Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Out of this world learning at Center for Technology in Essex

Recently I have taken on a professional inquiry seeking ways that the tools and skills found in maker-spaces can be used to meet Next Generation Science Standard.  As part of this inquiry, I had the good fortune to meet Jennifer Liguori as she and her  students were using a 3D printer and laser cutter from their maker lab to design pieces that would be used with the Ardunio microprocessor they were programming as part of a design that would be used in an upcoming Balloon Launch.

Last week, students at the Center for Technology at Essex had an out of this world experience, that will most likely become one of their most vivid memories of high school.  On April 15, 2015, they successfully recorded the flight of a man-made balloon into the stratosphere and back, navigating their way through real world challenges that ranged from powering a data-logging Arduino through subzero temperatures to retrieving the payload in the midst of Vermont’s infamous mud season.

This type of project-based learning is the type of learning that students remember.  It’s not knowledge that’s easily forgotten after the test.   It’s real world learning and problem-solving that inspires students to obtain deeper knowledge and inquiry than any text-book could.

This inquiry driven project based learning environment doesn’t just happen.  It takes a masterful teacher to design project based learning that is powerful and meaningful, and as I interviewed Jennifer Ligouri, science teacher at Essex Technical Center, it was evident to me that her passion  for kids,  passion for learning,  passion of science combined with masterful teaching were at the heart of this exciting and successful experience.

Listen to Jennifer describe the design of the project, the pre-flight testing,  the flight,  and the challenges that Vermont's mud season and lack of cell service brought to the chase and retrieval of the balloon's payload, and the successful retrieval of data collected during flight.

As you can tell from listening to the interview above,  instrumental to this project  was access to affordable technology tools that are empowering a new generation of innovators, makers, and problem-solvers. 

Tools like 3D printers,  laser cutters, Arduino microprocessors, sensors, spot GPS technology, and ultralight cameras, were all part of the design created by the team from Center for Technology at Essex.  

These tools are becoming more and more accessible to students  with the growth of the maker movement in our communities, not only in terms of cost and availability, but also in terms of people who are sharing their knowledge and experiences in how to use these tools.  Whether it be through the local maker community or the global connection made possible through the Internet, today’s students can pursue solutions to challenges like making a balloon that will reach the stratosphere.

The student have decided to enter their project to compete in several categories of  the Global Space Balloon Challenge including highest flight, best pictures, and first balloon flight design created with maker tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters.

Thank you to Jennifer Ligouri, her colleagues and students from the Computer Animation and Web Design program at the  Center for Technology at Essex for sharing their story with us.  Read more about their journey on their blog post detailing the process. 

You will find their photos from the balloon and video of adventures at
and video from the flight here:
See also:  Burlington Free Press Article

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An Inquiry in Creating Models with Soft Circuits ~ Step 1

Today I worked on creating a model demonstrating my understanding of a food web using eTextile materials. This is part of a professional inquiry I'm involved with.

I have one more problem to solve -- "What should I use for an power source that will power my model, which consists of 4 LED's connected in serial?" Each LED is used to symbolize "life" at each level of the food web.

I chose to use a serial circuit, because in my model the electricity flows directly from one item to the next in my food web chain, releasing enough energy to light each consecutive LED in the chain. While creating this model, one of the problems I had to solve was that as soon as I put more than one LED in the model, I could no longer use the Coin Cell battery as a source of power. I switched power sources, but as soon as I added a 4th LED, the nine volt battery no longer powered my model. Argh!

If I had created the model using a parallel circuit, I would not have had a problem providing power to the 4 LEDs that represented life in my algae blossom, worm, smelt, and trout, but the energy flow would no longer represent my mental model of the food web.

After a bit of Internet research, I discovered a site called Battery University, which lead me to my current solution -- connecting my 3 volt coin cell battery to my 9 volt battery in serial to provide my model with enough energy to keep each of my organism's LEDs alive. Obviously the LED use 3 volts each.

The problem I have now is that this is not a elegant solution for such a small eTextile project. But the alternative, working with parallel circuits would not model the flow of energy I want for this project. I'll keep working through this design challenge, but meanwhile I have a new resource to share with ANYONE who needs to bridge their 'experience gaps' with battery technology. Check out Battery University. Turns out there is a lot to know -- along with being filled with great free information, the site sells a 328 page book on the topic! Who knew there was so much to know about batteries. But suddenly I have a desire to know more! Which proves one of my points for creating the model in the first place -- when providing students with the opportunity to CREATE and MAKE, lots of unexpected, just in time learning happens, that yield to more questions, and more problem solving!

I still have lots of questions (for myself, and others) about the role of soft circuits in creating models. But I do have a lot more tools in my toolbox now than I did before I started this 'inquiry". Any suggestions welcomed (on either the battery problem or my current professional inquiry).

