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Making School Work for Students

7 Oct

In my last post, I mentioned the disappointment I experienced when only three of the nine girls I recruited for the after school FLL program decided to join the club. My disappointment was compounded when, after speaking to the entire middle school, only three boys signed up for the program.

It didn’t make sense. My presentation went well. The kids were actively listening. They were clearly interested. They appeared super curious, so I couldn’t understand why, after such a positive reception, there were only three names on the club sign-up sheet.

Staring down at the empty spaces on the sheet, I felt defeated. Quite honestly… I felt a little embarrassed too. I had been pushing this robotics club for two years; I had not only registered two FLL teams for the season, but I had also agreed to collaborate with the University of Pennsylvania to host an FLL Qualifying Event. What was I going to say to them… “I know we agreed to host the FLL event, but as it turns out I’m completely useless when it comes to recruiting students for after school clubs.” Ugh. My stomach hurt.

I gave myself a few hours to just be disappointed and to get to the point where I could “accept what is so”. I pulled it together and started to think through the situation. I knew there were students who wanted this club on campus. They had been asking for it. So where were they now?

Obviously, I was doing something wrong. There was something about what I was offering that didn’t work for the students.

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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.

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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!

Why STEM? An idealist rant from my inner hippie voice.

4 Sep

Tonight after reading a post by Kim Crawford, titled “Don’t Forget to Show Them Who You Really Are” I started to think about how I present myself in this blog. By nature, I do not struggle with vulnerability. Unlike Kim, I’m more likely to need to build a few walls then take them down. But her post got me thinking. Do I ever really share the part of me that is a peace-loving, wildly idealistic optimist that just wants the world to stop making itself so sick, or do I keep that part of me hidden so as not to come off as an “anti-intellectual”?

So, I’ve decided to share my completely self-serving idealist hippie reasons for pushing STEM in schools. I’m going to try not to self-censor or over edit. If it’s a little jumbled, please be gentle. 

In the media and the white papers, improving STEM curriculum in schools is promoted as the means by which we will ensure our national security and create the pipeline of skilled, technical workers that will be needed to keep our high-tech world running and progressing. While I don’t undervalue the importance national security or a skilled work force, these are not my motivators for pushing STEM in schools.

My desire to see STEM improve in schools is based in my desire to help students develop the skills I believe they will need in order to create the world I want to live in and that they will have to live in. What can I say, it’s sounds cheesy when I say it out loud, but there it is, my reason for pushing STEM in schools. 

I want to live in a world where, when a problem or obstacle presents itself, people attempt to solve it, and don’t immediately look to someone else to fix it or blame someone else when it doen’s get fixed. I want to live where people from every race, sex, religion, and age can empathize with one another and collaborate to create positive change.  I want to live in a world where people who think about their actions and the impact their actions will have on others drive innovation and progress. I’m not naive. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I can still want it and I can still take steps to try to make it happen.

I sometimes judge myself harshly. I should be championing the efforts to keep music, art and physical fitness in schools. They are equally important and they are the reason I stayed in school. I guess I see the current focus on getting STEM into schools as an opportunity to keep these activities from disappearing altogether for now. Art with an emphasis on applied math and technology. You can can make that happen. Physical activity with an emphasis on applied physics, technology and engineering. You can make that happen. With STEM as the buzzword of the moment, you can say, “Don’t worry! It’s not an art lesson, it’s a STEM lesson” and no one will question.

I’m technically an advocate for SHTEMPALM… but that sounds a little silly, right?

I’m getting a little punchy and it’s a little late, so before I back out and save this as a draft that never gets posted, I think it’s time to sum it up. 

I want to make sure that students engage in problem-solving and critical thinking especially around issues that are relevant in their lives. I want them to think about problems and to work together to find and design solutions. I want them to have the information and the skill sets they need to make their solutions realities. I want them to learn to fail with grace and to bask in the intrinsic joy that comes with success. I want them to build a beautiful world for themselves.

Peace. 😉

Feature: A Teacher’s Top eGFI Tips

31 Aug

Check it out! I was interviewed for the latest “Engineering Go For It” teacher newsletter.

As you may already know if you follow this blog, I love eGFI’s educator resources, so when contacted by one of their writers for an interview, I jumped at the chance to share how I use them!

If you are implementing a STEM program at your school, their site is a must!

The Wider World of WeDo: Five Must See Models

28 Aug

Despite the LEGO WeDo kit’s simplicity, people all over are finding innovative ways to take WeDo model building to the next level. I thought it would be fun to showcase a few videos that feature the potential of the WeDo kit.

1. The WeDo Cable Car

Stefan Bracher shared his web resource with me in a comment on my home page. His site, which he will hopefully continue to expand, contains videos and instructions for unique WeDo and NXT models.  Detailed instructions on how to build the cable car model featured in the video can be found on his site.


2. The WeDo Drawbridge

This video posted by wedouser on his youtube channel highlights the intersection of imagination, art, and engineering as the child in the video walks a LEGO man up to the edge of the water he has drawn and waits for the drawbridge to lower so he can safely pass. Notice the printer paper he’s used to draw his water… brings back memories. 😉 


3. The WeDo Conveyor Belt

This conveyor belt model posted on youtube by user sanmishr uses few pieces that are not included in the WeDo kit, but none that are hard to come by. I can easily imagine tying this model into a social studies lesson on Ford and the assembly line.



4. The WeDo Windmill

One of the things I love about this video posted by , is that despite the fact I do not speak Chinese (I think it’s Chinese), I am able to appreciate the interaction between the child and adult in the video and understand the child as she describes and demonstrates how the model is working. (One of my favorite moments from teaching the Grade 1 unit last year, was listening as the children easily articulated how models worked during their final assessments.) This terrific windmill model could easily be incorporated into a green energy lesson.


5. The WeDo Shuttle Launcher 

This video posted on youtube by user sakiv features a boy explaining how his creatively designed shuttle launcher works.


Do you have an innovative LEGO WeDo design you’d like featured here or that you’d like to share? Post a comment and tell us about it!

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? 😉

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