So kids aren’t playing with rubber bands and string anymore?

True story: Recently I took a small group of students to visit a lab, and while breaking for lunch on some garden benches, they began climbing the trees nearby. They were getting a bit noisy when a lady walking by stopped and looked up into the branches. I thought I would get asked to get them to ‘behave’. But the lady smiled and said loudly to others passing by, “Look! look! children are playing on trees again!”

It took me a few seconds to figure out what she was really saying – that having seen so many kids today plugged into screens, it’s thrilling to see them having fun scampering up trees. (Side note: this was outside a Mars Space lab in Tempe, Arizona, and we were on a field trip to see a whole lot of technology!)

Drawing from : 7th period: Feed a Fish Wikispaces page Click on image to visit this class project page

I keep this in mind when I introduce students to new technologies. Last week, I began a lesson on animation, and as subject matter, I returned to the ‘Rube Goldberg Machine.’ We don’t always need screens for this. (Unless we need to check out the many Rube Goldberg contests like this.). How could we turn students into makers, and innovators, problem-solvers and scientific thinkers?

A Rube Goldberg Machine (or ‘contraption‘) teaches us a lot about levers, gravity, kinetic energy, and chain reactions among other things – such as precision, iterative design, and learning from failure. All it takes is some lengths of wood, string, paper cups, shoe boxes, old clothes hangers, marbles and/or ping-pong balls, rubber bands and cardboard tubes.

I like to get them to ‘design’ their machine first, and see what they come up with – then set them on a building mission! We could use a drawing app, but paper and pencil work just fine!

Image on right – One of the manyprojects from a 7th grade class – found here


When machines break, and coffee cups burn – just another day in science

In teaching technology we like to say that it’s OK mess up the first time.

This is counter to how we like things to run smoothly. You know: neat transitions, good closures etc. A formula, in other words. Even when doing a demo, you probably want your audience to see the end result.

But I’ve realized that in many lessons – life lessons, and class lessons– the best thing that could happen is for something to fall apart, if not crash.

Earthquake simulatorTake this ‘earthquake machine’ we built from two-by-fours, scrap metal, and some springs. The plan was to simulate tectonic plate movement that brings down buildings. This was for our STEM Night, which happened on Tuesday.

On the day of the event, when a bolt was turned by a power drill, the rickety contraption ran into a few issues. The wheel began to crack. And we had no proper Plan B (a replacement). Plan C was to manually shake the spring-based table. We settled for Plan D – Duct tape! Which looked messy, but worked.

In a sense, I loved that uncertainty. It becomes an opportunity to tell students that this ‘problem-solving’ stuff we go on about, is real –even for us.

Then the next day, last morning), Channel 10 News’ weather guy showed up and I had to demo the cranky machine. More issues.

  • Problem #1: The drill that drove the machine, had been taken home! We scrambled to get one in time.
  • Problem #2: Cory McCloskey wanted to repeat the ‘quake’ and …of course, it failed on camera. Nice.

You cannot plan these things. What looks bad, actually informs the story. McCloskey was here to do the weather report on Earth Day, and connected with the story of how humans might solve earthquake issues. (Actually, this just in the news: earthquakes are caused by humans drilling but not the kind you see above !)

Fox 10 News visits SRES (35)He then spotted the solar oven we had used the day before. I had left my coffee cup inside one of the pans to keep my cup of joe warm while the kids were all gathering for the media truck.

A solar oven can reach up to 250 degrees in 30 minutes. So does the plastic cap, which warped out of shape as you can see in the picture below.

The weatherman’s parting comment: “We’re burning coffee cups in here…”

Indeed. We’re doing messy, fun, science here. Things break. Or bake. You can’t touch this.


Solar baking AfterIMG_0659 STEM Night 2nd Red Camera (12)

Focus on Word Clouds, QR Codes, and Smart Watches for Digital Learning Day

Today is Digital Learning Day. This is the third year we have participated.

Planning on introducing a new unit to my 5th and 6th grades today – a bit of a challenge!

5th grade: Students will scan a web site (to be announced), and pick up 10 key words that could provide a good snapshot of the topic.

Then they would create a list on a Word document, and be sent to a Word Cloud generator to ceate their own Word Cloud. Topics I will choose form are from this week’s news:
(a) Apple Watch

(b) Will Ferrell ‘plays’ Cactus League – visiting Mesa, Arizona this week!


6th Grade: Students will learn the differences (and relationship) between URLs and QR Codes. The challenge is to use 3 web sites and 4 steps to produce customized and usable information. They will:

(a) Visit a web site provided,  and copy the link

(b) Go to Kaywa, the QR Code generator where they will create and download the Code.

(c) Open the image file, which could be a PPG of TIFF, in (the Photoshop Clone)

(d) Create a poster using Pixlr, with QR Code image and text

Once done, they will save it to a shared folder, and print it out.

See last year’s activity here in my class.


Testing Lino – Padlet-like Content ‘Wall’ for Students

This Lab is all about software and hardware, and how best students could use existing and emerging tools.
So I just began testing out a service called Lino (www.linoit.comto create a new ‘wall’ to support lessons in my class.

I have used Padlet, but for some reason there is a glitch on the new Windows 8 computers.

The first test is for a class on Book Trailers – a way to combine script writing, and microphone use with creating a promotional ‘trailer’ for a book. This is what it will look like – more student resources will be added.

This could become a lesson in itself, for content gathering and teaching how embed codes work.

Students could ‘curate’ facts, pictures, sounds, music tracks, video and slide decks to support work in social studies, science, math or robotics.

World Class Research Project – With Mars HI-SEAS Crew

Our second robotics team has made some great progress with their project for the FLL tournament.

They have begun making contact with two of the 6-member crew of Mars Hi-SEAS Mission 3.

Zak Wilson just got back with a document on 3D printing and terra-forming.

Sophie Milam, sent in a video about the need for spacesuits on Mars, and why they are using space suits even on ‘fake Mars.’

The video she sent in is worth sharing with the rest of the school, since this discussions about gravity and pressure are very current – given that many students have begun to talk about the movie Interstellar.

Robotics Scrimmage with St. Mary-Basha Catholic School

Yesterday, we hosted two FLL Robotics teams from St. Mary-Basha Catholic School, Chandler.

It was the first scrimmage we hosted at Salt River Elementary. It was a lot of fun, and students got to see how nervous their potential competitors –or ‘co-petitors’ in FLL-speak — were.

Did the bots under-perform? Sure! But that’s part of the learning experience of a scrimmage, where you get to fix the things that worked one week ago, but didn’t seem to do well under pressure.

St. Mary’s Teams are:    Fantastic 5 and  Tech Stars

Salt River’s Teams are:  Red Mountain Razors, and XTreme Sharkbots

We began with a short presentation by Ruben Gameros, from ASU, on ‘Swarm Robotics’ part of the post-graduate work he is working on.

Connecting the Dots for ‘Dot Day’

Encouraging to see such a large outpouring of ‘dot’ art from all the grades, to commemorate International Dot Day last week – Sept 15th.

Our students were part of the 1,853,749 people who took part, altogether representing 82 countries!

We decided to do something more than just put up the dots. We displayed them in a long string, across the hallways, randomly connecting each student’s self-expression. Basically we connected the dots, to create one large distributed artwork.