This is such a big year for middle school computer science. I think that finally, for grades 6-8, there is a whole menu of really high quality teaching resources – from hardware tools to lessons and tutorials to standards to whole curricula. I’m pretty much changing how I do EVERYTHING, which is exhausting but exhilarating at the same time.
In the standards area, there is a new set of standards released by the Computer Science Teachers’ Association, or CSTA, located here. They are very good overall, building from grade level to grade level, organized by concept and very clear. I think it gives a nice progression for students. Many states, my own included, are involved in efforts to develop statewide standards, curricula and resources. It’s been great to see CS education move forward and the middle-years progression is really coming together.
As far as curricular resources, there are a few great new options. Code.org has a middle school course called CS Discoveries. I didn’t get to attend the training this summer, but one of my co-workers went and although she’s not a programmer by background, she came out feeling excited and confident that she could teach the curriculum and do a good job. It’s very well done so that pretty much anyone can take it and run with it.
The middle years are a great time to introduce kids to physical computing, the idea that you use algorithms and code to program devices in the world around us. It’s such an important tech literacy concept! The CS Discoveries course uses a platform called the Circuit Playground from Adafruit. For a long time, I’ve enjoyed the Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit and its little curriculum. I’ve also noticed a lot of buzz around the UK’s platform for introducing kids to physical computing – the BBC micro:bit. They are cheap and very engaging. I ordered a class pack of them, and from Sparkfun the price is really reasonable.
I teach block-based programming to the sixth-graders and then work with the older middle schoolers on transitioning to text-based programming. For the younger kids, I was thrilled to find an entire CS curriculum for the micro:bit published by Microsoft. It is so good! I love its emphasis on “making” and creativity, and I enjoy the little unplugged activities. I was skeptical of them at first, but every time I try one of the unplugged activities I find the kids really enjoy it and it does help the concepts stick better. The curriculum is easy to follow, and I find the kids love finishing the lesson and then just playing with what they can do on the micro:bit.
I’m finding I can’t do some of the “invention” activities, because I only have one class set of micro:bits and they’re shared throughout the day. I can’t have kids mount the micro:bit in a pet or wearable, for example, because the next class needs them. That’s really a bummer – being a maker involves more than just code. I might try to do an invention project with the kids with the caveat that the enclosure has to let you insert and remove the micro:bit easily. We will see how things go this semester.
As you can see from the title of this post, one of the things I’m playing with is teaching text-based programming via Python to the seventh- and eighth- graders. I was not lucky enough to locate an entire curriculum for this, but there are some good resources out there. I am using the micro:bit python editor. You have to save your files locally instead of in the cloud, and actually this really beneficial. The students I have this year have had laptops in their classrooms since 2012, so they’re “digital natives”. But they’re so used to Google Docs and such that they sometimes don’t have a concept of what a file is or where it is actually stored. So we’re learning about local storage, networked storage, removable storage and cloud storage and figuring out how to access a file from different locations.
There are a lot of tutorials and a good reference at this site: micro:bit Python documentation. It gives a nice introduction to the different features of the micro:bit, but it doesn’t really teach Python. So I’m stitching together my own curriculum and put together these exercises.
In Lesson 1, we just wrote the normal Hello World program and the students were tasked with writing a program that displayed text and images, using some of what they found in the documentation. This task also involved uploading a program to the micro:bit and saving the file in local and networked storage.
# Add your Python code here. E.g. from microbit import * display.scroll('Hi!') while True: display.show(Image.HAPPY) sleep(1000) display.show(Image.HEART) sleep(1000)
In Lesson 2, we reviewed Python syntax and common mistakes and troubleshooting. We introduced the terms “function” and “parameter” and saved some notes on these. We talked about the “while True:” loop and why the indentation is important. It’s not just picky – the indentation communicates important things to the computer! How will it know which steps to repeat without some way of blocking them off? Then we introduced variables by making a little program that displays text that changes. Students guessed at what it might do, and then we ran it and tested the hypotheses.
from microbit import * name = 'Dawn' while True: display.scroll(name) name = 'Tyrone'
Next in Lesson 3 we made a little counter program and demonstrated the difference between the string and text data types. Students could modify it by adjusting the starting value, displaying only evens, only odds, etc.
from microbit import * # declare a variable and assign it to a value. counter = 0 while True: display.scroll(str(counter), 50) counter = counter + 1
By the end of this lesson, some students were feeling frustrated at how hard it was to load files, save files, upload to the micro:bit, figure out where the errors were and so on. But these are short programs and the debugging isn’t hard once you’re used to it. Students have to read the error on the micro:bit and it tells them which line the problem is on. They need to pay attention to little details and that can be exhausting, but it’s so important to give clear instructions to a machine. The machine can’t guess what you mean! We talked about how hard it was for them to write their names when they were children. If you think about it, it’s a long process! There can be dozens of little steps involved in writing your name and they were pretty bad at it when they first learned. But over time the steps became automatic and they got better, and now writing their name is a very simple task. Same with coding and debugging.
I could tell students were jonesing to make something that looked like a game. I decided to introduce random numbers as our next concept. So in Lesson 4 I had student volunteers pretend to be human variables, and we modeled what it would look like to write a program that multiplied random numbers together. First a random number is assigned to variable a. Then a random number is assigned to variable b. Then a and b report out what they are, and they are multiplied together and the result is stored in variable c. We report the result from variable c. Kids acted this part out.
Then we wrote the program together.
from microbit import * import random bob = random.randint(1,10) jeffrey = random.randint(1,10) display.scroll(str(bob)) display.scroll("*") display.scroll(str(jeffrey)) display.scroll("=") wilma = bob * jeffrey display.scroll(str(wilma))
Many kids wanted to adapt their program to include a “forever” loop and keep producing random math problems as long as the power was switched on. By now they understood why the indentation worked, so when I suggested a “while True:” loop with everything indented after it, they were able to add it on their own.
Lastly, I wanted to introduce them to the coordinate plane on the pixel grid. For Lesson 5 I set out 25 pieces of paper in a 5×5 grid shape. I asked for one student to be a “pixel” and another to give directions. The student giving directions had to pick a random piece of paper, and in as few instructions as possible, tell the pixel where to go. We did this a few times and then I suggested that we make the paper in the top-left corner be (0,0). Then we realized we needed a sensible order for the row/column coordinates, so we defined “x” and “y”. We found out quickly that the pixels could only go from 0 to 4 and that 5 was off the grid. Lastly we introduced a “brightness” parameter, so when the instructor student commanded a pixel, they could tell the pixel student to go to an x coordinate, y coordinate, and to squat or stand according to a brightness level. So then we wrote this simple program and I reinforced the terms “function” and “parameter”.
from microbit import * import random while True: display.set_pixel(2, 3, 9) sleep(200) display.set_pixel(2, 3, 0) sleep(200)
And then we modified it to use variables instead of fixed numbers and the kids really liked the pixel dancing around on the grid.
from microbit import * import random while True: x = random.randint(0,4) y = random.randint(0,4) display.set_pixel(x,y,9) sleep(100) display.set_pixel(x,y,0)
Note I haven’t done much in the way of assessment other than conversations and verbal questions.. so we’ll have our first quiz task sometime next week to see how this is coming along. I don’t regret the direct instruction, though. The kids are finding it valuable, and they’re enjoying the micro:bits and learning what they can do with them. They want to make games such as pong and snake, and I think once we understand how to use the buttons, radio and accelerometer, they’re going to have a really good time making things they haven’t yet envisioned. I’m learning right along with them. They ask me a ton of questions and my stock response is “I just haven’t learned that yet. I guess we will learn it together.”
