Tag Archives: Technology

LEGO WeDo Vehicle Challenge: Using WeDo kits with older students

20 Jun

The LEGO WeDo kit is designed and marketed for early elementary children. It’s so basic that even a first grader can use it, but be careful not to write this kit off as a “just-for-the-little-kids” kit too quickly.

This year, one of my favorite mini-lessons with the 7-9th grade students in the after school STEM club was this “WeDo Vehicle Challenge”:

Design a WeDo vehicle that has either 2, 3, or 4 wheels. Use only the pieces in the Wedo kit. The vehicle does not need to have steering, but it must be able to drive forward and in reverse. Innovation is encouraged. You have two class periods (1 hour each). We’ll present at the end of the second.

The kids usually take a look at the WeDo kit and presume the challenge will not be much of a challenge. Once the students get started, it isn’t long at all before they realize what makes it challenging; there is only one motor, the motor is fairly heavy relative to the parts, and that the axle sticks straight out of the center of the motor. Hmmm….

I’m guessing the challenge is probably easier for students that have prior experience working with LEGO kits and robotics; I’m not sure. (Let me know if you try it.) All my students were new to working with the NXT kits when I tried the WeDo lesson. I wanted to see how they worked when asked to think out of the box and to be creative. Following a blueprint is great for developing spatial skills and following instructions, but it doesn’t necessarily foster innovative thinking.  I found that forcing the students to work with the limited parts of the WeDo kit encouraged them to be persistent, to attempt multiple solutions, to redesign and improve, and to work together.

I’m curious if other teachers and after-school educators have tried using the WeDo kits with older students? Let me know!

Here are a few examples of our WeDo vehicle designs if you are curious… (The kids filmed the clips.)


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

4 Feb

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Sandwich bag saves the day.

4 Feb

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

Buy a box of sandwich bags.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts…

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

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

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

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.)

When One Door Clozes… Look for another.

21 Jan

Bad pun. I should know better. I couldn’t resist. 😉

Today, we kicked off our first grade robotics lesson with what was supposed to be a quick review exercise of last week’s lesson. It ended up taking almost twelve of our PRECIOUS minutes, instead of the five I had planned for. (Losing seven minutes is huge when you only see the kids for fifty minutes a week and they typically run five minutes late because of lunch.)

The problem was not the kids and their abilities, but the Smartboard technology. The technology couldn’t keep up with them!

This was the original plan. Students would take turns at the StarBoard selecting words from a word bank and sliding the correct words into blank spots in a passage with gaps. If the class liked the selection, they would give a thumbs up. The student at the board would then choose the next student to come up to the board. It was a typical cloze passage exercise modified for an Interactive White Board (IWB). It should have been a fast, fun activity for the kids that would give us teachers the opportunity to assess what the kids had retained from last week.

During planning, I was a little concerned that I had overestimated the reading and vocabulary skills of our first graders.

I used a number of two and three syllable words, and I referred to technical vocabulary such as motor, axle, computer program and commands. My co-teacher mentioned that he thought I was a little crazy to expect them to succeed at this activity.

Boy, were we both surprised. What I had overestimated was the technology’s ability to keep up with this amazing group of young readers!

The kids had no problem with the cloze exercise or the vocabulary. They had the reading skills and they had retained the information from the previous week’s lesson. They were decoding, comprehending and using deduction when they weren’t positive about a word. Unfortunately, the StarBoard software was slow and unresponsive and the exercise ended up taking longer than it should have. Students were frustrated when their words wouldn’t slide into place and too much time was spent trying to manipulate the text on screen. I love IWB technology, but today I wanted to chuck ours out the window.

Luckily we get to teach the lesson to a second group tomorrow.

We reflected after the lesson and decided the cloze exercise activity was a good review and that we didn’t want to cut it, but we needed to find a more efficient way to incorporate it into the lesson and we ideally would like to assess the students on a more individual basis.

Since I want to model a paper-free work environment when possible, I set out to find a program for creating cloze passages that students could complete online using the laptops.

It turned out to be more difficult than you might think. While there are many sites that offer teachers the ability to create printable cloze passage worksheets, few offer a solution for an e-learning environment.

I found a program called Cloze Pro that looks great, but there’s no cash to spend on software. I read a post from Bill Boyd about a free software he uses called Cloze Test Generator. It was super simple and free, but it didn’t have a drop-down menu option or a click and drag option and since the goal was to speed the activity up, I didn’t love the idea of having a room full of first graders struggling to enter text into text boxes.

Finally, after a fairly thorough search I stumbled across J-Cloze from Hot Potato. It’s freeware and fairly easy to figure out. Download it, open it, and use the help function if you need it. It’s not as easy to use as the programs I mentioned before, but JCLoze allows more user control and if you are comfortable with freeware applications, it won’t be a problem.

Tomorrow, students will be working in pairs at the laptops to complete the same cloze passage review exercise we tried at the IWB today. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out. I’ll report later with details regarding whether the activity was a success or not! Maybe I’ll even do a little before-after. 🙂

Wish me luck!

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