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!!
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.