Thursday, July 4, 2013

Something Exciting

There is something exciting in the air these days. It's difficult to avoid the media coverage of how programming is the "new literacy". Both adults and children are being offered all kinds of introductions to programming and coding and there doesn't seem to be any slowing down to the new websites, programs, methodologies, and philosophies, about the best way to be involved.

Whatever pedagogical path you may subscribe to, the fact of the matter is there are very few things we do these days that don't involve 1's and 0's. If we want to be makers we must also understand the physical characteristics of the project we are making.

This fall there are 20 public schools in the New York Department of Education whose students will be involved in just this kind of making. The Software Engineering Program is piloting a curriculum that will effect 10 middle schools and 10 high schools and allow for students in these schools to take a class that affirms the importance of the problem solving and computational thinking skills that are at the core of a programming and making curriculum.

The curriculum will cover Programming, Robotics, Web Development, Embedded Electronics, e-Textiles, and Mobile Computing. This is not a class that meets once a week, the schools who applied and were accepted to this program must offer this class to any student who wishes to take it, and meet at least 4 to 5 periods a week. This is the real deal.

I am excited for the possibilities that this kind of program can open up for students. In my own classes I have witnessed the excitement and empowerment when students start moving the turtle around the screen by entering the "language of turtles" into the keyboard. I am excited that I am a part of this program and I have an opportunity to bring this excitement and empowerment to other children in New York City. 

For more information about this program here is the official press release made in February by the NYCDOE and Mayor Bloomberg. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Making A Case For A Makerspace

There was a recent discussion amongst educators on Twitter about measuring creativity. How do we measure creativity was the question although I was more interested in why would we even want to measure creativity. In this age of data and measurement, must everything be measured? If you listen to the current trends in education and teaching you must know that anything that cannot be measured is not worthy of focus. Either creativity is something worth "teaching" and therefore measuring or it is not and we can dismiss it as something that does not have an important place in schools and education.

Reflecting upon some of the conversations and readings for the Learning Creative Learning seminar I am more than ever convinced that we either need to keep creativity out of the current institution of school or we need to turn school upside down and inside out so that creativity and learning could be a part of school. But to force fit does a disservice to all.

So where does a MakerSpace fit into this paradigm then? Should it exist on the margins, in the classroom, after school at a separate location? Does putting the MakerSpace outside of the school curriculum reduce its legitimacy? Do we want our Makerspace's to be co-opted then consumed by "school"?

Leah Buechley commented on how "schools currently focus on subjects and efficiency". Schedules, curriculum and pacing drive our student's days in most public schools. Dale Dougherty said that educators have asked him what the standardized test is for "making". Which misses the point entirely since it is the making itself that provides evidence of learning.

Making IS learning, you don't have to teach a lesson after the fact, the teaching is taking place while students are engaged in the work. Making is also creative, but must we measure that? Making is problem solving and abstract thinking and computational thinking and STEM and STEAM. We have to be careful not to let Making be reduced to a Buzzword and the educator flavor of the day.

Thoughts and reflections and notes from Session 3 of the Learning Creative Learning Seminar MIT.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


This school year I am having trouble motivating my students. My robotics after school class seemed to begin strong. There was the initial enthusiasm and oohs and aws when I got out the supplies, described possibilities for potential robots, showed some videos of robots that students had made in the past, pointed to all the different ways and places the students could look for inspiration. But by the second month in I had more students just sitting there waiting for me to tell them what to do next then ever before.

In the past I have relied upon the interests and enthusiasms of the students to inspire each other. To gravitate towards other students doing projects that looked interesting, to start up their own project based on an idea shared in the room. This year I seem to be drawing a blank stare when I ask the students about what they are interested in, what ideas they have, what types of things they might like to explore.

I enrolled in the online seminar called "Learning Creative Learning" which is being offered by Mitch Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Yesterday was the first session where Mitch started the open ended discussion that will be at the center of this course, what does it mean to learn creatively, and exactly what are the ways that we can and do learn creativity?

Seymour Papert wrote a piece entitled "The Gears of My Childhood" from his book "Mindstorms", where he addresses the notion of personal interest as it applies to motivation and learning.

