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.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Open Educational Resources (OER)

So, a few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending my first CC Salon SF. I was excited, since I am currently a little obsessed with Creative Commons and copyright, and I work part-time for the open source respository, Curriki. Although, I was somewhat disappointed to find out I was the only currently practicing teacher there. Although I understand; it was a school night. :)

Not to worry, the presentation is archived online.

I think all educators need to start paying attention. The dynasty of the textbook is coming to an end. I was introduced to resources such as CK-12 Flexbooks, Connexions, OER Commons, CLRN Free Digital Textbooks, and the Flat Classroom Project. With all of these free or inexpensive, customizable resources - what it the draw of the typical textbook?
Open Educational Resources are all about sharing.

In a brave new world of learning, OER content is made free to use or share, and in some cases, to change and share again, made possible through licensing, so that both teachers and learners can share what they know. (OER Commons)

Want to find some OER for yourself? Curriki lists 10 great OER search engines on their blog.

More on this later...

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Citing Internet Sources

The most common guidelines for citing sources come from the MLA. The Modern Language Association of America is the main professional association in the US for scholars of language and literature. The other common guidelines come from the APA (American Psychological Association).

I learned that in April of 2009, the newest MLA Handbook was released, and it made a few important changes (from the Write Source).

  • Underlining is no longer recommended to represent italics. Use italics instead.
  • Within the list of works cited, all entries must be identified by medium: Print, Web, DVD, CD-ROM, PDF file, and so on. List the appropriate medium(s) at the end of each entry. In the case of a Web source, the date of access follows the word “Web.”
  • Online sources no longer require a URL listing**.

So, what does this mean for you, kids? Well, if you want to cite an Internet source, here's what you need to do. Keep in mind that complete publication information may not be available for a website; so you should provide what is given. You should try and find the following information before you begin:

  • Author and/or editor names (if available)
  • Article name in quotation marks (if applicable)
  • Title of the website (in italics)
  • Any version numbers - revisions, posting dates, volumes, or issue numbers.
  • Publisher information, including the publisher name and publishing date. (it is suggested that you use use n.p. if no publisher name is available and n.d. if no publishing date is given.)
  • Date you accessed the material. (This is important because web pages often change, and information on the page may no longer be the same later)
  • Medium of publication (in most of our cases, this is "Web")
  • URL (if required, or for your own personal reference).

(NOTE: The color-coding in just to help you organize. The actual citation should be in plain black text.)

Editor or author name (if available). Name of Site. Version number. Name of institution/organization affiliated with the site, date of resource creation (if available). Medium of publication. Date of access.

Windows to the Universe. National Earth Science Teachers Association, n.d. Web. Accessed in Nov 2009.


Author name. "Title of page." Name of Site. Version number. Name of institution/organization affiliated with the site, date of resource creation (if available). Medium of publication. Date of access.

Strickland, Jonathan. "How Does the Internet Work?." Discovery, n.d. Web. Accessed on April 4, 2011.
"Twitter." n.d. Web. Accessed on April 10, 2011.

Byrne, Richard. "Six Easy Ways for Students to Create Videos Online." Free Technology for Teachers, November 29, 2009. Web. Accessed in Feb 2010.
"How to Make Vegetarian Chili.", eHow, n.d. Web. Feb 2009.

Want to know more? Visit the Purdue OWL site. Or, you could give the online Citation Machine a try!

** Important Note on the Use of URLs in MLA

"MLA no longer requires the use of URLs in MLA citations. Because Web addresses are not static (i.e., they change often) and because documents sometimes appear in multiple places on the Web (e.g., on multiple databases), MLA explains that most readers can find electronic sources via title or author searches in Internet Search Engines.

For people who still wish to require the use of URLs, MLA suggests that the URL appear in < angle brackets > after the date of access. Break URLs only after slashes."

So, it would look like this:
Strickland, Jonathan. "How Does the Internet Work?.", n.d. Web. April 4, 2011. < >

"Twitter." n.d. Web. Accessed on April 10, 2011. < >

Byrne, Richard. "Six Easy Ways for Students to Create Videos Online." Free Technology for Teachers, November 29, 2009. Web. Accessed in Feb 2010.
< >

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Search Strategies - More than "Just Google It"

Every year, I ask my 6th grade students to respond to the following prompt in their Tech journals: "Describe your strategies for researching using the Internet." Without fail, at least 80% of them will respond with something like, "I type a word into Google and then click on the first website listed" or "I go straight to Wikipedia."

