Tag Archives: Education

We aren’t likely to forget our first competition…

28 Apr

We climbed the steps of the Drexel Daskalakis Recreation Center buzzing over the ease with which we had just passed through our first vehicle compliance checkpoint. It was our first time participating in a competition like this and none of us truly knew what to expect. As we made our way to the pool, students pulled their new SeaPerch T-shirts over their heads and high-fived and thumbs-upped with optimism. 

Once we found the pool and settled into a section of the bleachers, it was time for compliance checkpoint 2; the pool test. Two of the sixth graders gathered up  our SeaPerch (Steve), our control box, and our battery and we headed down to the pool deck to find a judge.  The kids placed the ROV in the water, and the judge asked them to demonstrate a right turn, left turn, forward movement, and backward movement. They did. Then he asked them to demonstrate whether the ROV could dive and resurface… it did, but then, almost immediately, it didn’t. We watched as our top propeller and shaft floated to the surface of the pool.

Checkpoint 2… the pool test… first attempt… FAIL.

Within 10 minutes, the kids had cleaned and sanded the motor shaft and re-epoxied the propeller shaft. Next… the waiting game. Although epoxy sets fairly quickly, directions recommend that it set for at least an hour before getting wet. We had twenty-five minutes. It would have to do.

Meanwhile, opening ceremonies were about to begin. We filed up to the auditorium and found our seats. Since our first pool slot was scheduled at 10 AM, three of us snuck out a few minutes before the ceremony was over to retest and pass compliance. We found the judge and told him we were ready to try again. Our SeaPerch dove. It resurfaced. It went forward and backward. It turned left. It, it, it… it suddenly had a dead left motor.

Checkpoint 2… the pool test… second attempt… FAIL.

I’m not going to lie… for a moment my heart completely sank. The day before everything worked fine; now we were due to compete in less than 10 minutes and we had failed compliance twice. Weeks of work,  help from volunteers, time coordinating schedules, trouble organizing buses, permission slips and contacting parents, finding lifeguards… all this excitement and effort, and now? What would I tell the kids? Or the parents who had shown up to support the team? Or the administrators who were counting on me to get students hooked on STEM activities?

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Using Prezi in the Early Elementary Classroom

8 Mar

Prezi StoryI have fallen in love with using Prezi with the Interactive White Board (IWB) when working with students in early elementary. I thought I’d share a few of my ideas and see if  I could get your help to generate a few more.

In first and second grade, I’ve been using…

1. Prezi for telling stories

Students love to watch the movement of the Prezi and they can’t wait to turn the digital pages by taking turns clicking the next button. Because the text and pictures are so big, it’s the ultimate “big book”. Every student can see every word and every illustration or image on every page.

Prezi stories allow for unique possibilities too. I wrote a story for the kids called “Jerome’s Dirty Floors”. It’s about a mechanical engineer named Jerome who wants to create a robot to clean his floors since he doesn’t have any time. He looks for inspiration in objects all around him. He imagines a robot vacuum that is remote control operated like his son’s toy. He imagines one that runs on tracks like the train on which he commutes. Eventually he observes the bumper cars at a park and decides they are the perfect inspiration for a robot vacuum. The story ends there, but the Prezi continues. The next screen has a few questions to check for comprehension. We discuss and share answers. Then, a question for fun, “Do you think a robot vacuum cleaner could really exist?” Consistently, students mostly vote “no” with their down-turned thumbs. You can imagine the smiles and “oohs” and “ahs” when we hit next on the Prezi and an iRobot Roomba video starts to play.

2. Prezi for watching YouTube videos.

Prezi is a great way to share YouTube videos with young students. Once the video is embedded in the Prezi, there is no side screen chatter, advertising, or user content to distract them. It completely removes the potential for anything inappropriate or unexpected to pop up on the screen.

If I plan on using any videos with the first or second grade I just stick the URL in a private Prezi and Ta-da! I have a clean white screen with a video in the middle. (It’s handy that I can find them to use again easily as well!)

3. Prezi for simple assessments.

A fun way to review a concept or check for comprehension is to create a simple assessment in Prezi. Insert a question, then have the students use thumbs up or down to vote, or do a quick pair-share. Then, let a student push the next arrow to zoom across the screen and check if their responses are correct.

To see if my younger students were starting to understand the function of a motor, I created a quick Prezi called “Does it have a motor?” I embedded five or six YouTube videos featuring quick clips of everyday objects in motion: a drill, a bowling ball, a fan, a kitchen mixer, a bicycle… Underneath each video it said, “Does this ____  have a motor?”

We played each video and observed the object in motion. Then students voted yes or no with thumbs. Then, we clicked the next button to reveal the answer. After the first two videos, the answer screen would also include a follow-up question or two. “What does the motor do on this object? How does using a motor in this object help people?” It was a fun review for the kids and an easy way for me to gauge whether or not the lessons we’d been working on were sticking or not.