It’s fun though. It keeps you young.
I spent the last 10 months (well, 9 years really) planning to take my family to see the Great American Eclipse. When I started teaching, in 2008, my mother gave me a computer program called Starry Night as a little gift for my classroom. I used it during a middle school astronomy unit, and discovered with my students that the next total solar eclipse that would be accessible to us would occur near Casper in 2017. I vowed to go see it. When I was able to zoom in on a map location, I decided Glendo State Park, right on the centerline and just off I-25 in Wyoming, would be a perfect location. As soon as reservations opened up in October 2016, I grabbed a campsite and urged all of my friends to do the same. Many families took the opportunity also, and a whole group of us reserved eclipse viewing campsites. We spent the last 10 months planning our equipment, our activities, our travel times. Finally the big weekend came!
My husband and I and our two daughters traveled to Glendo on Friday, August 18th. We traveled in very light traffic, just us and a few more than the usual number of RV’s, but nothing you’d notice. We brought our 1981 pop up camper and packed extra propane, ice, food and water. I brought my “eclipse box” with paper maps, our camping passes, eclipse glasses, stuff to make a binocular projector, a video camera with a filter, a white sheet for viewing shadow bands, contact times written down, and various tools for making pinhole projectors.
We had a lot of fun at camp on Saturday and Sunday. We rented a pontoon boat from the marina, and we brought some paddle boards as well. We enjoyed boating, paddling, swimming, and lounging on the beach. Jason went on a nice mountain bike ride. None of us had ever camped at Glendo before. It was just wonderful. We liked the campsites, we liked the lake, we liked the beach access.
On Monday, I woke up with the sun after a restless night sleeping. I had been checking the weather forecasts for days and watching them go from partly cloudy to sunny and back again, and things were looking really good for Monday now. We woke up to glorious clear skies. Made breakfast, cleaned up, grabbed the eclipse box. We had some debate over where to watch the eclipse. We could be up on the bluff or down on the beach. On the bluff, we could see the 360 degree sunset and catch both horizons. On the beach, we’d have shadows from cottonwood trees and be able to see the shadow rushing toward us over the lake. I really didn’t care as long as I experienced totality, and as long as I was with my friends. I wanted to experience it with people. In the end, the beach won out because the kids wanted to splash in the water while waiting. It was also very windy on the bluff top, and we thought the beach would be less windy.
The beach was not less windy at first. I set up my binocular projector and got out poster board for pinhole creations. The wind kept knocking down my tripod and I was so focused on problem-solving that I almost missed first contact.
We watched the moon slowly take bites out of the sun with our glasses and with my projector (when it wasn’t being blown over). The kids made pinhole projects.
When the moon had advanced quite a bit, the wind died down and it became still. The light started to become strange and eerie. Over time, we noticed the shadows of the tree leaves became crescent shaped.
My friend Patrick had the good camera in our group, and he took a couple of pictures of the eclipse progression with a filter. (If you share any of his images, please give him credit.)
I set out a white sheet so we might be able to see shadow bands. Our solar eclipse timer told us to watch for strange animal behavior. The cicadas seemed to stop but it was hard to tell. We laughed because the dog started to become restless, wandering around and laying down random places. Did she think it was time for bed? Likely she was just tuned in to our heightened emotions and wanted some comfort.
We looked and looked for shadow bands, and a couple of minutes before totality, the quality of the light changed very suddenly and dramatically. The temperature dropped and it dimmed quickly. I never did see shadow bands because my attention was drawn to the opposite lake shore. There were colorful hot air balloons above the far shore to the west, and suddenly they were not colorful but dark, and we could see the light from the flames in the balloons like little candles across the water. We could see the darkness rushing toward us, and it was so exciting, like that moment a rollercoaster reaches the peak of a hill and you know you’re going to fall and you can’t do anything about it. The dark raced across the water, completely enveloped us – and we all screamed!
Here’s a short video of our reactions up until that point.
We took the glasses off and looked up, and I don’t know how I can find the words to describe what the sun looked like. When you see pictures of a total eclipse, you see a black background and a black disc and a white halo. This was so different and so strange and amazing! The sky was a deep violet color, and above us was a strange, sharply defined black disc, an empty void, with a pink and white rim and white streamers glowing and flowing all around. They were huge streamers of light. It was bigger than I expected. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure it’s the most beautiful thing I ever will see again. I’ve seen gorgeous mountaintop vistas and exotic cities, rainforest and ocean and NEVER seen anything that hit me right in my soul like the total eclipse did. I scanned the horizon and saw gorgeous orange and purple hues in every direction, and then Venus made an appearance in the sky. It was just glorious.
I did not take any pictures myself, but Patrick’s pictures are really good.
My ten-year-old daughter also captured video of her iPod, and although you can’t see the eclipse very well I just love everyone’s reactions… we are all in our own state of rapture here.
I could see the moon making its way across the sun’s surface, and again there was that rollercoaster feeling of an inevitable rush. The diamond ring was about to show. We saw a thin line of beads and then the flash of the diamond ring… how beautiful it was… and then glasses were on again and we had to come down from our excitement.
We were all in a frenzied state, talking furiously, hugging, crying. Everyone agreed this was incredible, it was worth any trouble in the world to see and we were so glad we had each other during the eclipse. We hugged and hugged and cried some more.
Some of us stayed on the beach a while, and others started packing up right away to try and “beat the rush”. We said our goodbyes and “joked” about the next eclipse in Chile and Argentina. Maybe we’ll actually do it! Jason and I and the girls dawdled a bit. We continued to swim and paddle, we ate lunch and later had dinner at Rooch’s Marina down the road. We could see the interstate the entire time from our campsite. It was stop-and-go the ENTIRE time. We told ourselves we would leave when the traffic thinned a bit, but it never thinned. Eventually we decided we couldn’t delay the inevitable and we left at 6:50pm. We were starting to get texts from friends about the journey from Glendo to Wheatland taking hours. But we felt if we took back roads for as long as we could, we would be OK.
To make this long story shorter, we took back roads as best as we could. We got one flat tire, took an unmaintained dirt road that resulted in way more stress than it was worth for the time it saved, got on the interstate for a couple of miles, gave up because it was horrible, took state route 34 down to Laramie, fueled up there, got stuck in more stop-and-go traffic south of Laramie and finally got home at 12:15am. It is normally a little over 2 hours to Glendo and it took us 5 1/2 hours including the flat tire. Our friends that left earlier ended up taking 8, 9, even 10 hours to get home to Denver. The traffic was relentless.
Gas stations started to run out of gas. Google Maps was really confused as it insisted we were always 3 hours from home no matter how long we drove. I think the eclipse day traffic broke Google Maps’ estimation algorithms. It couldn’t fathom that many people driving out of Wyoming all at once.
We didn’t care. The total eclipse was completely worth all of the trouble and the ridiculously long drive. I have no regrets about the state park, or the beach viewing location or the photography or anything. It was the most incredible event I’ve ever been a part of. I thought I knew what awe was. I had no idea. That was awe in its purest form, the most beautiful thing you can imagine.
