This spring, I tried something I’ve never done before – I tried my hand at curriculum writing! I had a great opportunity to work with Launch CS to create a 10-lesson curriculum for the BBC micro:bit. It’s not perfect, no product ever is, but I did end up happy with what came out of the effort. The package is aligned to CSTA standards and covers a variety of them in ways that are not typical of most coding curricula. There are a ton of lesson packages out there that introduce algorithms and programming, and I did include these but also worked to introduce networking, data, and the design cycle. The curriculum is intended for students in grades 5-8.
The highlights are:
- Events, Variables, Conditionals, and Looping (via mini-projects and pair programming using the micro:bit)
- Data modeling and analysis using micro:bit, electronics, and spreadsheets
- Networking using videos, a computer and the micro:bit radio feature
- Design Cycle via a micro:bit “Shark Tank” style project
I would have loved to see teachers at the CSTA conference, but alas, duties for my new job interfered this year. It’s on my bucket list to attend – hopefully next year.
Until then let me know if the micro:bit resources are helpful!
Edited later because I neglected to give credit where credit is due. Grant Smith and Cheri Bortleson are amazing to work with – they gave thoughtful feedback and edits, and they formatted the curriculum beautifully with lovely graphics and a consistent theme. I can share this proudly because they did such a nice job with the vision and final project! Thank you Grant, Cheri and LaunchCS!
I’m a computer science teacher. I’m an engineering teacher and a math teacher. Of course I am. My job is to help students become literate, empowered, and creative with mathematics and technology. Right?
Except now I’m not so sure. I’m changing jobs next year and teaching at Compass Community Collaborative School, a new project-based public charter school in town. We’re making progress on the hard work of designing what our school days, weeks, quarters, and years look like. It’s humbling. It’s really humbling, because my base assumption that my job is to help students develop skills and content knowledge isn’t very helpful. I think it’s totally wrong, actually, and it’s sending me into a spiral of doubt about who I am and what I’ve been doing with my life for the past 10 years. I’ve been proud to be an advocate for engineering and computer science education, and I still believe firmly that all kids need exposure, practice and the ability to create with these skills. And yet that is not my job and it never has been. I need to put it all on a shelf and sit in the notion that my job is to develop human beings.
Compass will use a human-centered design process to create learning experiences for the kids. The process is laid out here, and it doesn’t start with skills or standards but rather broad concepts. Concepts are umbrellas under which questions, directions of inquiry, and actual projects live and grow. For example, our first set of projects will live under the umbrella concept of “Identity”.
Identity is a concept that crosses disciplines, that is universal to the human experience, that can be addressed with an infinite number of inquiry questions. When we first start doing projects with students, we’ll create the inquiry questions mostly for them. As they grow, they will create the inquiry questions themselves. These may not be the inquiry questions we will use for this project, but some examples we pondered early on include:
- How do labels impact our identity?
- How can art help us better understand individuals?
- To what extent are labels harmful? To what extent are labels helpful?
From there, we start brainstorming products students can create to address these questions. We think about how the questions might branch, and explore the scope from individual to global implications – bring the kids’ empathy along. Students might, for example, create an art piece that explores hidden layers of labels.
THEN, we can begin the work of pulling in content. What skills can we purposefully develop in literacy, numeracy, social studies, science, art, computer science, physical education and more? What are the power standards and what are optional? This is where I come in as a content-area teacher, but the role is minor compared to the bigger role of guiding kids through exploring this idea of identity deeply, empathetically, rigorously.
Maybe you see why I’m unsure of my place in all this! I love teaching technology and math and programming… and while I love my students and have enjoyed getting to know them as the individuals they are… I have very little pedagogical knowledge or experience in developing community, empathy, identity, critical thinking, and kindness. I’m going to need to study hard. I’m going to foul some things up from time to time. I am unprepared for the experience of going through what I did in my first year of teaching when everything was new and I never felt like I did anything right. I am, however, excited to fly my nerd flag high while we are learning things that are relevant and deeply personal and authentic.
I’m ready to announce some news I’ve been sitting on for a while and can finally share. I will be changing jobs next year, leaving Preston Middle School and embarking on a new adventure. I’ll be a founding teacher at Poudre School District’s newest charter school – Compass Community Collaborative School. It’s a 6-12 school in midtown Fort Collins, opening for the very first time this August.
