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The Ugly Side of Progress: Telling the Whole Story

14 Sep

When I started this blog, I wanted to “create an archive of our efforts. A timeline, map and story that tracks our progress from our start at “no STEM program” to an “award winning STEM program”.

I realized recently that I have been sharing a pretty biased version of our school’s story all along. I tend to share when I’m excited and when I’m experiencing success.  I’m less likely to share when I’m upset and butting my head against failure and frustration.

I haven’t blogged about the endless hours I spent trying to put together budgets or researching programs and curriculum to include in our STEM grant proposals. I definitely haven’t written about the overwhelming feelings of inadequacy that I had while trying to piece that information together. I haven’t written about the rough days with the kids or the administrators when I felt like a poser, under-qualified for the tasks I was tackling, just doing my best to stay two steps ahead of the game. You get the picture.

I keep the ugly stuff to myself, but I shouldn’t, and here’s why.

Continue reading

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Two-wheeled Bot. My first attempt at model instructions.

7 Sep

Two-wheeled Bot Instructions

This past August 15th and 16th, educators from around Philadelphia came together for two days of free professional development provided by the GRASP Outreach program at U Penn SEAS. Many of the participants in attendance, myself included, will be rookie coaches for this year’s FLL season and the two-day workshop was designed to be a bit like a boot camp to get us up to speed and to impart the tips and tools we will need to have a successful first season.

The first task our trainers charged us with was to build a simple a simple 2-wheeled robot. One of the challenges the group faced in building the robots was that we did not have a blue print or set of instructions in front of us. (I think they were having a difficult time finding them. I’m not sure.) Instead, our trainer talked us through the assembly one part at a time. This, as you can imagine if you have built an NXT robot before, was challenging. Keeping everyone moving at the same pace was nearly impossible.

As we built our bots piece by piece from oral instructions, I started to wonder how in the world I would be able to recreate the robot once I was back at school. So, I backed up a few steps, opened my laptop and started to capture each step with the webcam. Soon, people around me were asking me to post the pictures or send them to them.

Well… I got back to campus and sat down to build the robot using my pictures and the pieces from an NXT kit, and I quickly realized that there were multiple problems.

Firstly, the angle at which I originally shot many of the steps made it pretty difficult to figure out what was going on.

Secondly, while the model was simple enough for teachers to build and it required few parts in general, it required more parts than are available in a single NXT kit. To build this model, a teacher would either need to pull more pieces from additional kits, or have surplus materials available. This assumes teachers have more than one kit to work with, which is often not the case.

“Well… that’s no good” I thought, and so I started to redesign the bot using only parts from a single kit and documenting the process as I went.

So, for those of you have been waiting for the original photos… I apologize for not posting them sooner. Hopefully, you’ll find the new photos are an improvement and that the photos and steps clearer. The robot is very similar to the one we built with just a few swapped parts to ensure it can be built from a single NXT Mindstorms kit.

Let me know what you think of the model instructions I put together. It was my first attempt and I’m curious to see how easy or difficult they are to follow. Please let me know!

ISTE 2011: LEGO Workshops (Post 2 of 2)

26 Jul

ISTE 2011 Post #2: Notes: Working my way through my conference notes. Trying to get them out of the brain and onto the page. 

LEGO Sponsored Workshop: Revolution through Serious Play and WeDo 

I have only one big gripe as a newbie at ISTE this year; the online program was a pain in the neck to navigate. Searching by keywords brought up a few workshops and presentations, but completely ignored others. “Sponsor Activities” weren’t listed under “Presentations by Time” and… well… I won’t waste your time venting about the schedule. The short of it is that I paid for a half-day NXT workshop, when I could have attended a free sponsored workshop on the same topic by the same presenter, and I almost missed out on the opportunity to attend this LEGO WeDo workshop that I completely lucked into when I happened to walk by and I recognized the familiar kits.

Part 1: Serious Play

I slipped into the room a few minutes late and took an empty seat. We sat in pairs at workstations, each containing a WeDo Kit and a laptop. While I was interested in hearing what the presenter, Kathy Holberg, would share about WeDo, I was also interested in:

1) Connecting with other educators who are using WeDo in the K-6 classroom

2) Learning about “LEGO Serious Play“, something I had read about, but had never seen.

