Sunday, February 14, 2016

Exciting Projects at SES, Part II: Build with Chrome and Google Earth

A few weeks ago, I tried a project with second graders that I've been wanting to try for awhile now.  I started by introducing students to Build with Chrome, a website and collaboration between Google and LEGO that allows you to play with LEGOs on the computer.  It's awesome.  Students started by engaging in the "Build Academy," which taught them how to do almost everything in the program, including picking up an dropping pieces, deleting pieces, changing colors, and adjusting camera angles and zoom.  After that, I gave students some time to build some things on their own, and saw some pretty impressive results, including the beginnings of a hotel/rollercoaster ride, which really, why has nobody thought of this before?

When we had our fill of free-building, I then introduced them to Google Earth, a program where you can access satellite imagery, street views, and user-generated content from around the world.  Students learned how to zoom in and out, pan, and most importantly, search.  Students searched for Maine, Searsport, Stockton Springs, and where they lived.  I then had students choose a building that they could find within the district to make a model of in Build with Chrome.  Some students chose public buildings and businesses like Tozier's Market or the Masonic Hall, while others chose their house.  Students learned how to multitask and switch between windows on their computer using the Command + Tab keyboard shortcut, so they could look at their building first, then switch windows and build in the other.  While we didn't get to the stage of publishing buildings and making them available for viewing in the Google Maps integrating in Build with Chrome, I learned a lot about what is needed to make this project work in the future, and I'm looking forward to doing it again!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Exciting Projects at SES, Part I: Osmo

A drawing a fifth grade student made using the Osmo
Masterpiece app on the iPad.
If you have not heard of Osmo, you need to!  Osmo is a system for the iPad with a stand to hold the device and a mirror that is placed on top of the iPad's front-facing camera.  This allows the iPad to see the table or desk below it, while still allowing you to see the screen.  Then, the iPad has three accessory kits and five apps that allow you to do some really awesome things!  The letters kit and the Letters app have you guess the word represented by the picture on your screen, while using the letter tiles in the kit to spell the word!  The numbers kit does something similar with numbers, and is immediately my favorite of all the kits.  There's also Tangram, where you make pictures based on the shapes you have in your Tangram kit.  Finally, there are two apps that don't require any kits, Masterpiece and Newton.  I haven't had much of a chance to try out Newton yet, but Masterpiece is AWESOME.  With one of the pictures they have in their gallery or with a picture that you take, Masterpiece creates an outline of that picture, overlays it on your screen, and mirrors your table on the screen, so you're tracing the outline on your paper by looking at your screen!  It sounds confusing, but check out the video to the right to see more of what I mean.

Osmo so far has been used by kindergarten and first grade classrooms and by my student tech team.  I've seen wonderful engagement at all age levels.  I especially like the Numbers app for younger students because the kit doesn't actually give you all the numbers, so you have to put numbers together to make a new number.  It's almost as if math becomes a science experiment, and who doesn't like experiments?

A special thanks to Hilary Graebert, one of our kindergarten parents, who helped add to our collection by purchasing three Osmo Numbers accessory kits for the school.  We now have three Osmo kits complete with the Numbers, Tangram, and Letters sets.  Thank you so much for your support!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

FLL Update: The End of One Season, and Looking Forward to the Next

Combined, the teams that make up Searsport-Area FLL.
The end of 2015 brought the end of another exciting FIRST LEGO League season.  This year, we fielded two teams under the Searsport-Area FLL umbrella:  Team 2956, the LEGO Lords; and a new rookie team, Team 17380, the Trash Trekkers.  The season's theme was Trash Trek, and the teams spent the last few months learning about all of the trash we generate, what happens to it, and what we can do to make a difference.  Their research projects were impressive, especially given how young both teams still are.  The LEGO Lords came up with an idea for a dishwasher accessory to help wash plastic storage bags to reduce the amount we throw away, and the Trask Trekkers came up with a campaign to reduce the amount of seals that get caught and killed in plastic strapping.  Both teams presented their projects with great enthusiasm, and came up with songs to support their solutions.  Both teams scored very well in the research component of the competitions.

Teamwork Award, earned by
Team 17380 at the Old Town
FLL qualifier.
Speaking of competitions, we had two of them this year!  Given the growing number of FLL teams in the state of Maine (89 this year versus 72 last year), three preliminary qualifying sites were adding around the state, where roughly two-thirds of the teams from each would advance to the state competition.  We competed at the qualifier in Old Town, and both teams advanced on, despite some issues we had in the Robot Game portion.  Team 17380 also came away with the teamwork award!

The last few weeks of the season were hectic.  Both teams decided to rebuild their robots after the qualifier, and making the programming adjustments for new equipment and new routes went down to the very last second.  The teams also did some last-second research to shore up their presentations, and we added some elements to our practices to help us assess our Core Values.  The hope was to focus on the things we needed to improve on to boost our scores.

Mechanical Design Runner-Up Award, earned by Team 2956
at the Maine FLL Championship (and which they promptly
made a robot out of!)
And it worked!  Team 2956 excelled in the Robot Game portion, finishing inside the top 15.  Team 17380's strong showings in the research project and Core Values helped boost their scores.  Overall, Team 2956 finished in 20th place, and came away with the Mechanical Design runner-up award.  Team 17380 finished in 30th, out of 89 teams in the state, for the season.  I would say that this season was a success!

Team 2956 presenting their research project at the Maine FLL
I'm also excited that students are able to share what they do in LEGO League with others.  In December, team members from SES (all fourth graders) were able to share with their classmates all that they accomplished this year, and I have demonstrations lined up for the East Belfast and Nickerson schools this week!  I'm hoping that Searsport-Area FLL continues to grow and be inclusive and expose students to exciting opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math!

