Micro:bit = Macro:awesome!

Thanks to the the generosity of some wonderful people and Donors Choose, the lab now has a set of BBC Micro:bits. These tiny, programmable boards were first tried by our 5th graders during the first cycle of magnet classes. They only had a week on account of the late start to school. This cycle, the 4th graders are getting a more in depth experience with the Micro:bit.

I wrote about the Micro:bit in a previous post so I won't go on about it here. Suffice it to say that it is a marvelously user friendly board for students. It provides them with the opportunity to learn about a variety of inputs and outputs using a block-based programming language with which they are already familiar.

The unit started off with a scavenger hunt of sorts designed to help students become familiar with the most commonly used blocks in the palette. The Micro:bit is capable of some highly sophisticated programming and I wanted to steer students away from the more advanced block until they were familiar with the basics. So far, the classes I have seen so far have done a great job working through the tasks and connecting the work to their previous programming experience. Once the teams complete the scavenger hunt, I provide them with a guide to making a "rock, paper, scissors" game where the Micro:bit shows your choice rather than using the traditional hand gestures.

The next part of the unit incorporated the Micro:bit into a design and making challenge, the "micro:pet". Students worked in teams to design and build a pet with the Micro:bit playing some part in bringing the pet to life. At this point, only half of the 4th grade classes have completed this, but so far the results have been amazing. We have had all manner of creatures, both real and imagined, and some incredibly clever programming to go along with them. The wide variety of inputs available on the Micro:bit means students can create a number of behaviors for their pets.

The final part of the unit is for student teams to create a program with as many different inputs and outputs as possible. This is the point when I have given them more or less free reign to explore the palette of blocks and make use of whatever they can make work. Needless to say, most groups have gravitated towards the "Music" menu and there has been a lot of bleepy noise at the end of week two. Good times!

It has been great to the see the excitement students have for the Micro:bit. Personally, know all that is possible with it, I am excited for all the projects to come!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

How Fast Can the LED Blink?

This highly unusual school year has settled down to the point where things feel more-or-less back to normal. So I will be going back to my rough schedule of one post every couple weeks, each highlighting the work of a particular grade level. This post starts at the top with 5th grade.

Physical computing refers to using a computer to control the actions of physical objects. It is a chance for the 5th graders to combine their computer programming skills with their knowledge of electrical circuits. The computer gives them more control of their circuits than a typical switch. For this unit, students used the Raspberry Pi computer. It is a low cost, single board device that has all of the functionality of a typical desktop, but with a set of 40 input/output pins that allows users to connect and program components like LEDs, buttons, buzzers, and motors. The Pi operating system includes a number programming languages for students of all levels. We started with Scratch, a block- based programming language with which students are already familiar.

The unit began with an overview of the Raspberry Pi itself, with attention to how it is similar to and different from a traditional PC. Following that, we reviewed the use of components like LEDs, resistors, jumper wires, and breadboards. This group of students used these parts last year, but it was necessary to explain how their use differs on the computer. Over the course of the first week, students worked with partners to build increasingly complex circuits controlled by Scratch programs. The final "test" was to build an LED traffic light and program it to run the sequence from red to green to yellow and back to red at the push of a button. The teams quickly realized that this simple sounding task is not quite as easy as it sounds. Getting each part working in the correct order took more planning than they expected, but each group got their lights going eventually. Then, as usual, they set the wait time to a decimal and competed to see who could get the LEDs blinking the fastest.

Once they were feeling confident with physical computing using Scratch, I introduced them to Python. This is a professional level programming language that is user friendly enough for 5th graders. We repeated the same circuits they had built for their Scratch programs so that they could compare programs that achieve the same end with different means. After a couple of days, most students say they prefer Python to Scratch for physical computing. Some say that it's faster to type the Python than to move all the Scratch blocks around, while others feel like Python is more real. In any case, everyone has done well with their taster lessons on text based programming.

For their culminating project, the student teams returned to Scratch to create some kind of quiz game that incorporated the electromechanical components studied. Most of the teams in this block opted to make multiplication games, and one decided to make a world capitals quiz instead. This was the first of the 4 groups that will come through the lab for this unit and I am excited to see how it goes with the others!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Time flies when the year starts 2 weeks late!

What a year it has been, and we are only 4 week into school! It certainly has been a whirlwind, and for me, it feels like we have been marching double time to get caught up on the days we missed. Usually, students spend a 2 week block in the STEM lab which allows for great project based learning. Starting the year on hurricane time has meant cutting that block back to 1 week for the first grading cycle. It took some creative adjustments to my plans, and overall things have gone quite well.

My typical STEM lab updates focus on a single grade level. However, with the last week of this first rotation set to begin, I am going to give an overview of what each grade has been up to for the start of the year.

Kindergarten, first, and second grades have started the year with coursework. For Kindergarten, this is their introduction to computer programming. They have learned about algorithms and programs. Some have taken to coding so well that they have gotten to the point where they are learning to use loops. We have also talked about the importance of persistence, not just in this unit, but in all STEM lab projects. 

For first and second grades, this unit has been a review of the computer programming principles that they learned last year. I was actually considering not having second grade of this year since it would be the same course for a third year. However, the team performed a massive upgrade to their course structure over the summer which made the second grade course a perfect bridge between the early reader puzzles and the more advanced work I will have them doing later in the year.

The third graders spent the first couple of days this rotation learning about digital etiquette and cyberbullying with Brain Pop. They watched the movies while taking notes in their journals. When they were done, they worked in small groups to make graphic organizers with Brain Pop's "Make-a-Map" tool. This was a set up for the second half of the week when I introduced them to their Scratch accounts and to the Scratch commnity. Scratch is a block based programming language developed at MIT to allow children to use coding as a means of creative self expression. Scratch is also an online community that allows the students to collaborate on projects with helpful feedback and encouragement. The students were so excited to make their first projects and share them to the class studio.

Fourth grade also spent some time studying good digital citizenship habits and getting reacquainted with Scratch. Their main project however was creating cardboard automata, a project inspired by the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. These simple devices use two cams and axles to change the direction of rotational motion. Students built their machines using reclaimed milk cartons and cardboard. Once they managed to get the rotation working, they unleashed their creativity and decorated their work. We have had a sea of spinning butterflies, dancers, rocket ships, banners, and more! I have been amazed with the work and attention to details that I have seen, and I am looking forward to what they create in their second rotation through the lab.

The unit I originally had planned for fifth grade absolutely requires 2 weeks, so I pushed that back to the next grading cycle. Thanks to the generosity of several marvelous people and Donors Choose, the lab now has a class set of BBC Micro:bits to program. These tiny microcontrollers have a 5x5 LED matrix, 2 built-in buttons, input/output pins, an accelerometer, and Bluetooth communication. All that, and they can be programmed using the Blockly language with which the students are already familiar. The fifth graders have had the opportunity to be the first students at Sinclair to use these fantastic boards. They have a have a great deal of programming experience at this point and I have been so impressed with how they have been able to adapt their previous learning to a new device with little to no trouble. Among other things, groups have made "rock, paper, scissors" games, animations, "mood badges", and a host of silly, though nonetheless impressive, projects hilarious to 5th graders but bemusing to me.

Finally, this past week saw the beginning of the various after school digital making and robotics clubs. There was an overwhelming amount of interest this year, far more than I could accommodate. I am working to be able to expand the reach of these programs so that more students are able to participate. More information on that will be forthcoming in the next month or so.