Friday, July 11, 2014

A few words on classroom organization

Like most teachers, I love teacher discounts.  And office supplies.  And containers. So, imagine my glee when I read about The Container Store's Organized Teacher's Summer Sweepstakes  (Unfortunately, it seems that "A total of one winner will be selected in a random drawing from all eligible entries received." but I'll write this post anyway.)
We’re honored to support teachers’ efforts through our Organized Teacher Discount Program. In fact, we’re going to give one lucky teacher a $1,000 organized classroom makeover from The Container Store!
Let's begin here.  This is a picture I recently took of my middle school science classroom. On Facebook, I included the comment "This is my classroom on July 6th, 2014. In an apocalyptic, time-capsule-y way, I have not touched it since the last day of school on June 6th. I suppose I should get in there and make some progress..."  This room is a busy place during the school year and is desperate for organization.


It's not for lack of trying.  All of the shelving in my classroom (see photo below) came from Berkeley Outlet or Urban Ore, both local and specializing in used/recycled furniture inventory. I've even used cardboard boxes and duct tape to "custom build" shelving underneath tables for more storage.  There are bins with raw materials everywhere - cardboard, computer keys, wire, LEDs, felt, batteries, styrofoam, duct tape - all the tools of art and ingenuity.  During science fair season, there are projects literally everywhere!  


My favorite repurposed item is this shelf unit (below) from my roommate - she was redecorating at home and I let her know I could put it to good use in my classroom. It has now become our makerspace (read the whole story here.)   I have put thousands of dollars (out of pocket) into materials this year, but my classroom is finally well on its way to being the creative, innovative space I've wanted and I truly believe kids need.  Students are constantly working on projects during lunch, recess, science class... they jokingly refer to my room as "nerdvana."  I spent $250 alone on those containers you see inside the makerspace.

Roommate's shelf turned makerspace
Transporting the desk piece
Having the materials in clearly labeled containers was just what I needed to allow the kids ownership over their workflow. They don't need to ask me where the soldering iron, snaps, or embroidery hoops are anymore - they just go grab what they need.  Our makerspace is a very busy, student-driven space.  With $1000 dollars to spend on organization, I would like to further develop this student centered strategy.  I would really like a solid shelving & bin system so that students can keep their many works-in-progress safe, yet easily accessible.  

I would also like to bring some order to what I affectionately refer to as our "fabrication studio."  Here's where the kids work with our 3D printers. I refurbished these tables from recycling and scavenged the various pieces of bins and shelving you see below.



I have many pictures of my science room (the kids often threaten to set up a time lapse in my room just to capture the ebb and flow of the creative chaos) but I will leave you with my favorite Container Store story.

In 2011, as I do every other year,  I hatched chicks and ducks as part of our embryology unit.  That year we ended up with a far better hatch rate than expected!  I knew I needed a bigger brooder.  Racing to the San Francisco store on my bicycle (I do not own a car) at 8:58 pm, minutes before closing, I asked for their biggest clear container. The sales person rang up my order, looked at my bike (propped inside the door) and asked quizzically, "How do you intend to get that home?"  I hadn't thought that far ahead; I was focused on the birds.  I figured I'd take the bus or something...

The saleswoman said, "Come here, I have an idea" and proceeded to strap the container to me like some sort of plastic turtle shell. She did such a great job, I put it back on in the morning to bike the nine miles to school the next day!   (She was pretty proud of herself and readily agreed to take a photo.)

(In case you want to see more pictures of ducks, check out our Flickr album - they don't get any cuter than our crew this spring!)





Recess in my room one day- kids from all grade levels tend to hang out here during free periods.


Monday, July 07, 2014

Embedding Slide Shows

So, I just finished my science bike post.  I was surprised to learn that I could no longer embed a slideshow from an album.  (Granted, I am a Flickr person and rarely deal with Picassa outside of the mandatory collections from this blog.)

Luckily, this blog post provided a solution. The author writes:

One of the great features of Picasa Web was that you could embed a Flash slideshow of your albums. Google would even give you the code to do it.  There was a button that said Embed and it would give you the code. Just cut and paste and you were done. 
With the migration to Google Plus Photos, this disappeared. 
Here's a work around. 
Use the following link to get back to the original PicasaWeb site:
https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/myphotos?noredirect=1
Hopefully the embed button makes a re-appearance, or Google leaves the old page up forever.

