The ‘Story of Stuff’ a must-see for FIRST Lego League teams

Attention all robotics teams this year. You must watch ‘The Story of Stuff’ by Annie Leonard which has been out for almost a decade, but is so relevant to the ‘Trash Trek’ theme.

If you have 21 minutes to spare, watch this! My students have been inspired by it, and are now going on to research plastic.


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.

It Takes a Village meets “It takes a Generation”

Buried in an article appearing in the New York Times this week (by columnist David Brooks) is a reference to ‘Wrap-around Education.’

Brooks comes up with a novel opinion –that we have probably placed too many eggs in the early childhood education basket. I’ll leave that debate to the rest of the education heavyweights, as I don’t quite agree. That might be a biased opinion because my wife runs a Montessori, and I’ve read plenty of studies that point me in that direction.

But let’s unpack what Wrap-around Education is all about. The idea stems from Robert Putnam of Harvard, who has been called the most influential academic for a reason. His book, Bowling Alone, was all about the need to seriously invest in social capital.

Teaching Kids to Search (without mentioning “Algorithms”)

How do you make search engines more interesting to 5th and 6th graders?

The word ‘algorithm‘ doesn’t mean anything to them, let alone the average grown-up. To paraphrase Kevin Slavin, algorithms are the things nobody reads.

This is the time of the year –when students are just discovering new software and software upgrades on school computers — that’s perfect for discussing with students about search engines, where they are headed, and what exactly one is doing when one enters a string of keywords in a search box. The changes taking place in the engine behind that box seems to happen not every few quarters or months, but probably every few weeks. It’s “onslaught of algorithm updates” is impossible for anyone –let alone a kid– to keep up with,

What you don’t want is a 5th or 6th grader sailing into high school using the same search habits, thinking it amounts to “research.”

This week I began introducing them obliquely to Search through Venn Diagrams and their connection to Boolean logic. Even as I mentioned it, I was aware that the typical and, or, near, not triggers are becoming less and less important in Google, but they still get amazing results. Students get a kick out of seeing how a search term can be tweaked to reduce the number of results from millions to thousands to hundreds.

Someday I will have to invite an expert to talk to them about the pros and cons of tricking Google, or hacking Google for better results.

Field trips bring science to life

It’s hard to beat a field trip when it comes to showing students how science work in the real world. That world is often not too far from our class rooms. Two weeks ago I took some students to three mind-blowing science labs at Arizona State University.

Opportunity Wheel

Mars Rover – “Opportunity”

First Stop: The Mars Space Facility, a home of the Mars rover. We nudge closer to the model of the rover, Opportunity. The  students ask about those cameras, and solar panels.  They got to hear about what scientists such as Dr. Phil Christensen who work with JPL, see: raw images streaming in, some barely a  week old. They also see that titanium wheel, in context.

Mars Rover Curiosity - ASU - School of Earth and Space Exploration

Mars Rover – “Curiosity”

Next Stop: ISTB4, the building that’s home to the only full-scale model of NASA’s Curiosity, roughly the size of an SUV. It’s got more cameras and probes than you could shake a stick at.  My students have heard a lot about these rovers, during Mars Day. So this is a big deal! The nearest thing to kicking the tires of space science.


Third Stop: Decision Theater, a scientific visualization lab with floor-to-ceiling screens that render images in 3D. Indeed, urban planning and crisis mapping maybe a bit too heavy for third- fourth- and fifth-graders (esp at the end of a tour), but the students found the 3D model of the human brain (navigating through it, using a game controller!) mind-blowing.

I’m a big believer in field trips. Each year I take my robotics students to visit an organization that either uses robots, or is immersed in engineering that is directly or indirectly connected to the work they do in building and programming devices.

Huge thanks to Sheri Klug-Boonstra, Anthony Zippay and Cynde Garrett for making this happen!

More on Research = Googling Trend

I wrote a few months ago on the problem we teachers have to overcome when trying to get students to understand that there is more to ‘research’ than a simple Boolean search.

Now this Pew Research Center study provides greater context as to why this problem/challenge exists. When students are given a research assignment, it says that  94% of the teachers said their students were “very likely” to use Google or other online search engines; 75% said their students were “very likely” to use Wikipedia or similar resources. As for databases, just 17% said their students were very likely to use one, which is slightly higher than for printed books (12%)

More on this from Pew, if you like to research this further:-)

Britannica Vs Google in Class

I started out last month with a class on search engines and what students need to know about content, source verification, plagiarism and copyright. This was a series of classes for 4th and 5th grades.

I called the series “Not Search, Research!” just to make the point that a Google search does not qualify as research. I have picked this up from my own habits, and by listening to adults over the past few years who say things like “I researched this, and found that…” or “You could research this on the Internet if you don’t believe me…”

Believe me, in my previous career, I’ve been teaching grown-ups for many years about authenticity, fact-checking, and the limitations of search engines. I recall an article I once wrote for a business magazine, suggesting that Google does not make a person smarter, and got some push-back from one reader who was offended. She probably did not care about the dead-tree ‘research’ equivalents found in libraries.

Excuse this long preamble. I wanted to discuss the use of encyclopedias, specifically Britannica, which you may know, announced earlier this year that it would stop printing.

This morning, I jumped on a GoToTraining webinar by Britannica on its online school edition that my school has subscribed to. On first glance, it is deep as it is wide, just as how we who grew up in the pre-digital age, knew it from those 29 volumes, in serious black-and-silver binding.

While I mourn the loss of a legendary research tool, I have no problem with finding what want from Britannica, online. I teach students that research involves balance, not just fact and trivia diving. Finding different viewpoints and angles sharpens our ideas, so that one person’s paper on Thomas Jefferson won’t look like a copy of the next. Students are so used to Googling everything, they get frustrated when something doesn’t show up on the first few screens of results. The problem with not having patience with deep diving, transfers to an impatience with long-form content, and even walking a twenty-nine steps to the library to look it up somewhere else. What students will lose with the online-only Britannica, is the ability to dwell on something, and think about what they just read or saw. To be able to spot a gap in knowledge, a factual error, even, and to make that the point of their research.

Instant gratification is a double-edged sword. Students won’t know what they may be giving up when all they have is a link or a favorite tab to click on.

Lest you think I am pro books, and anti digital media, check my other blog, Hopolloi Report. I have interviewed people at Google and Britannica, created wikis, and written *a lot* about the wonders of Wikipedia, real-time communication, and Wikipedia policy. But we do not live in an either-or world, as some who gush about iPads want us to believe. Media snacking is not research.