My dear colleague Tracey Winey (you can find her on Twitter at @winey02 ) introduced me to the idea of philanthropic engineering – that students can make projects in class that can be useful in real-life for a good cause. Years ago, she and some other educator colleagues came up with the idea that kids could genuinely tackle light poverty – the lack of artificial light sources after darkness falls. In areas where electricity isn’t available or isn’t reliable, a nice light source can make a huge difference when it comes to studying, cooking, doing chores or staying safe. Our school and others around the world have already sent dozens of little lanterns to people in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Uganda and other locations. You can find out more about the effort at http://e-b.io
This is normally an after-school program and my after-school hours are really limited with a busy family. This year I am getting my whole electronics class involved by having them create lanterns for Engineering Brightness. After some tweaking of the process this is where I am with it now.
- I provide the electrical design and all of the parts, and the students pay a small class fee to cover costs.
- Students solder the circuit together by following instructions I provide.
- Students design some kind of case or enclosure for the lantern, by prototyping with cardboard and other household materials.
- We will present and share the lanterns with their enclosures, and 3-D print a handful of the best designs.
- As a class we’ll assemble the final projects and then put them in a box with some cards and photos. We will send them to either Liberia or Guatemala where Tracey has some contacts through her church.
I will share plans on how to make these if you’d like to have your class try it out as well. After we have a couple of enclosure designs, I can also share the 3-D models of those so you can print them and assemble the whole thing.
Before I get to the how-to’s, of course the big question here is what are we trying to teach the students? What do I hope they learn and how will I know they have learned it?
We’re working a little outside Colorado’s state science standards, but I don’t think every worthwhile learning experience has to be linked to standards. I also believe it’s OK if every kid’s learning is different. Here are some of the areas in which I want to see growth from the kids.
- Understand that electrical circuits require a closed path, a load, and a voltage source, and identifying those in a real-life circuit.
- Identify some basic electrical components, what they do and how they work.
- After working with a design, identify ways it can be improved such as cost, size, durability and quality. Know what a tradeoff is and make smart tradeoffs when improving a design.
- Consider a purpose of a product and improve it for that purpose.
- Identify common electrical problems or mistakes and describe how to fix them.
- Solder safely. Produce work that improves in quality over time.
- Make something that will be meaningful to another person.
I based my little lantern design on a “Joule Thief”. Normally, a white LED takes around 3 volts to light up brightly – so you need two or three AA batteries for the purpose. Three are better than two, because once the batteries drain even a little bit, two won’t work well anymore. Rechargeable batteries are important because it is difficult to replace batteries in light-poor areas. The Joule Thief conserves cost and battery life by using a transistor and a ferrite toroid to make a single 1.2 volt rechargeable battery create a pulsing voltage that is enough to light an LED. It does this by making a magnetic field oscillate and it adds to the battery voltage. I go through some basic circuitry lessons with the kids, and we learn about LED’s and resistors, series and parallel circuits and what they do, and then we watch the joule thief video and compare/contrast it to a plain DC parallel circuit.
The students learn how to solder first by watching videos, and we take a soldering safety quiz before they are allowed to solder. Then students make their project bags and start assembling lanterns. I have had parent volunteers come in to help supervise the soldering and that has been a huge help.
I made this YouTube tutorial that shows you how to assemble the Joule Thief project. The students watch this video and pause it in spots to assemble their lanterns.
In the video description, I’ve included a parts list and the instructions for making the circuit boards. I’ll also include it here. You just have to order some cheap electronics online, like wire, transistors, solar panels and ferrite toroids. The lanterns take one of everything, execpt LED’s. I used ten LED’s for each lantern. It’s all in this spreadsheet. You can make them for around $5 each if you shop around a little. I use eBay, Jameco and Amazon for my purchasing.
The circuit boards are really fun to make. A couple of years ago, one of my former students came to visit me and showed me some custom circuit boards he created. He taught me how to design and upload my own… sometimes you’re the student, sometimes the teacher. The basic process is:
- You lay out all of your components and the wiring using a program called Fritzing.
- You export your Fritzing circuit to Gerber format. This gives you a bunch of files in a folder. If you want to use mine, you can download them here. GERBER FILES
- You zip the folder using something like WinZip.
- Go to Seeed studio at http://seeedstudio.com/
- Select their Fusion PCB service.
- Upload your zipped Gerber folder. You can use their Gerber Viewer to see the circuit board and make sure it looks OK.
- Choose your options. I prefer a 2-layer board because the students get a solder pad on the top and bottom of the circuit board. My board’s measurements are 42.8mm*67.2mm and sometimes it doesn’t update correctly.
- Decide how many you want. Place the order and it will be shipped to you!
Some of the first students finished soldering their circuits after about 3 classes, and they’re making little enclosures as well. I’m asking them to prototype enclosures using household items – and we’ll 3-D print the best ones. Here are some of the ideas so far.
I really love literal “light bulb moments” when the students finish soldering, flip the switch and the lights come on. It makes me proud every time I finish one, and I’ve done this a few times by now. It’s exciting for a first-timer.
We’ve watched some videos about Liberia and will be learning about Guatemala as well. I want the kids to start to get to know the people who will be receiving their little solar lights. Fingers crossed for a successful finish to the lanterns, and I really think if nothing else, they feel more competent and confident when it comes to working with circuits.
I want to send a huge thank you to Shreya Shankar, a CS student at Stanford, for putting together a really well-written blog post about one of the ways in which being a woman in tech is a strange and sometimes isolating experience. In this article, Shreya talks about the complex feelings associated with being hired into a diversity program. There’s the resentment and blame cast on you by your male peers. The feelings of self-doubt about your qualifications. A little guilt, maybe you aren’t even sure about your level of passion for engineering. The annoying voice that creeps into your head when you introduce yourself as an engineer – the one that says “they are looking at you right now and casting you as the token diversity hire who doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Shreya, I felt all of this and more when I was an engineering student. After my sophomore year in 1994, I applied for an internship at AT&T. It was a diversity program specifically geared toward women and minorities in tech. I spent the summer writing Unix shell scripts to run the system backups, and plugging tapes into drives to test the backup system. AT&T, at the time, ran a really good summer program. We attended lunch talks with speakers who talked about everything from negotiations between men and women to AT&T’s outreach to the gay and lesbian community. We went on outings to theme parks and restaurants to get to know each other better. It was the first time I’d ever worked with such a diverse group of young people and I learned so much beyond the technical skills. My older co-workers said they liked the backup scripts I wrote and would continue to use them. I thought it was a successful summer.
The following year, I applied for, and got, a second internship with Hewlett-Packard. I was over the moon excited, because I’d get to move to Colorado for the internship and HP was going to pay me a moving allowance. HP’s program wasn’t exclusive to women and minorities, but diverse hires were a priority and we all knew it. I was going to write a configuration utility for some test and measurement equipment. It would be a great adventure working for a really cool company and I was stoked.
I ran into one of my friends on campus one spring day before the end of the semester – and I’ll never forget the conversation we had. I asked him about his plans for the summer and he said he would probably be going back home to work for his dad because he didn’t get an internship. I said Oh. He had already heard about my opportunity through mutual friends. He had no cheerful words for me. He pointed out that he had a 4.0 grade point average, and I only had a 3.6 and we were both involved in a lot of activities and then he practically spit out the words when he said “And I don’t have a summer internship and the only reason you have one and I don’t is BECAUSE YOU’RE A GIRL.”
