Archive | February, 2011

Crime fighting robots?

18 Feb

Today, we left the LEGO WeDo kits in the closet and turned to a few new tools to help us think about two of the essential questions we are exploring in our first grade pilot robotics unit.

“How can robots help solve problems?”

“What robot could you invent to help solve a problem?”

To kick off the lesson, we read “If I Were an Engineer”, a compact, colorful rhyming book that introduces engineering to kids aged 5-8. It was my first time using the book in the classroom. The students loved guessing the end rhyme words as in… “I’d help sick people young and old- I’d even cure the common?” “COLD!” It was a great introduction to the day’s lesson.

After reading the book, I reminded students that we were a group of “problem-solving engineers” and informed them that today we would be “imagining solutions” just like engineers.

Next, we watched two YouTube videos on ReWalk technology and students identified the “problem” in the video. “The woman can’t walk.” They also answered the question, “How do her robotic legs make her life better or solve the problem?”

We reviewed… Engineers solve problems. Sometimes they create robots to solve problems. We just watched a video. The video showed us an example of a woman who had a problem and an example of how engineers designed a “robot” to help solve her problem. We are engineers. Let’s think of some problems to solve.

We brainstormed and charted  “Problems in the World”.  Here’s a tip. Don’t be fooled by the pint-sized stature of a first grader. If you ask one a question, he or she will give you an honest answer. Just take a look at a few of the “Problems in the World” my group identified.

“Guns and cursing on my street.” “Hair all over the house.” “Smoking in the elevator.””Fighting and Arguing.””Baby sister crying at 12 midnight when I’m trying to go to sleep.””Traffic.””Car accidents.”

And the problem that really caused me to reflect and still hurts my heart to think about…

“My father plays video games all the time and doesn’t pay attention to me.”

“Yep, that’s a problem.” I said.

Now that we had identified some of the world’s problems, we were ready to create some robots. Students used ABCya! Make a Robot to design their very own problem-solving robot! Would you like to meet one?

Meet Ken…

**If you are looking for a fun activity to do with your first or second grade class for National Robotics Week in April, you may enjoy this one.

 

Materials Needed: EGFI “If I Were an Engineer Book”, a video that shows a problem, a place to record a brainstorm session, and computers with an Internet connection.

On a 1-10 tech difficulty scale… I’d give this a 3 because you have to load a video to play and help students navigate to a website and print. (You could also save the images digitally and go-paper free. I printed due to time constraints caused by our unplanned fire-drill.) If you’d like a Lesson Plan copy, just let me know!

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It’s nothing personal…

16 Feb

Two weeks ago, I asked the students in the middle school after-school robotics program to think about whether they would like to continue with the robotics club for their final after-school activity cycle this year. We are due to switch at the end of February.

Since none of them had truly opted to take robotics, and since they all were sort of roped into the club, it surprised me when one-by-one they all stated they planned to continue. I left that day a little impressed with myself. I must have done something right.

During the days that followed, I reflected on their whole-group decision to stick around. I thought about each of the kids in the club. While they are all wonderful and while each one brings a unique set of traits and skills to the club, they don’t all seem “totally into” the activities we do. There are all engaged in the activities, but only a few seem really“into them“.  Do you know what I mean?

I want our students to participate in after-school activities that fuel their personal passions and truly excite them. I don’t just want them to be “engaged” in activities. I want them to be “into them”.

I started to think about why they were all choosing to stay on with me even if they weren’t that “into” robotics and engineering. Then it occurred to me.

Maybe… they don’t want to hurt my feelings.”

I realized the kids had probably picked up on my earnest desire to share something new and exciting with them. I think they wanted more of that enthusiasm and more of those high expectations, even if they didn’t necessarily want more “robotics and engineering” .

At the start of our meeting on Monday, after reviewing our work from the previous week, I let the kids know that they would need to decide for sure by the end of the day whether they would continue with club or not. If they were excited by the activities we’ve been working on and enthusiastic about continuing, I suggested they stay. If they weren’t, I assured them that my feelings wouldn’t be hurt if they moved on. I explained that while I believe every student should have an opportunity to explore and be exposed to some of the activities we have been working on, not every student had to make engineering and robotics their passion. A different club might interest or excite them more. I promised they could visit me any time if they decided to choose a different club.

