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.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Morning at the Mini-Museum

This rotation in the STEM Lab has 4th grade working on a project that combines digital and physical elements to make an interactive display. I adapted this activity from one done by a teacher I know in Virginia. (Link to her project guide is below.) I was overly ambitious in my additions for the first group, so some adjustments and refinements were necessary after the first class completed their projects.

On the first day of the unit, students went on a virtual field trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The "wandered" around the museum recording observations in their journals regarding the things they saw, how the objects were displayed, and anything else that they found interesting. We followed up with a discussion about what the purpose of a museum is. The students gave several great responses including: "so people can learn and discover things", "so people can see things they have never seen", and "so people can learn about life in the past". That day finished with students brainstorming a list of things they would include if they could design a room in a museum.

The next day, I explained the project to the class. They were to plan a museum room that included 3 objects of their choosing. Each person would build a model of their imagined room using the STEM Lab staples of cardboard, glue, and construction paper. Students would work with a partner to use Scratch to program and digital version of each partner's room that used by key press events to switch between rooms. The rooms are narrated giving at least 2 facts about each object included. Finally, the model museum rooms would be linked via the Makey Makey to the team Scratch project so that when the door to each room is opened, it causes that part of the program to run.

I gave the students a fair bit of leeway in what they added to their museums. This was so that they could include objects representing personal interests and passions. The only requirement was that they be able to give two facts about each object in their rooms. It has been interesting to see what objects the students have included. Some rooms are full of fancy cars or sharks, while others have favorite foods and athletes. The attention to detail that several students added to their physical models. As always, I have been really impressed by how the students helped each other to complete the elements of the project on time. For some, the coding comes more naturally and for others it is the building. I love how they all work together to ensure that everyone's project is finished on time.

I try to mix it up each year in the lab and to not repeat projects too often, but I am loving this one so far and can it it becoming a regular part of the lab curriculum.

The guide by Kathleen Fugle is here: Tiny Museum on Instructables.

The gallery of our projects is here (more added soon): Mini-Museum rooms.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Science Shadows

My place in the STEM Lab allows me a certain amount of freedom which I try to put to good use planning engaging learning experiences for my students. This leads to s great deal of experimentation with different kinds of projects and work products. This rotation in the lab for my 2nd and 5th graders is one of those experimental units of study.
The challenge before these classes is to research a science concept using resources appropriate to the grade level. Then to plan a shadow puppet show that teaches about that concept using puppets the students make themselves. They design and test their puppets in concert with their teammates. They write the script and plan who is performing which actions. The first day of class was spent making a shadow puppet of an animal (2nd grade) or a book character (5th grade) so that students could practice and so that I could coach them on ways of creating definition in their work.

Each class that came to the lab got a slightly different set of topics to choose from. I find that giving students a set of choices (rather than choose anything) reduces time wasted by groups floundering around trying to decide what to research. I selected topics that I felt would require some creative thinking, but that were not so complex as to require more than a few puppets. The 5th graders used Brain Pop as their primary source of information and the 2nd graders used Brain Pop Jr. Students took notes in their journals and then worked together to sketch what puppets they would need to make. 

The main problem I discovered during the building phase was students doing really elaborate drawings on the chipboard, but then doing a boxy cut out so that the puppet's shadow resembled a rectangle. Some students are naturally detail oriented and those students needed the least help refining their work, but for a great number, there was some frustration in having to go back and cut their details more finely. Generally speaking, the vast majority ended up being proud of what they made and pleased with the level of detail they were able to create. 
We are not quite halfway though this set of rotations, so only one set of classes has completed their work and presented to their peers. I am excited to see how this unit progresses.