Some people feel small when they look up at a night sky, but I feel big. I look out and notice all of that matter, the random atoms that are spewed out by stars and make up everything we can see. And I think about how I’m made of a lot of those random atoms, and yet I’m here and conscious and looking out at all of it and taking it all in. What a privilege to be alive here, on this planet, and looking out at all of the other stuff in the galaxy and beyond, being part of this living, breathing universe and wondering what else might be out there.
Thanks so much to Patrick for the awesome pictures. Thank you to my husband Jason for being a wonderful partner on this journey and enjoying it right along with me. Thanks to my kids for humoring their nerdy mom and agreeing that everything was worth it. Thanks to my awesome Glendo camping friends for the incredible weekend and viewing experience… I wouldn’t have had this any other way! Thank you to my fellow eclipse-chasing friends on the internet for all that you have taught me and for encouraging me to make the journey!! I am so glad we went, and I can’t wait for the next total eclipse.
I really believe that a major obstacle in making much-needed changes to public education – making it more personal, relevant, flexible, enjoyable… making it less boring and more likely to build literate, happy, employable and productive members of society… a major obstacle lies in the Common Core Math Standards and everything that causes us to cling to them.
I can’t prove these standards are bad for kids’ education. I can’t prove it because we measure the quality of a child’s education by how well they take a test according to these standards, and whether they eventually learn these standards well enough to graduate high school. We don’t tend to measure the quality of a child’s education by metrics that actually matter, but when we do, the measurements aren’t good. The achievement gap persists. Students report increasing boredom and disengagement with school as they proceed through high school. Students that attend college increasingly need remediation. Employers report a dearth of applicants with needed skills for jobs. Surveys of adult science and math literacy are depressing.
A thought experiment. If there were no math standards and no curriculum and no textbooks. Nothing. All math books and online curricular resources and all math teachers suddenly went away, and we had to figure out a way to teach children what they needed to be successful, confident, productive, empathetic citizens. What would we do? We had a similar thought experiment in our Education Reimagined cohort, and interestingly, not one of us suggested anything looking like the current state of mathematics learning. We thought of many ways to make mathematics interesting, relevant, creative, personal, even joyful.
There are undoubtedly math and numeracy skills that are fundamental for our students to learn. Maybe it would be a good thought experiment to start with the end in mind. What do literate adults need to know about mathematics?
What would be on that list? Here is my list. I put stars next to “advanced”, possibly optional, topics. Just an off-the-cuff list of what I am glad to know and what I wish other people understood about math. What are yours?
- Basic principles of addition / subtraction, especially mental math and estimation
- Multiplying and dividing, again especially mental math and estimation
- Doubling and halving mentally
- Percents and proportions (mental math and back-of-napkin techniques)
- Ratios and fractions
- Using technology for all operations above and testing reasonableness of answers
- Statistics and presentation / organization of data. Estimation, identifying outliers, using technology
- Making sense of very large/very small numbers and the proportionality of them
- Scientific notation
- Formulas – substitution into a formula, and writing your own
- Spreadsheets, data collection, visualization tools, and spreadsheet formulas
- Computer programming
- Logic and puzzles (*?)
- Personal finance – taxes, loans, interest, saving for goals, budgeting, shopping.
- Entrepreneurship and running a business. Profit/income/expenses.
- Strategy, game-playing *
- Simulation, modeling, making predictions. Taking a real-life situation and modeling it with bare-bones variables, with or without technology. Evaluating a simulation to determine if it’s valid. (*?)
- Measurement, units and unit conversions. Length, weight, volume, mass, area, speed, time. Making your own units when needed. Using measurements in: Food prep, sewing, crafting/DIY, gardening, home improvement, public transportation and auto care.
- Coordinate graphing – plotting points in 1, 2, and 3 dimensional space and making meaning from the graphs – creating your own coordinate axes and using them – xy and xyz. Applied math in 3-D design and automation.
- Trigonometry – sin,cos,tan and using these in 2D and 3D space for design *
I believe most of these skills can be taught in an applied way, relevant for students at whatever age they learn them, in the context of a project or experience. Students that enjoy learning math for the joy of pattern-finding, logic and thinking just for the purpose of improving one’s thinking could certainly dive deeply into theoretical mathematics. But there’s no reason all students would need to learn most theoretical mathematics. I think they could learn to find beauty, joy AND relevance in math and learn numeracy in an applied context.
Did I come close to your list? What did yours have on it?
For kicks, now go to the Common Core Math Standards website and browse through. This is the essential set of math knowledge experts deem that kids need to master by the end of each grade band. By the end of high school, to be college-and-career-ready, you should have mastered the whole thing. This is the low bar. Is that where you would have put it? Why or why not?
I have to tell you I find the high school standards outright discouraging. They are difficult to understand, even for me, a former engineer with a major in Computer Engineering and an almost-minor in mathematics. As a teacher, you have to search the far corners of your brain and your resource library to TRY and find a way to make many of those standards relevant or interesting. Kids don’t retain them after a unit’s over, let alone after a summer or a year or two. They don’t retain the math knowledge because it doesn’t connect to anything in their lives. There’s no purpose for it. Nobody in the “real world” actually interacts with math in the same way we do in a math classroom. As teachers, we know this about brain-based learning and we teach these stupid standards anyway.
Colorado is beginning a review process for all of its content-area standards, including math. I applied to be on the standards review committee, but didn’t make the cut. I started the lengthy process of giving feedback via the online system, but I’m embarrassed to say that around the submission deadline, I ended up swamped with things to do at school and in life, and I never turned in my answers. I did get a chance to talk with a representative from the CDE about the first review meetings, to ask him what kind of changes they were thinking of. Would Colorado keep Common Core? He indicated that we probably would, but the new standards would be better organized, easier to search and more useful for teachers.
This is ridiculous. They need to be gutted. We need to start over.
I studied computer engineering in college. I went to school on a 4-year scholarship, so I had 8 semesters to get a degree before the money ran out. This is important because I had to pass every class I took. I couldn’t fail a class or I might lose my scholarship, and if I had to repeat a class that was a prerequisite, I might not graduate on time.
Along the way, I took my first class in circuits, and I got a B. Good enough to pass and move onward to the next class. However, I knew at the time that I was struggling to understand circuits. I did reasonably well on the assessments, but I didn’t really get how an RC or LC circuit worked, or the meaning behind Maxwell’s equations or Gauss’ formula. I could use ratios to calculate the output of a transformer, but I didn’t really understand why they worked. I could answer questions about transistors but was helpless when it came to designing something with them.
I remember wishing that I could just retake circuits even though I had passed. I felt at the time that I had to move on to the next class. A lot of electrical engineering went over my head because I was a little lacking on the fundamentals.
I’m reflecting on this now, because at the middle school level I often have students repeat a class. I’ve had students that have signed up for CS or Electronics 2 or 3 times. Does this ever happen in a high school? It can be a great experience for me and the kids. The benefits are different for every student.
Take James, for instance. James took Computer Science Exploration last spring, and signed up for it again this spring. Last year, we made projects in Unity and James made a little forest scene you could walk around. This year, James made an immersive Robot War game, with marching animated robots, a scoreboard, and rocket launchers. In one year the growth was incredible. It was clear James understood what he was doing much better than he had the year before. He enjoyed retaking the class and going farther with the material.