It stung! It stung then and those words stayed with me and they STILL sting. We’ve stayed in touch from time to time and I’ve never brought up that conversation again. He did get a nice job at a big tech company later and has done well for himself, so whatever happened that summer didn’t ruin his life. I assume he was upset and angry and it made him feel better to bring me down a notch. I’m sure he was resentful that a student he perceived as less qualified got an internship he wanted. That awkward moment was terrible and I don’t even remember how I ended the conversation. I knew at that moment he was angry and I just wanted to get away.
And Shreya, and any other women out there who have had those moments, I want to give you some perspective as someone who did end up in a good career as an engineer and somewhat successfully finished that gauntlet. (I did change careers after a decade; I’m now a schoolteacher. I have no regrets about either career.)
- You can really enjoy being an engineer if you work for a good company with a good support system and culture. In my careers at AT&T and Hewlett Packard in the 1990’s, they did a lot of things right. The leadership was committed to making the workplace welcoming for everyone. They held lunch talks and events geared toward bringing out diverse voices and problem-solving together. They created a culture that welcomed different, even opposing, perspectives. They had employee groups that helped you network with other people with the same background. They believed in listening. Watch for this when you apply for, and accept, a job. Ask questions of your interviewer about the company’s support of diversity. If you get a chance to shadow an employee for a day or take an internship, do it and keep your antenna up. Don’t be afraid to change course even after you’ve accepted a job. There’s no reason to work for a company that makes you feel like you’re not respected or heard. There are plenty of good workplaces out there.
- People who seem less qualified on paper get opportunities over “more qualified” people ALL THE TIME. Sometimes it’s because the people interviewing perceive a good fit in something that’s harder to measure. The new hire has a great temperament. The new hire has networked well and has a contact that can vouch for them. The new hire has a skill in an area the company really wants. If this new hire is a white man, nobody will ever complain that they’re less qualified and they only got hired as a token diversity hire. Resentment comes out differently when the new hire is a woman or minority, and it’s an uncomfortable truth. You don’t have to do anything to justify your presence to others who didn’t get the job. You have a great opportunity – just try your best to hold the door open for those who follow you.
- Understand that companies hire for a “good cultural fit” all the time. When you got hired, the company made a decision that your skills and grades were what they were looking for, and your background and perspective is something they value and they wanted you on board. You’re a good cultural fit. You’re going to make that workplace even better by being part of it.
- Seek out mentors who are like you, even if they don’t work in the same company. Talk to them often. It helps if your mentors are in leadership positions – the section manager or vice-president won’t mind one bit if you invite her out to coffee just to talk about how work is going and how you like it, or you want to pick her brain about what it’s like to have a leadership role at a tech company. You might need an advocate later on, so try not to be shy about reaching out to other women. We need each other. I have had some very good mentors who were male as well, but I *needed* my female mentors when I had those moments of insecurity or self doubt. I would not have stayed in tech without them.
- You’re going to be subjected to sexism or racism from time to time. This is a fact of working in an environment in which you stand out as different. It’s going to happen. If you have plenty of good experiences to fall back on, it builds up your resilient core and the negative experiences don’t bother you as much – but they do happen. This is where having female mentors is so helpful. Process it with them. It’ll give you good perspective. You’ll start to know when to stand up firmly for yourself and when to just let it go and pick your battles.
- You’re also going to have experiences in which you just aren’t sure of yourself, in which your co-workers aren’t being explicitly sexist, but since you come from different cultures, neither is sure how to act around the other. Lunches, happy hours, golf outings, video game competitions, going to the gym – or work-related gatherings like a debugging session or breakfast meeting or an impromptu teleconference – you might feel like you’re not welcome, and it’s very likely that you are totally welcome, but the men didn’t think to explicitly invite you because they didn’t realize you felt you needed an invitation. Anytime you stand out as different, you tend to sit back and wait for an invitation. Try not to sit back. Ask “I’d love to attend. Mind if I join you?” Go, make an appearance and use it as an opportunity for everyone to learn.
Lastly, this is an awkward topic to bring up, but I have some pretty good evidence that during my time as an engineer, I was gradually paid less than less-experienced, male coworkers. I only have a couple of pieces of data and a lot of suspicions. But understand a merit-based pay system is not really merit-based. Everybody in your leadership chain has some discretion, and individual discretion is biased in ways we don’t always see. It would be very reasonable to track down more information in whatever way makes sense for the company you’re in. I never rocked the boat, but I look back and know I should have used the guidance of my female mentors to help me navigate the pay system better.
You matter. The career you’re entering is a good one, full of interesting opportunities, cool problems to solve, people who are smart and creative and fun, and a global workforce and customer base that is very diverse and that your skills will impact positively. It has its challenges but it’s very worthwhile. If you enjoy creative problem-solving, you will like engineering even with its issues. It’s a great field. I look back with awe at how I got to be part of technologies that changed the world without even realizing it at the time. Engineers make history!
Reach out to me or other women engineers anytime. We have your back!!
This is such a big year for middle school computer science. I think that finally, for grades 6-8, there is a whole menu of really high quality teaching resources – from hardware tools to lessons and tutorials to standards to whole curricula. I’m pretty much changing how I do EVERYTHING, which is exhausting but exhilarating at the same time.
In the standards area, there is a new set of standards released by the Computer Science Teachers’ Association, or CSTA, located here. They are very good overall, building from grade level to grade level, organized by concept and very clear. I think it gives a nice progression for students. Many states, my own included, are involved in efforts to develop statewide standards, curricula and resources. It’s been great to see CS education move forward and the middle-years progression is really coming together.
As far as curricular resources, there are a few great new options. Code.org has a middle school course called CS Discoveries. I didn’t get to attend the training this summer, but one of my co-workers went and although she’s not a programmer by background, she came out feeling excited and confident that she could teach the curriculum and do a good job. It’s very well done so that pretty much anyone can take it and run with it.
The middle years are a great time to introduce kids to physical computing, the idea that you use algorithms and code to program devices in the world around us. It’s such an important tech literacy concept! The CS Discoveries course uses a platform called the Circuit Playground from Adafruit. For a long time, I’ve enjoyed the Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit and its little curriculum. I’ve also noticed a lot of buzz around the UK’s platform for introducing kids to physical computing – the BBC micro:bit. They are cheap and very engaging. I ordered a class pack of them, and from Sparkfun the price is really reasonable.
I teach block-based programming to the sixth-graders and then work with the older middle schoolers on transitioning to text-based programming. For the younger kids, I was thrilled to find an entire CS curriculum for the micro:bit published by Microsoft. It is so good! I love its emphasis on “making” and creativity, and I enjoy the little unplugged activities. I was skeptical of them at first, but every time I try one of the unplugged activities I find the kids really enjoy it and it does help the concepts stick better. The curriculum is easy to follow, and I find the kids love finishing the lesson and then just playing with what they can do on the micro:bit.
I’m finding I can’t do some of the “invention” activities, because I only have one class set of micro:bits and they’re shared throughout the day. I can’t have kids mount the micro:bit in a pet or wearable, for example, because the next class needs them. That’s really a bummer – being a maker involves more than just code. I might try to do an invention project with the kids with the caveat that the enclosure has to let you insert and remove the micro:bit easily. We will see how things go this semester.
