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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Computer Science Unplugged and Plugged

This year in the STEM lab for my Kindergarten-2nd grade students kicked off, as usual, with a round of computer science with These computer science lessons are self paced and include a variety of "unplugged" activities that allow students to practice programming skills without a device. employs a block-based programming language called Blockly, which is based on Javascript to allow young students, even beginning readers, to program the computer. The courses present students with a series of puzzles that ask them to give directions to a character that guide that character through a maze.

The courses are wonderfully leveled, so as students move from from one grade to the next, the course is correspondingly more challenging. The step up from first grade to second is particularly tall. Kindergarten and first grade program using blocks labelled with the cardinal directions. Changing the direction of the character's movement only requires the use of a block with a new direction. That is, the direction to move and to turn are one command. For second grade, "move" and "turn" become separate instructions.

In addition to the programming puzzles, students also got some time to work in the programming language Scratch Jr. provides structured practice, in the form of puzzles, for students to develop coding skills. Scratch Jr. is an open-ended coding environment in which students can create whatever it is they imagine.

Another important part of the Kindergarten - second grade program in the lab is creative building time. I set aside most Fridays in the lab for "Free Build Friday". This is a time for students to build with their hands, rather than a computer, and without any assigned task in mind. Legos are a standard component of Free Build Friday. A current favorite is the KEVA planks Contraptions kit. Students spend so much time working on tasks with set directions and one right answer (not in my room of course) that I think it is essential that they get the chance to just play.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Biography Bottles

By the time students get to the 5th grade, their projects have both physical and digital elements. That is, their final products include some computer programming and something they made with their hands using generous amounts of glue and/or tape. Another consistent element of the 5th grade projects is that the students are creating something that shares their knowledge, thoughts, ideas, and understandings on a selected topic. I select a broad category and the students select a topic from that category to be the subject of their research.
The first unit this year is biographies of notable women (mostly women anyway) from STEM related fields. I selected 6 subjects for each of the 4 groups of 5th graders to choose from. There was some overlap from group to group, but always some variation as well. Ideally each group would have had an entirely different set of people to choose from, but I was limited by what is available on the digital research tools available to the students. The problem with trying to introduce students to lesser known (but no less important) women and people of color in STEM is that there are not as many resources for them to use to gather information.

Students had some time to research their choices because there were always a few who they had never heard of. They selected a person they were interested in studying and set about gathering more information on that person's life and work. The students were also able to decide if they wanted to work with a partner or go it alone.

(The project in the video above is one of many excellent final programs. This one is about Rachel Carson, see the whole project on Scratch: here.)

The final product had two parts. The first was to create a Scratch project that told about the life of their selected topic. Students had to include an image of their person, basic biographical data, information about their education, and the significance of their work. The second part of the project was to use a plastic bottle, cardboard, construction paper, and various other crafting supplies to build a model of the person they researched. They were to try make their model look as much as possible like the person they studied. It is no mean feat to turn a plastic bottle and construction paper into recognizable portrait of Ada Lovelace or Grace Hopper, but I am always impressed by how well the students manage this challenge.

As students progress through the lab over the course of their elementary careers, it is my goal to train them to see every material that I put before them, be it a cereal box or a computer as a tool for sharing their ideas, expressing their thoughts, and building personally meaningful projects. I give students as much choice as I am able to without overwhelming them. By giving them choices and providing an array of flexible materials, though they are working on a similar task, there is a wondrous variety in the final products. The studio where the students are sharing their Scratch projects is linked below.

Scratch Biographies Studio

This project is based on an project by K. Boyce, instructions can be found on Instructables.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Programming Art

I have wanted to do a unit focused on programming and the arts for a while now, and the redesign of Scratch unveiled earlier this year gave me the perfect opportunity. Since this is the first rotation of the year, we started with a day of exploration in Scratch as many students have not used the platform since last school year. While students reacquainted themselves with Scratch, I made sure that everyone had their login information in their journals.

Over the next two days, students used two different tutorials that I designed to introduce them to the Pen and Music extensions in Scratch. If you would like to look them over, here they are: Pen and Music. These begin with how to add the extension blocks and an overview of how they work. There are a few starter scripts followed by suggestions for tinkering with the code. Each tutorial ends with a couple of reflection questions which students respond to in their journals. It was wonderful to hear the students' excitement as they discovered new visual and sonic effects during their explorations.

An important element of the Scratch online community it the ability for students to "remix" projects created by others. They are able to, in effect, look under the hood of a program and take it apart to see how it works. They can experiment with making changes to the code and determine the effects of those changes. I directed the students to a Scratch studio (link below) called "Interactive Music and Drawing" and specifically to a pair of projects that I created using the two extensions. They were instructed to try both projects, then to choose one to remix. I loved seeing the creative variations students created. Some students invented new rhythms, others added more characters that draw different shapes or patterns. I may be projecting a little bit, but I feel like this group's willingness to go their own directions and to follow their own interests is a consequence of having started visiting the lab in kindergarten. That's 4 years of being instilled with the idea that in this space their creativity is encouraged, valued, and celebrated.