Kamiya took Electronics in 7th grade and then came to my classroom at the beginning of 2nd semester. She asked if she could be a TA during the spring, and I said yes. She continued to be a TA in Electronics for 2 consecutive semesters. She was interviewed about the class partway through her second time as a TA. She said she loved learning about electronics, and it was her passion. She never minded being in the same class over and over, because she learned something new every time. Things were taught in a slightly different way, with different projects. Kamiya came with me to conferences and presentations often. I knew if I asked her to present to our superintendent, or congressional representative, or at the ISTE conference, she would do a good job. Kamiya is a generally shy kid who really seemed to blossom when she was making things with technology. She went on to participate in a nationally-honored FIRST robotics team in high school, and I like hearing about what she’s up to.
Luis took Electronics for the first time and did reasonably well and got a B. I knew he probably didn’t understand the content solidly, but he did a decent job and passed. When he signed up for the class the second time, I offered him a choice and said he could either take the class as a student, to learn the material better, or he could take the class as a TA and help others. He chose to take the class as a TA. Even though he wasn’t a top-tier performer in the class the first time around, this was an option that worked for him. Patrick is shy and needed support when it came to friendships and bullying. Being a TA helped him learn more about electronics but mainly improve his status. He helped other students when he could and alerted me to their needs when he couldn’t. He told me that he felt the class was a safe haven for him, where he didn’t feel any academic or social pressure. I suppose he needed that more than he needed to know about Ohm’s law.
For James, Kamiya, and Luis, re-taking a class helped them to grow in ways they needed. I love that our school gives kids the option to sign up for a class a second time – no penalty, no pressure. If you want to learn a little more and in a slightly different way you can re-take a class and tailor the experience to meet your needs.
I wish I’d had that option in college with circuits class. Or I wish I had known about it and had taken it. I think it would have really helped me grow as an engineer to learn the same material again, with no pressure and no risk, just to make sure I understood it.
I have been teaching computer science for 3 years now, and I’ve never actually had any training or PD on the pedagogy of computer science! I was thrilled when my friend Kristina Brown (twitter: @MsBrownTeachCS) told me she was able to round up some support and a little funding to go. Although I had to pay a little of my own way, I am really glad I got to attend! Here are some of the highlights of the sessions I went to. Many of the sessions were set up as a themed group – 20 or 25 minutes each, three presentations in a row. You could float between groups, but if you were interested in the theme it was easy to just stay and get information on three projects all at once. I liked the format of these sessions. Although the time frame seemed rushed for the presenters, I thought it was perfect for the audience. We were engaged the whole time, we got a short movement or stand-stretch break between each one, and we never got bored.
I went to a couple of sessions in this theme – one, presented by Shuchi Grover and Satabdi Basu, was about using formative assessments to identify misconceptions students had about CS concepts. Tobias Kohn led the next presentation on a related topic, beginners’ misconceptions about variables. When I taught math, I frequently got training on how to identify, question and correct common misconceptions of students – but this was the first time I’d had similar training in CS. Many of the misconceptions they talked about are ones I wrestle with when I teach middle schoolers:
- Not understanding the assignment operator is different from the equality operator in math
- Missing loop initialization
- Grouping items in a loop incorrectly
- Not understanding a variable’s value has been changed after an assignment operator
- Not understanding a variable’s value can change during a loop’s execution
- Confusing OR, AND boolean operators
I feel I understand better how to ask questions, use assessments and identify the misconceptions, but I think I will still struggle with how to correct them. I have many 7th and 8th graders who are still struggling with how to write a basic program that asks for input, does some math, and produces an output. I know some of the misconceptions above are to blame, and they can be devilish to fix.
Data Science for Kids:
I also went to a session on “Introducing Data Science to School Kids” by Shashank Srikant and Varun Aggarwal, and this was one of my favorites of the whole conference. I had been thinking for a long time that data science was a neglected area in beginner CS but I didn’t know how to teach it, so this gave me a great place to start. These researchers developed a lesson toolkit that tasks kids with developing an algorithm that can predict whether they’d want to be friends with someone, and testing the algorithm. It also covers data privacy and consent… really good, full lesson set. You can find it online here! http://www.datasciencekids.org/p/home-page.html
I enjoyed a session presented by Yin Pan, Sumita Mishra, and David Schwartz about “gamifying” a college-level course using an achievement map. I had been thinking I would love to have badging and an achievement map for my beginner classes. Their interface allows for creating assessments. http://forensic-games.csec.rit.edu/ I would have to consider if I want to put a lot of investment into something like this, but I love the idea.
I went to a session led by Sue Sentance which was a report on how students enjoyed using the BBC Micro:Bit in a few locations where it was deployed. I’m really interested in this device and hope to purchase a set for next year. You can now pre-order them from Sparkfun and other retailers. The research showed students are really interested in this device, but teachers seemed to struggle with it for a number of reasons. The delivery was really late. Many teachers understood how to teach the basic lessons but struggled to connect larger concepts of computer science and physical computing. Teachers had a hard time making the time for the Micro:Bit due to a lack of training and the unpredictable timing of when they actually got the devices. These would need to be addressed in a successful implementation!
I went to several sessions on blocks-based programming and encouraging diversity in computing, and in the process, discovered some new computing tools that can be used for content creation in a variety of formats!
Netsblox: Found here http://editor.netsblox.org This tool uses SNAP!, a block-based language really similar to Scratch. The researchers have added some interesting blocks to SNAP to encourage distributed computing – remote procedure calls and messaging. Through these blocks, students can have users at different computers interact with each other. You can create multi-player games and also interact with NASA, Google maps, Twitter and more. I thought it was a really exciting idea. I would need to have better control over user accounts and “friends” lists in order to use this with young kids.
TurtleStitch: Found here http://www.turtlestitch.org/ A variant of SNAP! in which you can code a turtle to make an embroidery pattern and then upload the pattern to a professional embroidery machine. The presenters used the program at a STEM camp to encourage student self-expression. The students made their own personal logo and stitched it on a T-shirt! I tried to find embroidery machines that would work with the file formats in this program, but I can’t tell if a basic $400 machine would be able to actually stitch the patterns. I need to do a little more research to see if an embroidery machine would be a good addition to our makerspace.
Beetle Blocks: Found here http://beetleblocks.com/ you can program a “beetle” instead of a turtle. The beetle moves in 3-d space and can extrude filament behind it to create a 3-D model! You can export the 3-D model for use in a 3-D printer or in any other modeling tool such as Blender, Unity, or TinkerCad. I love this tool. I found some great examples by another CS teacher / blogger I follow, Laurel Pollard. She makes earrings with Beetle Blocks, among other cool things. I made a tower of hearts and 3-d printed it. I thought for my first project it wasn’t too bad!
And here it is!
EarSketch: Making music with Python. Intriguing! I didn’t get a chance to play with it, but I’m interested. https://earsketch.gatech.edu/landing/#/
Jupyter Notebooks: This was presented as an interactive notebook in which you can do storytelling and coding, and it gives you a runtime environment for Python code. You can find it here: http://jupyter.org/ I would be really interested in this environment if it does what I think it does. I’m going to explore it this summer. I usually use OneNote as an interactive notebook, and I ask students to copy and paste their code there. How nice would it be to just be able to execute the code and keep notes all in one place?