As you can see from the title of this post, one of the things I’m playing with is teaching text-based programming via Python to the seventh- and eighth- graders. I was not lucky enough to locate an entire curriculum for this, but there are some good resources out there. I am using the micro:bit python editor. You have to save your files locally instead of in the cloud, and actually this really beneficial. The students I have this year have had laptops in their classrooms since 2012, so they’re “digital natives”. But they’re so used to Google Docs and such that they sometimes don’t have a concept of what a file is or where it is actually stored. So we’re learning about local storage, networked storage, removable storage and cloud storage and figuring out how to access a file from different locations.
There are a lot of tutorials and a good reference at this site: micro:bit Python documentation. It gives a nice introduction to the different features of the micro:bit, but it doesn’t really teach Python. So I’m stitching together my own curriculum and put together these exercises.
In Lesson 1, we just wrote the normal Hello World program and the students were tasked with writing a program that displayed text and images, using some of what they found in the documentation. This task also involved uploading a program to the micro:bit and saving the file in local and networked storage.
# Add your Python code here. E.g. from microbit import * display.scroll('Hi!') while True: display.show(Image.HAPPY) sleep(1000) display.show(Image.HEART) sleep(1000)
In Lesson 2, we reviewed Python syntax and common mistakes and troubleshooting. We introduced the terms “function” and “parameter” and saved some notes on these. We talked about the “while True:” loop and why the indentation is important. It’s not just picky – the indentation communicates important things to the computer! How will it know which steps to repeat without some way of blocking them off? Then we introduced variables by making a little program that displays text that changes. Students guessed at what it might do, and then we ran it and tested the hypotheses.
from microbit import * name = 'Dawn' while True: display.scroll(name) name = 'Tyrone'
Next in Lesson 3 we made a little counter program and demonstrated the difference between the string and text data types. Students could modify it by adjusting the starting value, displaying only evens, only odds, etc.
from microbit import * # declare a variable and assign it to a value. counter = 0 while True: display.scroll(str(counter), 50) counter = counter + 1
By the end of this lesson, some students were feeling frustrated at how hard it was to load files, save files, upload to the micro:bit, figure out where the errors were and so on. But these are short programs and the debugging isn’t hard once you’re used to it. Students have to read the error on the micro:bit and it tells them which line the problem is on. They need to pay attention to little details and that can be exhausting, but it’s so important to give clear instructions to a machine. The machine can’t guess what you mean! We talked about how hard it was for them to write their names when they were children. If you think about it, it’s a long process! There can be dozens of little steps involved in writing your name and they were pretty bad at it when they first learned. But over time the steps became automatic and they got better, and now writing their name is a very simple task. Same with coding and debugging.
I could tell students were jonesing to make something that looked like a game. I decided to introduce random numbers as our next concept. So in Lesson 4 I had student volunteers pretend to be human variables, and we modeled what it would look like to write a program that multiplied random numbers together. First a random number is assigned to variable a. Then a random number is assigned to variable b. Then a and b report out what they are, and they are multiplied together and the result is stored in variable c. We report the result from variable c. Kids acted this part out.
Then we wrote the program together.
from microbit import * import random bob = random.randint(1,10) jeffrey = random.randint(1,10) display.scroll(str(bob)) display.scroll("*") display.scroll(str(jeffrey)) display.scroll("=") wilma = bob * jeffrey display.scroll(str(wilma))
Many kids wanted to adapt their program to include a “forever” loop and keep producing random math problems as long as the power was switched on. By now they understood why the indentation worked, so when I suggested a “while True:” loop with everything indented after it, they were able to add it on their own.
Lastly, I wanted to introduce them to the coordinate plane on the pixel grid. For Lesson 5 I set out 25 pieces of paper in a 5×5 grid shape. I asked for one student to be a “pixel” and another to give directions. The student giving directions had to pick a random piece of paper, and in as few instructions as possible, tell the pixel where to go. We did this a few times and then I suggested that we make the paper in the top-left corner be (0,0). Then we realized we needed a sensible order for the row/column coordinates, so we defined “x” and “y”. We found out quickly that the pixels could only go from 0 to 4 and that 5 was off the grid. Lastly we introduced a “brightness” parameter, so when the instructor student commanded a pixel, they could tell the pixel student to go to an x coordinate, y coordinate, and to squat or stand according to a brightness level. So then we wrote this simple program and I reinforced the terms “function” and “parameter”.
from microbit import * import random while True: display.set_pixel(2, 3, 9) sleep(200) display.set_pixel(2, 3, 0) sleep(200)
And then we modified it to use variables instead of fixed numbers and the kids really liked the pixel dancing around on the grid.
from microbit import * import random while True: x = random.randint(0,4) y = random.randint(0,4) display.set_pixel(x,y,9) sleep(100) display.set_pixel(x,y,0)
Note I haven’t done much in the way of assessment other than conversations and verbal questions.. so we’ll have our first quiz task sometime next week to see how this is coming along. I don’t regret the direct instruction, though. The kids are finding it valuable, and they’re enjoying the micro:bits and learning what they can do with them. They want to make games such as pong and snake, and I think once we understand how to use the buttons, radio and accelerometer, they’re going to have a really good time making things they haven’t yet envisioned. I’m learning right along with them. They ask me a ton of questions and my stock response is “I just haven’t learned that yet. I guess we will learn it together.”
It’s fun though. It keeps you young.
I spent the last 10 months (well, 9 years really) planning to take my family to see the Great American Eclipse. When I started teaching, in 2008, my mother gave me a computer program called Starry Night as a little gift for my classroom. I used it during a middle school astronomy unit, and discovered with my students that the next total solar eclipse that would be accessible to us would occur near Casper in 2017. I vowed to go see it. When I was able to zoom in on a map location, I decided Glendo State Park, right on the centerline and just off I-25 in Wyoming, would be a perfect location. As soon as reservations opened up in October 2016, I grabbed a campsite and urged all of my friends to do the same. Many families took the opportunity also, and a whole group of us reserved eclipse viewing campsites. We spent the last 10 months planning our equipment, our activities, our travel times. Finally the big weekend came!
My husband and I and our two daughters traveled to Glendo on Friday, August 18th. We traveled in very light traffic, just us and a few more than the usual number of RV’s, but nothing you’d notice. We brought our 1981 pop up camper and packed extra propane, ice, food and water. I brought my “eclipse box” with paper maps, our camping passes, eclipse glasses, stuff to make a binocular projector, a video camera with a filter, a white sheet for viewing shadow bands, contact times written down, and various tools for making pinhole projectors.
We had a lot of fun at camp on Saturday and Sunday. We rented a pontoon boat from the marina, and we brought some paddle boards as well. We enjoyed boating, paddling, swimming, and lounging on the beach. Jason went on a nice mountain bike ride. None of us had ever camped at Glendo before. It was just wonderful. We liked the campsites, we liked the lake, we liked the beach access.
On Monday, I woke up with the sun after a restless night sleeping. I had been checking the weather forecasts for days and watching them go from partly cloudy to sunny and back again, and things were looking really good for Monday now. We woke up to glorious clear skies. Made breakfast, cleaned up, grabbed the eclipse box. We had some debate over where to watch the eclipse. We could be up on the bluff or down on the beach. On the bluff, we could see the 360 degree sunset and catch both horizons. On the beach, we’d have shadows from cottonwood trees and be able to see the shadow rushing toward us over the lake. I really didn’t care as long as I experienced totality, and as long as I was with my friends. I wanted to experience it with people. In the end, the beach won out because the kids wanted to splash in the water while waiting. It was also very windy on the bluff top, and we thought the beach would be less windy.