I’m very, very excited. Compass embraces student-centered learning – we’ll be helping the kids understand who they are as learners, community members, and human beings. We’ll spend our time working in teams on venture projects and making the community around us our classroom. We’ll learn by doing, making, experiencing. I’ll get to work in true collaborative teams – and still play with some awesome technology. And work in a building right off the bike path and next door to Whole Foods. My new school’s website is here. https://compassfortcollins.org/
I’ve loved my time teaching at Preston. It was my first and only teaching assignment. I’ve been so fortunate to teach somewhere I had the freedom to explore who I am as an educator and as a person, and to learn from some of the very best teachers anywhere. I loved learning how to understand and teach mathematics. I loved building a computer science and engineering program. And I just love all the awesome kids that have walked through my doors every single year. Every single one of these Preston kids is so special to me, and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to the students I was really looking forward to working with next year. There will never be a best time to make this change, but right now is the best time for me, so I have to make the leap. I’m ready to experiment with what I feel in my heart is the “right” way to do school. To get rid of the isolated subjects, the master schedule, the heavy emphasis on core subjects… and to start emphasizing who kids are, what they can do and be right now in this moment, where we fit in the world, and what we all need to be the very best version of ourselves.
I am actually excited to start working on mathematical understanding with my students again. I’ve missed it. And I’ll get to create with technology as well. I’m looking forward to the journey and I will blog about it.
A few years ago, I wrote this post about my struggles to have middle-schoolers do a computer take-apart and meet the high expectations I had in mind for them. I am happy to report I didn’t quit doing computer take-aparts. I did try to learn from those hard lessons and continue improving on it. Hardware Week now runs pretty smoothly and kids report it’s their favorite unit. I do this set of lessons in my 7th/8th grade Computer Science Explorations class. It’s a great one for the week right before spring break, or whenever you need a little something different to mix things up.
Prior to the lesson, I ask parents if they have any old computers they have been wanting to get rid of but didn’t want to hassle with recycling them. I have a small budget I can use for hardware recycling, so I have workplace services come and take the computers away for recycling when the take-apart is done. I accept laptops as well as desktops, and it’s fun when I have a mix of both. I stock up on tools, especially small phillips screwdrivers, flathead screwdrivers, a few small Torx screwdrivers, some pliers and a few wire cutters.
First, we learn about the basic structure of computers (I also relate this structure to micro:bits, since my CS students learn to program them in Python). We do several card sorts in which I give students a sheet with pictures and descriptions of computer hardware, and they have to sort them into categories: input, output, processing, storage. Sometimes I include Power in one of the categories. Although pieces of hardware like the battery and fan don’t have anything to do with the flow of information, they are visible inside a computer and really important to its operation. You can find the card sort at the link below!
Next, I have the students watch a movie and fill out an organizer with it. The movie is wonderful – it’s called Lifting the Lid and although it’s from the early 2000’s, the information is still relevant and it’s very entertaining and informative. The movie is expensive to buy, but I was able to reserve it from our public library. I had to get it from Prospector as it was at a local university.
Here’s the link for the movie. The instructor’s guide, linked on the same page, is the organizer I used. I circled the most important questions for the students to fill out, and paused the movie at certain points to work with the kids on filling out the organizer.
We then have a quick safety and procedure talk about the computer take-apart. I have learned to keep the rules really short and simple.
- If you have a laptop, take the battery out first and bring it directly to me. Don’t take anything else apart until the battery is out.
- Wash your hands well afterward to avoid getting lead in your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Do not break any screens.
- Many computers are meant to be taken apart. Look for the places where the computer has seams, screws, levers or tabs.
- As you remove pieces, label them. Each group will get a sheet of labels and some tape. Sometimes you may find more than one piece in a category.
I give each group a sheet with labels of computer parts, plus a couple of blank labels in case they find things that aren’t on the originals.
I circulate around as the groups are taking their computers apart and help them identify parts as they remove them. Sometimes they’re tricky even for me! When opening laptops, sometimes the easiest way to access the motherboard is to take the keyboard apart and come in through the top – which of course kids love and requires a little extra time cleaning up at the end because keys get all over the floor.
When the computers are dissected, we begin a group show -and- tell for their computers. I put prompts up on the board and ask groups to hold up a part that matches the prompt. We go around the room and every group explains what they’re holding. They rotate group members for each part. Example prompts:
- Hold up something that stores data.
- Hold up your CPU.
- Hold up something that is for input.
- Hold up something that is for output.
- Hold up something that’s used for cooling your computer.
- Hold up something used to power the computer.
- Hold up something used to connect to a network.
- Hold up the motherboard.
