Weekend Making

For some reason, I was feeling super productive this weekend.  Yesterday, I did some work around the house and then spent a ridiculous amount of time on the fish simulation my class is working on.  They’ve each made their own classes of fish and now we’re putting them all together.

CS II Fish Tank Sim
CS II Fish Tank Sim

I added the ability to feed the fish and fixed a couple of problems.  There’s still a few more things to fix, but all in all, I think it turned out well.  I’m planning to project it on the large screen outside my classroom.  Related to that, I tried to get my Raspberry Pi working; however, I’m failing badly.  Right now, I can’t get the Pi to power up.  So I have the boot disk loaded, but there’s no power.  Hoping to get that fixed soon because ideally, that’s what I’ll connect to the screen.  I’m pretty excited about it.

In my 6th grade class, we’re working on games and building arcade boxes to outfit the lab with for an Arcade Day to be held in a couple of weeks.  The kids started building their boxes out of cardboard and duct tape last week and this weekend I bought spray paint so we can make them uber awesome.  Their games are pretty awesome too.  We have breakout, a unicorn racing game, a horse jumping game and a maze game, all built in Scratch.  I’ll share as soon as they’re done.

arcade box

Finally, I picked up supplies for my next Crafty Tech Club project.  We’re going to make an electronic origami flower garden.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while and even ventured to The Hacktory with friends to work on it.  Today, I picked up the origami paper and a green tri-fold to use as the “grass”.  My idea is that each student will make an origami flower with an LED in it and then we’ll affix it to the poster board with copper tape incorporating a switch of some kind so that people can make it light up.  We might create two circuits so multiple parts light up.  We’ll see.  At our next meeting, we’re going to plan the circuit(s) and fold the flowers.  When we’re done, I’m going to hang the garden somewhere in the school where people can see it and play with it.  I’m kind of giddy about the whole thing.  I just hope it works.

 

Riding the Hype Wave

I currently have a foot in two (related) fields that are experiencing a bit of hype right now: the Maker Movement and Coding/Computer Science.  This is not my first experience being in the midst of a technology hype.  Interestingly, what’s changed is that the previous hypes were really fear mongering.  The Internet is destroying us!  And it’s eating our children!  Both of these fields are mostly experiencing a positive hype cycle.

I feel sort of good about my job security as long as there’s substance under the hype–and there is–but it’s hard to tell by looking sometimes.  For both of these, the substance came first and both have been around for a very long time.  All of us need to realize that whatever the hype, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.  These things didn’t spring out of nothing.  Some people worked hard to build these things, build ideas, philosophies, and curricula around these things.  The fact that the New York Times is now talking about one or the other of them every other day doesn’t change the core.

But it does make it hard to be a practitioner at times, because first, you have to get past the hype.  Here are some things the hype tells you:

1. Everyone should be required to take a CS/Maker course!

2. CS/Maker courses will *save* education because jobs!

3. CS/Maker courses will break down disciplinary barriers!

4. CS is a foreign language.  It is the language of our time!

5. Makered is shop class plus technology!

6. CS/Makered is about problem solving! And critical thinking! It’s great!

Some of these things may be true.  Some may have a kernel of truth in them, but when you’re dealing with hyperbole, it’s hard to deal with reality.  Let me use a simple example.  I’ve heard the argument about CS counting as a foreign language many times.  It’s in the news, even.  And there are bills about it.  I get that people want to get CS in and this seems like a good way to do it within existing structures.  But let’s play this out.  What students do you think are going to sign up for CS as a language?  Girls? Minorities? Other underrepresented groups?  I’m thinking they’ll stick with Spanish or French.  But let’s be generous and say that you do get a wide variety of kids who sign up for CS as a language and think it’s going to be like Spanish I.  What happens when they find out there’s some math involved?  Or that it gets pretty hard?  That you can’t just memorize stuff?  That’s no good.

Right now, I believe we are in the Inflated Expectations peak of the Hype Cycle.  Everyone’s going to throw spaghetti at the refrigerator and see what happens.  The experiments that are well thought out, that are created to be sustainable, those will last through the trough of disillusionment.  But some people will throw up a makerspace, won’t staff it with someone who knows what they’re doing, who understands making, and when the money and enthusiasm run out, they’ll have a 3D printer that will gather dust.

