I am Ahmed

Yesterday, social media exploded with the story of a 9th grader, Ahmed Mohamed, getting arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school.  Ahmed now gets to take trips to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the White House.  His future is probably set.  Because he made his own clock. So he could learn. Because it was fun.

I’m glad it ended that way.  It could have gone very differently.  And I have to wonder.  If he had been white, would he have been arrested?  I don’t know anything about the school or Ahmed, really, but I’d have to venture a guess that someone at the school knew him, and knew of his interest in electronics and programming.  At least I sure hope so.  Where were they when all this went down?  Why didn’t the principal know?  Adults failed him because adults far too often assume the worst in kids.  It’s what teen shows are made of.

Ahmed’s story to me is one where people were afraid.  They were afraid of the technology.  No one had ever seen a computer board outside of those scary spy and crime shows on tv where they’re hooked to bombs.  They were afraid of who Ahmed was, based on his ethnicity.  First, we need to educate people about technology.  If engineering or CS is offered more broadly, educators would see projects like Ahmed’s more frequently.  They might even be able to look at it closely and understand how it worked.  And more importantly, we need to get away from stereotypes about what techie people look like, and what certain kinds of people are like.

Is Making Gendered?

I’m at EduCon today, skipping the opening keynote.  The thing I like about EduCon is that it always makes you think.  On the train ride in yesterday, I checked the Twitter stream fro the #educon hashtag and noticed a link to an article called “I Am Not a Maker”.  As a self-proclaimed maker myself, I had to see it.  I was expecting an argument about rejecting tech for say, meditation, walking in the wilderness or something along those lines.  I could handle that. Making isn’t for everyone, though I would argue it doesn’t have to be all about the tech.  Instead, it was an argument about making as a masculine domain, one that was fairly deliberately hiding the behind the scenes work of primarily women.

Of course making rises from our current culture; it’s not separate from it.  So that means it takes with it the racism, sexism, classism and other -isms inherent in our existing culture.  But claiming to be a maker does not mean that you’re advocating for some kind of return to a 1950s masculine-dominated mindset.  Chachra puts it this way:

Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

I just don’t think that’s true.  First of all, I would say that makers are not interested in making products.  Most makers I know are interested in the process of making and what they learn from it, and empowering themselves not be beholden to the marketplace.  They want to make stuff for themselves that doesn’t exist in the market.  They want to fix the things they have so they don’t have to buy something.  So, I see makers as running counter to capitalism.  Now, I do think making has been somewhat commodified, but I think many makers are uncomfortable with that.

Just prior to the quote above, Chachra says this:

The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

Now, yes, I do think we should be critical of the world of making and to be thoughtful about how it does or does not reinscribe cultural norms.  And indeed, there are ways that it does, certainly if Make Magazine is your primary insight into this culture.  And, I think it’s important to have a conversation about that.  I teach Computer Science and I’m always having a conversation about the male domination of the field and how it got there and how it affects the tools we use every day.

And maybe because I’m approaching making from the angle of education, I think making is all about the people; it’s about using the maker process to engender a mindset that is resilient, independent, and thoughtful.   And I also don’t devalue caregiving and other “non-making” activities, but as an educator who teaches “making”, making has to happen in my classroom.  It’s just like a math teacher who might value English as a subject, but they’re not going to include much, if any, in their classes.  Education and learning is about having students be a little uncomfortable and try things they wouldn’t.  If my students leave my class and don’t become “makers”, I’m not only okay with that, I fully support it and often suggest careers and fields to my students that fall into the “non-making” category.  But I do hope that being a maker, or if people prefer, participating in the process of making, for a while in my class has some kind of impact.

I understand Chachra’s discomfort with the maker movement as a cultural phenomenon and especially the connections that have been made with Silicon Valley.  What I don’t understand is her complete rejection of it, instead of pushing for change within it.  Her field, engineering, is extremely skewed gender wise and maybe doesn’t have the hype of the maker movement, but certainly has issues, issues similar to CS.  It’soften unfriendly to females, certainly privileges certain kinds of work over others, and yet, she doesn’t reject it and say, I’m not doing that.  If female scientists had said that science was male-dominated and capitalist and unfriendly to women, so I’m not going to do it, we’d have no female scientists.

