I am blessed to teach at a school that incorporates an "Intersession" program into the month of January. Upon returning from winter vacation, students sign up for a two-week-long, 9am-3pm, course of their choosing. Courses are offered by individual teachers and represent areas they are deeply passionate about and would not have time to expose students to during the normal school year. Courses spanned from Fly Fishing, to Mural Painting, to Molecular Gastronomy, to Virtual Reality and even a course designed to break as many Guinness Records as possible in two weeks. Needless to say, it is incredible to see what students can produce an do, when the pressure of grades are removed and students are given ten full days to slowly dive deep into a subject area.
Over the past two years, in addition to my role as a high school science instructor, I have have developed a growing passion for facilitating youth science camps. The MakeyMakey, given its simple implementation, and incredible potential for open-ended invention has always been an an important tool for sparking an interest in science and invention at my camps. See the two videos below to learn more about the intricacies and development of the MakeyMakey.
As is evident in the above videos, while it is an extremely flexible design tool, when introducing young students to the MakeyMakey it is very tempting for them to immediately begin designing video game controllers. While not inherently a bad thing, the potential for more meaningful invention is incredible. Keeping this in mind, I have always wanted to teach a class that leveraged the MakeyMakey as a tool to empower students with either severe physical or intellectual handicaps. The ability to repurpose everyday objects to interact differently with a keyboard, as well as the ability to program and interact with a myriad of different online modules using physical, tactile objects, opens up a world of possibilities for creating Assistive Technology.
My desire to develop such a course was amplified when I stumbled across this website and the below TEDx talk by educator Tom Heck.
Tom and his students brought to life the exact experience I was dying to create, and his website provided a detailed roadmap for how to make it happen! I immediately contacted Tom, and shared my ideas with him. Tom was gracious, excited to collaborate, and eager to discuss his process.
Back to Intersession. My growing passion for leveraging the MakeyMakey as an invention tool, interest in Assistive Technology development, and Tom's TEDx talk serendipitously overlapped at the right time and it was clear that Intersession would be a perfect opportunity to create such a course! After establishing a strong relationship with a local middle school teacher of exceptional students, a few months of brainstorming, I developed this course, and Assistive Technology devices that leveraged not only MakeyMakey, but also Arduino and Scratch, were created and delivered by a passionate team of 11 Sonoma Academy students. Needless to say, it was one of the most powerful two weeks of my career as an educator!
Below is a playlist with three videos captured when delivering the devices to students.
Below are a myriad of different pictures taken during the two-week Intersession course.
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.
Are you a teacher interested in learning more about integrating technology into inquiry-based learning cycles? Click here to learn more about our online classes (Note: more classes are being added weekly).
Are you a parent in the San Francisco Bay Area and looking to introduce the sciences to your child? Click here to learn about our summer camp offerings for students grades 2nd-8th.
From The Students Are Watching, by Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer
“They watch us all the time. The students, that is. They listen to us, sometimes. They learn from all that watching and listening. Be quiet. Don’t cheat. Pick up. Don’t lie. Be nice. Don’t fight. They attend to us, more than we usually realize.”
I recently gave my robotics students an invention challenge using the MakeyMakey designed to tackle the perceived conceptual disconnect many science students feel between the living and the nonliving world. Click here to access a copy of the invention cycle template students used.
The prompt was simple: Invent and build a prototype that solves a problem for another living individual. Below are a few examples of student prototypes:
Years ago I wrote a post about using the webcam "Snapshot" feature to share student work. Click here to read. Nearly four years ago, many tech strategies leveraged in my teaching have come and gone, but that one little hack has never left. The power of sharing written work in a GoogleDoc that I can then comment on is, in my practices as a science teacher, priceless.
Below is an image of a student product:
Below is a video that models how to insert an image as a webcam snapshot:
Over the past few months I have received many requests for recorded versions of a Keynote presentation on the relationship between the Hero's Journey and the Lesson Planning Process. I finally found the time to record it. Click here to access.
If you are interested in the content from the keynote, I am in the process of recording a series of online courses for interested educators and districts to access specifics around the technology and structures I find helpful when planning and implementing lessons. Click here to access.