There are example assignments and puzzles here. http://norvig.com/ipython/
Building Capacity and Professional Development:
I attended a number of sessions that touched on how to develop more CS teaching capacity. New Mexico started a program to train science teachers in NetLogo, and through a blend of online and in-person learning, recruited dozens of teachers to offer a new course integrating simulations and coding into science. Utah created a tiered certification program for teachers, allowing many teachers to offer CS at an entry point appropriate for them. The UK created a computing certificate for teachers that included online coursework, an individual coding project, and an action research component on CS pedagogy. I loved this model and thought it has a lot of potential for my own district.
I also got to attend a “birds of a feather” session on the K-12 CSTA standards, which are almost ready for full release. I like the standards overall. I notice that they represent a big philosophical change from what I am used to, which is the K-12 Common Core math standards. In order for someone to teach the CSTA standards well, they would have to offer a chance to create an involved capstone project. Many of the standards are something you *could* teach with a couple of lessons and a quiz, but students can’t truly demonstrate they learned the concept without actually creating a meaningful, authentic project that includes the idea. We talked about the need for examples and rubrics. What does mastery vs. proficiency look like at different grade bands? Those conversations will need to be hashed out, but the standards-writers could help us along with built-in rubrics where appropriate.
Networking with Friends
Finally it was awesome to meet up with several people I knew from online but hadn’t met in person. 🙂 Thanks to Sheena Vaidyanathan, Kim Wilkens, and Todd Lash, my Twitter #csk8 friends who sought me out and said hi! And Mike Zamansky, a fellow blogger and Tweeter. It was great to connect and share ideas. I also got to meet several of Kristina’s AP CS contacts from around the internet and it was great. Thanks to all of you for commiserating with me – this job is hard, and it often helps to know you share a lot of the same struggles.
I really enjoyed SIGCSE 2017 and I felt I came away with a lot of interesting tools to try, and new insights on computer science education. I hope I get to attend another CS education conference again sometime!
Image: By Wolfgang Strickling [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There’s a big event coming to the USA on August 21st of this year, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a decade – ever since I heard of it. We get a coast-to-coast total eclipse of the sun, and many, many people live within a day’s drive of the path of totality. One of my favorite places to get info about the event is http://www.eclipse2017.org/ largely because I love their Google Map of the path, provided by Xavier Jubier, here.
As soon as camping reservations opened up along the centerline, I pounced and made our reservations. Many people are just learning about the eclipse now, however. I have started educating my students about what an eclipse is and why they should get to the path of totality on eclipse day. Every so often, I see a news story on my social media about the eclipse. It will start to get big, and I am sure many people will decide last-minute to get to the path of totality to take it in.
Since Denver and the front-range cities are within a day’s drive of the path, I wanted to use this space to share what I’ve learned about accommodations for viewing the eclipse.
If you live in Denver or Northern Colorado, you’re most likely thinking of heading north along I-25 to Wyoming to view the eclipse. Totality will occur along I-25 starting at Wheatland, all the way through where the interstate bends west and goes through Casper, then about 30 miles north into the wide open country. Most of the eclipse path in Wyoming has excellent weather prospects, so we’re lucky to have prime viewing areas so close to us!
Although Wheatland is on the southern edge of the path, most of town will still see almost a minute of totality. Recently, there were still hotel rooms available in Wheatland (although a couple of the hotels were charging premium rates, roughly $500 per night).
Just northeast of Wheatland is Grayrocks Reservoir. There’s a map of the reservoir here. The reservoir has primitive camping, or you could bring your boat on the lake and watch the eclipse from the water – or just drive up for a daytrip as it’s less than 3 hours from Denver. It will probably be less crowded to be farther away from the interstate, and this short jog northeast brings the time of totality to almost 2 minutes.
If you keep going east past Grayrocks Reservoir, you reach Fort Laramie, and then Lingle and Torrington. Fort Laramie is a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. Torrington has camping, hotels and restaurants. The corridor from Wheatland through Torrington can be reached in less than 3 hours from Denver, and being on the southern edge of totality, this area may see smaller crowds and give you better mobility than areas on the center line. Yet you’ll still see a total eclipse for 1-2 minutes.
Continuing north on I-25 past Wheatland, you get to the Guernsey exit. Guernsey is about 15 miles east of I-25 and is home to a state park on a reservoir and historic Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts left in the sandstone. The camping at Guernsey State Park is booked, but there is a golf course RV campground and a couple of motels. The Wyoming State Park system is offering day passes on its website. You can use one of the day passes to get in to any state park on the path of totality – Guernsey, Glendo State Park a little farther north, Edness K Wilkins State Park in Casper, and Boysen State Park near Shoshoni. This would give you guaranteed parking wherever your eclipse-day plans end up taking you, and you’d have access to the state park programs such as ranger talks.
Further north on I-25, you arrive at Glendo. Glendo is home to another state park on a reservoir, with the same day-pass program as Guernsey. Camping there has been booked for some time. Glendo is where the centerline of the path of totality intersects a major interstate highway going north from Denver. It’s still less than 3 hours away from Denver, and as such I expect this will be a very popular location as long as the weather looks good! Glendo is doing a lot of preparation for the eclipse. The town only has a population of 200 people – but it will likely swell to tens of thousands on eclipse day. Is it possible it could be hundreds of thousands? The state park will be busy, with hikes and ranger talks, boating and camping, and the main attractions will be at the Glendo Airport right next to the interstate. This will be the main viewing area along with vendors and exhibits. The school will also have eclipse exhibits.
If you decide to keep going on I-25, you get to the Orin exit, which has a rest area but limited facilities otherwise. If you go east from here and leave the interstate, there will be roadside stops but no actual towns – and you get to experience the vast openness and nothingness that is most of Wyoming. The first town of any size is Lusk – although in the northern part of the path of totality, Lusk will still see almost 2 minutes of the total eclipse. The town website for Lusk doesn’t indicate any eclipse events yet, so I don’t think they are doing a ton of planning or expecting big crowds. The biggest groups they may see will be people migrating south from the Black Hills area of South Dakota.
Continuing on I-25 from Orin, the interstate bends west and follows the path of totality through to Casper. Douglas and Glenrock are towns along this route, with lodging, viewing areas, and eclipse-related events planned. One charming stop might be Ayres Natural Bridge, a rock formation in a county park south of the interstate.
Casper will be an eclipse hotspot, as the first really sizable town north from Denver, with great weather prospects and the presence of the AstroCon convention. It takes about 4 hours to get to Casper from Denver, making it still doable for a daytrip for people who leave really early. Lodging in Casper has been booked for quite some time.
Finally, an additional option for people heading up for a daytrip from Denver would be to stop in southwestern Nebraska. Scottsbluff is on the southern edge of the totality path, but Scotts Bluff National Monument will still see 1 1/2 minutes of totality. The communities of Scottsbluff and Gering, along with the National Park Service, have set up viewing events and plenty of parking and free eclipse glasses. There is also a beer and wine festival in downtown Scottsbluff. This area promises to have a fun, community-wide celebration with easy in-and-out access to Denver and Colorado’s front range. In addition, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is located in a more remote location north of Scottsbluff but will see a longer eclipse. Finally, the area around Alliance, home of Carhenge, the quirky replica of Stonehenge made from cars, will have about 2 1/2 minutes of totality and has plenty of community events planned. Intriguingly, there’s a music festival named Toadstock: Party on the Prairie. Still tickets available and free camping, and close to the centerline of the eclipse. I found a couple of other lodging options but don’t know how full they are. Viewing areas in Alliance will be available in several locations. Scottsbluff is almost exactly a 3 hour drive from Denver, and Alliance is 45 minutes northeast of there.
