Learning about Arduino on Digital Learning Day

DonWilde_tnToday Don Wilde, former Intel engineer, and FLL robotics coach/judge, was here to show our students a different side of programming – the Arduino board.

Don talked about how programming has been invading almost every part of our lives, from cars (which house dozens of computers), and houses to businesses, and libraries. (This session was fittingly held in the library – and I mentioned how students today self-check in and check out their books with a scanner and software).

He also stressed the point of how engineers are needed to design robots, and for online stores, casinos and satellites to function. “Highly-paid work today, whether it is in entertainment or communication needs engineers and programmers, and you could be one of them,” he said.

Don then demonstrated one of the devices he had put together for this, using a off-the-shelf Arduino Uno board. He connected a series of light, touch and sound sensors to show how this plug-and-play device worked.


By way of comparison, he talked about the Lego NXT robot, itself a micro-controller, with which many students in both 5th and 6th grades are familiar. We have had a robotics program in the school for the past 6 years. Thanks to Don, I have become interested in introducing Arduino to my class. Perhaps someday, we will have programming as a regular class, rather than an add-on to the curriculum!



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 herehttp://padlet.com/wall/m2iy0fn1fy

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!

Do we swoon too much over touch screens?

I have to preface this by saying my family uses three touch-screen devices.

But as a teacher I often wonder if have we are falling on our swords by abandoning the deeper values of techno-literacy for the latest shiny new object. Whenever I have spoken of wikis, or podcasts, I get the same complaint: “It’s too complicated!”  Does one really need to pay attention to pointy brackets and end tags?

Touch screens have done a great job of hiding the complexity behind code. Which is wonderful. I wouldn’t want to go back to the blinking cursor, and DOS. The Graphical User Interface has smoothed out the wrinkles of things such as maintaining a blog, uploading images etc.

But does this mean we should retreat from looking at the underbelly of technology? The previous post, about learning a bit of code inside of the Lego Mindstorms,  opened this topic.

I was therefore glad to see is a good discussion of something broader, by Doug Rushkoff where he warned us of what happens when digital literacy ceases to become a priority. He is amazed at why our priorities have changed.

“Yet I fear this promise is increasingly undermined by our widespread unwillingness to seize the abilities they offer us. Although we live in a highly digital age, digital literacy is not a priority among us. And as a result computer science is not a priority in our schools.”

This Tuesday, on Digital Learning Day, I came across about a dozen of cool collaboration tools that teachers are now using. From Apps that help with note-taking to blogging and wiki software. But I couldn’t help noticing how tablet-centric many of these were. In fact Digital Learning Day’s mission was defined with the tool mindset. The Twitter account described it as “an effort …to engage students & empower educators through effective use of digital tools.”

Let’s face it. Not all schools will replace their PCs in one fell swoop and introduce tablets. That iPad classroom will require an education dream act for which school districts have no appetite. Meanwhile we ought to teach kids to fit the tool to the solution, not vice versa. It’s just that the shiny new objects always barge their way in, if we aren’t careful.

Audio Time Capsule for Digital Learning day

“So what’s your story?” I ask my students. It’s a non-intimidating way of getting them to share an idea; a conversation starter.

For Digital Learning Day my project is on digital storytelling. It will be my digital time capsule, so to speak. I got my students all prepped up, based on my classes on microphones and sound.

My experiment with 1st graders has shown me that the tried and tested ‘story prompt’ isn’t the best solution. And so, I’m going to use my old podcasting trick –embed the microphone and practically hide it. I used to do a bit of podcasting in my previous career, and it never ceased to amaze me about the impact of a piece of hardware on conversations.  (Whoever said that technology is best when it is invisible was right on the money.)

How does a teacher get these ‘voices on’? I’m going to find out, I guess!

By some coincidence, Story Corps is in the Phoenix area, via our local NPR station KJZZ, for the next few weeks. The StoryCorps project has an interesting collection of stories on a National Teachers Initiative.