Doing these things well takes time, takes iteration, takes failing and learning from that failure.  I’ve been working on stuff for four years at my school.  I figure I have four more years before I feel like things are starting to fall into place, just in time for some new iteration.

I have more to say, but we’ll take it up in #makered on Tuesday.

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Educon Day Two: Making, Thinking, Making

When I got back to my hotel at the end of the day, I couldn’t even remember everything I’d done.  I started the day with informal conversation with Andrew (@tieandjeans), then I went to a session on prototyping where we were supposed to prototype a class, but we got kind of hung up on obstacles we faced: testing, fixed mindsets, teachers, standards, etc.  I got some great ideas, especially for professional development, specifically a class for students and teachers to learn together, probably best taught by an outside person.  I met some great people and had some really fun conversations even if I didn’t prototype my class.

After that, I headed to lunch with my friend, Colin, a new friend from the session and some of Colin’s colleagues.  Really yummy noodles plus geeky talk.  That was a blast.

After that, I went to a session on Creating Digital Learning Organizations, which kind of blew my mind.  At my table, there were two colleagues from our brother school who I really enjoy talking to, plus a guy whom I’ve been following on Twitter since like 2007 and another super smart guy.  We talked through what learning organizations are, what adding the word digital to that means, and how we create a culture of learning and openness to change in our institutions.  It made me think that I need to become less afraid to share my ideas and thoughts, something I think I’ve said a million times, but I need to be reminded.  You can push for things in thoughtful ways.  You don’t have to be dragged down by negativity and a lot of “yes but” talk.

Then, Sylvia, Jim, Andrew, and I ran our #makered sprint.  It was a challenge to put #makered into a form when #makered is about breaking forms.  We struggled with tying #makered to disciplines and curriculum vs. using #makered to break down the walls of that exist between disciplines and standards.  It’s a chicken-egg problem.  Sometimes to get a #makered philosophy into school, you have to create a specific connection to curriculum or standards or a discipline or a unit.  Maybe, though, just maybe, if you are successful with that piece, teachers will see how through a project like this, you can go way beyond the curriculum and standards.  As someone said, you do the project and then you say, oh, you’ve learned this, this and this.  All makers I know within schools struggle with the way that standards and schools make us think we can’t do these things, that we’re tied down.  But we don’t have to be.

To me, that’s what Educon is for, it’s why people come.  They want to find ways to break those ties, to rise above the everyday struggles and conflicts they might find themselves in.

Gender and Makered

The two things I care about most are coming together–sort of–this evening.  And I think I came to care about one because of the other.  Let me explain.

While makered is about making things, physically and digitally, it is primarily a philosophy, an approach to the world that involves figuring it out through hands-on experiences.  It is one of many ways to have a truly constructivist classroom.  It is about encouraging students to take control of their own learning, to ask their own questions and find their own answers.  It’s about getting them past simply looking for your approval and getting them to be proud of their work for its own sake.  Girls struggle with this.  Girls are socially conditioned to not take risks and to seek approval, both of which work against having a makered mentality.  I work in an all girls’ school, which is a blessing.  Many girls, by the time I get them in 6th grade, have been conditioned enough by being at our school, to be okay with risk-taking and could care less what a teacher thinks.  But there are still some who play it safe, who wait for instruction, who have no idea where to go or what to do without being told.

I just watched this morning a follow-up interview with Sheryl Sandberg, where she even more strongly advocates for gender equality, equal pay, and equal representation in top roles in corporations and institutions.  While some have argued, and I have thought myself, that Sandberg has too strongly put the burden on women to “lean in,” the truth is women do need to fight for their rights.  Men are not just going to hand it over.  Men are not going to notice on their own and fix the issues.

Now makered isn’t going to solve our gender equity issues, but, I would argue, it’s one step in the right direction.  If, through makered approaches, girls learn to take charge and to not worry about what others think, they might be more likely to speak up at a board meeting or ask for a raise or work on a pet project that no one thinks is going anywhere but which turns out to be “the next big thing” that never would have seen the light of day if she’s “acted like a girl.”