I need to figure out how I can, as an educator, work with my students so they may discover or uncover their personal interests. It isn't proving to be as easy as it might seem.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Fabricating Parts

We don't have a Fab Lab here at our MakerSpace, nor so we have a 3D printer (wish list!) but what we do have are "spare parts". I love saving things in case they are ever needed for something else. One look at my own basement confirms this.
What has been a great making experience for my students is understanding how you can re-fabricate one part from another. Two of my students needed a 3" x 1" piece of flexible metal they could use to mount 2 motors on. I showed them the storage bin that held old computer parts, hard drives, super drives, and other assorted things from technology's recent past. They dove in with screwdrivers and pliers and called me over not too long after to show me a couple of parts they thought might work. We were able to cut 3 of the needed pieces from an old SuperDrive, enough for other students wanting to make a similar bot.
Re-purposing parts can lead to things
you never ever thought possible!
Yesterday the same students needed a small switch to use for their robot. We had larger switches, but nothing that would work for their use. Then I remembered the remote control car that other students had brought in to disassemble for parts, and that there was a small switch attached to the components. After a "deal" was made between the two groups of students, the boys who needed the switch got busy. My attention was pulled away (as happens when there are 4 or 5 simultaneous projects going on in the room) and before I knew it, the team had removed the switch from its old location, figured out where it needed to be attached in the new location, and soldered it together. The switch worked perfectly!
It is exciting to see the students look at things and start to realize and understand that they can make other things. That instructions can sometimes be altered, or changed, or revised, according to materials on hand or need. That there is never just "one way" to solve a problem or attempt to find a solution and that just the act of trying to figure stuff out like that can sometimes be the best part of a project.
Too many times within the constraints of school students are taught that there is only one correct answer, or perhaps that there isn't enough time to really explore many other possibilities. It is crucial to learning to have space  for invention and innovation.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Letting Go

November 2012

One of the things I am enjoying most about my lunchtime Makerspace is the freedom that comes from exploration and playing with materials. One of the phrases I say a lot in both my classes or in my after school program, is "I don't know, let's try it and see what happens." An unfortunate consequence of the typical schooling that the majority of kids have received through the years is a fear of attempting something where the results are an unknown. In the Makerspace environment, freed from the confines and weight of the classroom agenda, I have been watching students take naturally to exploration. Which really shouldn't be a surprise.

I have been purchasing parts and supplies in small batches and some of the parts I had on hand at first were battery packs and small 1.5v motors. After working on soldering the switches and wires and battery packs for the glow bottles, a couple of students started exploring connecting switches, motors, and battery packs just to see what happens (but mostly because 6th and 7th grade boys like to make things move!)

So now there were new toys for the students to explore with, a spinning motor became a "drill" that was able to create patterns in a lump of conductive dough that had been left on the table. Then there were unintended results, soldering the wires from the battery pack directly to the motor makes for some very hot batteries and no way to turn it off.

So the result of "letting go" and allowing the students to tinker and play with these parts is where the learning takes place. Switches are something you might want to consider when designing a circuit, why do the batteries over heat when they are attached and then continually running the 1.5v motor, how can you measure the current that is flowing from one part to another and why is that important to be able to do sometimes, what are resisters and how might they be used.

We are planning to put the motors to use in some Beetle Bots this week, the rest of the parts arrive this week. I am looking forward to that.

To Tinker or To Not Tinker?

At this summer's Scratch Conference a recurring theme came up in many conversations and presentations, what does it mean to tinker? There was some debate as to whether tinkering always leads to anything tangible or if tinkering itself is what is important.

Here are some notes and thoughts from some of the conversations.

Mitch Resnick defines tinkering as "bottom-up, iterative, experimental, concrete, and object-oriented."

Adults defining tinkering, how do students define it?

Do we pay too much attention to outcomes with our students?
Does it have to always be about the finished product?

If a project is never completed is it a bad project?

Creating a space with freedom and away from the constrictions of the curriculum and the classroom.

These are also the thoughts that I have had when I decided that I needed to create a MakerSpace for my students this fall.