At the end, I do allow kids to take home a souvenir as long as it’s not a hard drive, solid-state drive, or a battery. I keep those and make sure they get recycled properly. We spend quite a bit of time placing parts in big moving boxes, which I tape up and label for recycling.
I could do a formal assessment. I choose not to. The show-and-tell is a helpful wrap-up and taking a computer part home is something the kids really enjoy as a reward for cleaning up well. I had a student tell me the other day that he took his motherboard home, set it in a frame, filled it with resin and hung it on a wall!
It has ended up being a fun set of lessons that are also great for learning. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
The start of a new calendar year is a traditional time of reflection and anticipation. I’ve been an inconsistent blogger this year, which wasn’t intentional, but if I had to clear some things off my plate, this was an easy sacrifice. It’s been a full year. Along with constantly learning and changing in my job, I have two daughters who are in 9th and 5th grade and a busy husband too. When my children were little, I thought to myself “It will be so nice when they’re older. They won’t need us as much!” While it’s true that we can leave the house without calling a babysitter now, it is NOT true that your kids need you less. They need you more! You need to be more present, for everything from driving to emotional support to helping them make sense of the world. It’s been a joy being with the girls as they grow into interesting, independent people – but it definitely keeps you moving.
The job has been interesting as well. I don’t always know what to expect next, but here are some highlights from 2017 and what I expect from 2018.
- The CS for All and #csk8 movement.
“Coding” is gaining more traction in my suburban public school district, and this year for the first time we started some high level discussions on how to introduce computer science as a core subject for every learner. Several colleagues and I have been working on suggested paths for a K-12 computer science sequence. We are looking for sites to pilot ideas over the next couple of years and investigating grants for professional development offered by Colorado’s Department of Education. It feels like a painfully slow process, but there is definite progress here and I’m excited to see where it goes.
I started using these cute little devices in both my required 6th-grade class and in the elective upper-middle-school class. The younger kids learned cs concepts using the block-based MakeCode environment, and the older kids learned using the text-based Python environment. It’s such an interesting tradeoff. I didn’t feel that we covered as much material as I had in previous years, but I perceived that the kids were VERY engaged in their learning and took their learning in divergent paths. Introducing the micro:bits meant that some kids did not learn as much about coding structures such as variables and boolean expressions. But they learned more about the design cycle, and got really excited about testing and iteration. They generated questions themselves like “will it still work if I’m on the opposite side of the room? Will it work if I push the buttons at the same time? Will it work if I shake and push at the same time?” And then they answered their own questions and improved on their designs, on their own. I love the excitement. I want to keep that. And I also want the kids to be well prepared for high school work and to understand important concepts in computer programming, so having it both ways is hard!
- Virtual Reality.
I have a nice gaming system with an Oculus Rift controller in my classroom, and we have a variety of VR devices in the media center. Kids have access to technology at school that they don’t necessarily have at home, and so it gives them something exciting to use at school that they are very curious about. I’ve integrated a VR unit in my upper-level CS class, and our building tech coordinator and I teach a quarterly enrichment class called VR Exploration. We work with the kids to make 3-D models in Blender and little exploration worlds in Unity. We’ve had a few students that have gone above and beyond with their work in VR and that’s been fun to see. Toward the end of this semester, we received a $5000 grant to expand our VR program and so now we’re faced with the question of: how do we grow the program? We have some thinking to do about how we make this a more inclusive and interesting and cross-disciplinary experience for kids.
- Engineering for Others.
Our media specialist runs a pretty awesome after-school program called Engineering Brightness, and I love the premise of engineering with a purpose – to help others and to help students have empathy for the human experience. I’ve been working on the technical side of the program for quite some time and incorporated a lot of the engineering ideas into my Electronics elective, and this semester for the first time we were able to produce some finished products and send solar lights out to residents of Puerto Rico who were still living without electricity. It was a fantastic experience and I definitely hope to keep the project and improve on it this coming semester.Those are the main things cooking for 2018! What’s coming up for you?
Part of my charter as the tech teacher is to facilitate learning about digital citizenship and online research. In the past I’ve used lessons from Common Sense Media and really enjoyed them. I especially love their lessons on copyright / fair use and maintaining your digital footprint.
I’ve had a few conversations with kids lately, including my own daughters, that have given me a sense of urgency when it comes to media literacy. Students love to show me funny things they encounter online and exciting or outrageous stories. Sometimes they’re real but exaggerated. Sometimes they’re total hoaxes.