The beach was not less windy at first. I set up my binocular projector and got out poster board for pinhole creations. The wind kept knocking down my tripod and I was so focused on problem-solving that I almost missed first contact.
We watched the moon slowly take bites out of the sun with our glasses and with my projector (when it wasn’t being blown over). The kids made pinhole projects.
When the moon had advanced quite a bit, the wind died down and it became still. The light started to become strange and eerie. Over time, we noticed the shadows of the tree leaves became crescent shaped.
My friend Patrick had the good camera in our group, and he took a couple of pictures of the eclipse progression with a filter. (If you share any of his images, please give him credit.)
I set out a white sheet so we might be able to see shadow bands. Our solar eclipse timer told us to watch for strange animal behavior. The cicadas seemed to stop but it was hard to tell. We laughed because the dog started to become restless, wandering around and laying down random places. Did she think it was time for bed? Likely she was just tuned in to our heightened emotions and wanted some comfort.
We looked and looked for shadow bands, and a couple of minutes before totality, the quality of the light changed very suddenly and dramatically. The temperature dropped and it dimmed quickly. I never did see shadow bands because my attention was drawn to the opposite lake shore. There were colorful hot air balloons above the far shore to the west, and suddenly they were not colorful but dark, and we could see the light from the flames in the balloons like little candles across the water. We could see the darkness rushing toward us, and it was so exciting, like that moment a rollercoaster reaches the peak of a hill and you know you’re going to fall and you can’t do anything about it. The dark raced across the water, completely enveloped us – and we all screamed!
Here’s a short video of our reactions up until that point.
We took the glasses off and looked up, and I don’t know how I can find the words to describe what the sun looked like. When you see pictures of a total eclipse, you see a black background and a black disc and a white halo. This was so different and so strange and amazing! The sky was a deep violet color, and above us was a strange, sharply defined black disc, an empty void, with a pink and white rim and white streamers glowing and flowing all around. They were huge streamers of light. It was bigger than I expected. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure it’s the most beautiful thing I ever will see again. I’ve seen gorgeous mountaintop vistas and exotic cities, rainforest and ocean and NEVER seen anything that hit me right in my soul like the total eclipse did. I scanned the horizon and saw gorgeous orange and purple hues in every direction, and then Venus made an appearance in the sky. It was just glorious.
I did not take any pictures myself, but Patrick’s pictures are really good.
My ten-year-old daughter also captured video of her iPod, and although you can’t see the eclipse very well I just love everyone’s reactions… we are all in our own state of rapture here.
I could see the moon making its way across the sun’s surface, and again there was that rollercoaster feeling of an inevitable rush. The diamond ring was about to show. We saw a thin line of beads and then the flash of the diamond ring… how beautiful it was… and then glasses were on again and we had to come down from our excitement.
We were all in a frenzied state, talking furiously, hugging, crying. Everyone agreed this was incredible, it was worth any trouble in the world to see and we were so glad we had each other during the eclipse. We hugged and hugged and cried some more.
Some of us stayed on the beach a while, and others started packing up right away to try and “beat the rush”. We said our goodbyes and “joked” about the next eclipse in Chile and Argentina. Maybe we’ll actually do it! Jason and I and the girls dawdled a bit. We continued to swim and paddle, we ate lunch and later had dinner at Rooch’s Marina down the road. We could see the interstate the entire time from our campsite. It was stop-and-go the ENTIRE time. We told ourselves we would leave when the traffic thinned a bit, but it never thinned. Eventually we decided we couldn’t delay the inevitable and we left at 6:50pm. We were starting to get texts from friends about the journey from Glendo to Wheatland taking hours. But we felt if we took back roads for as long as we could, we would be OK.
To make this long story shorter, we took back roads as best as we could. We got one flat tire, took an unmaintained dirt road that resulted in way more stress than it was worth for the time it saved, got on the interstate for a couple of miles, gave up because it was horrible, took state route 34 down to Laramie, fueled up there, got stuck in more stop-and-go traffic south of Laramie and finally got home at 12:15am. It is normally a little over 2 hours to Glendo and it took us 5 1/2 hours including the flat tire. Our friends that left earlier ended up taking 8, 9, even 10 hours to get home to Denver. The traffic was relentless.
Gas stations started to run out of gas. Google Maps was really confused as it insisted we were always 3 hours from home no matter how long we drove. I think the eclipse day traffic broke Google Maps’ estimation algorithms. It couldn’t fathom that many people driving out of Wyoming all at once.
We didn’t care. The total eclipse was completely worth all of the trouble and the ridiculously long drive. I have no regrets about the state park, or the beach viewing location or the photography or anything. It was the most incredible event I’ve ever been a part of. I thought I knew what awe was. I had no idea. That was awe in its purest form, the most beautiful thing you can imagine.
Some people feel small when they look up at a night sky, but I feel big. I look out and notice all of that matter, the random atoms that are spewed out by stars and make up everything we can see. And I think about how I’m made of a lot of those random atoms, and yet I’m here and conscious and looking out at all of it and taking it all in. What a privilege to be alive here, on this planet, and looking out at all of the other stuff in the galaxy and beyond, being part of this living, breathing universe and wondering what else might be out there.
Thanks so much to Patrick for the awesome pictures. Thank you to my husband Jason for being a wonderful partner on this journey and enjoying it right along with me. Thanks to my kids for humoring their nerdy mom and agreeing that everything was worth it. Thanks to my awesome Glendo camping friends for the incredible weekend and viewing experience… I wouldn’t have had this any other way! Thank you to my fellow eclipse-chasing friends on the internet for all that you have taught me and for encouraging me to make the journey!! I am so glad we went, and I can’t wait for the next total eclipse.
I really believe that a major obstacle in making much-needed changes to public education – making it more personal, relevant, flexible, enjoyable… making it less boring and more likely to build literate, happy, employable and productive members of society… a major obstacle lies in the Common Core Math Standards and everything that causes us to cling to them.
I can’t prove these standards are bad for kids’ education. I can’t prove it because we measure the quality of a child’s education by how well they take a test according to these standards, and whether they eventually learn these standards well enough to graduate high school. We don’t tend to measure the quality of a child’s education by metrics that actually matter, but when we do, the measurements aren’t good. The achievement gap persists. Students report increasing boredom and disengagement with school as they proceed through high school. Students that attend college increasingly need remediation. Employers report a dearth of applicants with needed skills for jobs. Surveys of adult science and math literacy are depressing.
A thought experiment. If there were no math standards and no curriculum and no textbooks. Nothing. All math books and online curricular resources and all math teachers suddenly went away, and we had to figure out a way to teach children what they needed to be successful, confident, productive, empathetic citizens. What would we do? We had a similar thought experiment in our Education Reimagined cohort, and interestingly, not one of us suggested anything looking like the current state of mathematics learning. We thought of many ways to make mathematics interesting, relevant, creative, personal, even joyful.
There are undoubtedly math and numeracy skills that are fundamental for our students to learn. Maybe it would be a good thought experiment to start with the end in mind. What do literate adults need to know about mathematics?
