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


Cheap camera, free eclipse: Quick Ed-Tech lesson

This week’s Blood Moon and the coincidence of a lunar eclipse was made for science teachers.

DSCN1174Or for an Ed-Tech teacher incorporating a lesson in photography –how to frame a slow-moving event; how to compensate for lighting; using camera shake to your advantage.

The camera was a Nikon Coolpix, less expensive than the lens of my trusty older SLR.

Which brings me to the point about technology. How often does we allow technology get in the way of what we are experiencing in the moment? I’ve been trapped in presentation software just to make a point that would have done just fine with a hand-held device – a sheet of paper.

In Ed-Tech, which is what I teach, I like the focus to be more on the ‘Ed’ and less on the ‘Tech.’

The above image was blurred as you will notice. The ‘shift’ was accidental, but makes the point (simulating an orbital path) about light and shadows. I just used this in a 2nd grade class on editing and manipulating shapes. Nothing like a current event to get ideas – design-related, science-based- flowing.

Technology in Education Predictions. Up in the Clouds?

Patrick Ledesma writes an excellent blog, and this week’s post on “Technology for Online Standardized Testing vs. Technology for Teaching, Learning, and Creative Inquiry” is an excellent read. He was commenting on the Horizon Report.

He makes some big predictions, which you may or may not agree with, but they give us pause for thought. For example he sees the following happening in one year:

Cloud Computing, Collaborative EnvironmentsMobiles and Apps, and Tablet Computing

  • Regarding Cloud computing, he’s dead-on. I know of one school that lets students use software-as-services so well, that they will soon begin to not see the difference between client-based and web-based services. (BTW, I’ve got an aversion to the word ‘cloud’)
  • Mobiles and Apps: We are still a few years away because of privacy and bandwidth issues around BYOD.
  • Augmented Reality, which he places in the 4-5 year timeframe may come sooner. I was at an ISTE conference last year and saw some amazing breakthroughs that have begun to filter down.

Having said that, I have to agree with some aspects of what one of his readers, ‘Terry2449‘ made. The comments were not as Luddite as it may seem at first glance. Terry talks about the humanistic side of educating the rounded child. He puts it this way

“I am not sure I am ready to sever the relationship that we as humans have in order for students to operate a piece of unfeeling/unknowing technology. While I understand that technology is the wave of the future, books on tablets, programs built for students to access from anywhere their technology is I wonder about the socio-economic split that will deepen with the have’s and have nots.”

We (and I am part of this royal plural being a computer teacher) tend to get fixated on the devices and apps, and forget the broader, deeper goals. I have seen students who have mastered apps, or fly through Khan Academy, and not be able to problem-solve simple issues.  I have seen how screen-time (awarded by parents who give their child a tablet to play with in the car on the way to school) affects cognition and attention.

We are desperately in need of a balance, and I could see a time when we will have to build in offline moments into our children’s school day, just to get them to reflect and apply them to real life experiences that, as you point out, is described as a challenge in the Horizon Report.

Finally a thought on the other challenge it highlights: Media Literacy.  And I don’t media Tool literacy. Schools don’t spend enough time on this. If at all they do a ‘Wikipedia is bad’ type session because it’s just plain easy to do. At a time when pre-teens are overwhelming spaces such as Instagram, or using every kind of chat App, there is  plenty of media-related life lessons worth incorporating into any subject that is touched by tech.

I just began experimenting with a unit on ‘Is it True, or is it Photoshop?’ connected to the Civil War. Before we weigh in on cheating and BYOD, there are lessons we ought to preface it with, such as media ethics, copyright, bias etc. Why wait till middle school to do this, when elementary school students are being influenced and impacted by it?

You could download and read the entire Horizon Report here.


“Technology is Not The Answer”

You might be surprised to see me talk about this topic here.

I am a computer and technology advocate, but I also believe that technology is meant to serve us, not the other way around. For this reason I often make it a point to tell students that coming to a computer lab doesn’t mean that they automatically get in front of a screen.

There are alternative ways to teach technology literacy, minus the screen, and we try some of these approaches here.

But I want to point to a great thought-provoking piece titled “Technology is Not The Answer : A Student’s Perspective” that was published in Education Week in October this year.

The author, a high-school junior makes us want to pause in the “rush to expand educational technology” while inviting many distractions to students. He cites examples of where students need to develop personal relationships, and not just on-screen button-pushing skills. These games, and so-called interactive experiences attempt to reward students with ‘thumbs-up’ motivations. Much of these don’t teach the broader experience that Ed-tech is supposed to promote, he says.

Definitely worth a read. 

The best lessons we teach are about trouble-shooting

There were so many sides to Avnet Tech Games last Saturday.

Titans_AvnetTechGamesMy students were invited to a ‘competition’ that was more of a demo. The challenge was quite good. Unlike the FLL tournament challenge, with a complicated field mat –where they had to run many missions– this one involved two tasks, built around Line Following. If you know anything about sensors added to a Lego NXT brick, you’ll know how fussy these things are when a color sensor has to ‘read’ a line on a surface that has a few wrinkles.

LineFollow_AvnetTechGAmesBut therein lies the challenge, not just in robotics, but in the real world for which we try to prepare our students. You can’t create perfect conditions, you can’t always give them ‘Buckle Down’ type practice runs. Life throws you a  wrinkle, and you better be prepared for these imperfect conditions!

That’s one reason why I loved these Games. I can’t remember how many times I repeated the work ‘trouble-shoot.’ And trouble-shoot they did – 4th and 4th graders.

The other reason: This event was broader than Robotics. Much older kids, budding  Junior High and College-level engineers-in-the-making were working on more complex bots, with dozens more moving parts.

Outside I bumped into another slide of the Games – the solar challenge. Sponsored by Kyosera Solar, the college-level students were given a basic kit and asked to build a solar-powered water pump, right there. The specs were neat: the pump had to move a certain volume of water, shut off, and trigger a light. One team I spoke to used a Styrofoam ball, that floated to the desired level. But it was wrapped in foil, so as to trigger the shut off switch. Crude, fussy, but a simple, low-cost idea that could be implemented almost anywhere. Anywhere there was sun of course.

And what if there wasn’t enough sun, I asked. (An unheard of problem for us in Arizona!) The exec from Kyocera whose company sponsored the challenge  smiled and said some of teams would resort to creating a reflector out of the low-tech tinfoil.

Life throws you a wrinkle! Whether you are in robotics or solar, it’s our job as teachers to teach them to trouble-shoot.

New Class encourages engagement, conversations

Over spring break I had my class reconfigured.

It’s been eight months since I took up the position of teaching computers and technology at Salt River Elementary School.

Angelo Fernando

Old Configuration

The first thing that struck me was how inadequate the classroom experience was, (left) with computers facing each other and sometimes, the teacher.

We know from research what engaged learning involves.

Angelo Fernando - SRPMIC

New Configuration

The new configuration, as you can see here (right) is, or course, conference-style.

I  write about and speak out about engagement and conversations, so this is more than an experiment. This is how young people live – in constant communication and engagement. We are used to habit of keeping students quiet –to zip it up and listen. This doesn’t work for me, and what I teach.

I also teach robotics, as I have mentioned before. The whole thrust in robotics is teamwork and collaboration. Therefore the large robotics table, dead center in my classroom, is on purpose. When not used as a robotics table, it is the demo area for science, technology and engineering – for conversations!