One student asked, “What if some of the stuff excites us and some of it doesn’t? Should we  stay?”

To this I responded truthfully. “I can’t answer that.  All I can say is that if you stay, you’re a part of the team and you have to try and bring your best even when you aren’t 100% excited about the activity we are working on that day. Some activities will be more fun for different people. The club is still new, we’re still figuring out who we are and how we operate. If you want to stick around and help me figure it out you can, but don’t feel like you have to.”

During the meeting, I watched as a few of the students dug into a design challenge I had given them with a genuine intrinsic drive to solve the challenge. They weren’t trying to get an “A” or win a prize or finish first. They just wanted or needed to figure it out.

Others did their best or at least gave it a good shot, but they were less hungry for a solution. For them, it was an enjoyable activity, but solving the challenge was neither here nor there. I started guessing who would stay and who would go.

At the close of the meeting, I asked for their final decisions. Five of the eight students chose to stay. It wasn’t easy hearing students say they wanted to do something else and I was surprised that one of them was choosing to move on, but I was glad they were able to be honest with me and able to make their decision based on genuine interest, not  based on whether they thought I’d be disappointed or not.

On the way out the door, one of the students who decided to move on, ran back and gave me a big hug. She didn’t say why, but I think I can guess why and it felt good to know that she felt positive about our time together.

I sometimes have to remind myself  that it’s not personal. Students are individuals with diverse interests. Not every kid will fall in love with the subject matter I teach. My job is to inspire them to be individuals, to be citizens, to be determined and persistent in their pursuit of learning, to try their best, and to explore their options. It’s not to turn them into something they are not.

Avatar Engineers

10 Feb

“What does an engineer do?”

I wanted my students in the after-school robotics program to be able to confidently answer this question and so we took a day off from building robots to use a few 2.0 tools to explore and look for answers.

I recently purchased a set of colorful EGFI cards that introduce students to the various engineering disciplines. (They cost about $10 and can be ordered from egfi-k12.org.) I figured this was a perfect opportunity to put them to use. I handed each student a different card. After they had reviewed the information on the cards, I sent them to the eGFI home page where they sorted through virtual cards to locate their engineering discipline and explore the field some more.

Once students had a general understanding of the type of work their engineers did, they created a Voki in which they introduced themselves, “Hello, I am a/an ______ engineer” and then went on to share a bit about their work.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A few more Voki Engineer Avatars:

Mechanical Engineer Biomedical EngineerAerospace Engineer * Agricultural EngineerMaterials Engineer

Once completed, students submitted the link to their Voki on our Edmodo robotics group page which we plan to watch on the big screen during Monday’s meeting.

In general, it was a great activity and it helped us to begin to understand who engineers are and what they do. If you’re the happy-ending type, stop here. Good lesson. Fun. Done.

But if you want the dirt too and still have some room for the heavy stuff… Here are my reflections on the activity and how it went.

Students left yesterday with a stronger sense of what engineers do and they definitely understood that there are many different types of engineers. That’s what I was hoping for. They also were introduced to new 2.0 tools: Edmodo, Voki, and efgi.k-12.org. I needed to explain very little regarding how to use them. When it came to the Voki page, I said, “I’m pretty confident you can figure out how to make a voki. Play around. Ask each other for help. Let me know if you get stuck.” No one got stuck until it was time to get the URL, but that was a voki issue, not a kid issue.

Unfortunately, when students were creating the content for their cute little vokis, they didn’t respond to the questions I posted for them to answer.  Why is this a problem? For a number of reasons.

First, because I had carefully created a series of questions for them that would:

A) Encourage critical-thinking and move them out of the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and into the higher levels. Their voki’s state basic facts, which is a good start. I had asked them to think about the fact’s and apply their own ideas to them. Didn’t happen.

B) Make it impossible for students to plagiarize or copy and paste. I asked them to form opinions and imagine. When they opted instead to just “describe” the role of their engineer,  quite a few of them initially included phrases that were copied verbatim. I had to really work with a few of them and say, “Since when do you use “accordingly” when you speak?” I then had them answer the question, “So now that you have done some research, tell me what you think your engineer does.” Once they put it into their own 7th grade words, I said, “Ok. Go put that instead.”

Second, because this is a sign of an even bigger problem.