What would be on that list? Here is my list. I put stars next to “advanced”, possibly optional, topics. Just an off-the-cuff list of what I am glad to know and what I wish other people understood about math. What are yours?
- Basic principles of addition / subtraction, especially mental math and estimation
- Multiplying and dividing, again especially mental math and estimation
- Doubling and halving mentally
- Percents and proportions (mental math and back-of-napkin techniques)
- Ratios and fractions
- Using technology for all operations above and testing reasonableness of answers
- Statistics and presentation / organization of data. Estimation, identifying outliers, using technology
- Making sense of very large/very small numbers and the proportionality of them
- Scientific notation
- Formulas – substitution into a formula, and writing your own
- Spreadsheets, data collection, visualization tools, and spreadsheet formulas
- Computer programming
- Logic and puzzles (*?)
- Personal finance – taxes, loans, interest, saving for goals, budgeting, shopping.
- Entrepreneurship and running a business. Profit/income/expenses.
- Strategy, game-playing *
- Simulation, modeling, making predictions. Taking a real-life situation and modeling it with bare-bones variables, with or without technology. Evaluating a simulation to determine if it’s valid. (*?)
- Measurement, units and unit conversions. Length, weight, volume, mass, area, speed, time. Making your own units when needed. Using measurements in: Food prep, sewing, crafting/DIY, gardening, home improvement, public transportation and auto care.
- Coordinate graphing – plotting points in 1, 2, and 3 dimensional space and making meaning from the graphs – creating your own coordinate axes and using them – xy and xyz. Applied math in 3-D design and automation.
- Trigonometry – sin,cos,tan and using these in 2D and 3D space for design *
I believe most of these skills can be taught in an applied way, relevant for students at whatever age they learn them, in the context of a project or experience. Students that enjoy learning math for the joy of pattern-finding, logic and thinking just for the purpose of improving one’s thinking could certainly dive deeply into theoretical mathematics. But there’s no reason all students would need to learn most theoretical mathematics. I think they could learn to find beauty, joy AND relevance in math and learn numeracy in an applied context.
Did I come close to your list? What did yours have on it?
For kicks, now go to the Common Core Math Standards website and browse through. This is the essential set of math knowledge experts deem that kids need to master by the end of each grade band. By the end of high school, to be college-and-career-ready, you should have mastered the whole thing. This is the low bar. Is that where you would have put it? Why or why not?
I have to tell you I find the high school standards outright discouraging. They are difficult to understand, even for me, a former engineer with a major in Computer Engineering and an almost-minor in mathematics. As a teacher, you have to search the far corners of your brain and your resource library to TRY and find a way to make many of those standards relevant or interesting. Kids don’t retain them after a unit’s over, let alone after a summer or a year or two. They don’t retain the math knowledge because it doesn’t connect to anything in their lives. There’s no purpose for it. Nobody in the “real world” actually interacts with math in the same way we do in a math classroom. As teachers, we know this about brain-based learning and we teach these stupid standards anyway.
Colorado is beginning a review process for all of its content-area standards, including math. I applied to be on the standards review committee, but didn’t make the cut. I started the lengthy process of giving feedback via the online system, but I’m embarrassed to say that around the submission deadline, I ended up swamped with things to do at school and in life, and I never turned in my answers. I did get a chance to talk with a representative from the CDE about the first review meetings, to ask him what kind of changes they were thinking of. Would Colorado keep Common Core? He indicated that we probably would, but the new standards would be better organized, easier to search and more useful for teachers.
This is ridiculous. They need to be gutted. We need to start over.
I studied computer engineering in college. I went to school on a 4-year scholarship, so I had 8 semesters to get a degree before the money ran out. This is important because I had to pass every class I took. I couldn’t fail a class or I might lose my scholarship, and if I had to repeat a class that was a prerequisite, I might not graduate on time.
Along the way, I took my first class in circuits, and I got a B. Good enough to pass and move onward to the next class. However, I knew at the time that I was struggling to understand circuits. I did reasonably well on the assessments, but I didn’t really get how an RC or LC circuit worked, or the meaning behind Maxwell’s equations or Gauss’ formula. I could use ratios to calculate the output of a transformer, but I didn’t really understand why they worked. I could answer questions about transistors but was helpless when it came to designing something with them.
I remember wishing that I could just retake circuits even though I had passed. I felt at the time that I had to move on to the next class. A lot of electrical engineering went over my head because I was a little lacking on the fundamentals.
I’m reflecting on this now, because at the middle school level I often have students repeat a class. I’ve had students that have signed up for CS or Electronics 2 or 3 times. Does this ever happen in a high school? It can be a great experience for me and the kids. The benefits are different for every student.
Take James, for instance. James took Computer Science Exploration last spring, and signed up for it again this spring. Last year, we made projects in Unity and James made a little forest scene you could walk around. This year, James made an immersive Robot War game, with marching animated robots, a scoreboard, and rocket launchers. In one year the growth was incredible. It was clear James understood what he was doing much better than he had the year before. He enjoyed retaking the class and going farther with the material.
Kamiya took Electronics in 7th grade and then came to my classroom at the beginning of 2nd semester. She asked if she could be a TA during the spring, and I said yes. She continued to be a TA in Electronics for 2 consecutive semesters. She was interviewed about the class partway through her second time as a TA. She said she loved learning about electronics, and it was her passion. She never minded being in the same class over and over, because she learned something new every time. Things were taught in a slightly different way, with different projects. Kamiya came with me to conferences and presentations often. I knew if I asked her to present to our superintendent, or congressional representative, or at the ISTE conference, she would do a good job. Kamiya is a generally shy kid who really seemed to blossom when she was making things with technology. She went on to participate in a nationally-honored FIRST robotics team in high school, and I like hearing about what she’s up to.
Luis took Electronics for the first time and did reasonably well and got a B. I knew he probably didn’t understand the content solidly, but he did a decent job and passed. When he signed up for the class the second time, I offered him a choice and said he could either take the class as a student, to learn the material better, or he could take the class as a TA and help others. He chose to take the class as a TA. Even though he wasn’t a top-tier performer in the class the first time around, this was an option that worked for him. Patrick is shy and needed support when it came to friendships and bullying. Being a TA helped him learn more about electronics but mainly improve his status. He helped other students when he could and alerted me to their needs when he couldn’t. He told me that he felt the class was a safe haven for him, where he didn’t feel any academic or social pressure. I suppose he needed that more than he needed to know about Ohm’s law.
For James, Kamiya, and Luis, re-taking a class helped them to grow in ways they needed. I love that our school gives kids the option to sign up for a class a second time – no penalty, no pressure. If you want to learn a little more and in a slightly different way you can re-take a class and tailor the experience to meet your needs.
I wish I’d had that option in college with circuits class. Or I wish I had known about it and had taken it. I think it would have really helped me grow as an engineer to learn the same material again, with no pressure and no risk, just to make sure I understood it.
I have been teaching computer science for 3 years now, and I’ve never actually had any training or PD on the pedagogy of computer science! I was thrilled when my friend Kristina Brown (twitter: @MsBrownTeachCS) told me she was able to round up some support and a little funding to go. Although I had to pay a little of my own way, I am really glad I got to attend! Here are some of the highlights of the sessions I went to. Many of the sessions were set up as a themed group – 20 or 25 minutes each, three presentations in a row. You could float between groups, but if you were interested in the theme it was easy to just stay and get information on three projects all at once. I liked the format of these sessions. Although the time frame seemed rushed for the presenters, I thought it was perfect for the audience. We were engaged the whole time, we got a short movement or stand-stretch break between each one, and we never got bored.