He also offers an alternate solution, if you want to go check it out.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Science Bike

It has been six years since I've sold my car and relied almost entirely on my bicycle(s) for transportation.  (Occasionally, I'll still grab a Zipcar - like for this 10 foot gutter for science fair - see photo, right)  I am also very, very thankful for Amazon.

Bike commuting can get pretty interesting as a science teacher.  I rode with all of the bike loads below, except for the bike rack, science fair boards, ladder, and shelf/desk combo - it those cases, my bicycle served as my pack mule.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Year-End To-Do List

School recently ended for our middle school - and another 10 months of blog post drafts piled up.  While I do believe in the benefits of pruning, there are a few posts of the posts that I will be working on over the next few weeks.  Here are some snapshots of the work in progress:
  • Impact of BPC in 3D: A 3D Printed Graduation Project (Tales of a 3D Printer, BPC STEAM)
  • BPC Visits 3D Robotics! (BPC STEAMspace)
  • More on Maker Faire (Tales of a 3D Printer)
  • 3D Printing Infiltrates the Science Fair (Tales of a 3D Printer)
  • Augmented Reality in the Classroom (Post-Its & Ponderings; BPC STEAM)
  • Ducks in the Science Room (BPC STEAM blog)
  • Tips on Hatching and Raising Ducks in the Middle School Classroom (Post-Its & Ponderings)
  • Ducks in my Makerspace (Post-Its & Ponderings)
  • Cardboard Arcade (Post-Its & Ponderings; BPC STEAM)
... plus whatever else I can publish in a timely manner.



Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Adafruit's Circuit Playground

Apparently, this has been around for a while, but it is new to me!  Adafruit's Circuit Playground "simplifies electronics reference & calculation so you can have more fun hacking, making, & building your projects!" This app is designed for both iPhone and iPad.



To go along with the app, Adafruit has started an educational YouTube series for kids.  I found it fairly useful for my own limited electronics background plus it's something short and sweet I can use with my middle school students (or maybe younger...)  The series is co-hosted by a puppet named Adabot and Adafruit founder Limor Fried.  It's clear, if a bit cheezy, and whenever Adabot says "accessing database"there are some interesting facts & animations on the way!

Here's Circuit Playground Episode 1: "A is for Ampere"


Circuit Playground Episode 2: "B is for Battery"



If you are wondering.. C is for Capacitor, but it doesn't appear to be published just yet.  And, apparently, you can get matching plushies!  If you want to read more about these cuddly components, check out this blog post.




Sunday, December 15, 2013

One Side Effect of Maker Mondays

I've noticed a strange side effect of our school Maker Mondays, which is our version of bringing making into the classroom.  I noticed it one day when I found myself disassembling my cordless vacuum.  Wait a minute - I don't do things like disassemble my small appliances!

To provide some context, I was raised in a world of planned & perceived obsolescence.  As a kid, I used Ziploc bags and plastic silverware, tossed aluminum cans and cardboard in the trash, and rarely saved plastic tubs for reuse, as my grandmother did.  As an adult, I consumed plastic appliances from Target that ultimately failed, and were tossed in the trash.  I pay someone to mend my clothes, fix my computer and do basic maintenance on my bicycle (my main mode of transportation).

But I am a teacher, and therefore a lifelong learner.  So I can't rely on apathy.

I am also expected to set an example for the kids I work with.  That's why, though I really, really hate piles of writhing worms, I take a deep breathe and try to handle them in science class like it is no big deal, as to not model the ubiquitous disgust reaction to worms.  I've held a tarantula, carried a (pet) rat on my shoulder, and held my tongue on camping trips when I was wet and cold and I wanted to whine, too.

Both of these responsibilities have come back to the forefront as we embark on our new Maker Monday adventures this year in my 7th grade classroom.  I have been fascinated with 3D printers since I saw my first Rep Rap in 2007, and bought my first Printrbot in 2011 to share with my classroom.  Since then, we have expanded the tools in my science classroom into a respectable little makerspace with various tools in traditional and digital fabrication, along with a variety of low- and high-tech physical computing options.

