Monday, July 20, 2015

Maker Summer

Back in the spring, I was asked to direct a STEM summer academy.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to create a summer experience for grades 4-8 learners that would be the best STEM experience they could ever have!  As I was brainstorming ideas, I decided it would have to be all about the kids having a maker experience in every sense of the word - three strands all centered on making and creating.
1)  Code-makers:  Here, the students used Google CS-First and App Inventor to create games and apps.  They engaged in pair-programming and had a lot of fun 'making' with code.

2)  STEM-makers:  In this strand, the students created using science, technology, engineering, and math.  The room was full of "junk" that they used to make Rube Goldberg devices.  They had Ozobot and Sphero challenges.  For Ozobot, they had to design the longest course in black marker on an 8.5 x 11 inch size sheet of paper.  Then, they ran their ozobots on the course and the robot that took the longest amount of to finish each day was put on the leaderboard.  For the Spheros, we created an obstacle course through which they had to manipulate it.  A separate leaderboard was kept for those who completed the course the fastest.  They also worked with Hummingbird robotics to program their creations to follow their code and experiment with the Macrolab app for Sphero.

3)  Design-makers:  Here, the students designed in Google draw and had their designs laser engraved onto wood plaques that I picked up at Home Depot cut to size, metal dog tags from Oriental Trading and metal water bottles from 4imprint.  They also designed in Tinkercad and 3D printed their designs.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

STEM in the Middle

Excited to share about an article just published in Desert Ridge Lifestyles:

STEM in the Middle
Explorer Middle School and its diverse STEM offerings

Contributed by Janice Mak

STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, emphasizes the interdisciplinary approach to teaching students about these areas that is critical to society both now and in the future.  Explorer Middle School is unique in its approach to meeting the educational needs in this area through its pioneering approach and reputation as a school leading the way in technology.  From its diverse elective course offerings to its extracurricular STEM club, it is a unique place for middle school students to explore in a hands-on, minds-on way areas that interest them.


In its signature Project Lead the Way program, Explorer Middle School students learn about engineering firsthand by designing and testing windmills, robots and more.  Offered at both the introductory and advanced levels, students have the opportunity to develop their ability to design and prototype using Computer Aided-Design (CAD).

In Computer Applications, students create unique and personalized digital creations using Google Apps for Education and other web-based productivity tools.  The coding class has App Inventor and website-making as just a few of the exciting options.

Tech Lab is an elective focused on all things STEM.  Students are immersed in a project-based learning environment where they explore and learn about topics such as aeronautics, forensic science, computer science, 3D printing, and robotics.  

Meeting twice a month, Explorer’s STEM Club offers students the opportunity to tinker, make and code using Scratch, VEX robotics, and Arduino.  They also have access to supplies and tools to create Rube Goldberg machines and other innovations.  Through grants from Science Foundation Arizona, Arizona State University’s STEAM Machines Club, APS, SRP, and Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, students have access to a myriad of STEM supplies and equipment.

Chief Science Officer

Explorer Middle School is one of more than 50 middle and high schools to pilot the Chief Science Officers (CSO) initiative.  Charlie Keenen, a rising 8th grader who was student body vice-president in 2014-15 will be the CSO for the coming school year.  “I look forward to representing my school and learning more about science and technology,” says Charlie.  In this role, he will work on raising campus-wide engagement in STEM by serving as the “voice” for  Explorer.  He will work on identifying science opportunities such as speakers, field trips, science nights and ensure that these opportunities reflect the interests of his peers. He will be the contact and streamline the ability for STEM-based organizations throughout the state to meaningfully connect with Explorer. In addition, as CSO, Charlie will participate as a member of a state-wide “cabinet” of other CSOs to engage in Arizona’s conversation about STEM, education and the workforce. To prepare for his coming responsibilities, Charlie will be attending a summer leadership institute, fall and summer cabinet meetings and have on-site mentorship during the academic year, all supported by the AZ SciTech Festival.  

Competitions and more

Explorer students represented the school and district at several STEM competitions this year.   A team created an app concept and video as part of an application in the Verizon App Challenge.  Other students competed at the Honeywell Aerospace Challenge and the VEX IQ robotics regional competitions.  More than 20 students also participated in Arizona State University’s Mars Student Imaging Program where they conducted scientific research and spent two days with a planetary geologist analyzing data and presenting their findings.  Explorer students have also participated in district pilot initiatives where they have taken MOOCs (online courses) from higher education institutions such as Stanford University.

Engage, Empower, Experience, Explore

Explorer’s motto is engage, empower, experience, and explore.  Its diverse curricular program and additional offerings provide students with the opportunity to engage in STEM content and skills, empower them to be STEM-literate citizens, provide them with experiences and avenues through which they can explore their STEM interests.