I went to a couple of sessions in this theme – one, presented by Shuchi Grover and Satabdi Basu, was about using formative assessments to identify misconceptions students had about CS concepts. Tobias Kohn led the next presentation on a related topic, beginners’ misconceptions about variables. When I taught math, I frequently got training on how to identify, question and correct common misconceptions of students – but this was the first time I’d had similar training in CS. Many of the misconceptions they talked about are ones I wrestle with when I teach middle schoolers:
- Not understanding the assignment operator is different from the equality operator in math
- Missing loop initialization
- Grouping items in a loop incorrectly
- Not understanding a variable’s value has been changed after an assignment operator
- Not understanding a variable’s value can change during a loop’s execution
- Confusing OR, AND boolean operators
I feel I understand better how to ask questions, use assessments and identify the misconceptions, but I think I will still struggle with how to correct them. I have many 7th and 8th graders who are still struggling with how to write a basic program that asks for input, does some math, and produces an output. I know some of the misconceptions above are to blame, and they can be devilish to fix.
Data Science for Kids:
I also went to a session on “Introducing Data Science to School Kids” by Shashank Srikant and Varun Aggarwal, and this was one of my favorites of the whole conference. I had been thinking for a long time that data science was a neglected area in beginner CS but I didn’t know how to teach it, so this gave me a great place to start. These researchers developed a lesson toolkit that tasks kids with developing an algorithm that can predict whether they’d want to be friends with someone, and testing the algorithm. It also covers data privacy and consent… really good, full lesson set. You can find it online here! http://www.datasciencekids.org/p/home-page.html
I enjoyed a session presented by Yin Pan, Sumita Mishra, and David Schwartz about “gamifying” a college-level course using an achievement map. I had been thinking I would love to have badging and an achievement map for my beginner classes. Their interface allows for creating assessments. http://forensic-games.csec.rit.edu/ I would have to consider if I want to put a lot of investment into something like this, but I love the idea.
I went to a session led by Sue Sentance which was a report on how students enjoyed using the BBC Micro:Bit in a few locations where it was deployed. I’m really interested in this device and hope to purchase a set for next year. You can now pre-order them from Sparkfun and other retailers. The research showed students are really interested in this device, but teachers seemed to struggle with it for a number of reasons. The delivery was really late. Many teachers understood how to teach the basic lessons but struggled to connect larger concepts of computer science and physical computing. Teachers had a hard time making the time for the Micro:Bit due to a lack of training and the unpredictable timing of when they actually got the devices. These would need to be addressed in a successful implementation!
I went to several sessions on blocks-based programming and encouraging diversity in computing, and in the process, discovered some new computing tools that can be used for content creation in a variety of formats!
Netsblox: Found here http://editor.netsblox.org This tool uses SNAP!, a block-based language really similar to Scratch. The researchers have added some interesting blocks to SNAP to encourage distributed computing – remote procedure calls and messaging. Through these blocks, students can have users at different computers interact with each other. You can create multi-player games and also interact with NASA, Google maps, Twitter and more. I thought it was a really exciting idea. I would need to have better control over user accounts and “friends” lists in order to use this with young kids.
TurtleStitch: Found here http://www.turtlestitch.org/ A variant of SNAP! in which you can code a turtle to make an embroidery pattern and then upload the pattern to a professional embroidery machine. The presenters used the program at a STEM camp to encourage student self-expression. The students made their own personal logo and stitched it on a T-shirt! I tried to find embroidery machines that would work with the file formats in this program, but I can’t tell if a basic $400 machine would be able to actually stitch the patterns. I need to do a little more research to see if an embroidery machine would be a good addition to our makerspace.
Beetle Blocks: Found here http://beetleblocks.com/ you can program a “beetle” instead of a turtle. The beetle moves in 3-d space and can extrude filament behind it to create a 3-D model! You can export the 3-D model for use in a 3-D printer or in any other modeling tool such as Blender, Unity, or TinkerCad. I love this tool. I found some great examples by another CS teacher / blogger I follow, Laurel Pollard. She makes earrings with Beetle Blocks, among other cool things. I made a tower of hearts and 3-d printed it. I thought for my first project it wasn’t too bad!
And here it is!
EarSketch: Making music with Python. Intriguing! I didn’t get a chance to play with it, but I’m interested. https://earsketch.gatech.edu/landing/#/
Jupyter Notebooks: This was presented as an interactive notebook in which you can do storytelling and coding, and it gives you a runtime environment for Python code. You can find it here: http://jupyter.org/ I would be really interested in this environment if it does what I think it does. I’m going to explore it this summer. I usually use OneNote as an interactive notebook, and I ask students to copy and paste their code there. How nice would it be to just be able to execute the code and keep notes all in one place?
There are example assignments and puzzles here. http://norvig.com/ipython/
Building Capacity and Professional Development:
I attended a number of sessions that touched on how to develop more CS teaching capacity. New Mexico started a program to train science teachers in NetLogo, and through a blend of online and in-person learning, recruited dozens of teachers to offer a new course integrating simulations and coding into science. Utah created a tiered certification program for teachers, allowing many teachers to offer CS at an entry point appropriate for them. The UK created a computing certificate for teachers that included online coursework, an individual coding project, and an action research component on CS pedagogy. I loved this model and thought it has a lot of potential for my own district.
I also got to attend a “birds of a feather” session on the K-12 CSTA standards, which are almost ready for full release. I like the standards overall. I notice that they represent a big philosophical change from what I am used to, which is the K-12 Common Core math standards. In order for someone to teach the CSTA standards well, they would have to offer a chance to create an involved capstone project. Many of the standards are something you *could* teach with a couple of lessons and a quiz, but students can’t truly demonstrate they learned the concept without actually creating a meaningful, authentic project that includes the idea. We talked about the need for examples and rubrics. What does mastery vs. proficiency look like at different grade bands? Those conversations will need to be hashed out, but the standards-writers could help us along with built-in rubrics where appropriate.
Networking with Friends
Finally it was awesome to meet up with several people I knew from online but hadn’t met in person. 🙂 Thanks to Sheena Vaidyanathan, Kim Wilkens, and Todd Lash, my Twitter #csk8 friends who sought me out and said hi! And Mike Zamansky, a fellow blogger and Tweeter. It was great to connect and share ideas. I also got to meet several of Kristina’s AP CS contacts from around the internet and it was great. Thanks to all of you for commiserating with me – this job is hard, and it often helps to know you share a lot of the same struggles.
I really enjoyed SIGCSE 2017 and I felt I came away with a lot of interesting tools to try, and new insights on computer science education. I hope I get to attend another CS education conference again sometime!
Image: By Wolfgang Strickling [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There’s a big event coming to the USA on August 21st of this year, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a decade – ever since I heard of it. We get a coast-to-coast total eclipse of the sun, and many, many people live within a day’s drive of the path of totality. One of my favorite places to get info about the event is http://www.eclipse2017.org/ largely because I love their Google Map of the path, provided by Xavier Jubier, here.