Let me be very clear, I am no expert.  And I am certainly not a digital native when it comes to the hardware side of tech.  In order to effectively implement out new program, I had to swallow a lot of pride and be very, very honest with my students.  We would be learning together.  It's been a slow process, as the whole full time life science teacher gig doesn't leave a lot of extra time for tinkering, but I am getting there, mostly thanks to my adolescent co-learners.  I've been right alongside them discovering the joy of soldering, assembling a soft circuit activated by snaps, or getting a potentiometer to control an LED.

Along the way, I have been noticing a shift in my attitude: I am becoming less fearful about breaking things, and I am gaining confidence that I can learn to fix things, or at least learn a lot as I am breaking them more.

Last spring, when I experienced my first filament jam on a Saturday afternoon, my first response was, "I'll just wait until Adam [8th grader] is here on Monday."  I remember admonishing myself - "Really?  You are going to depend on a 13 year old boy to solve your problems?"  So, I watched some tutorials and, heart pounding, disassembled, fixed, and reassembled my printerhead.

Now, I am sure many makers out there (and most anyone from my parent's generation) would laugh at my story, but it was a beginning.  Recently, our Cube had a filament error, and no amount of troubleshooting was working.  3D Systems approach would be to contact customer service for a replacement, this consumer-friendly 3D printer is not intended for tinkering.  However, I was not interested in taking it out of service yet again (we had to replace our first one for another failure).  The Cube community is not as vast as the Makerbot support community, but with a little research, I deduced the problem, fixed it, and shared my solution.

Recently, the bracket broke while I was retrieving my bike lock.  I reached under the nearby parked car to retrieve the pieces, hoping to save them so that when we do get our 3D scanner, perhaps I can scan and print myself a new one.

Then, a few days ago, I was trying to clean my room and realized my hand-held vac (it's a small room) wouldn't work.  Within a few minutes, the head was disassembled and I found & fixed the problem.

I feel a responsibility to model a willingness to tinker around my students, especially my girls, and it seems that practice may be making it a permanent part of my skillset.  But it is becoming more than just something "I do for my students."  I've been doing some more minor bike maintenance on my own, browsing TechShop classes, and even dreaming up my own projects!  I used to outsource my ideas (mostly bike-visibility-related), but now I am brainstorming ways to bring them to life using my own skills and the collaborative expertise of others.

As usual, teaching has taught me something important.





Friday, December 13, 2013

Tracking Classroom Software and Laptops

We've all seen the tchotchkes emblazoned with inspirational quotes. Well, I live by the lesser known quote of "do something that amuses you every day," combined with the middle-school-teacher mantra: "Laugh so you don't cry." (btw: Did you know this has been scientifically supported as effective?)

Anyway, in order to differentiate our motley crew of class laptops with their wide variety of operating systems and operational particularities, we could have opted for traditional numerical codes.  Instead, we opted to use chicken breed names.  Now, you may not find chickens as amusing as I do, so choose whatever category you'd like, but I can attest to how this creative labeling beats numbers any day.  Especially in context:
"Hey, can I have Leghorn?  I want to use the Arduino library I downloaded last class - Americana doesn't have it yet."
"Who has Silkie?  I want to use KISSlicer!"
"Let's try the Kinect on Orpington, cuz Wyandotte isn't as good."
Numerical or not, I have also found it helpful to set up a Google Doc to encourage the kids to track the software changes they make to each computer.  You can view our always-in-progress doc here, if you are interested.  



Friday, September 20, 2013

Introducing our Makerspace, with little emphasis on space

Well, our first Maker Club sessions of the 2013-2014 school year seemed to be a success.  "Maker Mondays" are being successfully implemented into my science curriculum for the first time this year, picking up the slack from our recently dismantled technology program.

I initially gave all the credit to our new classroom "Makerspace" (pictured to the left), but I'm starting to rethink things.  Don't get me wrong, this piece of furniture - donated by my roommate when she decided to reorganize her room - was an incredible windfall.  After weeks of combing local used office equipment spaces and other recycling establishments (like Urban Ore), I would have been thrilled with even a functional shelving unit.  But then this - with coordinating doors, drawers, and the desk - w00t!