I made a Google Map with the information I know about eclipse viewing, lodging and events in southeastern Wyoming and southwestern Nebraska. I did not include Casper in the event map, but focused on everything within a 4-hour drive of Denver. This is my first total eclipse, but I can tell I am going to want to make it to another. If you possibly can, get out there.
Get solar glasses and eclipse viewing tips here:
Eclipse Chaser blogs:
And if you’re a teacher, start talking to your students, your district and your parent community about this as soon as you can. The eclipse will be seen throughout the entire USA and you’ll want to make sure all of your students have a chance to view it, get glasses and/or make pinhole viewers. The students may or may not be in school when the event happens, so encourage your school district to make plans now.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about competency-based education – the idea that learners should be able to progress through a flexible map of skills or concepts or dispositions, tracking progress and reflecting as they go, with as much choice as is reasonable on the timing and nature of the learning, on a time scale that’s right for them. Simple… right? I’m playing with some ways of piloting the idea in my classroom and I keep thinking about gaming in this process. Most video games have levels or achievements, and gamifying education is based on the inherent motivation built into video games. Every time you fail a level, you get to try again. You try until you succeed. Success metrics are clear, and when you succeed you go on to the next level. I like playing Minecraft with my kids, and we have fun finding our way through the Minecraft achievement map. The skills are really clear-cut and the achievements have to be done in order.
I wonder if I can apply the gamification principles to a class I teach. I’m experimenting with OneNote Class Notebook to push an achievement map out to my students. I need the map to be flexible – I don’t have it all written right now, and I’m not sure a competency map should be articulated completely from beginning to end. Do you want your child’s educational path pre-mapped from K through 12 or do you want them to be able to take unexpected turns as needed? I’d like to be able to push achievement challenges to the students as they come up, and maybe assign achievements flexibly depending on student choice and need.
I can push the achievements out as documents that contain a checklist, maybe a place to paste some code, and a reflection from the student. I can respond to their achievements and use this as the basis for conferencing with them about their learning.
For example, as my first two achievements for kids:
This semester, I wouldn’t use the achievement map as a grade, but I could leave the door open for it as an assessment tool in the future. How far would a student need to progress through the map to “pass” the class and move on to the next one? This is something I hope to answer after this semester.
I really wish I could create a clickable map like the Minecraft one, where you could hover over a box and it would tell you about the achievement, or click on the box to submit an entry to pass the achievement. When you passed one, the following achievements would be enabled. I know this is doable, but time and 217 students and so many preps and…. it’ll have to wait for a break, unless someone has created a tool like this and I just don’t know about it. Any badging or achievement-mapping tools out there that I should learn about?
What do you think? Have you ever gamified a graded class? What structures did you use and what should I fix before diving into this?
A couple of years ago, one of my former students came to visit. He brought business cards and a selection of little printed circuit-boards, or PCB’s. My questioning turned into a lesson in which a 15-year-old kid taught me how to install some circuit-designing software, create my own circuit board, export the design and e-mail it to a factory in China where the boards would be manufactured and mailed to me. It was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever learned! I feel I got some valuable consulting work from this student, and he provided it for free. What a generous gift and a valuable example of a teacher and student learning together.
I found out since that time that you can actually etch your own printed circuit boards at home, for quick prototyping. In electronics class, my co-worker Tracey and I created an engineering project for the students: design or modify a small, rechargeable LED-based lantern that works. This semester, I thought I would offer the opportunity for students to learn to etch their own PCB’s if they wanted to do it for their design. This was a rich and challenging project, and I want to share how we did this with middle school kids – with some notes of caution. It’s hard to do in a big group. I was grateful to have Tracey’s presence to work with most of the class on an alternate lesson while I took small groups to work on PCB design and etching. It was failure-prone and high-frustration, but also high-reward. Here’s how we did it.
First, the students need to design their circuit and generate a high quality, printable image of the copper traces. I used Fritzing, a free program that is fairly easy to use. I taught the students how to lay out a simple parallel circuit with resistors and LED’s. The components can be either surface mount (SMD) or through-hole (THT), but you want to choose Through-hole. Pay attention to the pin spacing to make sure it matches the components you have. In our case, we needed 3 mm spacing for the LED’s and 400 mils (these are thousandths of an inch, not the same as mm) for the resistors. I don’t know why the default units were different. I added a couple of via’s to connect to the switch and battery. Choose the “home-etched” setting for via’s to make them a little bigger.
Students could add as many resistor/LED pairs as they wanted, and rearrange them as needed. Some students created some interesting layouts for their PCB.
Next, we had to export the file to a high quality PDF. In Fritzing, choose File –> Export –> As Image –> PDF.
I stitched together a couple of methods from online articles for the etching part. This article from Hackaday used the magazine page transfer method, and it worked all right with some cautions.
Here are the supplies you need for this step..
- Glossy magazine paper and a laser printer. We found the alumni magazine from my university works well! Its 8 1/2 by 11 size and nice sturdy paper loaded and printed in the laser printer perfectly. We had some success with catalogs pulled from my mailbox too, although the paper was thinner so it tended to jam.
- One-sided copper clad PCB. You can get lots of this very cheap on eBay.
- An iron and ironing board (we borrowed these from the family consumer science teacher)
- A scotch-brite scrubbing pad.
You need to load the glossy paper into your laser printer and print the PDF of the copper traces. Fritzing will export a lot of files into a folder – print the one that ends in “copper_top_mirror”. You might have to try a few times before you get a nice printout on the magazine paper.
Buff the copper-clad PCB with the scotch-brite pad, until it’s roughed up a little.
Turn the iron to its hottest setting, and make sure there’s no water in the iron. Put the magazine paper with the image on it face-down onto the copper clad. Push down HARD with the iron for a full two minutes. Then move the iron around still pressing down hard, for 4 more minutes. This process sometimes took 4 tries to get a good transfer and was really difficult with a number of groups to work with. Imagine it takes pressure on every wire trace in order to transfer it from the paper to the board, and visualize how you have to press the iron down to make this happen.
Inspect the copper clad to make sure the image transferred with no thin or broken spots. We attempted to fix a couple of the designs with Sharpie, but it really didn’t work well. Better to transfer properly the first time.
Now you’re ready for the etching. For this part, I used the second half of the instructions from Blondihack. Some blogs recommend using muriatic acid, but with middle-schoolers the normal kitchen chemicals are the way to go here. You will not regret using plain old vinegar. You really should use a proper science lab with fume hoods, sinks and safety equipment. At the very least, make sure you have safety goggles and nitrile gloves for everyone, and access to a sink. To do the etching, you need:
- White vinegar
- Household hydrogen peroxide
- Some salt
- Foam brushes
- Plastic tubs
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Safety goggles and gloves
- A timer
- Acetone (nail polish remover)
It’s pretty simple. Pour equal portions of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar into a shallow plastic tub. Add about a teaspoon of salt and stir it gently. When the salt is dissolved, put the PCB into the solution. You’ll see a film of yellowish gunk appear on the board, and over time the liquid will turn blue. About once a minute, use the foam brush to wipe the gunk off. It took us about 50 minutes to complete the etching. When you’re close to done, the edges of your board will be free of copper. You’ll know you’re done when all of the copper is dissolved except for what’s under the black toner. When you’re at this point, rinse the board with lots of water. We washed the remaining etching solution down the drain with lots and lots of fresh water.
