Sunday, April 24, 2022

Springtime in the STEM Lab

I has been a busy few months in the lab with projects galore at every grade level. I have obviously fallen a bit behind in my posting, but I will do my best to recount the highlights here.

Kindergarten & 1st grade

After a year in the closet, our friend Robo-Mouse was able to come out to play once more. The arrows used to program Robo-Mouse are quite similar to the command blocks students use in, so it is very much like a physical version of the puzzles. Students really enjoy designing a building their own mazes to solve with their mouse.They have to keep careful track of their program steps because they cannot see the program on a screen as they can in Scratch Jr and I love watching them collaboratively problem solve the intricae mazes they build.

First grade and Kindergarten also completed a unit of origami models. The first graders did an origami unit last year, so this year's models were a step up in difficulty. Each day had a different model and students had the opportunity to build it a few times ("it's not practice if you only do it once"). Sometimes students mounted their models to paper and drew backgrounds for their builds. Even when the models were the same, individual creativity shone through as everyone personalized their projects. Another element of this unit was the 2 frame animation. This is not origami of course, but is a fun creative storytelling project.

Kindergarten and 1st grade also returned to their courses. They focused on learning to use loops effectively to write more compact code. Loops generally take the students a little time to get used to, particularly when there are multiple commands being repeated. We reviewed the protocols for pair programming and students usually worked with a partner and collaborated on solving the puzzles. I have been truly impressed with the progress the students have made throught the course this year. Several students have nearly finished their grade level course which is something of a rare occurance most years.

2nd grade

The 2nd grade began the spring semester with a Scratch Jr project made to share their learning about an animal. We call this the digital diorama. First, students selected an animal from the Nat Geo Kids site and took notes about it. They recorded information about what it eats, its adaptations, and what threats it faces. Next they drew scientifically accurate pictures of their animal and its habitat. These were photographed into a Scratch Jr project and used as the characters and backgrounds. They coded their digitized characters to move around the habitat and to tell the viewer facts about the animal. The final result is a mini nature documentary.

The digital diorama project was followed by an introductory unit in which the students began the transition from Scratch Jr to the full version of Scratch. Each day focused on a Scratch tutorial. I selected the tutorials to highlight connections between the Scratch Jr command blocks the students know to show them what those commands look like in Scratch. The tutorials were all fairly short leaving students some time each day to explore and experiment in the new coding environment. I started introducing students to Scratch at the end of second grade a few years ago and have found that it is so helpful for them to have had that initial exposure before they get to third grade. With Scratch Jr still fresh in their minds, the step up to Scratch does not feel so overwhelming. 

Second grade also returned to their courses this semester. While Scratch Jr and Scratch emphasize the creative side of programming, it is important that students have opportunities to practice applying their skills to a specific task. The puzzles in the higher levels of the second grade course challenge students to combine a number of programming concepts into their solutions. In particular, I like that there are frequently multiple solutions to a puzzle which reinforces the lesson that there is almost always more than one way to write a program that achieves the desired output. 

3rd grade

The third grade spent their first round of the semester learning to program the Micro:bit microcontroller. A microcontroller differs from a regular computer in that it can only remember and run one program at a time. These devices are all around us, turning on the AC, openning the door a the supermarket, and turning off the lights when a room has been empty for a while. The Micro:bit has a variety of inputs including buttons, an accelerometer, light sensor, and more. Its outputs inlcude a 5x5 LED matrix, a speaker, and a set of I/O pins. Each day they practiced writing programs using the various inputs and outputs. At the end of the week they built a 2 dimensional animal and incorporated the Micro:bit into the build to make the model interactive. 