If someone would have told me last year that I could fit this large additional piece of furniture in my classroom, I would have laughed.  To give you an idea, here is a picture (below) of my science classroom from the far back corner of the room.  It is not large by any means, and space is at a premium.  With 24 eighth graders in there, things get pretty tight.  But, we figured out a way to make it work.


If you look to the far right of the picture, you might also see three 4-foot tables that I rescued from various spots from around the school.  After tightening some screws and lining them up, they represent our "design studio" with a couple of old laptops, our Makerbot* and our newest Printrbot*.  These tables, in addition to the shelving unit required us to push the lab tables even closer together.

But the loss of space due to the additional furniture was worth it, for it made a dedicated space for all of our tools.  We have a bin for MaKey MaKey*, Arduino*, Raspberry Pi* and a LilyPad*.  We also have drawers designated for batteries, safety glasses, duct tape, measuring tapes, sewing supplies*, felt* and timers.  We have shelves for our one set of Makedo*, books* (including my favorites!), Make Magazines*, a used Kinect scanner*, clipboards & small dry erase boards for planning, and a bunch of items from a resale shop that we hope to eventually 3D scan.  We have a bin clearly marked "tools" and a designated space for the soldering iron* and glue guns.  There's even a bin labeled "raw materials" which hold cardboard and other assorted scraps for spontaneous making.

What is most interesting to me is that, besides the electronics equipment, most of these materials are new in my classroom.  What is new is their visibility and accessibility.  Before, these supplies lived in a bin or in some cabinet, only to be taken out when part of an activity in the curriculum.  But now, students have been coming in on their free time and lunch periods to calibrate the Printrbot or expand on some idea they are working on with MaKey MaKey.  When some kid comments, "I think the gear is stuck," another student will respond by grabbing the pliers out of the tool bin, or when some kid lost the plastic scraper for our 3D printer, another kid jumped on Thingiverse, downloaded an stl file, and printed a replacement.  For the first time, students do not have to go through me to access the materials - they figure out what they need and know where to find it.  And they are starting to train each other how to use the various equipment, increasing their own buy-in, and decreasing my workload!  It feels like a working space, and the kids are taking advantage of it.  We even have a Google Doc linked off our class wiki where kids post things "we" need (currently: conductive thread/paint, an HDMI to VGA converter, etc).

If someone would have told me last year that I could make a makerspace in my room, I would have been quick to list all of the limitations of my teaching situation: I don't have enough time, materials, budget or training.  I don't have the support of a university, a grant, or other donations.  But, we started small and took it one step at a time.  For my budget, I started (well before the shelving unit arrived) with an after school 3D Printing (eventually renamed "Maker") club.  To my advantage, students do pay for extracurricular activities at my school and, like many start-ups, I chose not to give myself a 'salary' the first few trimesters, instead using that extra money to buy materials.  (All of the starred materials above (*) were paid for out of my pocket.)  To fill the role of "lab coordinator," I used these self-selected, motivated, after-school kids to experiment with the tools and become the experts I could later use in my science class.  And time... well, yeah...  I spent a LOT of time playing, learning, and developing a network of resources.  But when you love what you do, the line between work and fun is often blurred.

So, do I wish I had more space for student to tinker and make things?  Absolutely.  But I knew I couldn't wait until I had the perfect space (and materials) to make that happen.  Instead I had to make the space - both physical and (more importantly) perceived.  I used to give all the credit to that shelving unit, but we're starting to realize that the shelf does far more than just hold the supplies, it helped shift the attitude from classroom to makerspace by keeping already existing tools visible and accessible, and empowering the kids to use them.



If you want to read more about the specifically 3D printing things we are up to, you can visit the blog I created with the kids: Tales of a 3D Printer.

_________________________________________________

Added 11.2.13: Here are some resources I find myself referring back to: an Edutopia article on Designing a School Makerspace, the MAKE article Is it a Hackerspace, Makerspace, TechShop, or FabLab? and an instagram photo of a makerspace I aspire towards!

Here are some other local under-construction makerspaces (updated)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Video of Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, presenting at Design Night at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco on Thursday May 2, 2013.  This session was entitled "Making it!"  Unfortunately, I did not get my act together soon enough to get tickets before they sold out, but thanks to the wonders of technology, I can re-live the experience on the web! :)



Monday, April 01, 2013

From STEM to STEAM Education


Many of us are familiar with the acronym behind STEM education - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  However, I was recently introduced to a new acronym - STEAM - which includes an "A" for "Art & Design."

