From Magnets to Circuits – Making it Interactive

During this semester I try to cover a lot more STEM areas with my classes, and have begun engaging students a lot more with activities they could then build on – in documents, presentations, blogs etc.

It doesn’t take much more than a small coil of copper wire, a motor, flashlight bulb, and rudimentary switches to explain how magnetism and circuits work.

After a few hands-on make it/break it sessions, I let my third graders use this web site, Cleo, to try their hand indesigning their own circuit. Cleo is a British web site that promotes the use of rich media and broadband.

Like a white board with wires and batteries –a better description would be an interactive sandbox– it lets a student not just build a circuit, but run it to see if the device works. If it fails, great! Erase. Reconnect. Run.

I let them print out a working circuit and take it home for further discussion.

Cross-posting this from my school blog.

Teaching kids to Code

We hear a lot of ‘codes’ but very often it involves computer coding – from HTML to C, to Java etc.

To follow up on a coding class to my 5th graders, I took them one step back to give them more context about why we use and need codes. Society has always hade people who could code, if you think about it. It was just a way of keeping things secret, or understandable within a small community. See list at the bottom of this post for more on this.

But hiding in plain sight are lots of codes that students take for granted:

  • UPC Codes on packaging, books etc that encodes pricing 
  • Product codes (on say produce in a grocery store)
  • UPC codes on stickers on technology here in the school for inventory control
  • QR Codes – now becoming ubiquitous in marketing, on T-shirts etc

Into this mix comes the need to understand how coding is now a highly desirable skill set in many, many careers. (I tell my students that even if they don’t take up computer science, a knowledge of coding will help them manage digital spaces that they surely will be involved in.)

This week I began taking students to Khan Academy, which has a brilliant introduction to coding. It’s hands-on, and even as the video presenter explains, it lets you pause and tweak the code within the video, to reveal changes in the display area on the right. You could find the first lesson on coding different shapes, here.

I’ve been on many, many online learning portals, and this is beyond any doubt the most amazing example of how to engage a learner, even as the tutorial is in progress. I could tell, by how reluctant students are to log off. It’s almost a disservice to have to do this in a few lessons – I have been floating the idea of maybe starting a coding club in the school. I keep hearing that it is never too early to teach students how to code.

The tug-of-war between social media ‘policies’ and ‘guidelines’

Social media in the education system is often treated with the broad brush. I’ve gotten used to this, and fielded this argument long before I got into education – as a communication consultant.

Organizations who have been mildly exposed to the uses and abuses of social media immediately throw two things at it: filters and policies. You see that’s how we always dealt with these things, didn’t we? When email came along we had gatekeepers (human filters), and policies. Long before that, when people started had access to phones, people did exactly that – they ‘locked’ phones inside booths and rooms, and were worried that employees might spend too much time talking on the phone.

Fast forward to today. Schools are wrestling with this age-old communication issue of Policies vs Guidelines. Gatekeepers vs Accessibility. To address this head on was a timely White Paper on Ed tech in Schools (by the American Association of School librariess) that noted how Acceptable Use Policies or AUPs, are more a list of things young people should not do, rather than what they ought to be considering as digital citizens.

Expanding on this, Frances Harris and Megan Cusick update it with a call to rethink social media policies in schools.(“What’s Not to ‘Like’? March 10, 2014), citing Common Core standards that call for making knowledge “robust and relevant to the real world.” I like how they dig deeper into CCSS to suggest that we ought to be teaching students to use technology  “to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.” (Italics, mine). The point here being that, one effective way to solicit feedback is to get them to be out there in public, on published platforms. While we are busy erecting high fences around this pool, we may be leaving them unprepared to dive into the “real world” where the pools are everywhere and unfenced.

Don’t get me wrong. I teach K-6, and have children of my own, so I know the importance of guidelines and ‘small fences.’ But to the authors’ larger point, we parents often try to teach our children to swim, rather than making them fear the deep end.

I’ve just begun a class on blogging for my 6th graders. They’ve read the AUPs, and that’s behind us now. Now it’s time to see them go public.

U.S. Olympian, Sean Smith’s message: “Dream big, and stay in school”


Sean Smith had a lot to share, outside of his favorite Olympic activity, Moguls.