Kathy started by giving us this brief overview of LEGO Serious Play (LSP). LSP is used as a training tool or training methodology in a variety of industries and businesses, as well as in schools, for purposes such as team building, fostering out-of-box thinking, encouraging the expression of feelings, ice-breaking activities, making connections, aiding awareness of others’ feelings, and developing listening skills. It is also used to improve communication skills, logical thinking, and creative thinking. It is a vehicle for exploring metaphoric language and thoughts.

After her overview, Kathy gave each participant a bag of LEGO Serious Play parts and this prompt:

Construct a model that represents a hands-on STEM lesson in your classroom. Try to use all the pieces.

I looked at the meager pile of random pieces lying on the table in front of me, and thought “Really? Do that? With these?” I looked over at my neighbor; she appeared equally hesitant. Regardless, we set to work clicking and snapping pieces together.  What I found interesting, is that due to the limited number of pieces to choose from, I was quickly forced to let go of any desire to create a specific or concrete representation of an object or idea and to instead embrace my creativity and explore which pieces I could use to represent an object or symbolize an idea. It got easier and easier.

After five minutes, Kathy stopped us and asked us to turn to our neighbor to describe our models regardless of where we were in the building stage. This was my model…

…and here is my partner, LeRhonda’s (@lgreats) model.

I love that even with so few pieces to work with, we were both still able to create and share something unique regarding our ideas on STEM lessons in the classroom.

According to Kathy, a teacher’s, or facilitator’s, main role during a Serious Play build, is to ask questions and move around the room without introducing any type of bias into the building effort. For example, a facilitator should not say “Good job, Tom”, because it could create the impression that there is a “good way” or a “bad way” to complete the activity. The goal is to have everyone be comfortable using the LEGO blocks as a vehicle to explore or express an idea, a thought, or a feeling without worrying about the consequences of not doing it well, or right, or as good as the next guy.

Kathy made sure to clarify that the LEGO Serious Play methodology required specific training in regards to how to“properly” write a challenge question, set the stage for using LSP (LEGO Serious Play), work with students when they are telling their stories, and  connect the activities to student learning, but I would venture to say that any teacher with a bunch of LEGO bricks and a good grasp on inquiry-based, constructivist instruction could engage a classroom in some “LEGO Serious Play”. 

That’s not to say that teachers wouldn’t benefit from a formal LSP training or from having access to specific LSP kits. It’s more to say that the use of LEGOs or other manipulatives to explore thoughts, ideas, and feelings is something that could be done with little to no additional cost to a school that already has access to LEGOs, granted a teacher did a little research to understand the core concepts involved in the LSP model.

Part 2: LEGO WeDo

Kathy next introduced us to the new LEGO Education WeDo Robotics Extension Activity Bundle. Basically, LEGO took the same basic 12 builds for the WeDo Kits and then created a new curriculum set to connect the builds with subject matter from PE, language arts, and social studies. I’m not too interested in purchasing this extension pack. I tend to naturally make cross-curricular connections when using the kits. For teachers who prefer to teach from a written curriculum, or for new teachers who may benefit from the structure of a pre-designed curriculum, it will be great. For those of us who nerd out on the creative aspects of unit planning and lesson writing, it may be less appealing.

The rest of the workshop gave teachers time to explore the kits and build a model.

Here are few WeDo tips Kathy shared: 

1.Use “fun foam” to cover the WeDo kit lids.  Kathy likes using fun foam on the lids so that students don’t get distracted by the images on the lids, so they can use the lid as a building mat since the LEGOs don’t bounce off the fun foam, and finally so the lid can be used as a tray to display the students’ builds.

2. Create an “NXT” parts diagram for organization. Kathy creates a system for arranging the kits and then takes a picture for the kids to help them stay organized. (I thought about doing this when I initially started to work with the kits, but decided not to for the sake of time. I think it’s a great idea for teachers who are uber-organizers.) 

My favorite tip… Use “Alt-tab” to quickly see the desktop when working in WeDo. (If you are familiar with the WeDo software interface then you know it defaults to a full-screen view. This tip will come in handy for sure.)

A Fun Fact: Black axels are even. Grey axels are odd. (I never noticed that.)