One of the stories Sandberg told in her interview was about meeting a doctor who started paying attention to how his students responded to questions during rounds.  Most of the questions were answered by men, even though his students were half women.  He wondered why and realized that mostly men raised their hands.  He then tried to encourage the women to raise their hands too.  Didn’t work.  So he disallowed hand raising and just randomly called on people, taking care to ask an equal number of men and women.  Turns out women have the answers just as often as men!

My husband, who teaches at an all women’s college but who has men in his classes from the neighboring schools, often talks about this same dynamic.  The men are more likely to raise their hands, feel overly confident about their answers, and are more likely to take charge during projects. He works hard to change that dynamic, for the benefit of both the men and the women.

Makered and computer science, math and other sciences, the things that boys are supposed to be good at are more likely to have this dynamic than other subjects.  Teachers must work against it, need to call on the girls, encourage them to take risks, support their attempts to do so, and balance the dynamic so that boys see that girls are just as good at these subjects as they are.  One thing I like about makered and one reason I’m hopeful about its potential to transcend some of these gender dynamics is the inherent creative nature of it.  Makered encourages creativity in a way that is appealing to girls.  Artistic expression, even in an engineering or electronics project, is encouraged.  Many of the early makers have used things like fabric and sewing, paint and light to create projects, something that shows girls it’s not just about robots, that this can also be for them.

I’m looking forward to conversations around these issues, both on Twitter and in person, in the coming week.  And hurray for having a snow day to spend even more time pondering these things!

Exciting Things Coming Up

The week ahead promises to be super busy but super fun.  We’re in the middle of exam week, and in fact, I’m spending this weekend writing an exam, grading final projects, etc.  My exam falls on the last exam day (Thursday), so I’ll be frantically grading on Friday in order to get my grades in.

Here’s what’s in store for this week.  First, I’m guest hosting a #KidsCanCode Twitter chat on Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST. You should join us.  We’ll be talking about girls in CS, something I’m passionate about.

Next, I’m co-hosting my usual #makered chat with @tieandjeans at 9 p.m EST.  We’re prepping a bit for our #educon #makered design sprint.

Friday, #educon begins.  This will be my 5th one.  After the grading is done, I will head downtown to meet up with friends for dinner–a tradition, then hit the opening panel followed by the reception.  I’ll head home.

Saturday, it’s back downtown for #educon, day 2.  I’m leading a #makered design sprint with Andrew Carle, Jim Tiffin, Jr. and Sylvia Martinez (and whatever other #makered folks show up!).  I’m excited about this as I need to actually design some stuff myself.

I smartly booked myself a hotel this year, as I always end up staying too late at the after-party and the trains run at odd times on Sunday, so I have a hard time getting myself to SLA in time.

Sunday, #educon, day 3.  In the morning, I’m leading a conversation with my colleague from the Science department on our 1:1 program and how we rolled it out in a grass roots way.  We know others are in the process of this or have btdt, so we hope people will share their successes.

After that, I sleep–a lot.  The very next weekend begins 3 weekends in a row of robotics competitions.  To think, I sometimes feel like I don’t do enough.  That just made me laugh out loud.

Day of Making

My students were inspired by the Goldiblox video and are now working furiously on their own Rube Goldberg machine.  We should be finishing their Arduino projects, but whatever.  So they wanted to begin the machine with some way to complete a circuit, which would start a motor.  Their idea was to use salt water.  So, we rigged everything up, testing just the basic circuit, which we ran through an Arduino (which we didn’t need to but it’s cool).  The basic circuit worked, so we took it apart and set up the water.  We got salt from the senior lounge (I don’t want to know).  We ran the circuit again, flipped the switch, and . . . nothing.  We switch the ground and power wires just in case we had them backwards and . . . nothing.  So we stood around with our hands on our hips and then I suggested, based on my vast knowledge of electronics, that perhaps there was too much resistance so that there was power, but not enough for the motor.  I didn’t have a voltage meter handy, so we decided to try an LED, which doesn’t need much power.  And, it worked!  But, it also proved that we couldn’t power the motor, so we had to come up with an alternative.  And so we turned to metal.  We were scheming to borrow copper from the jewelry teacher when I decided to try some of the VEX metal we had lying around.  We made a makeshift seesaw, tilted the metal to touch the other metal, and voila! the motor spun.  Below are pictures of our attempts and a video of the metallic success.  Crazy, but fun day!