Next the students returned to Scratch and learned to use the pen and music extensions. These extra block palettes allow students to explore the connections between programming and the arts. The pen blocks turn the sprite into a drawing tool. First students worked on drawing basic shapes and changing colors. Then they moved onto creating more complex figures by drawing multiple shapes and experimenting with randomness. The music extensions allows students to compose music using an assorment of instruments and percussion. These blocks differ from the sound effect blocks in that students can adjust the tempo, insert rests, and play several ocatves worth of notes. The unit began with a one day introduction tutorial for each extension. Then students were prompted create a project that used both extensions. There was a wonderful variety of final projects, Some leaned more heavily on the music while other were more about the drawing. That kind of creative freedom is so important for students to have as they are able to make something that is personally meaningful. Here's the studio where their projects were shared.

Earlier in the year the 4th grade built cardboard controllers that they used to control their own Scratch music project. I wanted to see how 3rd grade would do with a similar project, so that is what they did after the pen and music project. Each day they completed a phase of the build. Measuring, cutting, and decorating the board and the keys is first. They the copper tape is added and the keys glued to the board. On the third day the glue is all dry and the students tested their keyboards using Makey Makey's "plug and play" apps. The rest of the week they made simple Scratch programs to use with their keyboards. I was quite impressed with how well the building went nad I think it bodes well for being able to do more complcated constructions next year with this group.

4th grade

I think I have mentioned before that the transition from 2 week magnet blocks to 1 week has taken some getting used to. There are several projects that simply cannot be completed in a single week, in particular those done by the upper grades. My workaround has been to break projects into two parts. These projects generally have a digital element and a physical one. Students complete the digital parts in one round and then do the physical part during the next round. One such project was the biography bottles project done by the 4th grade earlier this semester. This project starts with research into the life and contributions of a significant scientist. Students take noted and then plan a Scratch project that uses key press events to share information about the topic. They added images from online resources and checked to be sure that they included biographical data and told about their subject's important contributions to society. The projects went into a studio at the end of the week for peer feedback. When the students returned for the next round of STEM lab they went to work building a model of their person using a repurposed plastic bottle as the base. This model was attached to a cardboard base punched through with metal fastners. Using the Makey Makey the model and base were connected to the Scratch project. The metal fasteners served as buttons to trigger the key press events that opperate the program. At the end of the building week, each 4th grade class got to present their projects to a visiting class of 2nd graders. I have missed being able to invite lower grade classes to the lab to see the upper grade projects. I think it helps the younger students see where their STEM lab skills are leading, and it is important for the older students to have an authentic audience to share their work with.

After completing such a long form project, the 4th grade moved on to something a bit shorter. They were introduced to the Raspberry Pi microcomputer and how it is used for physical computing. The Pi does just about everything a regular computer does, but it also has an array of 40 GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) pins. These make it possible to build a variety of circuits that can then be programmed with Scratch, Python, and several other languages. Before getting to the Raspberry Pi, students learned to build circuits on a breadboard in order to become familiar with the proper handling of the components. Next they had some guided practice using the components with the Pi. They started with one LED and programmed it to blink using Scratch. Then they were challenged to add more LEDs and to program different blinking patterns. Later in the week they learned to use buttons to generate outputs both on screen in Scratch and on the breadboard circuits they had built.

5th grade

One of my favorite projects in recent years has been "hacked art" in which students take a digital version of a famous painting and use Scratch to make it interactive with movement, sound, and hidden surprises. Even when students work on the same painting they end up with wonderfully different final products. They have their choice of about a dozen different images that I share to them in a Google folder. They have to include 5 elements that react when they are clicked by the user. The only other constraint is that the starting screen of the project must be just the painting they started with. The students use the Scratch drawing tools to crop the elements they want to make interactive and make them sprites that can be clicked. They learn a lot about initialization with this project because as sprites move, they have to be programmed to go back to where they started. The projects are in this studio. Check them out.

