I don’t know what I’m doing

That’s what I told my Physical Computing class today (hi guys if you’re reading!).  Because it’s kind of true.  I haven’t made a lot of things.  My cat tracking project was the biggest project I completed.  It didn’t take too long, and I certainly figure it out after some trial and error, but I do not hold all the answers.  Of course, I never do.  The thing about teaching almost anything is that students invariably ask questions you don’t know the answer to.  Often they ask complex questions, exactly what we want them to do!

And even though I’m pretty comfortable saying, “I don’t know” and/or failing in front of my students, it’s still unnerving.  It actually feels a little like going to a new place for the first time or riding a roller coaster.  You know something interesting awaits you, but you have no idea exactly what it is.

Despite my not knowing what I’m doing, the students seem pretty psyched.  I can’t wait to see what they create.  They’ve already started tossing around ideas.  It all sounds exciting.

Why Connecting is Cool

This week I’ve participated in two social media events that have inspired me and restored my faith in humanity.  Along with Andrew Carle, I help moderate the #makered Twitter chat on Tuesday evenings, which is growing since we started it in May.  The people that join this chat are smart and engaging, even in 140 character bursts.  Thanks to CSTA and EdCampSTEAM, I’ve now met some of these folks in person, which is often my goal with social media.  I either want to maintain a connection that started in person or extend a social media connection by meeting someone in person. The last 2 #makered chats have really gotten me thinking, which is what one wants from any interaction online.  We talk about stuff and projects, sure, but more importantly, we talk about philosophy and approach.  Making, we often argue, is not just about the stuff we make, it’s about the process.  It’s the same approach I take to Computer Science.  Yes, the end product is nice (hopefully), but the journey is more important to learning.  Honestly, I feel honored to be in the same virtual room with many of these folks and to be able to learn from them.

The second event spun out of the previous #makered chat.  We had a conversation about making in other disciplines.  STEM disciplines are often the target disciplines for making, and sometimes art in the form of STEAM.  But what if you teach English or History? How could use use the #makered approach there?  So, last night, we held a hangout to talk about just that.  There were only 5 of us, but it was a great conversation.  I learned a lot, especially from Valerie at the Detroit Public Library.  She had the benefit of not being tied down by the structure of school.  The rest of us were struggling with the usual issues related to interdisciplinary work: schedules, credits, politics, fiefdoms.  Andrew saw making across the disciplines as a direct challenge to those issues, and something we all should embrace rather than shy away from.  We talked about how to collaborate effectively while still challenging the status quo.  As Mike said at the end, “My brain is spinning.”  I agree.  I have a lot to think about and I’m looking forward to thinking about all the issues we raised.

And that was just in two days, two hours of my time that I got so much out of.  That’s why being connected online is so important to me.  It feeds my need for intellectually stimulating conversation.  It allows me to talk about things I might not get to at work (being the only one who does what I do, though I have plenty of colleagues who share my philosophy).  It inspires me to be better at what I do, to be constantly improving, basically to approach my whole career with a #makered philosophy.  How cool is that?

Cat Tracking Project Update

So I’ve successfully logged my gps data.  It took some figuring out how to take my data file and translate the data into something human readable, but I found a nifty online tool to do it.  I’m going to work on coding some of this myself, but I couldn’t find any libraries that would work.  But here’s my test:

View GPS Path Test in a larger map


Some things to note.  Hooking up the battery wasn’t hard except that there are 2 on switches, one on the board itself and one on the battery case. I’m planning to make a snug pocket to hold the battery case, probably out of felt, which I have a lot of lying around.  Here are some pictures from the project.

sewn on


the layout

on switch

Resources for #Makered

Making and MakerEd

Tomorrow evening at 6 p.m., I’ll be hosting, along with Andrew Carle (@tieandjeans) a Twitter chat around the idea of Making, MakerSpaces, and MakerEd.  These ideas are loosely tied to Make Magazine, the publication that inspires people to make their own stuff.  It returns us to a time when instead of throwing something out, we make something out of it or instead of buying something to fill a need, we make it ourselves.  My personal interest in Making goes back a ways, but I have two pressing projects that bring me back to seriously examining how to approach this.  I’m teaching a Physical Computing class where students will primarily be working with the Arduino platform.  And our school is embarking on creating a DREAM Lab for 1st-5th grade that will be a MakerSpace like space with a hands-on, multidisciplinary curriculum.

So, what are these terms, and what do they mean in an educational context.  Andrew and I touched base this morning to chat about these things.  Andrew has a Maker class already in Middle School, something I hope to add here.  Making is not just about making stuff, but it’s also a philosophy.  It’s a way of approaching teaching that really does put a lot of control in the hands of the students.  The approach is NOT, I would argue, to come up with a project with a specific set of instructions and expect the students to end up in the same place.  One may start there, sort of, but the idea is that students will solve problems by making something directed by their own interests and using their own way of getting there.  They have questions and something they make can answer it.  For example, my own question that I want answered is: where does my cat go at night?  The answer will be found, I hope, from a GPS tracking device I’m making.  So making is the idea of creating something that solves a problem or answers a question or perhaps demonstrates a concept more fully.

A maker is someone who seeks to find answers and solves problems.  They are not trying to get the “right” answers.  This is what I want my students to be.  I want them to be curious and explore their world through these projects.  I do not want them wait for me to give them the answers.  I’ll talk a little more about my role momentarily.

A MakerSpace is simply the space provided for this to happen.  It’s part art studio, part computer lab, part electronics lab, part whatever you need it to be.  MakerSpaces can have supplies as simple as cardboard and tape and glue and as complex equipment as 3D printers, laser cutters, and soldering irons.

Teaching in these spaces and with this philosophy is a challenge for sure.  I’m experiencing a little of this in my tech and CS classes, though we’re not dealing with physical objects there.  But students are allowed to go in whatever direction they want.  How do you help 6, 10, 20 students who are all doing different things?  How do you encourage effective use of online resources?  This is an area I’m finding I need to work on the most.  I do want to guide my students, but I don’t want to answer the question, “What should I do?” or “What am I supposed to be doing?”  What I want to answer is: “I want to do x, how do I do that?”  I’m also thinking about structuring classes around things like badges, so that students can move at their own pace, and perhaps be more encouraged to do so.

What is MakerEd then? I think that’s what we’ll be exploring in these chat sessions. Is it just about creating stuff with your hands? Is it a philosophy, and if so what is that? How does one take this approach in an environment that is often very counter to this approach? What about testing? What about grading? What are our students learning?

I’m looking forward to finding my way and learning from folks out there who are already doing a lot of this.

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