Design
Design for circuit
20131122_105158
Design for ending
20131122_103145
Trying the salt water circuit with the motor
20131122_103910
Salt water circuit working with LED

 

How do I . . .?

I think my goal this year for all my students is to have them stop asking this question at the drop of a hat.  It’s a question students ask when they think I have all the answers.  Sometimes I know the answer.  In fact, I’d say 90% of the time, I know the answer.  But I always say, “That’s what you have to figure out.”  What I’m trying to convey is that the answer isn’t the important thing, the figuring it out is.  Most of the time, as the saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”  My answer, or how I would do something, is different from how my students would do it.  I want them to find their own way, not my way.

My high school students are definitely getting there.  They do ask, “How do I” questions, but they’re framed differently.  They’ve done some research, and they say, “It looks like I can do X and it looks like I need Y to do it. What do you think?”  Then I can guide them, tell them they actually need D or that they need F in addition to Y.  Then I’m adding to what they know and not just giving them the answer.

Middle school is harder and I need more scaffolding for them.  What I often do is give them the starting point and let them go from there.  For example, today my students were having robots draw shapes.  They figured out to go forward and turn, go forward and turn.  I pointed out the block that lets them turn by specific degrees and the block that creates a loop.  Then I asked, what degree turn do you need to make a square or a hexagon and how many times do you repeat that.  I had a group create a star and another group try a circle.  I wouldn’t be that specific with high school.

I really do want my students to build the skill of figuring stuff out for themselves.  Of Googling, of connecting online to ask questions, of trying something to see if it works.  Those are the skills that will last a lifetime.

Making + Computer Science

Making, maker culture is closely related to Computer Science.  There’s the obvious Arduino/Robotics connection where one makes physical objects that then need to be programmed, but I also think the approach is similar.  The way Computer Science is taught at the beginning levels, the point is to make something: an app, a web site, a program that does something.  There are a few other disciplines where this seems to be true: English (papers, stories, poems, etc.), Art (paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc.), Drama (plays, films, sets, etc.), Music (performances, compositions, etc.).  Other disciplines like Math, Science, Social Studies/History, and Languages don’t have an obvious maker connection, though I know plenty of people who do things in those classes that are maker like.  The difference, I think, is in attitude.  In the former disciplines, it seems, one has to make something in order to learn the subject.  English could be taught in a non-maker fashion (lecturing about books, grammar, etc.), but since about 1980, it hasn’t been.  Students are encourage to wrestle with books by making their own thing: a critical piece of writing, a fan fiction piece, a film, something.  I think English folks recognize that the discipline could be passive and so work to make it active.*

Likewise, art, drama, and music have obvious artifacts that need to be created in order to learn the subject.  CS is often lumped with math and science and I’ve often bristled at that a bit.  Yes, there’s a math underpinning to CS.  I’d call it applied math to a degree.  And certain areas of CS certainly have the observation and discovery elements of a science.  But, as I said at EdCamp STEAM, I often find myself more closely aligned with the creative disciplines like art.  I wish I had more of an artistic eye, visually, but I what I enjoy most about CS is the creative problem solving, finding a solution that *I* thought of and that maybe no one else has.  Isn’t that what making is all about?

Maker Faire, Here I Come

I’m headed to my first ever Maker Faire tomorrow morning, bright and early.  Despite having just returned from a 3-day-long field trip today, I’m getting up before 6 a.m. and heading to NYC. I’m very excited to be going and even participating in the Tales from the Front Lines panel organized by Jaymes Dec. I’m just beginning my official venture into making.  Looking back, I feel like I’ve approached both my learning and my teaching from a Maker point of view.  When studying English, I liked to sit in the library stacks, exploring call numbers near books I had found in the card catalog in a kind of analog version of doing a Google search.  I learned to build web sites and code at first by just trying stuff and seeing what worked.  Working with physical objects is new to me, but I’m enjoying learning.

One of the things I like about the Maker movement is that learning new things is always part of the equation.  People are expected to always be learning and trying new things.  While there are always more experienced folks around, there’s really no such thing as an expert.  That’s because everyone is building their own thing.

I’m looking forward to learning at tomorrow’s Faire and seeing some really cool things in action.  I can’t wait to visit robots, see some cool 3D prints, and have some fun.

cross-posted at K-12 MakerEd, a new adventure and a site for makered resources.