Tag Archives: Reflection

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

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. 😉

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? 😉

ISTE 2011 LEGO Workshops (Post 1 of 2)

15 Jul

I’ve been wanting to post my notes from the LEGO workshops I attended at ISTE 2011, but I’ve been procrastinating. I need to post them so that I can make room in my brain for some new ideas. So here goes!

ISTE 2011 Post #1: Notes from Sunday June 26, 2011…

Introduction to Classroom Robotics: Computer Science in Motion!

The workshop room was full of people seated behind workstations. Each workstation had a LEGO NXT kit, a pre-built Domabot with a few sensors attached, and a computer with NXT-G software.

Our presenter was Christopher Michaud, a Music Teacher at  Nebo Elementary School in Dallas, Georgia, and a graduate from Temple University’s Music program. (Woot! Philadelphia in the house.) He taught himself to program, and now in addition to teaching music, he teaches a computer science curriculum for grades 3-5. He focuses mainly on Open Office/ Alice/ Python/ and Robotics and has a terrific website with loads of great resources. (I couldn’t help but secretly love the fact that his background is in music, since my undergrad was a music technology degree. music + math + curiosity = awesome life!)

Chris started the workshop with a Powerpoint presentation in which he provided us with a brief overview of his goals for the workshop: Build, Program, Experiment, Apply, and listed a few of his reasons for teaching robotics at the elementary level, including my favorite, “Robots are cool.”  (He has headier reasons listed in the presentation that will make for stronger plugs when trying to sell a robotics program to your administration, so  I encourage you to check it out.)

The remainder of the Powerpoint presentation was a bit of NXT Robotics 101, which sensors did what and the like, and was a perfect introduction to NXT robotics.

Within just a few minutes of starting the first workshop activity, getting the domabot to drive in a square, I, and the woman next to me, realized that this was perhaps a true beginners workshop. (As in, many people in the room had never even touched an NXT kit before. I guess it’s time for me to bump my status up to advanced beginner.) My partner was open to going off script to explore some of the features of NXT-G that we were curious about and so we started messing about, clicking on buttons and pulling down menus.

Chris came over and asked how we were doing. We confessed and told him we had gone rogue.

Lucky for us, he was not at all offended and was an excellent differentiator of instruction and he immediately found us a task that would both challenge us and highlight a few new features of the software that we were not familiar with. We worked on “Simple Pi Challenge 1” and “Simple Pi Challenge 2”,  two worksheets which not only provided us with an excellent opportunity to practice writing formulas within the NXT-G software, but which also gave us great take-away lesson to use in the classroom. It provides a perfect opportunity for students to see “Pi in action”.

Once we had worked our way through that challenge, we quickly discussed what else we’d like to get out of the remaining time.

We both admitted that we had no idea how to use… DATA WIRES.

Yep. It’s true. I’ve been avoiding them. I don’t why. I think it’s because I learn so many things just by messing around or through trial and error. But when I approached data wires in this manner… there was a whole lot of “error” at the end of every “trial”. Chris was great, and he broke datawires down for us and helped make them seem at least approachable. (I’ll try to post a simple example of the use of datawires at some point for anyone else who is hesitating on getting a handle on them. Or maybe someone has a great intro resource they could suggest…)

Here are few helpful suggestions Chris made for teachers who are about to take on robotics…

1. Start with a robot built. “Kids understand build. Programming is more difficult.” The domabot is great example of a robot you can easily have ready for students to work with.

2 .Organize the room with computers on the perimeter and workspace in the middle. Have a place  in the room where it is possible to have students with empty hands.

Here’s some new vocabulary for neophyte robot programmers:

Swing turn: 1 wheel turns 1 wheel doesn’t. (Think “pivot” on a basketball court.)

Point turn: 1 wheel turns forward, the other goes in reverse. (Think… I don’t know… any ideas?)

To be honest. That’s all I got for you. Those are my notes. I know. Not very impressive. Which might be why I was procrastinating. But at least there out of my head and on the page. 😉

Thanks Chris! I finally learned to use variables, custom blocks, data wires, and the formula review in NXT-G. It’s about time. My students better get ready… next year will be a whole new ball game!

Taking Damien Kee’s NXT “Mexican Wave Activity” for a Test Drive

16 Jun

In my last post about the Tufts LEGO Engineering Symposium, I mentioned Damien Kee‘s  presentation and included an embedded  video of his NXT “Mexican Wave” activity.

Yesterday morning, I tried the activity with a group of 21 fifth graders that had never worked with robotics before and it was a blast! It was the perfect activity for introducing the kids to the NXT robots and the NXT-G software.

