Thursday, January 18, 2018 22 Moments From 80s Movies That Sum Up Teaching Middle School

Teaching Middle School, as Told by 80s Movies

Even though this is a post from the super cool geared for middle-school teachers, all of us working in schools...especially if you grew up in the 1980's...can relate to these little gems. 
Well done Melanie Amichetti! 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When the Internet is Down....Get Chopped

The first thing I noticed when I unloaded my laptop and iPad today was that Internet connectivity was having all kinds of difficulties. Instead of fighting through a very web-dependent exercise with third and fourth grade STEM classes, we turned to the Food Network.

Based on a cook's ability to innovate and adapt, Chopped makes contestants create gourmet dishes with some of the most random ingredients like candy bars and pickled eggs. The adaptability and innovation are the same skills we teach daily as we help kids develop into creative problem solvers.

Here's how Chopped in the STEM classroom works.
  • After dividing the class into five groups of four or five students, each group is given 10 wooden blocks, a small caddy of random Legos, and 4 marbles. All blocks have to be part of the final product as well as at least 1 marble and 1 Lego.
  • Next, give the groups a task. This varies by age group. For Kindergarten, groups simply have to build something they can tell a story about. Third and fourth graders have to create a device that can keep marbles (any number of the 4 may be used) moving the longest.
  • Once kids begin working I keep to the following timing intervals.
    • After five minutes I stop the building and ask each group to articulate its shared plan. If a group can't articulate a shared plan, then I have them move away from its workspace and sit together on the floor. Once they have it figured out and share it with me, they are permitted to return to work. It's amazing how quickly a plan can come together after a minute or two away from the materials. 
    • While constantly circulating to make sure everyone is engaged and included in the building process, I usually give about 25 minutes more of work time. Setting a visual timer  is extra helpful. I make it clear that by the end of the 25 minutes, the prototype needs to be as close to complete as possible.
    • At the end of the 25 minutes we stop and talk about how designers and engineers go through the refinement process of constantly testing and tweaking. I give 5 more dedicated minutes for this. When that is up, each group has 2 minutes to clean up any unused supplies.
  • To wrap up the activity I ask all of the kids to the front of the room and then we do a gallery walk to each table and have groups explain what they built. For the marble devices we give each group a chance to show it in action and time (usually with a smart phone) how well each functions. 
What is most amazing for me to see is how by nature each group always begins with individuals withdrawn and operating in each's own space but eventually (if properly coached) begin to focus on the shared task. Not all groups though successfully make this transition to group productivity. On 9 out of 10 times it is due to dysfunction within the group. The key teaching point when this happens is that the quality of teamwork is directly related to the quality of performance.

The biggest reward is seeing kids go from a natural tendency to stay in their own spaces to truly collaborating on one task

Give kids many opportunities to complete the same task. Watch to see how the dynamics change from one repetition to the next. 

Students who demonstrate understanding can:
3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Monday, January 8, 2018

STEM Challenge: Dyson Foundation 60 Second Marble Run

I am a huge fan of the challenges that the James Dyson Foundation hosts for budding engineers around the world. These can make great in-class projects or be issued as at-home learning. In addition to fun learning, Dyson also provides great videos that feature real engineers sharing a handful of hints while tackling the challenges themselves.

One we are tackling in Hamilton STEM is the Sixty Second Marble Run Challenge. Kids have to build a marble run with just cardboard, tape, and of course a marble. The marble must travel for exactly sixty seconds, no more and no less. The whole experience is a great manipulation in potential and kinetic, energy, and friction.

Each challenge comes with an easy-to-use directions card. Materials are clearly outlined and directions are kept as simple as possible.

Dyson encourages those who complete the challenge to share the results on social media through designated hashtags. Check out other challenges and some the results at #JDFChallenge.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Tiger Woods Foundation Offers Scores of Resources for College Seeking Students

Tiger Woods may be facing an uphill climb to return to his old form on the golf course but his foundation has created a ton of resources for students exploring college choices and ways to pay for their educations.

Students can replay a virtual field trip from the Silicon Valley offices of Facebook or explore a career in biomimicry. Best of all, it's all free.

Visit TGReduExplore.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sending Sphero to the Office with Tickle App

This was a great moment in our special needs STEM hour. Coding seems to take on added relevance when it controls a physical object and not just objects on the screen.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Middle Schoolers Review Oregon Trail...And...It...Is...Awesome!

Here is a great game review of the original Oregon Trail that many of us Gen-Xers played on the Apple II. It comes from a pair of students in the game design program at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, NJ.

The reviewers take viewers through the interface, game controllers, and game play. For being just in middle school, credit goes to the reviewers for not spending any time on just ripping the game to shreds. In fact these guys are actually pretty complimentary.

"A big part of the game is that it is really realistic," one of them states in the opening overview. "Everyone in your party could actually die."

One great part comes when playing the game, the students are notified of a family member dying of typhoid. "We'll just continue like we know what that is," one remarks.

The part that does my heart the best though is the reviewers enthusiastically showing the audience how to hunt for food. It's great to see that 35 years  and generations of players later, it's still a favorite part of the game.