I'm already very excited about next season.  The only thing we know at the moment is that next year's theme is Animal Allies, and knowing how much children love animals, and seeing that one of our teams chose to focus on a Trash Trek project involving animals, I think that this is a wonderful theme that will get students engaged in the research project.

Going forward, we're going to need more help to ensure that our success continues to grow.  I am projecting a need for at least a third team next year, and maybe even a fourth.  I know that I was not the only one among our coaches and mentors that felt overwhelmed with how much was needed to make this season what it is, so please email me if you are interested in being a part of the team next season.  We need you!

Searsport-Area FLL will stay quiet for the next few months.  Preparation for next season will begin sometime in April.  Stay tuned for updates on spring practices, informational nights, team registrations, and upcoming fundraisers!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Week 2: When Things Get Difficult

Playing with LEGOs is easy, right?  With few rules and plenty left to the imagination, you can build anything you want, and don't have to worry about it not working.  LEGO robotics changes that a little bit, because a robot needs to be structurally sound for it to work, but they're still LEGOs, and we start off with a template for students to build before having them try something on their own.

But then there's the programming.  And that's where things get a little messy.

Programming is not easy for students.  You have to know what commands to use, and in what order to put them.  When the robot doesn't work the way it is supposed to, figuring out which command is the issue or what to adjust in the settings can be a challenge.  Moreover, and something that I bring up often in LEGO League, adding programming into the mix brings up a new consideration:  does the problem require a building solution, a programming solution, or both?  All of these considerations make programming a robot a challenge for any robot newbie, even when they're made out of LEGOs.

So, we approach programming slowly in robotics club.  We start with just one command, the move block, which powers the motors.  And we attempt a few basic challenges based on a simple course on the floor.  There are three iterations of this course.  First, the robot must travel in a straight line, starting with the front two wheels on a blue line and ending with the front two wheels on a blue line.  When they are successful here, students then try to make their robot turn left at a 90 degree angle and end on a different blue line, without leaving the boundaries of the course.  Finally, students make their robot turn and go to the end of the course, then turn around and come back, finishing on the same blue line that they started.  For beginners, this is not easy to do, but it is a useful exercise for a few reasons.  First, it promotes incrementalism, the approach that steps need to be tackled one at a time and tinkered with until they work the way they are supposed to.  Second, it promotes a "fail-forward" culture for learning in robotics club that celebrates the struggle that goes into making a robot work.  Natural ability is not a significant factor when an entire group of people are doing a new thing for the first time, so I need to do everything I can to make sure that robotics club is a safe place to "take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

Still, there is little better than the excitement you see and hear in students when they make a robot move in a straight line.  For all of the video games, gizmos, gadgets, and pure wealth of knowledge they have access to today, the fact that something so simple can be so engaging for young people tells me a lot about how they learn and think, and how we should teach them.

Week 1 Recap: Rules, Regs, and Robots

Week 1 of the After School Robotics Club is in the books!  The first week, day, or session of robotics club involves a lot of me talking, which I don't normally like to do with these clubs, but there are  a lot of necessary rules and procedures that need to be discussed, along with learning about some of the different robotics-specific LEGO pieces, that just make sense to cover at the beginning of the club.  As we go along, there will be less and less of me talking, and more time for students to explore.

Getting ready for this club, I wrestled with a number of things that I wanted to try that were different from previous clubs.  I wanted to provide students more choices for what they could do in robotics clubs, while also ensuring a learning sequence where students are still picking up on all of the foundational stepping stones of building and programming.  I also wanted to provide more supports for students to work at their own pace, to make sure that students who are struggling get the most attention while students who are flying through are not held back.  Finally, I wanted to include more exciting challenges and projects for students to see how robotics apply in the real-world.  All of these combine to result in some pretty significant changes to how robotics club works from before.  I'll outline some of them below.

The biggest change to the program this year is the introduction of badges.  Badges in robotics club will work a lot like they work for the scouts.  Students will undertake a challenge or task, show what they did to conquer that challenge or task, and earn a badge for getting it done!  The added functionality of badges in robotics club, however, is that certain challenges, tasks, and guides are locked away from the students, and can only be unlocked when they've earned particular badges.  If you check out our Badges page, you'll find 15 badges that students can earn during robotics club, and when you look at the Guides and Challenges pages, you'll see that each challenge or guide shows what badges are required to unlock access.  I'm still anxious to see how this system works, but I'm hoping that badges will help me accomplish the balance between choice and learning progressions that I discussed earlier.

Because students have more choices than they have before in Robotics Club, I will be doing a lot less teaching or guiding in whole groups that I have in the past.  Students will reach different stages, challenges, and badges at different time.  At the end of the day, however, there is still only one me, and I have needed to find new ways of supporting students without physically being there beside them.  So, I have developed (and am still developing) a new Guide system with video tutorials to help students at various points in robotics club.  For instance, students who finish building their first robot can access the Beginner Programming guide to see how to make their robot work.  I hope to add more guides along the way, but the end goal here is to help students access support and help on their terms (and to reduce the workload on me).

Another protocol to help students get their questions answered involves activating each other as resources.  One of my rules and procedures is called "C3B4ME," which reads literally as "see three before me."  I am requiring students to see help from at least three students in the room before coming to see myself or another adult.  While implementing this protocol will be an ongoing process, my hope is that students will begin to see each other as experts and sources of knowledge, and that they will do more to work together to solve the challenges ahead of them in robotics club.  There are even a few badges to earn based on using the protocol!

On to week 2!