Monday, April 3, 2017

K'Nex STEAM Design Challenge

Project Overview

I was recently privileged to serve as a Co-Adviser to a team of 7th and 8th grade students representing Franklin Area Middle School in the K'Nex STEAM Design Challenge hosted by the Riverview Intermediate Unit #6. This challenge, sponsored by Thermo Fisher Scientific, required students to design and build an original theme park ride out of K'Nex. The design was to include a green energy solution for powering the ride. In addition to the structure itself, teams were required to prepare an engineering notebook, a budget for the ride, and a presentation of the ride to a panel of judges. This was a fantastic example of project-based learning and showcased the excitement that will develop around such activities.

The Journey

Again, I served with two middle school colleagues as a Co-Adviser to this team of 7th and 8th grade students. The team of students was selected through an application process conducted with Google Forms. Students simply applied for participation if they were interested and wrote a brief statement of why they were interested. Based on those responses, the advisers selected the team that would represent Franklin Area Middle School in the competition.

Work on this project began back in January. To begin, the team was presented with an official K'Nex Roller Coaster Kit. Starting the students with this kit served several functions:
  • Allowed the students to grow comfortable in working together
  • Gave the leader(s) a chance to step emerge
  • Provided students with experience in working with the K'Nex Building System
  • Sparked ideas for an original design
After completing the roller coaster kit, attention turned to developing the team's original design. Discussions centered around theme and ride type. These brainstorming sessions were interesting as they really allowed the advisers to catch a glimpse of how the students were thinking about this challenge. Ride ideas ranged from a volcano-themed roller coaster in an island-themed amusement park, to crazy nausea-inducing swing-based rides. In the end, after looking at various examples of swinging rides, the students decided on this concept. Now the real work began!

It was easy to see which students had previous experience in working with K'Nex. These students were able to just jump right in and begin snapping pieces together. In a short amount of time, the team had build the base of the ride and then set their sights on building upward. This, too, was a fairly simple process as the students quickly constructed a two-tier tower. It would be the next section, the section that would contain the motor mount, the swing arms, and all motion components, that would challenge this team.

The engineering process was easily visible in this process. The original thought was that the ride would require at least three motors to achieve the motion that the team was shooting for. Through a system of trial and error, however, the team realized that the target motion could be achieved by utilizing gears and only one motor. This realization would allow for fewer pieces and a cheaper ride while doing nothing to sacrifice motion and excitement. Through careful thought and building, the students a ride, complete with the desired motion, but with some significant design flaws as seen below:

While the students achieved the desired motion, the structure itself looked unsound. The swings were bowing and the entire top section was quite unstable. This led to a discussion of strong shapes being used in construction and this led to the decision to utilize triangles in the top section and motor mount. The team then went on to create several iterations of the motor mount and swing arm structure before settling on the final design. In the end, the team settled on a cleaner, more structurally sound design.

The green energy component of the design was settled on toward the end of the design process. Like everything else, this went through a couple of iterations. The original design concept was to include a representation of geothermal energy to power this ride. After talking to another teacher in the building and looking into this concept a little further, it was determined that geothermal energy was not a feasible energy option for this structure. Instead, it was determined that the structure resembled a solar power tower. Upon further research, the team determined that this was a logical power source and a novel take on the typical solar panel. We predicted that many schools would represent solar panels and that the solar power tower would allow our design to stand out and it just seemed like a natural component within the design.

With the design and building accomplished (after about 2 months!), the team began the final push to competition day. This required students to prepare a brief narrative of the entire design process, a research paper pertaining to the chosen green energy source, an overall project budget, project blueprints, and a short presentation. The students were so dedicated to the project that they voluntarily remained at school to work while their classmates attended a roller skating field trip the Friday prior to this competition! Everything came together perfectly just in time to board the buses on competition day.

Competition Day

The team attended the K'Nex STEAM Design Competition on Monday, March 27 at the Riverview Intermediate Unit #6 in Clarion, PA. The event brought 80 students in Grades 4-8 from about 10 area districts together for a day of learning and competition. After some brief opening remarks, the challenge began. Teams were given two hours in which to build their theme park rides. No pieces were to come to the competition assembled - all building had to be done on the spot. The focus these students possessed was truly something to behold. It quickly became obvious that every team brought a unique vision to the project challenge - this is the beauty of project-based learning! 

With the building done, the team was required to present the project to a panel of judges. These judges come from many different backgrounds, including engineering, education, technology, and business development. Each student was required to participate in the presentation and the FMS team spent a considerable amount of time developing this component. Each team member was assigned (by the team) a specific component of the overall project to discuss and they became experts in these areas. The students performed admirably, ditching their note cards and simply talking to the judges about the design concept. This was, in many ways, the most impressive component of this project.

