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.