"How can soft circuits be used to help students develop models in science education? "
One of the reasons this interest me is that I believe soft circuits are a good entry point to bridging the experience gap that many of us have about the way electronics work. Finding more ways for students to gain the experience, knowledge and skills to use these tools effectively would provide our students with new ways to solve problems in the world around them. This type of confidence might encourage more students to take on challenges in their education and careers, that many are currently avoiding.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Adding Color to your Data in Google Spreadsheets to Show Growth

I enjoy analyzing data.  I love color.   Recently I discovered a new Google Sheets feature that uses color in a new way to look at data.

If like me, you like to combine data and color, you are probably already using Conditional Formatting.    Recently I noticed a new feature when I clicked on conditional formatting-- COLOR SCALE.  It seems to have snuck in there quietly, but boy is it awesome!

Here's a quick snapshot of how to use this feature.

How would you use this?  Lots of ways,  but here is one of the ways I use it frequently to help students see the growth in growth mindset in a very concrete way.

I start the beginning of a workshop or course with a Google Sheet where I
-- add a list of learning tasks we will complete in Column A
-- add a skill we will gain from completing the learning tasks in Column B
-- ask students to pre-assess  their skill level by placing a number in a column
       (1) no experience  (2) Aware of skill  (3) Practiced this skill (4) Confident in this skill already
-- use conditional formatting feature of Google sheets to assign a color to each value

I make a copy of the sheet and then ask them to do a post assessment on the copy

This makes it so easy to see the growth in confidence (or skill level) of our cadre of learners. 

The old way to do this was to add a new rule for each possible value. 

But with the new color scale feature,  you simply select a range and assign a color to the lowest and highest value.  Google Sheets does all the math and coloring for you.  And playing with color combination is a breeze. 

For more ways to use conditional formatting,  check out Alice Keeler's recent blog post:  Be Data Driven, Use Conditional Formatting.   

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Girls Make IT Day Session 2 Reflection

Although a few weeks have passed,  I have not stopped thinking about Girls Make It Day #2.  The day went beyond my expectations.  About mid day, the girls just took charge of their own learning and started flying past what we had planned,  moving beyond bling,   beyond blink, and making flowers fade.

Teams of two middle school girls and one teacher/mentor arrived at the Generator with their flowers in hand ready to learn to code. Each participant was asked to bring two hand crafted flowers to the event that included an LED in the design.  The design challenge was meant to help the girls apply previous learning about circuits (whether it be the first Girls Make IT session, school or club activities, or their own self-exploration of circuits).  The design challenge mostly yielded a wide variety of origami style flowers.   

While the team leader brought their laptop to the tech check station to make sure that Arduino was properly installed and ready to go, the rest of the team created  a paper flower with their team member names  and added it to a white garden trellis.  (this would later serve as attribution to the finished product we hoped for by the end of the day ~ a collaborative community flower garden).  

During introductions, each team shared their flower designs and how they learned to make it and then immediately launched  into securing the LED to their flower using floral tape and a green wooden stem. This served as the perfect blend of wire and insulator for our flower project. Although the  two pieces of floral tape initially connected the LED leads to cell battery, it wouldn't be long before the leads were attached to a LilyPad Arduino board using alligator clips.  

The coding lesson that followed was interspersed  with making,  manipulating the  Arduino blink scheme and playing out computer science unplugged activities where the girls learned about variables by 'programming' their teacher to sing and 'programming' themselves to follow Arduino code using finger flashlights.  

One of the goals I had for the workshop was that every girl (and their teacher) would not only be able to use the Arduino code to control their flower, but that they would also UNDERSTAND each line of the code they used.  Too often, students are encouraged to 'copy' a snippet of code without understanding the various elements.   It wasn't long before everyone had mastered  the following commands and were using them to code their own flower arrangements. 

Although our goal was to move into learning how to use functions in  their code, the girls had their own idea.  One team DISCOVERED the FADE Arduino scheme and before we knew the teams took off into their own self directed learning, teaching each other to blink and fade flowers.  Their comfort level grew as they tried different sequences of patterns to give each flower its own unique presence in their flower arrangement.  Watching the collaboration in the room was absolutely delightful and reminded me of a time,  not so long ago, when I had my own classroom of students discovering, uncovering, and constructing together.  My experience taught me that this was the perfect moment to let go, step back, and watch the learning happen rather than redirect it to next phase of the lesson.   This is what I was aiming for but didn't anticipate it coming so early in the day. 

But it also meant that we didn't get to "MY" next step in the lesson (FUNCTIONS)  with the whole group,  but I did get to teach, Maxine, our high school role model/mentor how to use functions to help each girl add a contribution to a collaborative community flower box.  She was a quick study and jumped right into a leadership role into our final activity for the day. 

After each team had created and coded their own flower pot with their first flower creation,  it was time for them to contribute their second flower to the community garden (complete with code). 

We used window boxes, a Lilypad arduino, alligator clips, cardboard, and fake moss for our design and used Functions  to cycle through snippets of codes written by our middle school girls.   The results -- two flower boxes that were made with code by our middle school girls that would become a traveling exhibit to inspire others.   First step for our traveling exhibit would be the Generator Birthday Bash! 