The maker movement deserves our critical eye, for sure, but it should be changed and not rejected.  Its focus can’t be on what makes white middle aged men happy–robots, cool gadgets, cars–but we need to point out when this is happening and correct it.  Fix it from within, I say.

Friday Fun: Cat/Dog Door tracking

Ten or so years ago, when I was working part time and trying to decide what to do with my life, I declared Fridays as a day to learn something new.  I taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so my week was done, but I was in the process of retooling myself, so I usually learned some kind of new techie thing.  I taught myself Flash and some CSS stuff and searched for new Linux software, among other things.  I’m going to try to go back to that this year. And some of it, I’m going to share with colleagues, which is another thing I used to do regularly.  So today will be the first of those.

For Christmas, I got the WeMo Maker kit.  I have it set up, but I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do with it, until today.  A while back, I started working on an Arduino-based cat/dog door tracker.  It was just a simple tilt sensor and I had that all connected and working, but for the logging part, I needed several other parts, an RTC shield (real time clock), which then required a battery.  I got all those, but never got them connected because, well, work.

With the WeMo plus IFTTT, I should be able to attach a tilt sensor to the door and log it in Google sheets.  We’ll see how it goes!

#makered Ugly Sweater success!!

Well, that wasn’t so hard. 🙂  I followed this excellent Adafruit tutorial.

And here’s the behind the scenes:

Connecting the neopixel: – to ground; + to vbatt; D10 to –>
Adafruit Flora
Connecting the Flora VBATT, D6, & GND
Underside of shirt

Some weird things about the code.  The RGB didn’t seem to be working properly.  I have v. 1 neopixels and red should be (255,0,0) but it’s (0,255,0). I thought it might be because they were wired for GRB, but green was not (255,0,0). It was (0,0,255).  Since I got it to work, I didn’t spend much time making it perfect. So, just FYI, this is not normal.

And here’s the code:

#include <Adafruit_NeoPixel.h>

#define PIN 10

// Parameter 1 = number of pixels in strip
// Parameter 2 = pin number (most are valid)
// Parameter 3 = pixel type flags, add together as needed:
// NEO_KHZ800 800 KHz bitstream (most NeoPixel products w/WS2812 LEDs)
// NEO_KHZ400 400 KHz (classic ‘v1’ (not v2) FLORA pixels, WS2811 drivers)
// NEO_GRB Pixels are wired for GRB bitstream (most NeoPixel products)
// NEO_RGB Pixels are wired for RGB bitstream (v1 FLORA pixels, not v2)
Adafruit_NeoPixel strip = Adafruit_NeoPixel(3, PIN, NEO_RGB + NEO_KHZ400);

void setup() {
strip.show(); // Initialize all pixels to ‘off’

void loop() {
// Some example procedures showing how to display to the pixels:
colorWipe(strip.Color(0, 255, 0), 50); // Red
colorWipe(strip.Color(0, 0, 255), 50); // Green
colorWipe(strip.Color(255, 255, 255), 50); // white


// Fill the dots one after the other with a color
void colorWipe(uint32_t c, uint8_t wait) {
for(uint16_t i=0; i<strip.numPixels(); i++) {
strip.setPixelColor(i, c);

Blogging the #makered Ugly Sweater build: Step 1, materials

IMG_20141213_140651434I’ve challenged myself and the #makered chat folks to build an ugly sweater for Tuesday’s #makered chat.  I’m hoping I can knock this out in a couple of hours, so you’ll see more on this later today.  First things first, you need to gather materials.  For this project, I’m using the following:

  1. Long-sleeved Christmas themed shirt (not as ugly as I’d hoped, but hey, it will do.)
  2. Flora GPS kit. I probably won’t use the GPS module, but will use the Neopixels
  3. Conductive thread
  4. Scissors
  5. Needles
  6. Battery pack
Materials for ugly sweater project
The Flora in last year’s Christmas project

Things I wish I had:

  1. Sensors
  2. Speaker

Here’s my plan of action:

Using alligator clips, connect 3 neopixels and program the Flora to have the 3 lights blink in a pattern, perhaps with delay time.  Once I have the connections and programming worked out, I will arrange the lights and begin sewing them onto the shirt.  My plan is to put the Flora on the underside and the lights on the front.  That’s a little more challenging from a sewing standpoint, so we’ll see how that works out.  I’m not the greatest of seamstresses.  Check back in a couple of hours to see the progress.