I’d love to hear how you are using Prezi with your younger students! Please share in the form of a comment or send me a quick tweet!

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.


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. 🙂

A side of Critical Thinking with that STEM Please.

2 Feb

I’ve been thinking about my Quaker education lately. It wasn’t perfect, but it came really, really close as far as I’m concerned.

I was never a “good girl” or an A+ student with a perfect academic record. My  junior year English teacher even wrote on my report card that I was demonstrating “anti-intellectual behaviors”. I broke school rules, violated dress codes, and generally did my best to rebel, and yet somehow…

I graduated from school believing that I had a voice in this world and knowing that my actions mattered and that they could help or harm a community. I left knowing that risk taking was not only acceptable, but necessary if I wanted to make an impact or experience a rich life. I valued compassion, tolerance, and difference and I had a sense of civic duty. I understood that there were consequences to all actions. I left hungry for knowledge and eager to explore my areas of interest.

In classes, I learned to write well enough to test out of the freshman writing course deemed mandatory by my college, and I didn’t have to retake any math courses. So I guess, from a curricular standpoint, I was also well prepared for college.

There was a culture of communal responsibility and of collaboration in my school. We were in it together and we wanted each other to succeed. Adults on campus consistently modeled positive behaviors over the years. They challenged my ideas and they pushed me to take risks and to go beyond what I was asked to do in order to sate my own curiosities, not to simply aim for a grade. I  felt like I belonged and that I was valued as a member of my community.

I left school educated.

So what does this all this nostalgia and reflection on my schooling have to do with the current implementation of a LEGO robotics program at my school site?

Having been in and around education for about a decade now, I’ve grown quite fluent (as I’m sure many of you have) in eduspeak through exposure to the non-stop stream of acronyms that come in and out of fashion depending on whose in charge (of the country, of the state, of the school). Every few years there is a new something that we absolutely must do, or solve, or document… and there is always an accompanying acronym to make it sound extra important.

Right now STEM is a big hot acronym on the ed scene, or STEAM, depending on who your administrator is. (I don’t have a preference. As far as I’m concerned the “A” belongs and has a place in every area of education, but that could be the artsy anti-intellectual in me to whom my high school teacher was referring.)

I agree that improving “STEM” curriculum and expanding “STEM” curricular options in schools is important. I understand that as a nation we need to be proactive and promote “STEM” curriculum now to ensure that we have more engineers, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists coming down the educational pipeline. I’ve read the literature explaining that if we don’t get on it as a country there are serious risks to our national security and economic consequences that we may face.

Unfortunately, STEM is just another acronym. Like every other acronym, STEM can be carelessly wielded by administrations and administrators who may be too busy to understand and plan for a truly enriched STEM curriculum. Saying “We need more STEM! STEM! STEAM! STEM!” can end up simply becoming the addition of more math and more science and more technology classes.

And here in lies the problem. More math and more science and more technology and more eduspeak will not lead to more people solving global or local problems or meeting the needs of our communities.

More critical thinkers, more citizens, more activists, and more problem-solvers will. (What can I say?  It’s how those dang Quakers taught me to think. Blame it on my education.) I propose that in addition to teaching “STEM curriculum” or developing “STEM skill sets”, we need to educate students to have “STEM sense”: sense of purpose, sense of self-awareness, sense of social responsibility, and sense of personal and professional passion because if we don’t…

I’m guessing all we are going to wind up with is a bunch of young men and young women who, when asked to by an authority figure, can “make stuff” that can “do stuff”, but who won’t necessarily know to ask what they are making and for whom and what purpose they are making it.

This, at last, brings me to why I am loving the opportunity to be involved with teaching robotics to young students at our school site. So far, even with my limited experience, robotics seems to be a great outlet to teach students important academic skills and concepts that support the STEM initiative, while simultaneously immersing them in an atmosphere where they can articulate ideas, try and fail and try again, trouble-shoot and fix, overcome and work through frustration, experience the intrinsic joy of problem-solving, relax, play, create, explore real-world issues, collaborate, encourage one another… and think critically about what they are doing and how they are doing it.

In both the elementary and middle school groups, we have plenty of room for improvement in our new programs. (Myself included!) Right now I am placing emphasis on how we communicate with each other, why it matters, and how it impacts our learning community. Many students want to cling to the safety of “Show me how to do it right”, “Will you do it for me?” or “I don’t care anyways”. But many have started to take down their walls and have begun to take some risks. It’s exciting and they are learning and they know that it is exciting and that they are learning.

See it for yourself in our latest video. (All clips were filmed by the kids.)