The twists and spins he had to master to be on the U.S. team took a lot of practice, and was hard work. But the truth is, he said, that event just took 20 seconds! To put it another way, you train all your life for those 20 seconds.

Students asked many questions, directly to camera, and via text messaging, and email, while the Olympian was on the big screen – a UStream feed, projected onto a Promethean board in the music room.

James Schaaf, Sean Smith

Using Facetime and UStream to ask a question

Sean’s main message to Salt River Elementary students was to set goals. Saying “I want to fly” is not realistic, he said. Set goals that are achievable. “But you have to dream, and dream really big!”

Sean Smith - Olympic Skier

“Today, my goal is to have fun, to help people, and to smile every day.” Sean Smith

Learning to Code (with a little help from Zuckerberg)

Starting tomorrow, being Digital learning Day, I plan to start using Code.Org, the site that lets a student learn coding, and understand the syntax behind an interactive website.

Code.Org is backed by two of the most recognized coders in the world: Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill –needs no introduction– Gates. Partners include Amazon, Apple, Google, Yahoo, Khan Academy, and

One of the goals of is to introduce Computer Science into the math and science “Core” curriculum. The thinking behind this push is to make students excited about computer science, which tends to be confused with Technology Literacy, and ‘education technology.’

Indeed, it’s never too early to get students fired up about the ‘science’ of what makes computers so interactive. Even if it means introducing a Red Bird into class.

As the site says, this is for those age six to… 106! Which means you qualify, too!

Lesson Plan for Winter Olympics + Digital Learning Day!

We have a lucky collusion of events next week.

We have been planning to celebrate Digital Learning Day on the 5th Feb., but now that the winter Olympics is also getting started at the end of the week, we might be able to tie these two events together.

A fellow teacher in the Dysart Elementary school in El Mirage tipped me to a site that could let students collaborate in a mind-map sort of way, and I experimented with it using content around the Olympics.

Here’s a sneak preview below.

Padlet - Digital Learning Day, Salt River Elementary

The website is called Padlet, and it has the look and feel of Glogster, but in a less distracting way.
I particularly like how it lets you export the content in a variety of ways – from PDF to QR code, to an embed link – as you see below.

What’s neat with Embed Codes is that, should I update the the page it the code is pulling from (in this case Padlet, and my Olympics-related content), that latest version gets pulled into this post.

View it here

As for how we could use the QR Code, that opens a slew of possibilities, doesn’t it?

Be a ‘Content Creator’ – No keyboards required!

Yesterday I began to prep some of my classes for next week’s Digital Learning Day, by getting them to think about content.

Where does all the content we read and watch come from?

As I ramp up my 5th grade class from finding and reproducing knowledge, to putting together their own ideas, I want them to explore some things that seldom get talked about:

  • What does publishing mean today? How many tools could they find right now, albeit hidden under the hood of their computers?
  • Why is important to share their ideas using these tools?
  • How could their ideas be assembled in a way that makes them valuable to someone else?

I stress this last point because of two recent occurrences.

The first with a 4th grade class l taught on Patents and Copyright to 4th graders in 2013 –in relation to how there are more important places to do ‘research’ at, than on Google. Given an opportunity for them to research patents on the USPTO website, they could see how some of the most gee-wiz tools out there all began with (and still look like) a doodle on the back of a napkin. I’ve seen students come up with some amazing ideas and wondered why we don’t channel these!

The second was when I stumbled on a story in Fast Company magazine, on a weird pair of shoes fitted with GPS technology. It struck a chord because of an idea my robotics team came up with 16 months earlier. Working on their project for the FLL competition, (the challenge was called ‘Senior Solutions’) they thought of solving the problem for a visually impaired elderly person, using a pair of shoes embedded with sensors. The shoes detect obstacles, and communicate with the person via the soles of the feet.

We seem to never have platforms for kids to develop these ideas and publish them, do we? After all, the unspoken message is that they have to get to college first, to be worthy of having their ideas published in some journal.

Back to my plans for Digital Learning Day. I’m giving 1st graders a chance to see what it means to pick up a microphone and record their thoughts. Microphones have become less complicated to use now, and becoming a content creator can be as simple as telling your story, or weighing in on a topic at the click of a button.