So, I think it time to teach Internet search strategies a little more explicitly. (Even the New York Times recently posted a lesson plan for dealing with Internet searching skills.)

These are the search strategies I start with for my students when they begin their projects:
  1. Take note of the domain names types (.gov & .edu tend to have most "reliable" info)
  2. Check the "About Us" to see if the site seems reliable. Sometimes "Contact Us" or "FAQs" or that site's own blog can also provide valuable hints to a page's reliability.
  3. Try searching or (ex: Twitter NOTE: There is no space between the "-" and the domain name type.
  4. Try putting your search item in quotes. (ex: "history of Mt. Vesuvius" instead of just history of Mt. Vesuvius)
  5. Try subtracting or add words (for example type 'Tiger -Woods' to search for info on the animal.) NOTE: There is no space between the "-" and word you are subtracting.
  6. Try clicking on the little superscript numbers in Wikipedia articles to find out the source that is used. Or, just scroll down to the bottom of the Wikipedia article and look over all of the sources used.
  7. Try searching popular news, tech, or science sites - (Newsweek, Time, New York Times, SFGate, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, CrunchBase, USGS, National Geographic, etc. (ex: "Foursquare +Chicago Tribune")
  8. Use other media as sources for information, such as videos (TED talks, YouTube interviews) or podcasts (KQED, NPR)
Still need more help? Try these links: Using Search Engines, Develping a Search Strategy, and 10 Simple Google Search Tricks (NY Times)
And, don't forget when you are searching to cite the websites you use!

Friday, March 05, 2010

Using Images in the Classroom: Copyright, Fair Use and Creative Commons

As a Technology teacher, I feel obligated to model good intellectual property habits for my students. The problem is, I am not completely clear on the rules myself! I am very thankful for the nonprofit Creative Commons site for helping me start to make sense of it all.

As teachers, we often claim "fair use." The Fair Use doctrine generally allows for the copying of protected material (texts, sounds, images, etc.) for a limited and “transformative” purpose, like criticizing, commenting, parodying, news reporting, teaching the copyrighted work. Under the US copyright laws, fair use “is not an infringement of copyright.” When determining Fair Use, judges typically consider four factors. Read more....

However, I am trying to teach my students to forgo their typical Google Image search or pop song soundtrack and really start to think about intellectual property rights. I am no longer hiding behind the approaches: "well, we're not publishing it, so no one will notice" or "it's only a problem if you get caught."

Here is what I know so far:

Copyright - [MOST RESTRICTIVE] Creative work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and "fixed in a tangible form." All sorts of creative work are protected including images, songs, and written work. People do not need to register with the Copyright Office to benefit from copyright protection, but the will need to if they ever plan on bringing suit against someone for copyright infringement. If a student wants to use copyrighted material in their presentation or website, they really need to contact the creator for permission. (My students do NOT like this rule.) I tell students that if the rights are not specified, assume it is copyrighted.

Public Domain - [NO RESTRICTIONS] "When a work is in the public domain, it is free for use by anyone for any purpose without restriction under copyright law. Public domain is the purest form of open/free, since no one owns owns or controls the material in any way." Mostly, this includes resources that are government work (USGS, NASA) or very old. Cornell University has an updated table of copyright term and public domain rules.

Creative Commons - [SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE] This is a way to modify your copyright to allow for sharing, remixing or distribution of your work. There are many "levels" of creative commons licensing. On this page, lists them starting with the most accommodating license type through the most restrictive license type.

There are six major licenses of the Creative Commons:
  • Attribution (CC-BY)
  • Attribution Share Alike (CC-BY-SA)
  • Attribution No Derivatives (CC-BY-ND)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial (CC-BY-NC)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (CC-BY-NC-SA)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Generally, the licenses address different requirements for attribution , share-alike commercial use, and allowing derivative works (can you modify it).

There are four major conditions of the Creative Commons: Attribution (BY), requiring attribution to the original author (giving the author credit); Share Alike (SA), allowing derivative works under the same or a similar license (how you will license any work you create from it); Non-Commercial (NC), requiring the work is not used for commercial purposes (you can't make money from it; and No Derivative Works (ND), allowing only the original work, without derivatives (you can't change it).
Additional options include the CC0 option, or "No Right Reserved." For software, Creative Commons offers three licenses: the BSD License, the CC GNU LGPL license, and the CC GNU GPL. (I'm still learning about those three....)
I encourage my students to start at the following sites to find CC or public domain images:

I know I have a lot left to learn, but at least I am encouraging my students to become aware of intellectual property rights and make it less likely that they will become "uninformed and unintentional plagiarists."