When the board was rinsed, we took paper towels and some nail polish remover (acetone) and scrubbed the rest of the toner off the board until the copper was visible.
I used Blondihack’s method for drilling holes with a Dremel tool. I did the drilling and chose not to let students use the Dremel. It has the potential to really hurt you and this step requires a steady hand. Get your inner brain surgeon ready.
For the drilling, you’ll need:
- A Dremel rotary tool
- Quick-change Collet nuts (you need the smallest one) or a 1/32 inch drill chuck
- A 1/32 inch drill bit (I bought this set)
- A clamp and a piece of scrap wood
I recommend clamping your PCB to the table on top of scrap wood. You really want to make sure it doesn’t move around. Wear the safety goggles. Use the 1/32 inch drill bit and carefully drill a hole in each location on the PCB.
Next the students can solder the components onto the PCB. You can only solder them onto the copper trace, not onto the blank side of the board. Clip on the battery and test it out! Students sometimes had to use solder or jumper wires to fix locations where the copper traces were broken or thin. They cut the boards down to size with tin snips (fairly cheap at Home Depot) and sanded them when needed.
The groups that had fewer problems were able to finish their circuit boards in 3 class periods, but some student groups took up to 6 class periods. These groups had to re-do steps along the way, usually in the printing and transferring, but sometimes in the soldering as well.
It was a supremely rewarding process. The students were so proud of their work. We all learned a lot about how printed circuit boards are made, and I think the kids felt as empowered as I did when I made my first PCB with that student so long ago. Students stayed after class and after school, trying over and over to get the process right. They really wanted to finish it once they started.
I would strongly recommend having extra adult supervision if you try this activity with kids. Six students at a time seemed to be my capacity – consider bringing in parent volunteers or community members and training them on what to do. Plan ahead for science lab space, drilling and soldering, and for how you’re going to manage failures, because they will happen. It’s part of engineering.
If you try PCB etching with your engineering students, I’d love to hear from you. What went well? What would you do differently? What did I miss that I could be doing better?
In my 6th grade tech class, called Web 2.0, my colleagues convinced me to include some keyboarding practice in the curriculum. It’s not a fun topic to teach, but it is a really important life skill and it’s not taught in any of the kids’ other core classes. One of my fellow tech teachers had a great idea to have students keep a spreadsheet of their keyboarding speeds throughout the quarter. The students take a 1-minute test every day and log their score in the spreadsheet. We use the sheet to teach students about using formulas, and it’s a good daily reflection tool on their growth.
We use NitroType and typing.com as tools for practice. NitroType is really engaging and I really like the drills on typing.com.
I have the students calculate their average speed (the average formula), their growth (using max, min, and subtraction), and how many times they got 25 words per minute or more (using the “countif” formula). A finished spreadsheet looks like this.
Here’s what I find fascinating. I think teaching keyboarding is really boring. The online tools make it bearable. I put on my game face and practice with the students, and challenge them to race me to keep myself engaged in it. The students, however, LOVE it, and I think what they like about it is that they track their progress with a number. They know when they’ve improved. The goal is crystal clear and they can tell instantly if they’ve met it.
At the end of the quarter, I asked the students to reflect on whether they met either the goal I set for them (which was to gain 10WPM and be over 25WPM at least once), and whether they felt they had met their personal goal. These were some of their comments.
“I Met my score :)”
“I love TYPING”
“My goal was to increase by 10 words per minute. I started at 27 words per minute and slowly increased and got better until I got to 39 words per minute which was past my goal”
“My goal was to get to 35 WPM and I passed it by 10, I am really happy.”
“My goal was to get more accurate and more comfortable without looking at the keys. This I think I did improve on.”
“I improved so much!!!!!!!!”
“I think I’ve really improved with my keyboarding. I think I met my goal because I beat 25 by at least 20 and all of my scores were in the green. I will continue to practice keyboarding as I believe it will help me in the future. The time we had in class helped my improve and I fell like I’m 10 times faster than I was last year. Even if that is an exaggeration I really mean it when I say I got a lot better, so thank you for making me not only a better typer, but a better student as well.”
“I got to 25! That was very exiting because I am not that fast at typing! and I made my spread sheet very colorful!”
“I am proud of where I am with my typing and gained ten WPM”
Isn’t it interesting how motivating it is to have a clear goal and know immediately if you’ve met it or are improving? I see this every quarter. I wish I had a way to give students this instant satisfaction in classes in which progress is slower and proceeds over the course of a project. Learning coding can feel like this if you do activities like an Hour of Code, but what about learning in a creative problem-solving setting, where you have to investigate, discover, create, try and fail, iterate, gather data and perfect an actual product? Can I help students reflect on their day-to-day growth and their short-term goal setting as a motivational tool? I’m sure I can facilitate this by putting some good reflection tools in place. Let’s make this a New Year’s Resolution – I will help my students become motivated and reflective learners, and to track their own progress to make them feel the same sense of satisfaction my keyboarding students get.
Hi everyone, sorry for the long silence on the blog. I don’t have any good excuses but would love to do better. Sometimes I have so many things going at once that if I think for an evening about what I want to write, everything is different the next day.
Here’s the report on how Fall 2016 went at Preston Middle School and beyond. It was quite a whirlwind!
Before school even started, I traveled to Washington, DC for the Teacher Leadership Initiative Alumni Academy through the NEA. We did a lot of group brainstorming on some of the sticky issues of teacher leadership. The team really focused on what to expect under ESSA (the new law replacing No Child Left Behind, which puts a lot more power and flexibility in the hands of states), as well as early career teacher retention and mentorship. I did some targeted work with a small team on the student-discipline aspects of ESSA, which requires states and districts to track discipline data and disaggregate it by subgroup. Sharing stories, we realized our schools and districts still have much progress to make in this area. There’s ample evidence that suspensions and exclusionary practices result in worse educational outcomes and they’re applied unevenly when it comes to the students’ race or special education status. Yet many schools still practice them – here’s an area where our association needs to help educators take a stand on behalf of the kids.
I always enjoy working with my colleagues at the NEA, and I appreciate what they do for the 3 million of us (!!!) that are members.
Also in August, my family and I vacationed hard and had visits from friends right up until the day school started. It was a rush to get ready for the school year to start! Our building tech coordinator, Matt, and I also had to set up and plan for a year of working with our new VR makerspace. We had won a grant for it in the spring, and so we spent some time in the summer ordering equipment and getting the makerspace ready.
I taught five different classes this fall, and had over 200 students total – not too uncommon for a middle school elective teacher. Most of August is spent just getting things started – learning names, establishing your classroom norms, getting started with whatever it is you’re planning to do.