One event that really made me feel a sense of urgency was when President Trump re-tweeted some clickbait videos with inflammatory titles against Muslims. The cues from the source and the video titles told me right away they were probably misleading, out of context, or possibly even fake. I’ve learned what questions to ask and so I was able to quickly realize I don’t need to be afraid of my Muslim friends or students based on the tweets. But the President is a world leader, and information coming from him carries weight. My students wouldn’t necessarily know what I do about clickbait and fake news stories. I wouldn’t want them to have bad opinions about their classmates or community members, or live in irrational fear, based on misleading information from social media. What questions should I help my students ask to really evaluate information critically? Middle-schoolers, in my experience, know about the prevalence of clickbait, fake news and bias, but they make decisions based on their gut reactions. They should start learning to look for patterns that help you make decisions about what to trust.
I started looking for lessons on fake news / clickbait / biased media, and was pretty pleased with what’s out there. Here is how we did the lesson:
Warmup: Ask students if they follow world events by reading or watching news. Most of my sixth-graders said no. Some even said their parents don’t let them watch news – it’s too upsetting (one even used the word “divisive”). Write “fake news” “clickbait” and “biased news” on the board and ask kids to share what they know about these terms. Most students are familiar with them or have at least heard of them. Some key points to bring out: fake news is completely false / made up. It might be a joke, or it might be trying to convince you it’e real. Clickbait uses an exciting title or thumbnail image to make you click, but the link usually isn’t as exciting as the title and thumbnail were. Biased news tends to be one-sided and it mixes opinions with news.
Bring out that the information economy is driven by clicks and views. The more clicks and views a site has, the more money it makes. Understanding this can make you smarter as a consumer – companies will do whatever it takes to make their link look interesting to you, so you click on it.
Activity 1: The purpose of this activity is to test their savvy at identifying real vs. fake news, and look for patterns that would help you evaluate articles in the future. Play the game FACTITIOUS at: http://factitious.augamestudio.com/#/ The game gives you a snippet of a news story and will tell you the source if you click a button. Your job is to swipe right for real news and left for fake news. Students should try to get the highest score they can the first time around. Look for tips and ideas that will help you identify fake vs. real stories the first time.
Students LOVED the game and found it really interesting and exciting. It is appropriate for middle-school. There are a couple of drug references but they’re informative and not promoting drugs.
Discuss Activity 1: Ask students what patterns they noticed that would help them be smarter about identifying fake news vs. real news. Here are some things my students mentioned. I was surprised at some of the interesting things they noticed:
- Look at the source and see if it’s reputable (like the BBC) or not reputable (like ilovepancakes.com)
- See if the article quotes professionals with real titles. Look for details like real locations.
- Look at the images – are they real images of the event or are they photoshopped or stock images?
- How is the grammar and spelling in the article?
- Does the article use ALL CAPS or emotional language?
- If it’s a science article, does it mention who did the study or what magazine the study was published in?
- Use the common sense test. Read the article past the headline and think about if it’s realistic.
Activity 2: Identify biased news and look for ways to be a smart consumer of news. I found the website allsides.com when I was doing a search on ways to teach about media bias. I really like this site and recommend it! I selected two stories that I thought would be accessible to middle-schoolers, one from the “right” and one from the “left”, that dealt with the same topic. In this case, I chose the topic of taxes but you could choose whatever topic is relevant to current events.
Left-leaning article on tax reform bill
Right-leaning article on tax reform bill
I assigned students to read the headline and first few paragraphs of either Article A or Article B. Their question prompts were:
- What is the main idea of the Senate tax bill?
- Will this bill impact people positively or negatively?
Discussion of Activity 2: The student responses were interesting. At a first glance, only about half of the students used evidence from the text to answer the question. Should I have been more specific in the question prompt? I was surprised at how many students had an opinion on the tax bill, considering they told me they don’t follow world events. Did they learn their opinions from family dinner-table conversations or do they read news more than they thought?
We’ll have the follow-up conversation next class and this is what I want to pursue.
First, list some adjectives that convey an emotion or feeling. I’ll have the kids brainstorm adjectives like “dark”, “deadly”, “bright”, “winning”, etc.
We’ll go through the articles one more time and just look for emotion-filled words or phrases. These hint at opinions in the articles.
- If we weren’t told ahead of time, we might not know these two articles are even about the same thing. Why are the articles so different if they are both news articles about a tax bill? [they’re about different parts of a tax bill and neither is about the whole thing]
- The articles are a mix of fact and opinion. What tells you that you are reading someone’s opinion vs. fact?
- What are some emotionally-charged words and phrases used in the article? Why should you be aware of these?
- Are opinion articles useful? Explain.