I’m using Audacity, and headsets with microphones for this. It’s a work in progress, so…stay tuned!

Could Avatars Encourage Content Creation?

I am planning on using a pretty creative technology service provider called Voki for a lesson.

The idea is to let students create avatars for their work, and also use different avatars to send them prompts to take a project to the next level.

Here’s one such avatar, for a project on the Polar Vortex which we began working on last week, when covering animation.

I’m going to surprise my class next week with this character!

If you don’t see this avatar (using Flash), click on this Voki Message.

NASA Teleconference about Curiosity, today

Excited to be part of  teleconference with NASA, today.

We have begun upping the ante when it comes to STEM-related work here at the school, and this series of teleconferences brings things into sharp focus, especially for me. Just a few months ago my students got to speak to an astronaut and experience a whole day of hands-on activities for Mars Day.

This event is about getting to probe the higher knowledge, of why the pursuit of Mars, and why scientists are on a race to study the topology and climate on the planet.

The rover, Curiosity has given us earthlings an instrument dashboard through which we could study the Martian surface. Not only through the advanced imagery, but by the chemical analysis.

The event is targeted at many different age groups.

Third- and fourth-graders will be challenged with figuring out why Mars is “the planet of choice” for NASA’s missions.

Fifth- to sixth-graders will look for “the similarities and differences in soil analysis” done on Earth and Mars. The conference notes say that students will (post-conference) be able to create a model of an “aeroshell” to simulate entry and descent of Curiosity.

All my students have looked at the descent pod –the so-called “powered descent” –and how the complicated landing was handled. Slowing down the descent of a one ton robot from 180 miles per hour to a mere 1.7 miles per hour, using the sky crane, above, was one of those feats that blew their minds, and made astronomy so exciting.

Using mixed-media and Rube Goldberg in a STEM class

This year I began trying a series of mixed-media in my class, with Common Core in mind.

For instance, last week I began using Rube Goldberg as a point of interest through which to teach 4th, 5th and 6th graders both science and document creation. It’s impossible for young people to not be enthused by the simplicity and complexity of Rube Goldberg contraptions –a useful point to make, considering his belief that we humans tend to make simple tasks more complicated than they need to be.

What resonates with students seems to be the basic elements of one of these machines – ordinary objects lying around a home. I’ve even found it useful to get third graders to talk excitedly about forces and gravity, after demonstrating a crude ‘machine’ in my class. “Crude,” as in what appears to be a hastily put together contraption of a ball, some string, paperclips, and a ruler. Here’s what I did last week:

I tied a length of string to the door handle, and wrapped it around a computer terminal, then stretched it about 15 feet to a stool, tying that end to a ‘lever’ (made of Lego pieces).

When the lever is moved, it drops a ball onto a ruler balanced on a cardboard box. The ruler, when tipped (by the weight of the ball) sends another ball shooting into the air.

We tested it out; it was hit or miss. But when it worked, I picked a student to catch the flying ball.

What was fun, and unexpected, was when the teacher came to pick up the students, the contraption went to work, and the ball flew into the air. I don’t know what the teacher thought was going on in a ‘computer class’ but I think they have all come to expect that this is not just about hardware and software, but science and technology.

Rube Goldberg’s ‘machine’ also helps me draw out the larger lessons of STEM:

  • Problem solving and experimentation go hand in hand
  • It’s OK to fail -and learn something from your mistakes
  • The ‘laws’ of science don’t need to be memorized to be applied
  • Scientists are cool people. They don’t only work in murky labs with hazardous chemicals
  • Big Ideas haven’t all been taken. The world is always anxious for the better mousetrap!

Here’s another contraption I’ve begun using to teach…. animation in Powerpoint.



And what’s the connection between PPT and a Rube Goldberg contraption?

I get students to create one of their slides using shapes, and create a ‘machine’ using shapes –you know, cones, cylinders, slides, etc. and get a ball to ‘move’ through a sequence, almost mimicking the device they help me build and test.

It’s turning out to be a fun way to combine computer skills, science, and hands-on activity, and get them thinking deeper about the connection between a computer lab and science and technology.


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