Three and a Half New Things this Year
It’s the start of a new school year, and this year I have three major new things on my plate. Well, three and a half.
1/2: The half-a-new thing I have this year is a NAO robot. I say it’s half a new thing because it doesn’t represent a big shift in curriculum or how I spend my time, but this is an expensive and exciting new toy, and it’s a big responsibility to make sure it’s used to its fullest potential. Kids are so engaged and curious about the robot, which of course is why my building bought one (we have two, actually, but I am only using one at the moment). They are rapt with attention when the robot is out doing robot things.
My current thinking is to use NAO to introduce programming concepts to the 6th graders with short demonstrations, and then I can have the whole class interact with that concept by using Scratch. I will also use NAO in one of my electives, which leads me to:
- Last year, I taught three academic electives / enrichments, and this year I teach four. I have added a Robotics Engineering class to my schedule. I found out a few days before school started that there were not enough students to fill three sections of Computer Science or Electronics. This was pretty hard to hear as I worked really hard to develop curriculum for those classes and I thought the kids loved them. There was enough interest to fill one CS and one Electronics class each semester, but not two of either of them. Thus, Robotics Engineering landed on my schedule. I am nervous about the workload, but I know Lego robots pretty well and we have a lot of them, so here’s my current plan. I will teach a unit of Lego robots with motors only, a unit of Lego robots with sensors and motors, a unit of NAO robotics, a unit of Minecraft turtles, and then a final project in which the students can choose what kind of robot to use. Speaking of Minecraft…
- One of my professional development goals this summer was to learn about Minecraft, because I had been reading so much about how Minecraft is a great educational tool… and because my own children at home play Minecraft a lot. I was wondering if I could use Minecraft in a classroom, and so my sweet children actually prepared lessons for me at home and taught me about Minecraft this summer. My lessons included basic building and digging, crafting, survival mode, agriculture, mobs and villagers, servers, and mods. It’s a really, really cool game. Every time I would play with them, I felt happy and satisfied although I would have a hard time telling you exactly what academic concepts I learned. My kids play on our home server all the time and have sort of created their own world with rules and social norms – it reminds me of when I was a kid and I created a board game with my brothers, with markers, cards, rules, etc – and we played it all the time. Minecraft gives you that access to be creative and social at the same time.
Anyway, I asked for, and received, permission to install MinecraftEDU on my computer lab machines. I am using it in my non-graded enrichment class – so there’s an extra prep I’m giving myself, but I think the enrichment will be a really interesting experiment and I’m looking forward to it. I told the students we would download sample lessons and analyze them and blog about them. We would report back on what we liked, what we didn’t like, what are best practices for using the lessons, things like that. Then at the end of the semester, we’ll make our own world with lessons that can teach middle schoolers about whatever we decide is valuable to teach in Minecraft.
My only issue with the enrichment is that there are few girls in it. I had six girls and 22 boys. I told the students I was closing enrollment to boys, but if any of them could recruit another girl to join, I would give them food. Girls need to be on board with deciding what ed-tech tools we’re using in the future. Boys should not be the only voices in this game. I hope I get a few more. Speaking of girls in tech…
- My last major initiative is an offshoot of a post I blogged about at the end of last academic year – the lack of females in computing and engineering electives. I rounded up a group of female high school students and eighth graders and we are starting the “Diversity Champions” group at Preston Middle School. I chose high schoolers because I know the young middle school girls and elementary school kids really look up to them. They see them as glamorous, sophisticated, smart, and their future ideal. They will see these girls championing computing and STEM and want to be a part of it. At least, that is what I’ve come to believe based on talking with my colleague Heidi Olinger, who runs a non-profit to include more girls in STEM fields. This group is going to meet a couple of times a month, and we’ll develop some hands-on demonstrations, talks, posters and speeches for kids and adults that will turn around the culture around computing and engineering for girls. One of our students talked about a social ladder that makes it awkward for girls to take and enjoy classes they perceive as “nerdy”. I have survey results that tell me girls don’t find computing and engineering classes fun or interesting. I think these classes are empirically fun and interesting, and they could use some good PR and marketing. That is what we are going to do this year. We’re going to make a big deal out of Computer Science Education Week in December and build up to that point by really being intentional about talking up CS and engineering to 6th grade and elementary girls.
It’s a lot to do at the beginning of a year! I came in this weekend and worked 6 hours on Saturday and 4 hours today to get things ready for the week. I will need to settle into a groove soon where lesson planning doesn’t take up so much time, but of course it will, because that is life during the school year. The good news is that when I’m lesson planning I can also play Minecraft with my kids. 🙂