The kids aren’t used to being asked to think. They are used to being asked to follow directions. So they get stuck when they are asked to “follow directions” that ask them “to think”.

They did exactly what they thought or assumed “teacher” would want them to do. Get facts. Turn them in. Get grade. Instead of what I asked them to do. Get facts. Think about them. Form opinions about them. Make connections to other facts and ideas. Create a product that shares your understanding of the facts.

On Monday, after we watch the videos, I’m going to start a conversation. After watching our avatars, I will show them the questions that I originally posted again and ask if they answered the questions in their voki’s. I will explain how my questions are different from the question they had imagined I had asked. Then, I’ll ask them to try again… to pick one of the questions and answer it. We’ll see how it goes. 🙂

It’s difficult because I only see them a few hours a week. They have lots going on. It’s 7th grade after all. I get it. I just wish they were receiving the same messages in little bits day after day, year after year from all different teachers regarding how to research in a way that is meaningful and ethical.

Here are a few of the original questions in case you try the activity and want to incorporate them:

“What do you think you might enjoy about being a ____ engineer? What do think you wouldn’t like at all?”

“If you were a ______ engineer, what type of problem do you think you might try to solve?”

“Can you think of any products you or your friends or family use that were probably created or designed by a ______ engineer? If so, what might you change about the product to improve it or personalize it if it were up to you?”

As always, I welcome and encourage feedback. If you have questions or comments please share.

🙂


Meet them where they are…

8 Feb

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Meet students where they are.” Today, I saw once again how transformative meeting a student where he or she is can be.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the students who currently attend after-school robotics club, didn’t truly elect to join. They kind of got roped into it. In total there are eight students, six young men and two young women. One of the young women is especially quiet and up until today has been very shy about participating in most activities. I’ve tried to encourage her and to use my best teaching strategies to engage her, but honestly… I was beginning to think she just was not connecting to the activities and that she simply had no interest in robotics and engineering.

I ran 20 minutes late getting to club today because of a doctor’s appointment. The laptops were still down at the elementary school from Friday’s lesson with the first graders, and I didn’t have time to move them before our meeting.

I made a last-minute decision to switch up my plan for the day. (Something I don’t usually do.) Instead of working with the NXT kits and software, I took the middle school club down to the elementary lab to explore the LEGO WeDo kits.

What I observed was awesome. That quiet, non-participating  young woman I just mentioned explored and built models non-stop for the entire meeting. She then elected to stay an extra twenty-five minutes, leaving her and two others just five minutes to run to the dining hall for dinner!

She worked independently for the most part and focused on using the “Getting Started” tutorials to build the models shown. I mainly observed. As she completed each model, I engaged her in a quick conversation and asked a few guiding questions.

She was a completely different student than I had previously seen. She was 100% engaged. Check it out! Hard at work and completely in to what she’s doing! (And with no coaxing or encouraging.)

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I could see the confidence in her building right in front of me. It was amazing. I asked her if she’d like me to bring a WeDo kit to future club meetings so she could continue working with one. The answer? “Yes, please.”

The WeDo kit was perfect for introducing her to some important concepts. In just one hour, we were able to explore the movement of gears, the function of a motor, the use of a belt, and how programs are used to command the models’ movements. All she needed was to have the materials kit and the computer interface simplified. With no previous exposure to programming or model building, the NXT kit and software had been overwhelming for her, keeping her from getting involved.

When I said, “You know. The models you were building and programming today aren’t that different from the ones we’ve been working with up the road”, her face completely lit up. I think today’s experience has changed her ideas about “robotics club” and I’m excited to see where the excitement leads.

I will definitely continue to explore the benefits of using the LEGO WeDo kits with some of the older students. In addition to providing the perfect scaffolded introduction to robotics, it also brought out the playful and creative side of the students. When one student asked, “How are we supposed to build a robot if we don’t have any instructions?”, it led to a great conversation about the importance of play and trial and error.

It was a really good meeting today. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but it was really good. I can never figure out who is learning more… me or my students? I like to think we’re both learning.



5 Ways in 5 Days! Building the case for the PLN.

6 Feb

For the past year, I have been trying to convince our administration that helping teachers build a PLN  (Personal/Professional Learning Network) should be a professional development priority.

I’m making some headway, but not as much as I’d like. Later this week, I will have an opportunity to address this topic again with my administrators. This time, I plan to support my case with a clear and tangible example.