As soon as camping reservations opened up along the centerline, I pounced and made our reservations. Many people are just learning about the eclipse now, however. I have started educating my students about what an eclipse is and why they should get to the path of totality on eclipse day. Every so often, I see a news story on my social media about the eclipse. It will start to get big, and I am sure many people will decide last-minute to get to the path of totality to take it in.
Since Denver and the front-range cities are within a day’s drive of the path, I wanted to use this space to share what I’ve learned about accommodations for viewing the eclipse.
If you live in Denver or Northern Colorado, you’re most likely thinking of heading north along I-25 to Wyoming to view the eclipse. Totality will occur along I-25 starting at Wheatland, all the way through where the interstate bends west and goes through Casper, then about 30 miles north into the wide open country. Most of the eclipse path in Wyoming has excellent weather prospects, so we’re lucky to have prime viewing areas so close to us!
Although Wheatland is on the southern edge of the path, most of town will still see almost a minute of totality. Recently, there were still hotel rooms available in Wheatland (although a couple of the hotels were charging premium rates, roughly $500 per night).
Just northeast of Wheatland is Grayrocks Reservoir. There’s a map of the reservoir here. The reservoir has primitive camping, or you could bring your boat on the lake and watch the eclipse from the water – or just drive up for a daytrip as it’s less than 3 hours from Denver. It will probably be less crowded to be farther away from the interstate, and this short jog northeast brings the time of totality to almost 2 minutes.
If you keep going east past Grayrocks Reservoir, you reach Fort Laramie, and then Lingle and Torrington. Fort Laramie is a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. Torrington has camping, hotels and restaurants. The corridor from Wheatland through Torrington can be reached in less than 3 hours from Denver, and being on the southern edge of totality, this area may see smaller crowds and give you better mobility than areas on the center line. Yet you’ll still see a total eclipse for 1-2 minutes.
Continuing north on I-25 past Wheatland, you get to the Guernsey exit. Guernsey is about 15 miles east of I-25 and is home to a state park on a reservoir and historic Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts left in the sandstone. The camping at Guernsey State Park is booked, but there is a golf course RV campground and a couple of motels. The Wyoming State Park system is offering day passes on its website. You can use one of the day passes to get in to any state park on the path of totality – Guernsey, Glendo State Park a little farther north, Edness K Wilkins State Park in Casper, and Boysen State Park near Shoshoni. This would give you guaranteed parking wherever your eclipse-day plans end up taking you, and you’d have access to the state park programs such as ranger talks.
Further north on I-25, you arrive at Glendo. Glendo is home to another state park on a reservoir, with the same day-pass program as Guernsey. Camping there has been booked for some time. Glendo is where the centerline of the path of totality intersects a major interstate highway going north from Denver. It’s still less than 3 hours away from Denver, and as such I expect this will be a very popular location as long as the weather looks good! Glendo is doing a lot of preparation for the eclipse. The town only has a population of 200 people – but it will likely swell to tens of thousands on eclipse day. Is it possible it could be hundreds of thousands? The state park will be busy, with hikes and ranger talks, boating and camping, and the main attractions will be at the Glendo Airport right next to the interstate. This will be the main viewing area along with vendors and exhibits. The school will also have eclipse exhibits.
If you decide to keep going on I-25, you get to the Orin exit, which has a rest area but limited facilities otherwise. If you go east from here and leave the interstate, there will be roadside stops but no actual towns – and you get to experience the vast openness and nothingness that is most of Wyoming. The first town of any size is Lusk – although in the northern part of the path of totality, Lusk will still see almost 2 minutes of the total eclipse. The town website for Lusk doesn’t indicate any eclipse events yet, so I don’t think they are doing a ton of planning or expecting big crowds. The biggest groups they may see will be people migrating south from the Black Hills area of South Dakota.
Continuing on I-25 from Orin, the interstate bends west and follows the path of totality through to Casper. Douglas and Glenrock are towns along this route, with lodging, viewing areas, and eclipse-related events planned. One charming stop might be Ayres Natural Bridge, a rock formation in a county park south of the interstate.
Casper will be an eclipse hotspot, as the first really sizable town north from Denver, with great weather prospects and the presence of the AstroCon convention. It takes about 4 hours to get to Casper from Denver, making it still doable for a daytrip for people who leave really early. Lodging in Casper has been booked for quite some time.
Finally, an additional option for people heading up for a daytrip from Denver would be to stop in southwestern Nebraska. Scottsbluff is on the southern edge of the totality path, but Scotts Bluff National Monument will still see 1 1/2 minutes of totality. The communities of Scottsbluff and Gering, along with the National Park Service, have set up viewing events and plenty of parking and free eclipse glasses. There is also a beer and wine festival in downtown Scottsbluff. This area promises to have a fun, community-wide celebration with easy in-and-out access to Denver and Colorado’s front range. In addition, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is located in a more remote location north of Scottsbluff but will see a longer eclipse. Finally, the area around Alliance, home of Carhenge, the quirky replica of Stonehenge made from cars, will have about 2 1/2 minutes of totality and has plenty of community events planned. Intriguingly, there’s a music festival named Toadstock: Party on the Prairie. Still tickets available and free camping, and close to the centerline of the eclipse. I found a couple of other lodging options but don’t know how full they are. Viewing areas in Alliance will be available in several locations. Scottsbluff is almost exactly a 3 hour drive from Denver, and Alliance is 45 minutes northeast of there.
I made a Google Map with the information I know about eclipse viewing, lodging and events in southeastern Wyoming and southwestern Nebraska. I did not include Casper in the event map, but focused on everything within a 4-hour drive of Denver. This is my first total eclipse, but I can tell I am going to want to make it to another. If you possibly can, get out there.
Get solar glasses and eclipse viewing tips here:
Eclipse Chaser blogs:
And if you’re a teacher, start talking to your students, your district and your parent community about this as soon as you can. The eclipse will be seen throughout the entire USA and you’ll want to make sure all of your students have a chance to view it, get glasses and/or make pinhole viewers. The students may or may not be in school when the event happens, so encourage your school district to make plans now.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about competency-based education – the idea that learners should be able to progress through a flexible map of skills or concepts or dispositions, tracking progress and reflecting as they go, with as much choice as is reasonable on the timing and nature of the learning, on a time scale that’s right for them. Simple… right? I’m playing with some ways of piloting the idea in my classroom and I keep thinking about gaming in this process. Most video games have levels or achievements, and gamifying education is based on the inherent motivation built into video games. Every time you fail a level, you get to try again. You try until you succeed. Success metrics are clear, and when you succeed you go on to the next level. I like playing Minecraft with my kids, and we have fun finding our way through the Minecraft achievement map. The skills are really clear-cut and the achievements have to be done in order.
I wonder if I can apply the gamification principles to a class I teach. I’m experimenting with OneNote Class Notebook to push an achievement map out to my students. I need the map to be flexible – I don’t have it all written right now, and I’m not sure a competency map should be articulated completely from beginning to end. Do you want your child’s educational path pre-mapped from K through 12 or do you want them to be able to take unexpected turns as needed? I’d like to be able to push achievement challenges to the students as they come up, and maybe assign achievements flexibly depending on student choice and need.
I can push the achievements out as documents that contain a checklist, maybe a place to paste some code, and a reflection from the student. I can respond to their achievements and use this as the basis for conferencing with them about their learning.