During the workshop, Kathy was kind enough to give me the opportunity to plug my blog and to invite teachers using the WeDo kits  to send ideas, lessons, or reflections that I could include in a post or put up as a “guest blogger post”.  Although a few people expressed interested in sharing or posting, I haven’t heard from anyone yet. The offer stands! If you want to get something out there about elementary robotics, but don’t want to commit to your own blog… just let me know.

By the way… we got to keep our LSP kits and we got these sweet keychains. Pretty cool, huh? 😉

Thoughts on the LEGO Engineering Symposium

27 May

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”. 
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  • 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.)
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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    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.
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    Vodpod videos no longer available.<br>

    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.
Overall, an amazing experience! I’m already excited for next year.

A journey of 1,000 miles…

1 Mar

“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” ~Confucius

Friday afternoon, as I hung out the third floor window of the elementary school looking down at the anticipating faces of the fifth grade students below, as I carefully dangled an egg encased in a plastic cup, protected by bubble wrap, shaving cream and marshmallows, all tethered to a plastic bag parachute, as I poised to let it drop, I looked over my shoulder at our guest for the day, a computer engineer named Alfie, and  I thought…

“This is so freaking cool.  We’re doing it. Something is really starting to happen around here and the kids down there are engaged!”

When I started this blog, I promised I would document our story and share the details of our efforts as we work to plan and implement a school-wide STEM initiative. So far, I have been pretty good about posting lessons and reflecting on what I am learning with students in the classroom, but I have been negligent in documenting some of the most crucial lessons I have learned and continue to learn out of the classroom regarding this process. So here we go… I’ll start now!

My top three four tips for anyone about to take on a school-wide STEM initiative.  

(The following tips are based solely on my personal experience and not supported by any substantial studies or fancy research statistics. So you can take ’em or leave ’em. :))

1. Find partners. Don’t go it alone.

Early on in the year, I met with students and outreach coordinators at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I shared our school goals. I shared some personal goals. I was vulnerable and totally honest about my skill set or lack of one in many areas. I listened to their suggestions and took notes on any programs we could take part in.

The folks at U Penn SEAS have been my secret strength. Just knowing I have someone I can go to with questions or ideas, gives me the confidence to take steps and move forward. If they see a professional development opportunity or if a program pops up they think might be helpful to us, or if they have students available to work as mentors with us, they pass the information along. Almost every conference or PD opportunity I have taken advantage of this year, was a recommendation from one of my contacts at U Penn SEAS.

2. Follow up.

I mean this in the most general of ways. Once people know you are looking to network and find opportunities, they will start sharing ideas and information.

When your friend says, “Oh, I know a guy who works as a mechanical engineer at Boeing.” Don’t let that opportunity go. Ask for contact information. Introduce yourself via e-mail. Invite the person to visit you and your students.

When you see something that says, “Free resources to the first 1o0 people!” Don’t hesitate too long. Find out if you can use those resources and follow-up. The worst that can happen is you don’t get them, the best is that you do!

Follow-up when you are contacted by non-profit organizations that can connect you and your students with Scientists and enrichment programs in the area. Those opportunities are priceless. Sometimes literally. As in free. Free scientists and mentors to help you!

Follow-up on invitations to collaborate with teachers. The minute they say, “I was thinking I might like to…” e-mail with a suggested meeting time and make it happen.

People are excited to share their expertise and to help students and teachers, but they won’t chase you down… you need to follow-up.

3. Once you get started, know that it’s okay to idle in neutral for a bit.

Once things begin to happen, it has been my experience that they start to happen quickly. When others see the level of engagement of the students, or when they hear about enrichment opportunities, they want to be involved and they want to get the students involved. This is great, but make sure you are allowing enough time to reflect, connect, and plan.  As a recent guest on campus recommended when talking to staff about 21st Century Learning…“Take small bites and chew.”

(Oh! I almost forgot to include the most important lesson I’ve learned to date, the one that inspired this post, and prompted me to kick it off with a quote by Confucius…)

4. Take a step. Any step. It’s how the journey starts.

Happy travels!

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If you have any tips, please share them in the form of a comment! And as always, I welcome feedback regarding content.


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. 🙂

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