- If you don’t know your opinion about a topic and you’re using news articles to learn, what suggestions do you have that would help you be a smart consumer of news?
As a side note, I did have a hard time finding left-leaning and right-leaning articles that were written at a middle school reading level. Even with a tough read, though, I felt students could look for the general mood of the article and identify some phrases that would tip them off about the author’s opinion.
I will look for opportunities to bring these ideas into discussions as we move into break. Another interesting game I found is this one: Fake It to Make It. Some of the ideas might be above a middle-schooler’s head, but I think they’d enjoy this view into how social media gives us a really strange news ecosystem. I’ve read about college professors creating courses on how to write fake news. Maybe as a tie-in to web design or HTML, we could do a lesson on how to write a fake news story. For fun and education!
Earlier I posted about the Joule Thief lamps my electronics students made. Students soldered the circuit, designed enclosures and assembled the lamps. We made multiple copies of the best designs of the enclosures.
The enclosures turned out really nice! We had a few different 3-D printed designs, and one really cute “upcycled” design made from household items.
After printing the enclosures and gathering materials, we had an assembly party in class. Students signed up for the design of their choice, and the student that created the design coached them through the assembly process. We signed cards, took pictures and put all of the lamps in a box. There are 27 of them!
I was able to make contact with person I follow on Twitter, Dr. Antonio Paris, who is busy delivering supplies to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief. A vast majority of the island still has no reliable electricity! Solar lamps are a key item that people need. I got his address and shipped the box out. You can reach Dr. Paris on his GoFundMe page.
We hope our little lamps are useful to anyone who needs a rechargeable light.
If you would like to participate in this process, I was able to gather all of the instructions in one place in this Google Doc.
Please reach out to me or find the Engineering Brightness project at: http://e-b.io if you would like to get your students involved in learning about circuitry and engineering for social good. 🙂
I’ve been having fun getting to know the micro:bit with my students this year. I often plan lessons based on what they tell me they’d like to learn, and they were really intrigued by the idea of radio communication between micro:bits. So I decided to learn about it. There is a “firefly” tutorial on the documentation page here:
But I felt what I wanted to learn was even simpler than that. I just wanted to know how to send simple messages, like numbers and text, between micro:bits. I ended up making my own little tutorial and maybe someone else will find it useful.
First, I had the students copy this program and download it to their own micro:bit.
from microbit import * # must include these two lines to use the radio import radio radio.on() # any channel from 0 to 100 can be used for privacy. radio.config(channel=99) while True: if button_a.was_pressed(): # send this message over the radio. Up to 32 bytes OK. radio.send('HAPPY') sleep(200) if button_b.was_pressed(): radio.send('SAD') sleep(200) # if there's a message in the queue, retrieve it. Up to 3 messages # can be in the queue at once, and if it's full, messages are dropped. msg = radio.receive() # ALWAYS CHECK for None.. if msg != None: # as long as there is a message, display something if msg == 'HAPPY': display.show(Image.HAPPY) sleep(200) display.clear() elif msg == 'SAD': display.show(Image.SAD) sleep(200) display.clear()
After the students downloaded the program, of course they started fiddling with the buttons to see if anything would happen. The buttons don’t seem to do anything on their own device, but they would notice their device would randomly show smiley faces and sad faces. Eventually a pattern starts to emerge and students realize their button-presses are affecting the other micro:bits in the room. After a few minutes I ask the students to try and make my micro:bit happy, and they all press button A. They make my micro:bit sad by pressing button B. If a student or two can make inferences from the code, they change the code and make it send messages other than “HAPPY” or “SAD” and then my micro:bit, and the others, start scrolling strange messages. It’s hilarious and chaotic.
So next we look at the example code and dig into how the radio works. We analyze the program that’s already on their micro:bits and then, I help the kids write a very basic skeleton program that just selects a channel, sends a message and scrolls all received messages on the display. Students could use it with friends to send secret messages during class. They had fun making their skeleton programs and sending messages to me and each other.
Some students took it farther and started setting up a protocol for their micro:bits – a little agreed-upon system of communication between them. If one message is received, play a tune. If another is received, sparkle the LED’s and send a message back. This is a great direction to take future lessons – to chat about how we can make computers communicate with each other so the communication is efficient, flexible and free from errors in different situations.
I envision using the radio commands when we learn about looping and iteration. I’ve seen fun examples of games that use multiple micro:bits and think there is a lot of potential there!
I made a video with the basics of the lesson – maybe someone else will find it useful if you’re using Python with your micro:bit.
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!!