The list that follows details how my PLN has helped me, our students, and our school in five important ways just within the past five days. Please take a moment to add a comment and share at least one way you, your students or your school site has benefitted  within the last week thanks to your being an active member of a PLN.

1: A SITE VISIT GETS SCHEDULED! Thanks to a reader comment posted on this blog back in January, I made a connection with a technology teacher who works in a nearby elementary school. She clicked a link to my blog on Twitter and posted a thoughtful comment on a post. We commented back and forth and then I followed up by sending her an e-mail. This past week we scheduled a site visit! I get to have a guest, observer and helper in our classroom for two different elementary robotics lessons next Friday. What an opportunity for both of us, as well as for the school and students!

2. $1400 IN FREE MATERIALS GIFTED TO OUR SCHOOL! I really wanted our students to have the opportunity to participate in some type of robotics event this year. I decided on the MATE ROV competition. I tapped into my PLN and contacted a colleague  at U. Penn SEAS . She suggested I look into an ROV-in-a-Bag kit and offered to contact our local MATE ROV event coordinator.

Following up on her suggestion, I did a quick search for a “ROV kit”, and I stumbled upon SeaPerch.org. As luck would have it, they were offering a first come first serve mini-grant for teachers in honor of National Robotics Week. I wrote up a proposal, sent it in and Voila! $1400 in materials are already in route to our school. That’s ten ROV kits, a tool kit, and teacher training for me at no cost to our school. I tweeted my good fortune and who knows, maybe passed the good fortune on to another teacher.

3. FREE RELEVANT PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY DISCOVERED! The same day that I applied for the SeaPerch grant, eschoolnews tweeted a link to a free online professional development course offered by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called “Why We Explore“. I immediately enrolled in the course and now will be more informed about the oceanic subject matter we will be exploring during the ROV project.

4. QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY AN EXPERIENCED MATE ROV MENTOR! I have no experience building submersible ROVs so I sent out this tweet:

Within less than an hour, I receive this:

I was able to ask “arnolddeleaon” a series of questions and he was kind enough to respond to each question. Our only connection? A Twitter PLN. Thanks Arnold!

5. QUALITY OF LIFE IMPROVED! I connected to a community and had at least three laugh out loud moments this week. Everyone knows laughter has been proven to improve quality of life and although the official word is still out, it has been suggested that social networking has psychological and health benefits. Just think! My participation in a PLN may be eliminating visits to health care professionals that would keep me out of classrooms and potentially increase the overall cost of health care for our fine institution. 😉

If you need a laugh check out this great math humor piece by Jeffrey J. McGovern reposted on askatechteacher.com. I enjoyed it so much I had to pass it on in a retweet…

And that retweet led to yet another good laugh when a few minutes later someone tweeted this…

(Can't find the original source. Let me know if you know!)

So there’s my five ways in five days! Please help me strengthen the case for supporting teachers in their development of a PLN. Post a comment sharing at least one way your PLN has helped you professionally in the last 7 days! I can share it with my administration and you can share it with your teachers and administrators. I can’t wait to hear your responses. 🙂

Kick off a “belt” lesson with a 1-2-3 video connect!

4 Feb

If you plan to teach your elementary (or middle school) students how a belt works, consider kicking off the lesson with this 1-2-3 video connect:

  1. (Something fun and familiar) Show a video snippet of a DJ spinning on turntables
  2. (Something informational that uses plain language and supporting visuals) Show the first minute or two of this belt-drive turn table explanation video
  3. (Connect) Either review what has been learned or introduce what will be learned!

It’s as easy as 1-2-3 and can be done in five minutes or less!

Tip: I embed the videos in a Prezi so that they are located in one convenient spot and so I don’t have to worry about distracting comments under the videos that may be inappropriate for younger students.

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(If you are interested in seeing this 5 minute lesson as a video, feel free to contact me.)

Sandwich bag saves the day.

4 Feb

If you plan to launch a LEGO WeDo program with your little ones, here is a tip.

Buy a box of sandwich bags.

Yesterday, we revisited a lesson with the first grade that had not gone well the previous week. This time the lesson was a success. The only difference? A sandwich bag… (ok and a good reflective conversation between two teachers.)