We met from 9:30-12:15 and took a 15 minute snack break, so all told, we had about 2.5 hours to try to meet the following three objectives:

1) Work collaboratively in small groups to program the NXT Domabot to move from one specified location to another. Time permitting, write a program to turn the robot around and have it return to it’s starting position.

2) Gain a basic understanding of what sensors and thresholds are and find out how they apply to today’s activity.

3)Work collaboratively as a class to program all five NXT Domabots to do a wave and at least one additional choreographed movement.

Students collaborated well and worked hard and met all three objectives by lunch!

After reviewing the objectives, we warmed up with a five minute activity called “Computer Says”. (The activity is similar to Simon Says. I am the computer; students are the robots. Robots should only follow programs that start with “Computer says”) Students made three lines and faced me.

For Round 1, I said, “First we’ll learn use a motor block to run simple programs. Let’s try a few.” I then led them through a few simple commands,  “Computer says take one step forward.”  “Computer says take one step back”.

In Round 2, I said, “Next we’ll learn to use a “wait-for-sensor block and write slightly more complex programs.” I then gave a few commands like these: “Computer says wait until you hear me clap, then take one step forward. Computer says, wait until I shout loudly and then jump”

And finally for Round 3, I said, “For our third objective, we will have to collaborate to write a series of programs to get our robots to work together to create a movement wave. Let’s try to run three programs at once and see what happens. Computer says, Line 1 robots, wait until I clap then put both hands in the air and back down again. Line 2 robots, wait until I clap, then wait one second, then put both hands in the air and back down again.  Line 3 robots, wait until I clap, then wait two seconds, then then put both hands in the air and back down again.” I clapped my hands and watched as the students did a perfect mini-Mexican-wave!

The whole activity took less than 5-minutes, but it helped to build a context for what came next. Being able to refer back to the warm-up came in especially handy when we started thinking about how to program the robots to do a wave.

After our warm-up, students then learned to move their robots using a single motor block. As recommended by Damien in his presentation, I placed two lines of tape on the floor at a random distance from each other and then students worked to program their robots to start with wheels on the first line and stop with wheels on the second line. They set to work trying different motor on durations and very quickly developed an appreciation for the decimal point! If 5 rotations were too many, they tried 4, then 4.5, 4.6, 4.7…

They began to see that trial and error and persistence were important for solving this problem, and they experienced the intrinsic joy that came along with finding an exact solution to a problem.

Soon all groups had mastered the line-to-line challenge and were on to trying to figure out how to turn the robot around and bring it home. Despite my having mentioned that changing the “degree” parameter of the motor block to 180° would not turn their robot around, all the groups tried that strategy first, which led to a series of great teachable moments surrounding what “rotation” meant in the motor block. After some experimentation with the remaining parameters in the motor block, groups soon started to catch on that the steering parameter in combination with the duration setting was the ticket to that 180° turn. At least two of the five groups got the turn close to an exact 180° turn, and the remaining groups were well on their way before I cut them off and moved on to objective 2.

Once the kids had a general sense of how to move their robots and turn them, we regrouped and I introduced them to the sound sensor and to the threshold parameter.

As I usually do when explaining threshold to kids, I said, “I bet you already know what threshold means. Let me show you. Listen to my voice and when I reach your threshold between soft and loud, clap.”

I then talk very quietly and get progressively louder until they clap. I repeat and set the threshold for “really loud”. I do a few more examples of simple thresholds they understand. For example, their threshold for drinking hot liquids. I quickly made the correlation to the threshold parameter on the  sensor block. Students seemed confident they understood the wait-for-sound block and so we moved directly on to discuss how to create a wave.

To plan the wave, we created a chart on the wall that sketched what each group needed to do and then parted. We met back up about five minutes later.

On the kids’ first try, the robots took off and executed a perfect little wave. Wow! We had thirty minutes left to add a choreographed movement of our choice. We lined up 5 students to represent the five robots and planned our dance move. Groups ran off in all directions to program. Shortly after we met back up, pushed run, waited for the signal and yelled “Go” What came next was…

Terrible. Our little robots were all over the place. And so we began to learn about collaborative trouble-shooting. We came back to the line over and over again, each time it got better, but something wouldn’t be quite right.

With one minute left and groups scrambling to download their last attempts, I called them back to the line. The room was quiet. Thumbs went up to signal all programs were running. Their classroom teacher quietly counted “1-2-3” and then the kids yelled “Go!” one last time. You can see for yourself the fruits of their efforts in our video. The simple sequence of movements won’t blow your mind… but the kids’ cheers and screams of enthusiasm may brighten your day. 

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!


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

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