For example, as my first two achievements for kids:
This semester, I wouldn’t use the achievement map as a grade, but I could leave the door open for it as an assessment tool in the future. How far would a student need to progress through the map to “pass” the class and move on to the next one? This is something I hope to answer after this semester.
I really wish I could create a clickable map like the Minecraft one, where you could hover over a box and it would tell you about the achievement, or click on the box to submit an entry to pass the achievement. When you passed one, the following achievements would be enabled. I know this is doable, but time and 217 students and so many preps and…. it’ll have to wait for a break, unless someone has created a tool like this and I just don’t know about it. Any badging or achievement-mapping tools out there that I should learn about?
What do you think? Have you ever gamified a graded class? What structures did you use and what should I fix before diving into this?
A couple of years ago, one of my former students came to visit. He brought business cards and a selection of little printed circuit-boards, or PCB’s. My questioning turned into a lesson in which a 15-year-old kid taught me how to install some circuit-designing software, create my own circuit board, export the design and e-mail it to a factory in China where the boards would be manufactured and mailed to me. It was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever learned! I feel I got some valuable consulting work from this student, and he provided it for free. What a generous gift and a valuable example of a teacher and student learning together.
I found out since that time that you can actually etch your own printed circuit boards at home, for quick prototyping. In electronics class, my co-worker Tracey and I created an engineering project for the students: design or modify a small, rechargeable LED-based lantern that works. This semester, I thought I would offer the opportunity for students to learn to etch their own PCB’s if they wanted to do it for their design. This was a rich and challenging project, and I want to share how we did this with middle school kids – with some notes of caution. It’s hard to do in a big group. I was grateful to have Tracey’s presence to work with most of the class on an alternate lesson while I took small groups to work on PCB design and etching. It was failure-prone and high-frustration, but also high-reward. Here’s how we did it.
First, the students need to design their circuit and generate a high quality, printable image of the copper traces. I used Fritzing, a free program that is fairly easy to use. I taught the students how to lay out a simple parallel circuit with resistors and LED’s. The components can be either surface mount (SMD) or through-hole (THT), but you want to choose Through-hole. Pay attention to the pin spacing to make sure it matches the components you have. In our case, we needed 3 mm spacing for the LED’s and 400 mils (these are thousandths of an inch, not the same as mm) for the resistors. I don’t know why the default units were different. I added a couple of via’s to connect to the switch and battery. Choose the “home-etched” setting for via’s to make them a little bigger.
Students could add as many resistor/LED pairs as they wanted, and rearrange them as needed. Some students created some interesting layouts for their PCB.
Next, we had to export the file to a high quality PDF. In Fritzing, choose File –> Export –> As Image –> PDF.
I stitched together a couple of methods from online articles for the etching part. This article from Hackaday used the magazine page transfer method, and it worked all right with some cautions.
Here are the supplies you need for this step..
- Glossy magazine paper and a laser printer. We found the alumni magazine from my university works well! Its 8 1/2 by 11 size and nice sturdy paper loaded and printed in the laser printer perfectly. We had some success with catalogs pulled from my mailbox too, although the paper was thinner so it tended to jam.
- One-sided copper clad PCB. You can get lots of this very cheap on eBay.
- An iron and ironing board (we borrowed these from the family consumer science teacher)
- A scotch-brite scrubbing pad.
You need to load the glossy paper into your laser printer and print the PDF of the copper traces. Fritzing will export a lot of files into a folder – print the one that ends in “copper_top_mirror”. You might have to try a few times before you get a nice printout on the magazine paper.
Buff the copper-clad PCB with the scotch-brite pad, until it’s roughed up a little.
Turn the iron to its hottest setting, and make sure there’s no water in the iron. Put the magazine paper with the image on it face-down onto the copper clad. Push down HARD with the iron for a full two minutes. Then move the iron around still pressing down hard, for 4 more minutes. This process sometimes took 4 tries to get a good transfer and was really difficult with a number of groups to work with. Imagine it takes pressure on every wire trace in order to transfer it from the paper to the board, and visualize how you have to press the iron down to make this happen.
Inspect the copper clad to make sure the image transferred with no thin or broken spots. We attempted to fix a couple of the designs with Sharpie, but it really didn’t work well. Better to transfer properly the first time.
Now you’re ready for the etching. For this part, I used the second half of the instructions from Blondihack. Some blogs recommend using muriatic acid, but with middle-schoolers the normal kitchen chemicals are the way to go here. You will not regret using plain old vinegar. You really should use a proper science lab with fume hoods, sinks and safety equipment. At the very least, make sure you have safety goggles and nitrile gloves for everyone, and access to a sink. To do the etching, you need:
- White vinegar
- Household hydrogen peroxide
- Some salt
- Foam brushes
- Plastic tubs
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Safety goggles and gloves
- A timer
- Acetone (nail polish remover)
It’s pretty simple. Pour equal portions of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar into a shallow plastic tub. Add about a teaspoon of salt and stir it gently. When the salt is dissolved, put the PCB into the solution. You’ll see a film of yellowish gunk appear on the board, and over time the liquid will turn blue. About once a minute, use the foam brush to wipe the gunk off. It took us about 50 minutes to complete the etching. When you’re close to done, the edges of your board will be free of copper. You’ll know you’re done when all of the copper is dissolved except for what’s under the black toner. When you’re at this point, rinse the board with lots of water. We washed the remaining etching solution down the drain with lots and lots of fresh water.
When the board was rinsed, we took paper towels and some nail polish remover (acetone) and scrubbed the rest of the toner off the board until the copper was visible.
I used Blondihack’s method for drilling holes with a Dremel tool. I did the drilling and chose not to let students use the Dremel. It has the potential to really hurt you and this step requires a steady hand. Get your inner brain surgeon ready.
For the drilling, you’ll need:
- A Dremel rotary tool
- Quick-change Collet nuts (you need the smallest one) or a 1/32 inch drill chuck
- A 1/32 inch drill bit (I bought this set)
- A clamp and a piece of scrap wood
I recommend clamping your PCB to the table on top of scrap wood. You really want to make sure it doesn’t move around. Wear the safety goggles. Use the 1/32 inch drill bit and carefully drill a hole in each location on the PCB.
Next the students can solder the components onto the PCB. You can only solder them onto the copper trace, not onto the blank side of the board. Clip on the battery and test it out! Students sometimes had to use solder or jumper wires to fix locations where the copper traces were broken or thin. They cut the boards down to size with tin snips (fairly cheap at Home Depot) and sanded them when needed.
The groups that had fewer problems were able to finish their circuit boards in 3 class periods, but some student groups took up to 6 class periods. These groups had to re-do steps along the way, usually in the printing and transferring, but sometimes in the soldering as well.
It was a supremely rewarding process. The students were so proud of their work. We all learned a lot about how printed circuit boards are made, and I think the kids felt as empowered as I did when I made my first PCB with that student so long ago. Students stayed after class and after school, trying over and over to get the process right. They really wanted to finish it once they started.
I would strongly recommend having extra adult supervision if you try this activity with kids. Six students at a time seemed to be my capacity – consider bringing in parent volunteers or community members and training them on what to do. Plan ahead for science lab space, drilling and soldering, and for how you’re going to manage failures, because they will happen. It’s part of engineering.
If you try PCB etching with your engineering students, I’d love to hear from you. What went well? What would you do differently? What did I miss that I could be doing better?