Great work guys! I really enjoyed it.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Connect Agriculture and STEM Through Coding

In our third grade STEM classes at Hamilton Community Schools we spend a lot of time investigating the science and technology of farming. Hamilton straddles Allegan and Ottawa Counties in Michigan, the two top ag producing counties in the state. All of our students are either involved in farming or know other families who are. In STEM we show them how being successful as farmers takes high levels of scientific knowledge, technical skills, and an increasing level of innovation. Even though we live right in the middle of the "farm belt", every kid across America needs an understanding of how and where our food is produced. Whether you're in Hamilton, Michigan or Brooklyn this unit can deepen understanding and open minds to all that is involved with feeding a nation.

Here is a progression of activities I do to build these skills with a heavy focus on engineering and computer science.

Open Their Eyes: Most of our kids have seen the big pieces of machinery out in the fields plowing and harvesting but only a few have actually had the chance to get up close. YouTube provides a bunch of great videos that take kids inside the machinery and highlight technical advances.

Farmers Reap the Benefit of Driverless Tractor Tech - CBS This Morning
John Deere: Improving Farm Efficiency with Technology
2016 John Deere Combine Features Video

These videos are great for showing kids what is already in use and can spark the innovative imagination as we move forward by asking them to design the farm equipment of the future.

For an overall look into the real lives of a variety of different types of farmers, nothing beats from the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Lesson plans, digital interactive games, and clips from the documentary Farmland highlight what is available.

Practice: The American Farm Bureau offers a great set of farming-based games and their Equipment Engineer game fits perfectly into this unit. Learners travel around the world and are given agricultural scenarios where they pick the best equipment for the job. Through the game, they are gaining knowledge of the way different pieces can be used as well as how farm equipment solves a wide range of challenges.

Get Designing: This is also a great spot to introduce the Design Process and for kids the PBS series "Design Squad" provides lots of resources like cool graphics and the "Kid Engineer" videos are super helpful, especially the Bike Trailer one.  

For creating designs we use Apple's Keynote on our iPads. There is a lot that can be done with the app besides making slideshows. Kids use their imagination to start designing what could be possible in futuristic farm equipment. This is a great activity for detailing designs and the really great Keynote users even are able to animate their designs. Video of our students designing.

[caption id="attachment_1573" align="alignleft" width="300"] Students use Keynote on the iPad to design farm equipment.[/caption]

Building for Function: It is one thing to dream up the future but it is a big task to actually build something functional, even if it is a model made of Legos. This can be a difficult hurdle for kids to clear because for most of them all of their use of Legos has been  purely imaginary. We spend time building vehicles with Legos that must be powered by a robotic Sphero. Here is where young engineers get really good at analyzing flaws and making tweaks as part of the design process. We start off building vehicles that can move straight ahead as just accomplishing that can be a task. Eventually students get to where the vehicles can actually maneuver around the playground.

[caption id="attachment_1574" align="alignleft" width="425"] Students engineer a Lego vehicle powered by a Sphero.[/caption]

Bring in the Computational Thinking:  The great thing about Spheros is that their movement can be controlled down to a fraction of a second by the Tickle app. By using a block programming, kids sort and build out a list of commands for the Sphero to perform. When we first start with the Lego vehicles, we simply tell the device to go as fast as it can in one direction. We ramp the coding up greatly when we start to simulate jobs machinery would perform on the farm.

Students are given a small plot of ground on the playground (or in the gym depending on weather) and have to program the Sphero to "plow" or "harvest" the field. Below is some sample starter code that students might assemble for their Sphero.

[caption id="attachment_1575" align="aligncenter" width="525"] Block coding in the Tickle app used to control robotic Spheros[/caption]

Not only are there tremendous calculations our third graders are making like angles, velocity, and time, but there is a deeper benefit in the way they must think logically to make something real actually happen. They create loops of commands and must algebraically figure a number of variables.

Last year was my first year as a STEM teacher after having taught 16 years in a technology-only classroom. By far the greatest reward was seeing students grab a sense of power over their world when they were able to program an app to make something real happen. It is one thing to program something on a screen, but when they can send a robotic sphere all of the way to the office from their classroom, they become real "do-ers" full of confidence to tackle real tasks.

Putting it All Together: This unit starts with gaining understanding and then progresses to imagining and eventually building and controlling. It takes time and patience and not all kids will progress at the same rate and some may not even finish it...and that is okay. Those who progress really quickly can be given extra challenges. I am planning on giving my "high flyers" a kite, a 3D printing pen and a GoPro and ask them to create a tool a farmer could use to survey crops. We will spend six weeks (meeting once a week for an hour) on this project this year but no matter where individuals are on our last session, we will dedicate a major chunk of time to discussing how the innovation we simulated helps preserve resources and promotes sustainability.

Evaluations and Reflections: Our STEM classes focus heavily on the Next Gen Science Engineering Standards. We are constantly monitoring how individuals are progressing through:

Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

We also write, sketch, and reflect daily in STEM journals that students use from kindergarten through fourth grade. We talk about how STEM time is different than any other time at school. We are not just doing school, we are together designers, engineers, and scientists and journals and sketchbooks are tools these people use to do their jobs.

As we continue to develop our STEM classes we are discovering the power in tying STEM concepts like design and coding with real-life challenges rooted in our community. Someday we hope that our current students will not only graduate and do great things...but will do those great things right here in Hamilton.

Follow our Hamilton STEM adventures at
Catch us on Twitter and Instagram as @htownstem