All of my classes moved forward with learning content and working on projects – Scratch, Processing, Arduino, NAO robots, and Minecraft kept all of us busy. Toward the end of the month, I traveled to San Diego to work with Convergence on their Education Reimagined initiative. I represent a group with Poudre Education Association and Poudre School District at these events. Education Reimagined networks practitioners who are moving toward learner-centered education – a model in which schooling looks very different from what we think of as schools. In this model, education is driven by the needs of the learners instead of the needs of the system around it. The learners have choice, develop an individual map of competencies instead of progressing through grade levels, learn socially as not just students but as peers and teachers, and they learn in the context of the world they live in. These events involve very big thinking and it can be difficult to find the thing you’re going to change in your classroom Monday morning. You come back wanting to tear down the whole structure you work in, wanting to rebuild it based on the new paradigm. It’s hard to do work like this in short bursts and then come back to a traditional public middle school. I try my best to be learner-centered in the 90 minutes I have with all of my 200 students every other day, but of course there are limits to how far we can take it. If you’ve ever thought about the big structural changes you’d like to make to your own schooling environment, or if you’ve had some success making those changes, it would be wonderful to network with you.
I traveled to Providence, RI with my colleagues in the Allen Distinguished Educator program in the middle of the month. Sometimes I come back from a professional development experience thinking how far ahead my school is when it comes to innovative education. And other times I’m deeply humbled as I realize how much I could still grow. My meetings with the ADE’s always fall into this category. My colleagues have allowed their students to grow into true engineers and entrepreneurs, and they seem more energized the more they do. We visited the MET, a Big Picture Learning school in Providence, and we toured the entrepreneurship program and met some of the amazing students there. We also visited AS220, an arts school and also a residential art program that really focuses on students who have been in the correctional system.
The more I visit programs such as these and hear the stories of lives changed and inspired, the more ridiculous our current standards-based curricula and accountability systems seem. The real work of changing lives requires more out of us – harder thinking from the adults as well as the kids in the system.
In addition, in October, we got a really interesting invitation from Colorado State University to attend a Virtual Reality symposium and hackathon as special guests. I hoped the students might be able to participate in the hackathon (some of the middle schoolers would have done really well), but that was not to be. But the symposium was great. Matt and I had 20 kids attend the symposium and another dozen come to visit the hackathon. I think anytime a student gets a chance to be in a university setting, talking about academic topics with the adults, it’s good for them. Some of the language was over their heads and the students described the experience as “sometimes boring but also interesting”. We never knew some of the ways VR could be used, and how exciting it could be if we were involved in the cutting edge of that kind of research. Everything from immunology to big data to civil engineering.
Matt and I infused the symposium experiences into class curriculum by including readings and videos for the kids about the future of VR, and by allowing kids to choose to work on semester projects in Unity that explored how VR can be used to make the world better.
In 2016, the Colorado State House passed a law requiring the CDE to develop standards for Computer Science, and allowing districts to opt into them. The bar is set low here, but the ceiling is high. At the very least, the initiative to develop standards gets educators talking about CS education and that’s worthy in itself. The effort to develop standards and get stakeholders together is just getting started. With a couple of my co-workers at the high school and district level, I attended a stakeholders’ meeting and standards input meeting in November. It was great to meet the folks in Colorado passionate about bringing computer science education to every kid. There are a lot of us, from diverse backgrounds, involved. Leaders from government, nonprofits, K-12 education, higher education, and private industry all had a lot in common. We believe computer science education is critical for the new workforce kids are expected to enter. We believe CS education should involve concepts and skills, but perhaps more importantly, creativity, problem-solving, and innovation. I loved that one message that came through was that we should exceed the expectations of the law. We don’t need to limit ourselves to high school and don’t need to set the expectation that CS is optional. We also believed that CS education should be accessible regardless of zip code or family background, and whether a student plans to attend college or not. We believe computing jobs should be available to high school graduates and we’d love to offer that track to learners.
I am excited about where these efforts are going next.
November 8th came and went. I volunteered throughout October and up until election day. I canvassed for our school district’s mill and bond, and I went out many weekends with the Larimer County Democrats for Hillary Clinton. Election day was hard. As an educator, all I want for my students is for them to think critically and be kind. The result of the presidential race felt like we have a long way to go, and it was disheartening. In the days following, I listened to the kids and just enjoyed being around their innocence and good spirits. Middle-schoolers sometimes bring their parents’ politics to class, but overall they are just interested in being kids, learning and having fun, and so we honored that and will continue to do so. We tried, and continue to try, to keep school safe and polite while also allowing students to discover their own voice and reason about what they believe. I will be flexing my own voice about policy and messaging in the coming months and years… while keeping my identity as an educator separate from my identity as an activist citizen. And this is the delicate balance we walk as educators. I would never deign to influence my students’ beliefs and yet I want them to know I believe in them and want the best for them.
The critical time in December is Computer Science Education Week, the week of Dec. 5. The awesome staff at Preston agreed, for the third year in a row, to conduct an Hour of Code with the students at some point before winter break. Math teachers and science teachers carved out a little time to make it happen. The kids in my classes told me all about it and how fun it was. For my part, I had a few different items cooked up. I created a Minecraft Hour of Code using the ComputerCraftEDU mod, in which students program a turtle to mine and build for them. They love this Hour of Code and the kids asked to continue programming turtles afterward. For my Computer Science students, I wanted to empower them as CS ambassadors and advocates. I arranged a tour of elementary schools, and for four class periods, volunteer parent drivers shuttled my 7th and 8th graders to several other schools where my students taught an Hour of Code to kids from kindergarten to 5th grade. The CS students had to develop a lesson plan, with a learning objective, an opening, activity, and a way for kids to know if they had been successful. My students said this was their favorite part of the semester, and I heard from parents that their child would not stop talking about their elementary school visits at home! This was a devilishly challenging puzzle to work through, with the logistics and timing and paperwork, but it was very rewarding.
On the Wednesday of that week, we hosted the 2nd annual Preston code-a-thon. 160 students signed up for it, and we accepted 50 of them for the big day. The code-a-thon’s theme was “Hack the Holidays”. Students had about three hours to design and code a solution to a holiday-related problem. We got educational programs that taught about world religion, a robotic light-hanger, an app to help you with meal planning, a 3-D virtual reality holiday maze, a budget planner for gifts, a gift-delivery game, a few stories about helping the homeless, and many more. The event was a wonderful success and the kids had a great time coding with their friends for a morning. We hope to hold another one in February to accommodate the students who couldn’t get in the first time.
Finally in December, the VR and emerging technology enrichment class I taught with Matt came to a close for the semester – as did my other classes. We decided to host a Passion Project night in coordination with one of the GT English teachers, in which students could share their projects with their families. We had students create a few VR projects, including a skydiving app, a fear-of-heights simulator, and a virtual zoo. One student did an involved Arduino project, one student did a web design project, and another did research on how to build his own computer. We featured a couple of students in TED-style talks in front of the large crowd. The young man who created an Arduino-based distance sensor and the young lady who created the VR fear-of-heights app demonstrated their projects in front of a crowd. It was a fun way to put a cap on a very good semester.
I’ll try to blog a little more consistently this semester instead of writing about EVERYTHING right at the very end. I’ve enjoyed communicating with those of you I meet on Twitter and social media, so please reach out if you’d like to share thoughts or plans on anything.