If you've read this far into this post, you've likely noticed the wizard hats being worn by the team. This is inspired by the theme the students selected for this ride. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of the design and build phase, the students looked at the ride and decided that it bore a resemblance to the broomstick in Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice. This inspired the students to add K'Nex pieces around the base of the ride to represent the bristles of a broom, along with the hats they wore on competition day. This cartoon also inspired the name of the ride - the Fantasia. The judges caught on to this immediately and it was really well received. 

The Results

After a stressful day of competition, it was evident that these judges were in the unenviable position of declaring a winner of this competition. There were so many creative designs presented, making this a very difficult task. After lunch, the attendees came back together for the results. There were many awards given for the day. These included awards for teamwork, best blueprints, most creative design, most successful challenge completion, etc. Knowing that the team performed very well, I'll admit that my heart sank as each award was announced and FMS didn't receive anything! But all hope was not lost.

As the minor awards wrapped up, it was time to award 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place plaques and medals. Third place was announced - we didn't get called. Second place was announced - we didn't get called! At this point, my heart was breaking and my mind automatically began preparing to maintain a strong demeanor in order to reassure the students of the pride I felt and how well they represented FMS and the district. But then, that mental preparation proved to be unnecessary as the first place team was announced and this FMS team was declared the winner of the entire competition!

I could say right now that winning wasn't the most important thing. I could say it was all about the learning and that win or lose, the process was the key component to this activity. I could say that, and, while there is some truth to it, I will also say that winning makes everything better! 

I couldn't be more proud of this group of students 😁

What's Next?

This team of students and advisers will now go on to represent FMS, FASD, and the Riverview Intermediate Unit at the state competition to be held on May 19, 2017 at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

#PETE2017 Day 1

This is one of my favorite times of the year! A time to come together with hundreds of excited educators to learn about the latest in the world of educational technology. From the inspiring keynote speeches each morning, to the inspiring breakout sessions throughout the day, and ending with the evening entertainment, PETE&C is an event every educator should experience. I hope I can do justice to this amazing event as I recap the activities of each day.

Day 1 Keynote - Carl Hooker: Mobile Learning Mindset

If you've ever had the opportunity to attend PETE&C, you know how inspiring and challenging the keynote speeches can be. I've had the pleasure of hearing from (what I would call) titans in education; speakers like Kevin Honeycut, George Couros, and Angela Myers. I can now add Carl Hooker to this list. From the moment he hit the stage, Mr. Hooker brought his 'A game.'

I came away from this morning's speech feeling both inspired and frustrated. Inspired by the thought of utilizing technology to literally bring the world to our students. Frustrated by what I see as the limitations of our system. To bring the world to our students, we as teachers will have to take risks. This goes against the natural tendencies of many of us, but as Mr. Hooker said, "Students don't take risks if teachers don't as well." Talk about a challenge!

One final thought from Mr. Hooker: "The building exists for the kids, not for the adults." BOOM!

Let's take these 21st Century Learners and teach them to fill their minds rather than to simply fill in the bubbles.

Day 1 Breakout Sessions

This is where the true learning takes place at PETE&C! I always love to hear how real teachers are implementing real technology with real students in real and meaningful ways. There seems to be a major focus this year on STEM, STEAM, and Project Based Learning. This is the future of education and how we will prepare our students for life in the 21st century. From the looks of it, I'm not the only one who sees value in these activities. Each session I attended was full to the poiint of people being turned away! I know for the second session of the day, I had to move on to my third choice!

Speaking of my third choice, it may have been one of the best sessions I attended on day 1. The focus was on Computational Thinking, a component of coding. I've had the pleasure of working with many of teachers in the district with Hour of Code events. This session has made me question how I conduct these sessions. I always stick kids on computers and they begin playing games. This is OK but I feel it could be more and we could easily get more teachers involved in the process as there are so many activities available that do not require a computer! This session focused on these unplugged activities and the value was immediately evident. How cool would it be to get entire buildings in our district involved in the Hour of Code and every teacher leading simple unplugged activities in order to present Computer Science topics to our students at all grade levels. I hope to offer trainings in the near future in order to show everyone just how accessible these skills are for everyone. Let's make it happen!!!

That's all from Day 1! Thanks for reading.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Confronting Failure

As a technology coach, I treasure the opportunities I have to work with teachers and students by injecting the power of technology into teaching and learning. When a teacher comes to me with a project idea and I have a chance to discuss the implementation of technology in a meaningful way that will increase student learning, I run with the opportunity. I am a firm believer that technology presents opportunity for our students to learn, create, and share ideas like never before. We live in an exciting time when our thoughts and creations can be shared with a global audience with just a single click!

Along with these opportunities, however, comes the threat of failure. Anybody who has ever worked with technology realizes that it will fail - it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when! Sometimes things just don't work the way we expect them to work and we have to find an alternate method to achieve our goals. I believe, however, that what we do in the face of such adversity will teach our students just as much, if not more, than the projects themselves! What better lesson to learn than how to effectively confront and deal with failure?