In the lesson, students construct a model using eleven pieces from their LEGO WeDo kits.  The model has a motor turn a wheel that drives a belt that turns a second wheel. In my original lesson plan, students were instructed to open the tub, identify and remove the pieces they saw on the screen, close the tub, and build the model. I knew it would be important for the students to have only the necessary pieces in front of them and I thought having the kids separate them from the remaining pieces before building the model would be a good way of keeping the parts they needed separate from those they didn’t.

But first graders are first graders and my careful planning still backfired. Here’s why…

After some effort, each pair of students found and took out most of the pieces they needed, closed their tubs and started to build their models just as I had instructed. Unfortunately, the minute they experienced frustration or doubt regarding the construction of their model, they assumed they had not “done it right” and opened their tubs to look for the “right pieces” or the “missing pieces”.

This activity that I had intended to last no longer than 10 minutes was suddenly creeping up into the 20 minute zone and with the exception of one pair of students that had followed directions to a tee, every other pair had LEGO pieces all over their towels and were not at all close to completing their model.

Yikes. It was definitely time to reflect. Was this lesson too difficult for our first graders?

After class, I spoke with my co-teacher about what had happened during the lesson and asked how he suggested we revise the lesson. He suggested we guide the next group of students through the tutorial, step-by-step, identifying each piece and assembling the models together as a class.

I respect my co-teacher and his ideas and this for me was not an acceptable solution.

One of our main goals in implementing a robotics program at such a young age is to immediately immerse our students in an environment where they can solve problems by working together and develop an understanding that there are many ways to solve the same problem.

Sure, if our goal is to have a room full of kids build a bunch of  little models that work correctly, then a step-by-step lesson would work well. But making them follow step-by-step directions, would completely defeat the purpose of the program. I already know I can get a room full of seven-year-olds to do what I tell them. The question is can I not tell them what to do, and instead facilitate their learning process when they are given challenging tasks to accomplish as a team?

I shared these concerns with my co-teacher and he was receptive and willing to continue exploring how we might improve the lesson a different way.

We decided to review what did work in the lesson. The students clearly demonstrated that they could navigate the software, find tutorials, open materials windows, correctly identify and select most of the pieces on a materials list, and use an on-screen arrows to rotate model diagrams.

We reviewed what was difficult for students during the lesson. There was no evidence that students knew where to start building the diagram or how to use different views of the diagram to get clues. They were also having trouble sharing the workload, managing the materials, and being confident that they had selected the correct pieces.

When I sat down to revise the lesson I realized I was trying to do too much, too quickly with our first grade students.

Originally, I thought it was important for the students to identify the pieces  from the kit on their own. I believed it would be beneficial in helping them to develop stronger spatial skills. But I realized that identifying and selecting the pieces from a diagram should initially be an activity in itself. If  what I want them to learn is how to quickly identify specific pieces from the larger pile,  I can create an activity that focuses on identifying parts quickly, maybe some type of “LEGO Part Bingo”.

Asking them to both select the pieces (which demands spatial skills) and also construct the model from a diagram (which demands spatial skills) was spatial skill overload. If Vygotsky were around he might suggest that the original lesson plan left the kids just outside of the Zone of Proximal Development for most of them.

I decided to not worry about selecting the pieces for this lesson and instead placed the emphasis on 1. using a diagram to look for construction clues and 2. having a plan before being to build.

Today, before the lesson I headed down to the lab and pulled the 11 pieces from each kit and placed them in a sandwich bag. Then I put the baggies of parts back in their kits.

That little sandwich bag made all the difference. Today, doing the exact same lesson, in under 10 minutes, every student pair had successfully built the model with minimal support from an adult.

By removing the process of identifying pieces, students were able to focus on the more immediate goal of the lesson: examining the diagram for clues and using a plan to construct. (We’re still tackling the “sharing the workload” dilemma.)

Final thoughts…

I can be hard on myself and by the end of the lesson yesterday I had already moved on to reflecting on how I might improve other parts of the lesson for the next group. That’s why it was especially nice to hear my co-teacher say, “Wow. Those sandwich bags really made a difference. I think we should definitely continue to use them as an organizational strategy in future lessons.”

So the sandwich bags not only saved us some time, but also helped me to remember that we can’t do it all the first time around. Great teaching takes practice and time.

This is a pilot program. We’ve never done it before. We don’t know what will happen next. 🙂

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