What learning is supposed to look like

My teaching goal is always to eventually have students working fairly independently, creating things they’re inspired to create, figuring out what they need to figure out as they need to.   Especially in my Maker-oriented classes, where students are working on their own things, I really want them to find their own solutions.

There’s a lot that goes into getting to that point.  There’s laying enough foundation, so they’re not totally starting from scratch. There’s getting them used to exploring on their own, and not asking for help all the time or asking if something is right or good enough.  That second piece is harder than the first. And there’s getting them to work even when the reward is a long way away.

I was rewarded yesterday for all my hard work in building up the foundation (some of which continued today).  I walked around the room, checking on projects, asking if help was needed, and after one circuit, no one needed anything, so I sat and watched them.  It was weird, and honestly, the first time that’s happened in 5 years.  It only lasted for about 5 minutes, but hey, I’ll take it.

For context, here’s what my students are working on:

  • A cardboard dollhouse with lasercut pieces
  • A board game
  • A mini wooden townhouse with lights
  • An arc reactor a la Iron Man
  • A photography portfolio page
  • A robot that avoids walls

They all came up with these ideas and designed them themselves, and then had to execute the design themselves.  Each one involved learning new things: learning new software, learning to solder, learning to program.  Just by going through the process of figuring out what you need to know in a couple of smaller projects, they kind of had a handle on how to proceed for this bigger one.  I think they have had fun.  They’ll finish up on Monday.  Here’s some pictures that capture the essence of a) middle school and b) #makered.

Creative Computing


Board game

A great #makered week

Last week, things really started to gel for both my 8th grade Creative Computing class and my CS II class.  On Thursday’s #makered chat, I posted this:

This is an 8th grade student going to town with a Hummingbird Kit.  The assignment was to create something physical with a Halloween theme.  And while her robot probably will only loosely be Halloween-y, she’s ready to work on this for the next few weeks.

8th Grade Student and her 3Doodler success
8th Grade Student and her 3Doodler success

Another student wanted to make a Haunted House, so she laser cut the front of a house, and then used a drill to cut out the windows and then started using the 3Doodler to enhance some of the details on the front.  She asked if this house could be a prototype for a whole city.  Um, yeah, I said, That would be awesome.  She said, oh man, this is what I’ve always wanted, to be able to do stuff like this.

Meanwhile in CS II, I’ve been trying to corral what is a pretty feisty group of students.  There are only 7 of them.  They have been bonded through their experience in CS I, and they have a tendency to want to goof off; however, this week, they finally got to work on some object-oriented programming, again with a Halloween theme.  Below are two of the projects.  My CS II class is at the end of the day, and is followed by a free period for students. Many of my CS students just stay and keep working.  It’s pretty cool.  At the end of last week, I was feeling pretty darn good about my students.  And I have more good student news to share.  Stay tuned!


CSTA: Learning, Programming, and Making

The closing keynote at CSTA was by Michael Kölling, creator of Greenfoot and BlueJ.  The gist of his talk was that learning to program is not the same as being a professional programmer and the tools one uses for each should be different. In fact, he said that the tools you need to learn are the opposite are what you need when you’re programming professionally.  Block-based programming languages are great for learning, but the tools for text-based programming tend to move quickly into the professional programming area and are too hard to use for learners.   There’s not much in between.

Kölling then demoed a new tool that is that in between space.  It eliminates the issues of missing curly braces and semicolons and automatically groups blocks of code together (boolean statements, for example).  It seems like a very promising direction. I enjoyed much of what he said, and have been arguing for years (sometimes with programming parents) that learning to CS is not learning software engineering.

Four years ago at my first CSTA conference, I had lunch with a woman who claimed that every CS teacher should work in industry for 2 years before they teach CS.  I found it very frustrating because I believed that teaching CS is very different thing and requires different skills than what one might get from working in industry.  The tools change and depend on what part of industry you’re in.  If you’re building apps, your tools are going to be different from someone in web development.  It doesn’t make sense to me to teach those tools to a freshman in high school.

