I’m sitting here on the floor at Boston’s Logan Airport, waiting to fly back to Philadelphia after spending 2.5 days at the LEGO Engineering Symposium at Tufts University in Boston, MA. It feels like a perfect time to get back to blogging. (I took a little break from blogging to focus on my wedding this past Saturday.)
We covered so much and discussed so many topics over the course of the past two days, it’s hard to where to start or what to share so I’ll focus on the topics that were most relevant to the work I’ve been doing at the elementary level.
ELEMENTARY ROBOTICS AND STEM: The symposium provided a perfect venue for educators and researchers who are developing and implementing K-6 STEM lessons and curriculum to connect to share, and to gather and exchange ideas. Below is a quick review of a few of the topics we explored.
- Listen Attentively: David Hammer and Kristin Wendell led a terrific workshop titled “Seeing the Science and Engineering in Children’s Thinking” during which they encouraged us as educators to be mindful and attentive when listening to children who are expressing ideas and communicating thoughts about science and engineering. Instead of getting lost listening for the “right answers” or for content buzzwords, we need to listen for expressions of authentic ideas and for evidence of scientific or engineering-oriented thinking, and then, in those moments, we need to validate and acknowledge the expression of the idea. David Hammer and Emily van Zee have published on the topic in their book “Seeing the Science in Children’s Thinking”.
- Connect to Literature: In the workshop, “Engineering & Literacy”, we were introduced the idea that the books that teachers and students are currently reading in their classroom can drive the exploration of engineering problems. As characters encounter problems in the literature, students can be encouraged to engineer solutions to the problems. During the workshop, we worked together to construct a device to keep Peter’s turtle safe from Fudge (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing), and another to get Ralf S. Mouseand his motorcycle out of the garbage can.
I love the idea of having students track character problems as they read and later decide which problems to solve. By engineering solutions to character problems students are given an additional entry point for exploring and re-contextualizing what is happening in the books they are reading. Once a solution is engineered, the options for tying back to literacy are numerous. Students can design a poster to advertise their solution using persuasive and descriptive language; they can re-write the ending of the chapter or story based on the solution they designed; they can create a how-to guide for the character or for their peers explaining how to construct their solution..
- Design Challenges: John Heffernan gave a presentation on some of the cool work he’s been doing with his students in K-6 using the LEGO WeDo kits. I especially like that he develops robotics curriculum around specific “design challenges” and themes. (i.e. each student pair creates a carnival ride to build an amusement park.)
- Allow for Diverse Representations of Ideas: There was significant discussion regarding the importance of providing elementary students multiple opportunities and a variety of means to represent their ideas and knowledge which stemmed from a presentation by Brian Gravel titled “Diverse Trajectories: Students’ Multiple Representations and Varying Ways of Developing Understandings”. A student who struggles to articulate a scientific or engineering-based thought with words, may be able to use gestures, drawings, models, demonstrations, images or video to represent his or her idea. One of the development labs at the symposium taught teachers how to use a simple Stop-action movie software developed at Tufts CEEO called SAM (Stop Action Movies) to provide students opportunities to represent their ideas using stop motion films. The SAM software is extremely user-friendly and affordable. More information on SAM and a free trial is available on their site.
- Get All Kids Involved: The topic of whether or not robotics curriculum and LEGO kits needed to be designed to appeal specifically to girls came up during a few different presentations. Opinions were mixed. A few seemed insistent that making LEGO robotics kits and STEM activities more “girly” or “more appealing to girls” was the best way to increase female interest in STEM curriculum and robotics. Others, myself included, felt it was less important what the kits and materials looked like, and more important that students are exposed to female role models who are knowledgeable and excited about technology, engineering and science. In a side conversation, a few of us later discussed the fact that girls might be more inclined to get involves in STEM activities if they grow up with a family member who works in a STEM field.
Liz Gundersen & Sandy Jones presented some of the work they have been doing with girls in an after school “Girl-Tech” program”. As a woman who was never much of a “girly girl” as a kid, I did not necessarily appreciate a few of their blanket statements regarding what is and is not appealing to girls when it comes to STEM. I did, however, absolutely appreciate the way they combined creative arts and literature with robotics and technology. One of the projects they shared featured representations of mythological characters automated by electronic and robotic components. As far as I could tell, all of the projects I saw them present would be great for boys and girls alike! Very cool stuff.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Jump In: In his presentation titled “It’s not Rocket Science”, Damien Kee demonstrated a variety of activities teachers can do in their classrooms using only the “move” block in NXT-G along with a few assembled NXT driving bases. One of the videos he shared showed a series of NXT bases all programmed by the kids to do a synchronized wave.
He made the point that even with minimal experience and long before developing any type of serious expertise, teachers can begin using and experiencing the benefits of LEGO robotics in their classroom. His message reminded me a little of one I’ve been sharing in posts like “Let go…you don’t need to know everything” and “Just do it.” We can’t expect to know it all before we give it a shot. I mean, I’m sure we’d all love to go back to school to get those mechanical engineering degrees we forgot to get, but who has the time or money? I guess we’ll just have to do our best and count on each other to get to where we’re going.