And now, to sum up this very-wordy-not-succinct-at-all post into a few sentences…

My Quaker education taught me to think critically and to ask questions. I value these skills and I value that my school worked to instill me with those values. The new hot acronym on the scene is STEM and it pushes for improved science, technology, engineering and math curriculum in schools, which I think is a good thing, but only if we can also educate students to think critically and ask questions about the science, technology, engineering and math skills they are learning. Oh, and by the way I enjoy teaching robotics because I get a chance to teach STEM curriculum and support critical thinking in positive, collaborative learning environments.

BTW: Here’s a little FYI for all the ALs (Acronyms Lovers) out there who like to practice your eduspeak. Here’s what I have discovered so far about implementing robotics curriculum at the elementary or middle school level. (Purely anecdotal of course…)

Robotics is hands-on so it works well with students that have ADD, or ADHD and for students who require scaffolding or SADAE methods because they happen to be ESL, or EFL, or ELL, or LEP. The curriculum can be easily modified or differentiated to challenge your GT or GATE students or to meet the needs of your students with IEPs or an ISPs.

If you teach robotics curriculum using the language of the discipline and consistently ask students to articulate ideas through speech and writing, you are also likely to help them improve scores on their BLTs, DRAs, and PSSAs. Eventually they may even score higher on PSATsSATs and GREs!

Regardless of whether your school endorses TERC, or MMdM, or MkMM,  or Saxon, the AMTE will surely be pleased if you are careful to help students make mathematical connections and to use mathematical formulas when programming their robots.

Get enough students involved in your robotics program taught by HQ teachers and your school may make AYP so you can keep your Title I funding by meeting and exceeding your NCLB requirements.

Was that TMI?

Any one care to propose a few new acronyms? It could be a really fun activity. 😉

Let go… you don’t need to know everything.

21 Jan

I have no prior experience working with robotics. In fact, what I do know when it comes to robotics is basically that I don’t know much at all. I also know that the activities we are doing so far in the after school club are not mind-blowing, world shifting activities that will win us any competitions, be heralded as wildly innovative, or require immediate patent applications (not just yet anyways)… and that’s ok.

We have to start somewhere.

I don’t know much about robots… but I do know a whole lot about kids. I also know an awful lot about problem solving, collaborating, asking for help, experimenting, being resilient, finding experts, locating resources, and mediating conversations. I know about boundaries and high expectations. I know about trust. So when I show up for our new after school robotics program, that’s what I bank on. I do my best to model and teach the skills I do know about and I get out of their way for the rest. So far this plan seems to be working well. See for yourself.

Keep in mind, the students in the club were not selected to participate in the program based on their excellent math or science skills, and they were not selected because they show great promise in any specific academic area or have outstanding GPAs or have consistently good behavior. (Honestly, I have no idea what type of students they are during the school day — which I like.) In fact, the students in the program weren’t selected at all. We are together by complete chance; their previous after school program finished early in the season, they needed something to do, and I came along and said, “Hey, try this with me. I don’t really have a plan but I know we can make it great if we work together.”

In a million years, I could not have picked or selected a more perfect group to start with. They are learning so quickly and they are proof that you just have to jump in and trust the kids to help you figure out where to go to next.

At the end of each meeting, we review our time together and each member shares his or her biggest “take-away” lesson for the day. I’m sure you can imagine how it felt when, completely unsolicited, these are the types of responses students gave:

“I learned that even if its hard at first, you have to try again, because you can figure it out.”

Or how about this comment caught on tape by his teammate, “I was just tampering with the program and I actually figured something out.” (Pay attention to that smile. Its the intrinsic-joy-smile and it’s what keeps me hooked on teaching.)

My biggest take-away lesson learned so far…

Let go. Let go of fears of inadequacy. Let go of the idea that you have to “teach” kids and embrace the idea that you can “facilitate learning”. Let go. You don’t need to know everything

(For the record… I’m a realist. I know there will be a point where my mathematical and scientific knowledge will not be enough. Not to worry. I have a plan. I have a few SMEs standing at the ready and I am in regular contact with a local university partner. When we are ready for the next step, we will reach out for help.)

I promised to share practical classroom tips and ideas so before I say good-bye for the weekend…

Here’s a super easy to implement strategy for integrating technology in your club or classroom:

I keep a Flip Camera available for the students in the club to use when they want to document. Anyone can use the camera, anytime they want. Sometimes I use it. Sometimes they use it. The camera provides a good break for a student who is frustrated. I say, “Why don’t you walk away for a moment and document?” It gets him or her up and moving around, gives him an opportunity to stay involved, and in many cases he ends up observing a peer working through the same problem.

(BTW…This strategy works great with kids who have a difficult time staying still in the classroom. You don’t have to do anything with the footage. It’s more that the student stays involves, continues to learn, and does not disrupt the class.)

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