In keeping with the fusion of programming and fine art, 5th grade's next project was called interactive artworks. In this case, rather than adapting the work of a famous artist, the students created their own artwork. First they drew/painted an image, planning which elements would be sprites and which would be part of the background. Next, they drew that image as sprites and a background in Scratch using the digital drawing tools. They used key press events to animate the sprites. Their physical image was wired with copper tape and metal fasteners so that, with the help of the Makey Makey, it could be used to trigger the key presses that govern the digital elements of the project. Full disclosure: many of these projects did not achieve the state of completeness I would have liked to see. This seems like one of those projects that needs to be split into two parts.

Most recently the 5th grade got their own taste of the Raspberry Pi. They were introduced to text-base programming with the language Python. We started with a side by side comparison of the Scratch and Python programming environments. I highlighted what the Scratch they know looks like in Python. First they used the turtle art module to program drawings. I gave them starter code which they were encouraged to tinker with to create their own outputs. The Raspberry Pi OS includes an educational version of the digital sandbox known as Minecraft. Students can run around in the world building just as in the full version of Minecraft, but all of the most interesting things in this world happen with programs. Again, the students had starter code, but were encouraged to creatively adapt the programs to generate original outputs. It will surprise no one that a great many of the programs the classes created involved lava flows and TNT. Students were generally excited about the move to text-based coding. They said it felt more like "real" programming. No matter how often I remind them that Scratch is a real coding language, they idea that it is less than because it is block based remains hard to shake.

So there you have it. We have about 6 weeks of school left, so be sure to check back for one last update as we close out the year.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

It's Micro:bit Time!

STEM Lab round 4 has the 4th and 5th grade classes exploring the realm of physical computing using the BBC Micro:bit microcontroller. The Micro:bit has a variety of inputs that students can program to generate outputs. The device's inputs include 2 buttons, an accelerometer, and sensors for temperature, light, and sound. Its outputs include a 5x5 LED matrix that can display images or text and a tiny speaker that can generate tones to play music. The Micro:bit also has a set of GPIO pins that can be used as both inputs and outputs depending on how they are programmed. The students used the Makecode language to program in this unit, but the Micro:bit can also be programmed with the text-based languages Python and Javascript.

Each day students were given a brief introduction to a particular input or output. They coded along with me to create a starter project. After that, students were tasked to continue independently using the day's programming concept to make their own creative project. They used the buttons to play animations. The accelerometer (tilt sensor) was used to play the different notes of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Jingle Bells. Students learned about using the GPIO pins as outputs by connecting LEDS with wires and programming different blinking patterns. They used the light sensor to play notes and display images based on the measured light level.

One of the things I love best about the Micro:bit is the amount of creative freedom students have. Even within the constraints of the daily task, they can create images, animations, and music. A 25 pixel "screen" does not seem like much, but I am always amazed at how expressive the students are able to be. Moving forward students will have the opportuity to use the Micro:bit as the digital element of a physical building project.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

A Dispatch From the STEM Lab

The STEM Lab has been a flurry of activity over the last month. So much so in fact, that I have neglected the blog. So, in the spirit of pulling my act together, here is a run down on what each grade level has been working on since I last managed a post.

Kindergarten & first grade:

These two grade levels usually work on similar units, though adapted for their different abilities. After completing the Math Stories unit, these grades are getting a week of creative computing using the Scratch Jr. programming language. teaches programming concepts and algorithmic thinking through a series of puzzles and is a great resource for getting students started with coding. Scratch Jr. is an open-ended coding environment where students code what they imagine rather than a solution to someone else's puzzle. For the kindergarten students this week is an introduction to Scratch Jr. and the idea of creative computing. Most of the first graders are returning to Sinclair and worked with Scratch Jr. last year, so this week is more of a next steps series of lessons. Later in the year, both grades will make Scratch Jr. projects that address a prompt.

