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.