Now, this buzzword is not new (it's been around since at least 2011, or even 2007, from what I can tell) but it is new to me, and I like it!


From what I can tell, STEAM is a movement that came out of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and, according to the STEM to STEAM website, aims to


  1. transform research policy to place Art + Design at the center of STEM
  2. encourage integration of Art + Design in K–20 education
  3. influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation


The focus was put on STEM education many years ago, but to be truly competitive, it's about more than just math and science, it is about creativity and innovation; critical thinking and problem solving; and communication and collaboration.  It's about art & design.

Some sources say (well, Thom Markham says) the term STEM was first coined in the 1890's by the Committee of Ten at Harvard, as a response to the gaps in the agrarian school system of the 1800's.  Other sources point to Dr. Judith Ramaley, president of Winona State University in Minnesota, who is said to have coined the term "STEM" when she was assistant director of the education and human resources directorate at the National Science Foundation from 2001 to 2004. (Previous to her, apparently the acronym was "SMET.") Ew.

For now, especially with my interest in the Maker movement, I will adopt the acronym STEAM to inform my own teaching in science & technology.


Monday, February 18, 2013

The Benefits of Pruning

So, my blog has been sorely neglected over the past few years.  Right now it is cluttered with draft posts, links and images in a private Tumbler of ideas.  Sprinkled throughout is the occasional posts, released in a burst of creative energy and prioritization.  However, my blog is mostly neglected as the demands of teaching relegate it to the back burner.

My blog is also competing with the immediacy of social media.  Share a link, or toss up a shortened URL on Twitter, and one quickly receives feedback and commentary from the crowd.  As immediately gratifying as this may be, it doesn't really take the place of blogging, a process that (at its best) forces me to consider multiple sources before assimilating those ideas with my own viewpoints, distilling them to what matters in my particular context, and then writing them down. I don't really blog for the crowd; I do it for me.

Public Domain
And, so, in resurrecting this blog, I've considered the analogy of the Phoenix - that mythical bird with its colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet. The bird that, at the end of its 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, builds itself a nest of twigs that it then ignites; "both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix or phoenix egg arises, reborn anew to live again."  (Wikipedia)  It's tempting to just destroy this blog and start anew, creating a new space from its ashes, but that analogy was not quite what I was looking for.

I've considered, instead, the act of pruning bushes. This seems more apropos to my goals.  The University of Rhode Island offers this Pruning Guide.  "Pruning is a regular part of plant maintenance involving the selective removal of specific plant parts."

CC-BY-SA by Hirvenk├╝rpa
Why prune?  The site goes on to offer these reasons:

1) To improve the appearance or health of a plant.
2) To control the size of a plant.
3) To prevent personal injury or property damage.
4) To train young plants.
5) To influence fruiting and flowering.
6) To rejuvenate old trees and shrubs.

That's what my old blog needs - rejuvenation! I started blogging nearly 7 years ago, and over the years have more clearly focused my ideas and vision as a teacher.  I plan to start by pruning away those previous posts that serve as a distraction to my professional goals.

Then, perhaps, my blog will grow healthier and stronger than before.  Of course, this requires that I actually write.  And teaching tends to fill up my to-do list, leaving little time for much else.  However, it's good to have goals.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Facebook Safety Center

As a middle school teacher, I was thrilled to learn Facebook has created a new Safety Center for parents, educators, law enforcement, and kids.

Not only does it have good advice, it has realistic advice. For example, check out these tips for parents (found under the section "Can I friend my teen?"):

Don't fill your kids' pages with your comments. As it is, simply having parents is mortifying enough at this age. Their friends don't need evidence of your existence (and you can always send them private messages).

Don't be techno-phobic. Don't be afraid of technology. Learn to text, send a mobile photo, set up a Facebook profile, upload a video. Or have your kids show you how. It's impossible to guide what you don't understand. Not only that, but think of all the anxiety you can avoid by knowing how things work.

For all those parents who contact me, not knowing where to start with their 13 year old and social networking, I will be sharing this new resource.