In evening, I hosted a #makered chat where we discussed the intersection between CS and Making.  It was a lively discussion.  My sense of things is that Makers use coding a lot and in fact, we sometimes hear that those who don’t code much feel like they’re not doing “real” making.  I don’t think that’s true.  Many maker programs (like mine) have come out of CS programs or are incorporated into it.  However I’ve heard some CS people not want to deal with hardware or electronics (much less paper, glue, and glitter).   I was thinking about this intersection more, and here’s how I think it works:

Intersection of CS,coding, makered and computational thinking
Intersection of CS,coding, makered and computational thinking

Computer science and making both include coding, but Computational Thinking is the umbrella for both, I think. CT doesn’t need coding necessarily.  The Rube Goldberg machine we made involved a lot of computational thinking (the logic alone was quite challenging), but no real coding.  Thinking broadly makes the relationships make sense and eliminates some of the territorial-ness some people feel about both CS and Making.  Maybe there’s an even broader category we could use, but computational thinking makes the most sense to me.

Off to CMK

Learning Buddha
Learning Buddha (Photo credit: lorda)

Today I hit the road for Constructing Modern Knowledge.  I’m looking forward to meeting a bunch of people and hopefully doing something cool.  I’ve known about this conference for a while and I’m looking forward to being inspired by it.  That’s my main reason for going to conferences these days.  Yes, I expect to learn something, but often, what’s more important is just getting inspired to move forward, to try something new.  Not that I think that you can’t try new things without going to something like CMK.  There’s the Internet after all, but I think the hands-on aspect is important.  It’s clear that many of us think that’s important for our students as we build programs and assignments that focus on hands on work and that force students to think in new ways and build new skills.  I think teachers should do that, too.  We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone if we expect our students to do the same.

I also never expect to just learn something by having someone tell me something new.  I expect to work at it, to put my own effort in.  You get out of any learning experience whatever you put into it.  That’s something I’d like to instill in my students as well.  I try to model it for them.  I try to set up my classes in ways that encourage effort (no lecturing for me), but I hope that they really internalize that lesson.  I didn’t really learn that lesson until after college, but it must have been in me just a little before that.  I remember in middle school sending away for animals to dissect on my own.  And I created restaurants in my basement, took apart and put back together my bike., and made art in various ways.  Around high school, I lost that internal desire to learn on my own.  Once I regained it, it hasn’t gone away and I look forward to the opportunity to exercise that muscle over the next few days.

On not knowing

flowersI was going to say, “On being stupid” but it’s never about being stupid.  That would be a fixed mindset, and I don’t have one of those.  Thursday afternoon, I started working on a circuit project–without absolutely no planning cuz that’s how I roll.  It failed.  I tried some things. Still nothing.  So I hit up Twitter, because that’s what I do when stuff doesn’t work and I’ve already Googled the crap out of it.  Andrew responded and attempted to help me.  I had some idea what my problem was, but I knew he was better at electronics than I am.  He can even read a circuit diagram.  And then he blogged the whole episode.  Because that’s what we #makered people do.

This is what I ask my students to do all the time.  Come up with a project.  Neither of us may know what we’re doing, but . . . go!  And then sometimes things fail.  Because things are messy.  I struggle all the time with presenting neat and clean lessons vs. inquiry/project-based processes.  Do this and then this will happen vs. just try something along these parameters.  There are multiple problems with the latter approach, but they’re all manageable, I think.  Andrew questions in his blog post whether we need to provide an underlying foundation of electronics before tackling my crazy light-up origami flower garden.  I think he comes down on the side of “it doesn’t matter because you’ll do something outside the norm anyway.”  What Andrew addresses and what I think #makered is at its best is going beyond the text and the tutorial.

What’s problematic is that students sometimes struggle with going beyond the text, especially if they’ve never experienced the text in the first place.  To me, what we are aiming for is getting people waaaaay beyond their comfort zone, of going from having no knowledge to seeking knowledge and doing so to achieve some goal.  So if you’re going to do electronics work, there is some fundamental stuff people need to know. Positive, negative, what makes a circuit and yeah, voltage, etc.  But what you really learn from is when you wire up 10 LEDs and realize, oh, yeah, those need more power than a 3V watch battery.  And then you go about fixing the problem.

No, I still haven’t gotten my problem fixed (haven’t had time), but I’ve learned something in a visceral way.  When I figure this out, I will remember that. I will pass that knowledge on, but many of my students will need to learn it the same way I did–by failing–and then succeeding.