Teaching them to Code, one block at a time

My colleague and robotics coach, Donna Horn gave me a Wall Street Journal article on Coding that’s worth sharing. It’s about why coding shouldn’t be so intimidating (at least to us teachers who didn’t learn to code).

Titled “We want our children to code, even if we can’t.” it argues why this is a skill we need to introduce early and often. Reading. Writing, and Coding…The timing of the article is not accidental.

February is when Coding fills the news, since Digital Learning Day is on Feb 17th. This year we have plenty to pick from –the usual powerhouses Code.Org and Khan Academy. There’s also Scratch, and other visual programming tools. Plus, there’s Mindstorms, the visual programming language we use in robotics.

Grant Smith, a tech writer for Edutopia makes a god point about teaching coding in schools. We need to set the stage first by (a) Curating the resources into the curriculum  (b) Organizing the classroom to be coder-friendly and (c) Rallying around those who might support your initiative. Including use some of the social media tools to build one’s personal learning network or PLN.

I’m planning on getting experts to come into the classroom, and teach.Ideally I’m thinking of App developers, from surrounding tech companies.

Please contact me if you know of someone!

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Star Wars, a gift when teaching image manipulation,

For the past few weeks I’ve been having a blast (and hopefully my students too), using Star Wars as material for classes on image manipulation, and color correction whether it is in Microsoft Word or Photoshop. The latter, for instance is a forthcoming 6th grade class that will be continued this year as well.

Chewey - DesireeStudents pick their favorite Star Wars image from Google, and the fun begins.

  • They learn to copy and paste (the keyboard shortcuts as well as the right-mouse commands).
  • The learn to layer an image, and color correct it – as in the example on the right
  • They learn to delete a background color using the much-ignored ‘Set transparency Color’ tool
  • They learn how to tweak the ‘saturation’ of the image, and what that means – and says. Or how to re-color an image for a specific effect.
  • It’s a good way to introduce ‘layers’ before we get to Photoshop.

Star Wars is also helps open the door to other topics and discussions about space.

Over the past few weeks, my 5th graders are working on The Moons of Mars – a PowerPoint, specifically aimed at understanding animation paths and orbits. I’m not a big fan of PowerPoint, but it’s a great canvas on which they could understand the purpose of animation, beyond the obvious wow factor.

I am now considering using Star Wars as a backdrop for a class on Digital Storytelling. Perhaps an animated cartoon strip with voice-overs matching the speech bubbles. I can see a lot of storm trooper effects, and tricks using the lovable BB8.

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

Science and Tech Workshop in Sri Lanka

Just got back from a short trip to Sri Lanka, where I conducted two workshops for teachers.The first was in Maharagama on Dec 15th & 16th. The second workshop was in Kandy on Dec 18th.

Here are some stories about the workshops:

Much thanks to my co-presenters:

  • Dr. Paul Funk – Engineer, US Dept. of Agriculture, New Mexico (Via Skype)
  • Ruben Gameros – Autonomous Collective Systems Laboratory, Arizona State University (Via Skype)
  • Scott Logan – Montessori International School, Mesa, Arizona (Via Skype)
  • Lal Medawattegedera – Lecturer, Open University of Sri Lanka
  • Nalaka Gunewardene – Science writer, author, trustee of the Science and Development Network
  • Nazly Ahmed – Web App Dev at Social Seed Media

Also the two Keynote Speakers:

  • Dr. Ajit Madurapperuma – Dir. Of Information Communication Technology, ICTA
  • Dr. Nalin Samarasinha – Astrophysicist at Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona (Via Skype)

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Hands-On Engneering – Spaghetti Tower Challenge

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Hands-on session on Audio Recording

Scot Logan & Students

Hands-on session on Motors and Electro-magnetism

Scott Logan & students at Montessori International School, teach class – via Skype

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Aaron Fernando facilitates session

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Using audio and video for content creation

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Photography in Science – From SLRs to GoPro

Nazly Ahmed, Social Seed Media explains Depth of Field

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Engineering & Problem Solving – Building a Solar Oven

Paul Funk, US DOA

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Teaching Science Writing

Nalaka Gunewardene

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Future Ready Classroom – Google Cardboard & Augmented Reality

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Future Ready Classroom – Teaching Robotics

Ruben Gameros, ASU, teaches class on robotics – Via Skype

Education’s Mobile App c. 1906

The ‘Movable Classroom’ of 1906 cost $674.

The Mobile App for learning existed pre-Internet. It was simply called a wagon.
This ‘school on wheels’ known as the Jesup Wagon was an invention of one George Washington Carver, a former slave.

A scientist, better known for the innovation we call ‘crop rotation’ and also peanuts, Carver loaded his ‘horse-drawn classroom’ and laboratory with seeds and travelled to where the need was. His students were former slaves who had become sharecroppers.

We could all use this to get some perspective, especially when we think we need fancy technology to connect knowledge with students.

Why students love ‘hacking’ – as Introduction to computers

Whenever I use the word ‘hack’ or ‘hacking’ in class , eyes widen, some smile, a few get super curious. These are often 4th and 5th graders! They’ve heard the word in many contexts, and are not sure if there will be an upcoming class on it. Today, when one asked me if one could hack into Wi-fi, I realized some of them may be ready for more than learning about how to use preloaded software, or understand hardware. After all, to “hack” (apart from the dry dictionary meaning) means “to find a workaround,” a DIY project, or to reverse engineer.

Or to put it in STEM parlance, to problem-solve.

As New Yorker writer Ben Yagoda explained, it used to refer to “a relatively benign sense of “working on” a tech problem in a different, presumably more creative way than what’s outlined in an instruction manual.”

This is the second week of classes, when I introduce Hardware and Software, and how it is part of the eco-system of the Internet we now know. Just like grown-ups, kids have a hard time explaining what the Internet is, or the difference between a web browser and a search engine. But definitions aside, they are in tune with what might be possible, and are open to being in a computer class that lets them peer beyond the hardware in front of them, and into the ‘boxes’ that make cyberspace come together.

Speaking of hacking, I wish I could start a different sort of hackathon here. Maybe not for programming per se, but in the ‘Life-hacking’ sense, for finding alternative, creative ways to use computers and related devices. After all, if governments (examples here and here) run hackathons, shouldn’t schools?