Our Exhibit at the Generator Birthday Bash

We ended the day debriefing, challenging them to complete the 20 hour course and use their take home kit to continue exploring the power of code and keep on making.   The kit included 2  Lilypad  simple arduinos and one LilyPad Development board, which we strongly suggested they keep intact (NOT break apart) to practice their coding skills.   We also provided them a sneak preview of where we hope to go next (adding sensors and motors) by showing them the robotic flower prototype created by our fantastic high school mentor, Maxine.  The importance of having Maxine as a role model can not be underestimated.  She shared her recent acceptance to  Bucknell University,  her experience in the Essex Robotic Club, and offered advice for our young students about steps they could take to shape their future. She even started developing the leadership skills of one of the middle school girls, Eva, who used today's events to step into a new role as a middle school leader/mentor. 

Today left me inspired to keep working on providing opportunities for learning, mentoring, networking, leadership development that help create a STEM pipeline for girls.  Our goal is to announce some new Girls Make It session, including summer camp opportunities on this site, and also at  TechSavvy Girls and Vermont Works for Women website.

Many thanks to 
to the Generator  for providing the space for this fantastic day of learning, 
to  Vermont Works for Women  for funding the consumable supplies,
to Jill Dawson and Leah Joly for the the support and 'blind faith'  that this would work
to Maxine for  the robotic flower design and for being an inspiring high school role models
to Eva for being our first middle school leaders
to the teachers and middle school girls who created such beautiful flower designs and absorbed the coding lesson like sponges reinforcing my beliefs that making beautiful things is an onramp to increasing the number of girls who code. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Authentic Learning ~ Beautiful Work

This year at SxSw EDU I had the privilege of listening to Ron Berger speak about the importance of beautiful work.   Today I saw a post on Scott Mcleod's blog Dangerously Irrelevant   asking how often our students do beautiful work and referencing the Edutopia article  Deeper Learning - Hightlight Student Work by Ron Berger, which started me thinking.

As I listened to Ron speak, I thought of the projects I did in my classroom scaffolding students to create authentic projects at a quality that was beyond their expectations and the expectations of others, like our annual entry into Global School House's Cyberfair which eventually yielded  a Platinum  award.

At one point someone in the audience asked a similar question to the one Scott Mcleod asked  "How often do you aspire for the standard of beautiful work with students."    Ron did admit that it would not be sustainable for every piece of work that students produce to meet the standard of beautiful work,  but suggested a ratio  ( at least every ?th piece.. not sure I remember the exact ratio).    That makes sense,  not every 'draft' of writing will be worthy of turning into a masterpiece,  but each draft will contribute to the learning that results in the next masterpiece in some way.

As I thought about this, I realized that part of the scaffolding is to help students build the skills they need to be able to produce a beautiful piece of work that they are proud of.   We wouldn't expect a child to be able to start off "coloring inside the lines"  or being able to draw a butterfly.   But if our end goal (think backward design)  is to have students produce beautiful work, then each of our learning tasks will be meaningful in that it raises the understanding of students about what "beautiful work" looks like and also their skill level preparing them to be a  meaningful contributor to a collaborative piece of beautiful work,  or even create their own individual piece of beautiful work.

This one minute video that I created for the Google Teachers Academy summarizes my philosophy that Audience Matters in instructional design.

Naturally, some of our student work will not be ready to be showcased or highlighted;  it will be one of the steps along the learning journey towards beautiful work.  Some of it might even be 'drill work'  that builds fluency skills,  but the end goal is to be well equipped to produce a beautiful work piece in the not so distance future.

As educators, the first step for us towards this goal is to produce our own beautiful work that we are proud of.  What if we published the meaningful learning tasks we design for our students publicly in a way that helped others and communicated with our community "This is what I do in my classroom
with your students".   When I ask educators  in my class to do a final project, I strongly encourage that it be published for an authentic audience (other educators who could benefit from your beautiful work).  This absolutely increases the quality of the final project.  It helps educators see how publishing for an authentic audience helps raise their standard of quality and also contributes to a greater good.  That is exactly what our student's projects should be.  The rubric we use with quality indicators, should be to guide the process towards beautiful work that you are proud to share,  not the end in itself.

One of the barriers towards this vision that I have come across from educators is a 'fear that showcasing student work' is not safe.
Recently I showed a group of teachers an easy post by email feature of blogger that they could use to easily collect student work effortlessly.  One teacher expressed that she had no interest in using a blogging tool because of her concern for student safety.   Even after I assured her that the use of this  feature does  not have to be to  create a blog of student work, but  that she could use this   feature of the blogger tool that yielded a collection of a photos of student work in a photo album that was easy for her to access.  From there, she could pull out the images to put in student portfolios, or showcase in a more public way.  After hearing the response "I just don't see the learning value",  I realized that we still have work to do to in helping some educators understand the pedagogical value of showcasing student work.

So the challenge to me is to do more reflecting on the barriers that teachers face to keep them from aspiring to showcase their student's beautiful work  and find new ways to scaffold reluctant educators who still don't see the value of showcasing student beautiful work.