I've recently had the opportunity to assist a teacher with a project in the elementary schools. The project involves researching a specific country and then preparing a commercial that advertises the perks that would come with visiting that country. This is a cool project that will provide the students the opportunity to creatively show what they've learned in their research. The commercial is set to be recorded on an iPad utilizing Touchcast software. I was asked today by the teacher if students would be able to use animated backgrounds in their videos - we will be utilizing the chroma key features of Tochcast - to show something such as snow falling. I immediately went to work trying to find a way to make this happen and kept running into errors and failures with every method I tried. Part of me wanted to just throw in the towel and tell the teacher it couldn't be done. It wasn't until the fourth or fifth attempt at bringing in this animated background that I found success. What if I had stopped at the third attempt? I'd have some disappointed students who wouldn't be able to bring their vision for this commercial to life!

I know as teachers we feel the need to be the experts in the room. We feel that everything has to be so carefully scripted that it cuts out any chance for failure. By cutting out the chance for failure, however, are we not also cutting out the thought of doing something new and exciting and, dare I say, innovative? We all know that perfection is impossible to achieve no matter how hard we try. By conducting our classes in a way that minimizes the chance of failure, are we truly preparing our students for the future? Should we not provide our students the opportunity to observe and learn how accomplished professionals take risks and adapt to failure?

Sadly, and I have been guilty of this, failure is often viewed as an unacceptable result. When something new doesn't work perfectly the first time, the temptation to abandon ship and go back to our traditional methods of doing things becomes very enticing. Rather than adapt and change our methods, we completely blow up the process and return to our comfort zones, saying "See, I knew it wouldn't work." To me, this reaction is a disservice to ourselves and to our students.

Again, technology has brought us to the point where we can share our ideas and our creations with the world with a single click. Writing blog posts, recording podcasts, uploading original videos to YouTube, and similar projects are just a starting point, but they allow us and our students to share our creations with an authentic global audience. While it seems intimidating, I would encourage all of us to find some way to harness the power of technology in the classroom to allow students - and ourselves - the opportunity to share with this global audience. We all have something to say, so let's say it!

If you would like to brainstorm ideas on bringing technology into the classroom, please schedule a coaching session with me by clicking the link on the left.



Friday, January 6, 2017

Nothing Like Some Raspberry Pi

I still remember buying my very first computer. It was 1996 and I had been saving birthday and Christmas money, as well as banking as much money as I could from my after-school job with the goal of buying this machine. I remember carrying my $1,400 to the local Walmart and walking out with a monstrous box and getting home as fast as I could in order to set it up. The possibilities were endless - games were becoming more widely available and increasingly awesome, and the internet was beginning to take hold. The world was, indeed, at my fingertips.

All these years later, I look back on that moment with a mix of emotions. Yes, the excitement was real, but so is the disappointment I now feel. I'm disappointed with 16-year-old Justin and his lack of curiosity, courage, and creativity. He approached that first computer as the majority of our students approach computers today - as priceless machines that are meant to be used only for the purposes determined by the software developers, machines not to be tampered or tinkered with in any way. Yes, the technology companies successfully placed me in a digital box. I was only doing with the computer what they told me I should do - doing what their software told me I could do. Never once did I consider that these programs were just a starting point, that I could break out of that digital box and tell the computer what I wanted it to do. Twenty years later, this makes me sad, but I have recently found a new hope (cue the Star Wars theme)!

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
One of my favorite magazines is Make, a publication focusing on the maker movement and the amazingly innovative creations from makers around the world. These creations span across every conceivable interest - from art and fashion design, to cooking, electronics, and computing. Many of the more interesting creations are powered by a tiny computer called the Raspberry Pi. This powerful little machine is widely available for around $35, with more complete kits for various interests running slightly more. The beautiful thing about the Pi is it's focus on making and creating. The goal is to provide people with a low-cost powerful machine on which they can learn programming and computing skills without the fear of trashing a $1000 machine. It is amazing what happens when students are introduced to this technology!

I have had the opportunity over the last month to introduce students in my Emerging Technologies class to the Raspberry Pi. From the beginning, they have been hooked. Whether it has been programming a world in Minecraft Pi with the Python programming language, building a touchscreen camera and photo booth app, or creating a retro gaming system, the energy in my classroom has been amazing. Many of these students are so hooked on the possibilities of this computer, that several Pi's were given as Christmas presents this year! Click the link for a look at the classroom resources available for free from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

If you, a spouse, a child, or anybody in your life has ever expressed an interest in diving a little deeper into computer science, I highly recommend the Raspberry Pi. It has been such a blast to work with and I find myself amazed at the things I've been able to do with it. Every time I successfully complete a project, I immediately start thinking about my next project and what that might be. This old dog is definitely learning some new tricks and finding that the sky is indeed the limit with the Raspberry Pi. Check it out!