Excited to share this quick, "Sparking Curiosity" document I put together for my colleagues. The document outlines past and current research on Curiosity as well as practical examples across disciplines.
In addition to my vocation as a High School Science teacher, this summer I spent three weeks facilitating science camps for elementary age students. Planning, organizing and teaching science camps has always been a small, but very fulfilling part of my work as a teacher during the summer time. This summer I decided to organize and formalize the process and launch my own series of camps. Click here for more information and media from each camp.
In the past, although very rewarding, science camp was full of engaging activities that lacked meaning in the world outside of the classroom. Activities such as "BattleBot" competitions, Roller Coaster construction and Robot "Tug-of-War", while rich in problem-solving/design strategies, were poor in their ability help campers make connections between their experience in camp, and the power of such devices to create greater good in the world.
One such device, the MakeyMakey, has been an integral component to every science camp I am involved with. The MakeyMakey is an incredibly powerful device that triggers computer actions using any type of conductive material. The below video provides more information about the MakeyMakey along with specific examples.
As the video so clearly demonstrates, the MakeyMakey is an engaging piece of technology with incredible potential as a tool for budding inventors. Click here to hear Jay Silver, share more about the implications of MakeyMakey in education. Also evident, is the tendency, especially for the young campers (5th-8th graders), to leverage the MakeyMakey as a video game controller. Why wouldn't you? Playing Mario with PlayDough, Pacman with graphite from a pencil, and Flappy Bird with a banana is awesome! Moreover, game controller development provides an engaging entry point for introducing young learners to an engineering/invention design cycle.
Keeping the above in mind, what has always inspired me about the MakeyMakey, is not it's ability to to transform objects into game controllers, but how it redefines the way in which we can interact with our computer and the world around us. Jay alludes to this potential in his TED talk when he talks about the father who used MakeyMakey to create a device to help his son with Cerebral Palsy control his computer. This has implementation has always inspired me and it has always been my intention to flow from a game design invention cycle in a typical Day 1 of camp, to an invention cycle where campers use MakeyMakey to design assistive technology for individuals with physical disabilities in Day 2. However, although cognitively dissonant, camper's deep engagement with using MakeyMakey as a game controller often proved to be a roadblock in motivating them to tackle different, more serious applications.
Serendipitously, as I began my planning for camp this, I stumbled across the below video by Tom Heck who works with Jay Silver in the MakeyMakey education department. Tom was inspired by MakeyMakey's potential as an assistive technology tool to help empower students with Physical Disabilities. Subsequently, Tom developed an incredible program where he empowered students to design, prototype, refine and deliver MakeyMakey based assistive technology devices for targeted to the specific needs of actual individuals. See the below video to learn more about Tom's work.
I love the way Tom formalized the use of the MakeyMakey as as powerful assistive technology device, while also acknowledging and leveraging its power as a fun piece of technology to do such things as a play computer games. Inspired by Tom, at this year's camps I began, not by showing the MakeyMakey introduction video embedded above, but by showing Tom's TEDx talk. I followed Tom's talk with a brief introduction to the MakeyMakey and challenged campers all to build a PacMan controller. The video game application allowed campers to familiarize themselves with the MakeyMakey playing a video game, but because they all played the same, somewhat outdated game, it was clear that there was a greater purpose to the activity. Following the development of the PacMan controller, I immediately gave campers the following challenge:
Using the MakeyMakey, build a device that will allow a person with Quadriplegia to control their computer effectively and efficiently. Up, down, right, left, click and space motions are required.
Unlike Tom's students, my campers will not directly deliver the device to an actual individual. However, following Tom's TEDx talk with this prototyping activity proved to be very powerful for both the campers and myself. A completely different, more action-oriented, tone to all the subsequent camp activities was set. Pictures of a few different assistive technology prototypes from are shown below.
This activity has completed reframed the way I see the purpose of summer science camps, and has inspired me to take the prototyping phase to the next level and recreate Tom's project with my students in our Intercession course next year at Sonoma Academy. Moreover, this activity has provided yet another reminder that teaching is not only about content, but about WHEN you teach specific content.