Second grade:

The 2nd graders have been spending a lot of time working on their cardboard construction skills during rounds 2 and 3 in the STEM Lab. Cardboard is the most common building material in the lab, but it definitely takes some time for students to become familiar with its quirks. Round 2 had them planning and building marble mazes from single ply cardboard. The focus of this was learning to use the L-brace in their builds. My other goal, and honestly the main one, was to give them some practice using old fashioned white liquid glue to join the pieces. The glue sticks that have become a staple of elementary school supply lists are sadly not up to the task when it comes to the projects we get into in the lab. My hope in starting them on white glue early is to have fewer frustrated calls for tape when they get to the kinds of things we do in 4th and 5th grade. Round 3 continues our work with cardboard, this time using slots and friction to join pieces. The theme is lifted from my summer journey to the Galapagos Islands. Each day we learn about a different species unique to the islands and then make slotted cardboard body parts to build 3D models of the day's animal. Another part of round 3 is the students' first Skype-a-Scientist experience. Skype-a-Scientist connects working science professionals from a variety of disciplines with teachers in K-12 classrooms. Students get the opportunity to have a discussion with an actual living scientist and the conversations and questions are always amazing.

Third grade:

The switch from 2 week to 1 week magnet rotation blocks, a symptom of Sinclair's increasing enrollment (yay!) and the pandemic (boo!) induced shift to 6 week grading cycles, has been a challenge. The lab was founded on having 2 weeks to complete big projects. This was less of an issue last year when the lab could not operate as usual. However, this year, as things return to normal I am working to adapt those big projects to the constraints of my new time frame. The solution for some projects has been to split them between rounds. Third grade's round 3 and 4 work is an example of this. During round 3 the students selected a grade level science concept to research. They took notes and then planned and created a Scratch project to share their learning. One of their constraints was that the project had to run off of key press events. This set them up for round 4 which has them creating an interactive poster that is used to control the Scratch project created in round 3. This use of a physical creation to operate a digital project is made possible by a device called Makey Makey. (Make + Key = Makey.)This works like a typical USB keyboard, though with fewer keys available. It makes it possible to use any conductive material to trigger a key press. After creating their posters, students added brass fasteners and copper tape and attached these to the Makey Makey. The culmination of this 2 part unit is the 3rd graders getting to share their projects with a visiting 2nd grade class.

Side Note:

Having upper grade students share their projects with lower grade classes is something I have really missed the last year + and I am really excited to be able to start bringing it back.

Fourth grade:

As students move up through grade levels in the lab, the projects become more of an integration of physical and digital elements. (The 3rd grade project described above is one example.) Round 4 saw the 4th graders taking a deep dive into the programming concept of broadcasts in Scratch. This was a purely digital project, but necessary to projects that will combine the digital and physical worlds. The emphasis in this unit was creativity. It is a lamentable condition of our current educational system that students are conditioned early on to believe that there is a single correct answer or response to any question or task set to them by a teacher. I see the lab's purpose as countering that mindset and helping students develop their creative confidence. My prompts in the lab are purposely vague and open ended because I do not want 22 of the same thing from each class. I was generally pleased with the results from this project which can be viewed in this studio. I was especially proud of the work done by students who are new to Sinclair this year, most of whom are completely new not just to Scratch, but to computer programming in general.

Fourth grade's round 3 project was one of those that combines digital and physical elements. First students learned to use the Music Extension in Scratch. This set of commands lets students compose music played by different instruments and backed by various drums. They also used the Makey Makey Extension which is a set of key press events, but also allows for combinations of key presses to be used as an event. The students created beautifully cacophonous programs, many with accompanying visual effects. Next they used cardboard, construction paper, and copper tape to build a 5 key keyboard to play their program using the Makey Makey. My favorite part of this unit ended up being something completely unplanned. One week a student discovered that the keyboard they built could be used with any Scratch project that uses key presses. That class period ended with everyone playing Super Mario and Geometry Dash on their handmade keyboards. One student exclaimed, "It works with EVERYTHING!". Ah, the joy of discovery... The music projects are in this studio

Fifth grade:

Rounds 1 through 3 for 5th grade were built on the experiences I had in the Galapagos Islands last summer. That expedition was made possible by Fund for Teachers, an organization that supports self-designed teacher summer professional development. When I applied for the Fund for Teachers grant, pre-Covid, the projects that were central to my implementation looked quite a bit different. That made this project feel a bit more experimental than it might otherwise have. Still, I think all in all it turned out well. I did find though that a project stretched over 3 magnet rotations is a bit of a stretch in terms of attention and motivation. 