The final project for this unit was a challenge to create an original Scratch project (as opposed to a remix) that uses both the pen and the music extensions. The only additional parameters were that they needed to include several key press events that allow the user to control some elements of the program. This could be changing the tempo or the instrument playing. It could be changing the color of the pen or the direction of the sprites. Students with a more musical bent were free to follow that interest, while the visual artists went that way. I encouraged them to return to the tutorials if they needed inspiration or to be reminded of how to create a certain effect. Some students chose to work with a partner and some worked independently. I have been impressed with how well the teams have divided the labor between themselves.

After a few days to work, students shared their projects and added them to the studio. They reflected in their journals on their work thinking about what they are proudest of, and what they think they could improve. Finally, students explored the studio trying each other's projects as well as projects created by students from the classes who have already been through the lab this grading cycle. This gave them the chance to see the ideas of others and to practice good digital citizenship skills by leaving helpful comments for each other.

Here is the link to the studio where students have been sharing their artistic wonders. The last rotation ends the 3rd week of October, so more projects will be added as new classes complete their work. Check back to see what they have made!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Starting with Scratch

It has been a great first rotation in the lab! So much amazing making and learning is happening, and I will write about it all in due course over the next several weeks as new classes pass through the lab.

I want to start with the third graders for this post. Third grade begins each year by being introduced to the Scratch programming language and the associated online community. Students do finish their second grade year at Sinclair with a taster course in Scratch, but this is their first exposure to how the upper grades in the lab function.

We start with a lesson on proper digital etiquette with some videos and class discussions. The students learn about their digital footprints, and how to leave appropriate comments. Cyberbullying is also discussed. Students take notes in their journals to use later when they plan their final projects.

Before students are presented with their Scratch login credentials, we do a brief tour of the online community. We go over how to share and unshare projects, how to complete the project page, how to leave comments, and how to report bad behavior. That done, the students login an have some time to explore and create in their accounts. Over the course of the unit, I do give some direct instruction on how to use certain coding structures, but I also provide the students time to experiment. Problem solving is part of the learning process so rather than just tell students how to do everything, I am more likely to ask them guiding questions to help them move in the right direction.

Students worked independently or with a partner to plan a project that would share at least 2 dos and 2 don'ts of digital etiquette and online behavior. They made organizers in their journals showing the behaviors and the reasons why that behavior is acceptable or not. They also sketched the look of their project and the sprites they intended to use. Students had several days to work on the creation of their projects. I met with each individual/group to discuss their progress and offer feedback. As students finished their projects they learned how to add them to a class studio where their work could be viewed about the whole class. I left comments for each project and students practiced their digital etiquette by leaving helpful comments for each other.

This is is one of my favorite units each year just because of the unalloyed excitement of the students. Those who have been at Sinclair for a while have visited the lab to see projects created by older students using Scratch. This unit makes them feel like "the big kids" and they are overjoyed about it. For me, I am most excited about the endless array of possibilities Scratch opens up for the students. Scratch Jr. is wonderful tool, but Scratch has a far greater number of programming tools with which students can create. They can compose music, draw pictures, connect with hardware, and work with data structures like variables and lists. I cannot wait to see what these students will create this year as their skills grow!

Here's the studio where all of the projects are posted.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

STEM Lab Year 5

It is hard to believe that it this will be the 5th year for the Sinclair STEM Lab, but it is true. It seems like only yesterday that I made 5,000 trips back and forth to the 3rd grade T-buildings with all of my teaching possessions precariously balanced on a dolly of questionable structural integrity. I am excited to make this 5th anniversary year the best the STEM Lab has yet seen. I am looking forward to seeing all of our Sinclair families at Meet the Teacher next Friday afternoon. Hopefully everyone had a wonderful summer and is ready to make amazing things in the lab this year.

My summer included working with a great group of middle school girls on projects like Raspberry Pi physical computing and drone flying. I traveled a bit to visit family and friends in the Midwest which was wonderful. I was also fortunate to travel to Belize to do some snorkeling along the second longest barrier reef in the world. There were sharks, squid, and a dazzling rainbow of fish and coral.

As I am planning the year's instructional units for the lab, one of my guiding documents will be the National Geographic Learning Framework. I learned about this in the course of becoming a National Geographic Certified Educator last April. It outlines a set of attitudes, skills, and knowledge that make up the "explorer's mindset". The framework can be applied to any subject area and any grade level. At the end of last year I began experimenting with incorporating elements of the learning framework into the projects that 4th and 5th grade completed and I think it went well. I am excited to introduce it to the other grade levels.

As always, students will be working on both physical and digital projects, or in some cases projects with aspects of both. It remains my ultimate goal that the students learn to see everything in the lab as a construction material, whether it's a pencil, a cardboard box, or a computer, that they can use to share their ideas and learning.

Plans for after school clubs are not yet finalized. More information will hopefully be available in the next week or two. I can say that at this point my plan is to offer a section of digital making for 3rd graders only and another for 4th and 5th grade combined. This will allow me to develop the making skills of the younger students, and to guide the older students in more complex projects. If you have any questions, please let me know.

I can't wait to see everyone and to begin another year of learning and fun in the lab. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I will hope to see you on Friday for Meet the Teacher!