A Confession

I just returned from ISTE that was in Philly this year.  It was an incredible few days with ed tech enthusiasts from around the world.  I also gave my first Ignite talk...but first, a confession.  When I first submitted by Ignite proposal to be considered for acceptance, I actually had no idea about what an Ignite talk was.  I just knew it was a 5 minute presentation.  Before my proposal was accepted, I attended a conference that had a few Ignite speeches and when I realized what I signed up for, my heart dropped just a little.  And then when I found out my proposal was accepted, it dropped a little more.  At the same time, it was a challenge I knew I wanted to accept.  Since learning about them, I have wanted to use it with my students as a final performance-based assessment.  What a great way for them to distill the really important info into a meaningful presentation format!

So, I got to work on my slides and really did some reflection - what is my story? message? how can I tell it in 20 slides of 15 seconds each?

Here's the result...

My slides are shared here...

And here is the presentation:

Coding  - a force that can transform lives and the future as we know it.  In other words, supercoding power.  As Alan Kay once said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” //
And that is how I view my job everyday in the classroom - to nurture the inventor, creator, and maker in my students - like this student who designed and 3D printed parts to make an underwater robot - students who I in turn learn from every day and whose voices I will be bringing into today’s talk.//

When I first learned about First Lego League and the opportunities for my students to be involved with robotics programming,  I was immediately reminded of the most underserved population in the inner city, Title 1 school that I worked in - the students who were identified as gifted learners.  I firmly believe that every student //has the right to learn something new at school every day and these were the ones most at risk for not doing so…
I got to work, starting a robotics team and coaching them to the regional and then state championships. // They were 7th and 8th graders, most of whom were my 5th grade students just a few years before that. Getting into robotics changed our lives.  We all experienced the magic that happens through hard work, creativity  and working as a team to accomplish more than we ever dreamed possible.//  Most of all, we all saw coding as a superpower of sorts - the ability to program that robot and make it move autonomously through various challenges never ceased to astound us - the thinking,tinkering and creating that came along with robotics was invaluable.  // As one of the team members said: “We had to learn how to program the robot, do missions, tasks, learn how to cooperate and include everyone in our team ... we basically just won already...we won by learning. That’s a win right there.”
LIttle did I realize that this was just the beginning for all of us.//

I continued to teach, bringing coding and making into my classroom. It was amazing to see my third graders reactions with one of them saying:

"I just started coding and it is like a new world! It is amazing because you get to almost go into someone else's brain and teach them based on how they think.//
I learned that computers are actually pretty dumb but the people who program them can make them do almost anything! It really involves skill though, it's not just some game that you get addicted to, it's the student and you’re the teacher. //It even helped me think of how I can improve when I learn because the computer's mistakes seem hilariously dumb but that is only because I am smarter. Now I know that if you learn how someone else thinks, you can show them almost exactly how you think. "//

This made me realize that the really important thing about coding is the computational thinking behind it.  

Analogies are a great way to check for understanding of concepts, so I thought to myself, "What a great way to see how deeply my students understand and view coding." //Here is what some of my students had to say:  

"Coding is like making a rainbow loom bracelet because if you put the rubber band in the wrong way, the bracelet will fall apart.  It's the same with coding.  Also,you can make patterns in programming and rainbow loom.  You can make the computer do anything, and in rainbow loom, you can make any color bracelet.  "//

Another student likened coding to doing crossword puzzles and said: “One word in the wrong place affects the word that is going down or across that word.  That relates to coding because if you do Scratch and put the wrong block, when you want to do something else, it turns into a disaster. // When you do a crossword puzzle, at first it might be just experimenting and trying to fit the words in the squares.  Same with coding.  You have to experiment to see if the code works the way you want.  At first, the crossword or code might look different or weird, but when it’s finished, it turns out cool and awesome."//

One of the most amazing things about coding is that it really develops perseverance in problem-solving.  A student likened programming to a baby learning to take steps - start slow and small, and then get up and try again when you fall down.//
Another student shared:
“When it comes to debugging no matter how frustrated or angry you are if you don’t give up, you can still successfully finish the debug and if you mess up the whole thing, challenge yourself and see if you can make things work out in the end.” //
The real impact of coding as a superpower extends far beyond computing.  In reflecting on his experience debugging a program, a student shared:  "The hardest part is finding the right functions to solve each problem.  While debugging, I learned that there are multiple ways to solve each problem and the project has inspired me because now I know how to fix any problems I come across."

As a district, the impact of bringing coding into the classrooms since 2012 has been tremendous.  Through our Coding is Common to the Core initiative, more than 13,000 students participated in the Hour of Code this year  //
What happened to those students on my robotics team?  They went on to high school where two girls became president and vice-president of their high school robotics team with one of them going on to win an app-inventing competition.  //
Both were recently recognized by the National Center for Women in Information Technology for their aspirations in computing - again attributed to the first time they programmed those robots back in middle school - and a testament to their desire to invent their future by using their supercoding powers.  //

The best part about the whole experience were all the great people I met and the tremendously supportive audience.  Storytelling is such an important part of our collective history and Ignite reminds me of how we continue to tell our stories - now to a globally connected world.