Students began by researching the Galapagos Islands. I provided them with my travel blog, videos, and pictures. We covered how the islands were formed, how the various speices arrived there, and how they have adapted over time to live in the islands. In round 2 students selected an animal, plant, or idea to focus on and conducted more research on that specific topic. Most students chose an animal, though some selected ideas like "human impacts on the Galapagos" or "invasive species" which was really great to see. They used their research to create a Scratch project that shared what they had learned form their research. They were instructed to make something akin to a virtual museum room about their topic, a digital tour guide of sorts set to begin speaking on a key press. For the final round students built a paper and cardboard model of their digital museum room. They used copper tape to make the door to the room a switch that they connected to their program with the aforementioned Makey Makey. Opening the door to the room triggered to virtual tour guide to begin telling the user about the room's contents. The digital rooms mostly turned out really well. Those projects are in this studio.

Check back in a few weeks to see how 4th and 5th grade did with Micro:bit. Kindergarten and first grade will be programming Robo-mouse soon, while 2nd and 3rd have new adventures in computer science on the horizon as well.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Third Grade's Turn to Cardboard Arcade

 In an effort to get things back on track after last year's disruptions, I followed up 4th grade's cardboard arcade unit with the same for 3rd grade. (Third grade is the grade that usually does cardboard arcade and this year's 4th graders missed it last year.) 

Below is the highlight reel from each class' presentation day. Each class had a group of kindergartners to share their games with. Everyone did an amazing job and I was quite impressed with their creativity.





Thursday, October 28, 2021

Books + Numbers = Math Stories

The math stories unit has become a staple of the primary grades curriculum in the STEM lab. One of the many things I love about my work in the lab is that I get to tear down the walls between the core subjects. Too often each subject, math, reading, science, etc., ends up in what I think of as the Knowledge Zoo where each one is isolated from the others, and no mixing is allowed. This is, of course, completely out of step with reality where each subject is inextricably wound up in all of the others. Students are genuinely taken aback when a teacher tries to incorporate some ELA into a math lesson. (The severity of this problem struck me when I got the chance to teach self contained 3rd grade after years of departmentalized math and science. I told my students it was time for math and then introduced a picture book to open the lesson only to have a student interrupt with, "I thought we were doing math now". One of the founding purposes of the STEM lab was, and continues to be, helping students discover connections between the various "core" subject areas.

The books for each year's math stories unit are always a little different, though there are a couple of regulars. We always read The Greedy Triangle and Rooster's Off to See the World. How Big is a Foot? and Inch By Inch are regulars as well. I try to mix it up with the math concepts represented in the stories every year. Our transition to 1 week blocks (as opposed to the 2 week blocks we used to have) has made story selection a real challenge. With so many wonderful books to choose from, how does one narrow it down to 4 or 5? 

At any rate, I always enjoy the math stories unit and the students seem to enjoy it as well. This year first grade read The Greedy Triangle, The King's Commissioners, How Big is a Foot?, and Grandfather Tang's Story. Kindergarten read Inch By Inch, Rooster's Off to See the World, Two of Everything, and The 512 Ants on Sullivan Street. These books touch on concepts of geometry, measurement, doubling, skip counting, and number sense. Students made pictures with tangrams and paper triangles. They modeled doubling with counters. They estimated lengths and used inch tiles to measure for the actual figure. The pictures do not truly capture the fun and excitement, but they hopefully give and idea of what we have been up to.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Cardboard Arcade Returns!

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

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

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

Friday, September 17, 2021

Third Gets Unstuck in Scratch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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