As a science teacher I struggle with the tension between being "innovative" and the benefits of practical, simple, efficient system. This dichotomy is amplified when, for me, choosing between more advanced sensors (temperature, conductivity, etc.) such as those provided companies like Vernier and Pasco.
Anecdotally have found that, rather than leveraging the types of interfaces described above, when I have students design and built their own interfaces they learn more about not only the data they are measuring, but in building the equipment, they develop an appreciate and knowledge of the intricacies involved in capturing the data. This became clear to me when I had students create their own Titration Drop Counter last school year.
Albeit not as specific nor aesthetic, the mere act of going this process, I argue, is more meaningful for high school students where the risks associated with inaccurate data collection is low, but the risks of information gaps or underdeveloped conceptual understanding of content, is high. To this end, I have chosen one piece of equipment for each of the 6 units in my 10th grade chemistry class, for students to build and leverage in their laboratory investigations. Below is a list of each piece of equipment, and an associated link that students will use for construction information and hints.
It's absolutely no secret that I'm a huge fan of leveraging the MakeyMakey circuit (http://makeymakey.com/) as an instructional device. While there is an obvious connection with such things ha as inventions during a youth science camp, or more creative solutions such as challenging high school chemistry students to create titration "drop counters", the ease of entry and almost limitless potential of this device is incredible.
That being said, the simplicity coupled with power of the MakeyMakey can at times make it seem often, especially for younger learners, as a toy rather than what it is: a modified Arduino Leonardo microprocessor. Keeping this in mind, I have been on a journey over the past two weeks to try and leverage the Arduino Leonardo as a MakeyMakey to create a much better flow in my high school robotics class between programming with the Arduino UNO, and transitioning into using the MakeyMakey as a remote control device.
For example, beginning the year with the Arduino UNO grounds students really well in basic line coding and also input-output microprocessing. From there we transition into using the mBOT, given it's integration with the Arduino language. The integration with the Arduino IDE provides a fabulous flow for high school robotics students. Moreover, with the introduction of the 2.4 GHZ wireless connection between the mBOT and a computer (does not work well with chromebooks) students can easily use Arduino to create their own computer based remote control for the robot.
An obvious connection at this point would be to then leverage the MakeyMakey to create their own remote control repurposed from every day objects such as aluminum foil and Play-Doh. In past years this is been very successful and I say things like "all your long we've been using the Arduino and now you're using a modified Arduino to control an Arduino robot!" Students love this but because the MakeyMakey is so simple to use it's hard for students to make a connection between a raw Arduino interface and the modified appearance of the very aesthetic and simple MakeyMakey.
Back to my point. I am happy to say that I have successfully been able to re-create a MakeyMakey from an Arduino Leonardo and I am very excited to use this in the last phase of robotics class this fall! I am hopeful that the raw look of the Arduino Leonardo with the exact same functionality of a MakeyMakey will create a sense of connectedness in the course for students beginning with simple Arduino UNO programming, ending with leveraging the Arduino Leonardo to create a MakeyMakey mBOT controller. At the conclusion of the year I will show them then the modified Arduino Leonardo "MakeyMakey" as a way of emphasizing invention and accessibility for all.
Below is the instructional video I used as a guide in the creation of the Arduino Leonardo based MakeyMakey Feel free to reach out if you have any questions and expect future blog post on the efficacy of this integration.
Like many teachers, I have always struggled with making assessment meaningful for students. After reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon I moved from student Google Doc lab reports in chemistry class to blog posts. My goal was for student to build a public archive of curated work that students can feel proud of. For the past few years student blogging has been a success. Click here for an archive of this year's chemistry blogs.
Keeping the above in mind, this is my first year teaching a robotics class in the curriculum and I wanted to institute the same blogging strategy. Unlike chemistry, my robotics class didn't show as much enthusiasm about the blogging process. When I asked one student why his answer was fascinating: "The stuff we make in Robotics class doesn't feel like school. It feels real. Blogging feels like school. They don't really match."
Over the past two years, many of these student's teachers have embraced blogging, and while I firmly believe it to be a powerful, public and authentic medium for sharing work, it was clear from the above response, and others I have gathered, that the students yearned for a more authentic, less contrived vehicle to break down the barrier between the "real-world" and school environments. Our answer: Instructables! Whenever I have to learn how to create anything I, and my students, use Instructables. It's just what we do.
Because Instructables represents a place where "real" people, go to create "real" things, and is run by a "real" company (Autodesk), whose software we use to create "real" prototypes, it felt like a perfect place to help students, in a Robotics class where building authentic "real" prototypes is core to the class ethos, engage in a type of "real" world product showcasing. Once the decision was made (two weeks ago), I jumped in headfirst, and invited students to use Instructables to post not only share their most recent inventions, but outline their design process.
The student's products exceeded my expectations and reminded the power of not only a public product, but also how the power of outlining and unpacking the invention process into steps for others to follow. Instructables provides a fabulous medium where this process happens, not via a teacher created rubric, but via observing the thousands of examples that already exist on their website! Below are three student created examples from my Robotics class at Sonoma Academy.
Shortly after he left The Daily Show Jon Stewart told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that, "It is through intense structure that I find the safety to be creative." As a teacher, this statement resonated with me. I love the lesson planning process and Stewart's quote really encapsulated why I do. Through a structured, directional process, even the most "control freakish" teachers (I fall in this category) can carve out space that allows for intense student creativity, showcase, mess, disaster, invention, tears, high fives, and the myriad of other emotions that come along with LEARNING, when the lesson plan process is given the respect that it deserves.
On to a more tangible example of what I am referring to. This year is my first teaching a Robotics class in the curriculum, rather than as a team, club or after school workshop. My fear in teaching the class was that it would turn into a "club" like environment full of "BattleBot Obsession" and void of meaningful discussion around programming, mechanical engineering, and the ethical implications associated with deciding which tasks we keep for ourselves, and this we offload to our "machines.". However, you can't deny that placing technology such as littleBits, Lego NXT, MakeyMakey, VEX, TETRIX, SAM Labs, Arduino, and the many other tools we have and will explore in the hands of high school students isn't also a recipe for fun, and at times, fun just for fun's sake!
Click here for an example of a similar invention cycle template. As you can see, this template positions the learning of basic NXT programming, rather than as an individual project, in the context of the larger, more meaningful task to "smash" together the littleBits and NXT systems to do something that is currently difficulty and/or expensive to do: build a functional remote control for an NXT robot. See a picture of a final product below.
Upon conclusion of the RC project, students then blogged about their process, and reflected on ways other tools could be combined to create, new, unusual and useful outcomes. Click here to read student blogs. This project was then followed up with another project where students leveraged a more "Human-Centered" design process to build an NXT powered device that would improve the quality of life for another faculty member on campus.
Like the project described above, the initial part of this invention cycle involved learning basic skills in the context of the overall plan. This time, students needed to framliarize themselves with a more complex programming language (RobotC) and in doing so, built "BattleBots". Per my fear described in the second paragraph, the structure of the invention cycle lesson plan kept me centered and focused on the overall, more meaningful goal rather than distract from learning tasks that require more rigor and depth of focus. This structure carved out a space where the pure fun of constructing a BattleBot existed in the context of an overall, more meaningful process. One student even built an NXT Robot Flamethrower as her BattleBot! Love it! See video below.
Teaching Robotics is teaching me that structure and student creativity can exist together and can, if positioned correctly, be symbiotic.
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