Category Archives: Computer Programming

Diary of a First Year FLL Coach

First Year FLL Coach – Me?

August 22, 2016
Today, I asked the 4-H robotics leaders if our club was going to participate in First Lego League this year. “Sure,” they said, “and would you mind being one of our first year FLL coaches?”

August 30, 2016
The FLL challenge comes out today. It’s called Animal Allies. I can’t wait to find out more about it.

September 5, 2016
Today, I gave a brief presentation to our club about First Lego League. I think I scared some parents, but gained the interests of the more experienced student members. We now have a team of seven students.

The coaches and mentors navigated the FLL computer system and got our team registered and the kit ordered. I had an easier time since I had gone through a Jr. FLL season with my older son two years ago.

September 18, 2016
One of our mentors (and 4-H robotics leader) built the game board. The kit and game mat arrived and the kids spent the meeting building pieces.

A picture of two 4x8 robot game boards

This was from our practice competition.

September 25, 2016
The game board is fascinating and the students finally finished putting together all of the pieces. We did a team building exercise and ran out of time.

October 2, 2016
We now have nine team members. The team has decided to split up into three groups and begin building a base robot. The team will then vote for the best design.

October 16, 2016
It took another meeting to finish and decide on the robot design. Now, the other teams are copying the robot design so that each team can work on the robot game. There has been little discussion about the animal project; everyone is more interested in the robot game.

 

The Robot Game, The Robot Presentation & The Project

October 23, 2016
Teams are finally working on programs to complete the robot game challenge. There have been some problems with such a big team. Everyone wants to work on the robot. Our initial talks about animal projects are centered on reducing ocean pollution. We are also registered for a practice tournament November 12. I have spoken to my sister-in-law twice in the last few weeks to clarify FLL rules. (She’s a FLL veteran coach and is immensely helpful).

October 30, 2016
More work on the robot game. My co-coach is amazing at finding team building challenges so the kids can develop their “core values.”

November 2, 2016
Our animal project is looking too much like a pollution/trash problem (which was last year’s FLL challenge). We have a mid-week meeting to focus on one animal and to flush out a general presentation idea for the practice tournament. The kids chose to study manatees.

November 6, 2016
I am out of town. More robot game. More team building.

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November 12, 2016
Practice Tournament. Everyone did very well and it gave the students (and coaches) a better idea of what FLL is all about. Our team did better than we thought they would.

November 19, 2016
The robot design has been modified so that there is now only one robot to compete in the robot game. That means two to three kids work on the programming while the coaches help the other kids flush out the robot and manatee presentations. Team building happens at the end of every meeting.

December 4, 11, 18
The holiday season is in full swing and we are only getting three to four kids at each Sunday meeting. This has made it difficult to move forward with our presentation since no one wants to make a group decision with only part of the team present.

December 25 & January 1
Since we meet on Sunday, we have cancelled these meetings to enjoy the holiday season (and because a lot of people are out of town).

 

Getting Ready for the Qualifying Tournament

January 5, 2017
We have an afternoon meeting at the library/park to refine the manatee and robot presentations. The students decide what they want to talk about and we (the coaches) help them by writing down main points on an index card. They are to take them home, write down what they want to say and try to memorize it for Saturday’s qualifying tournament.

January 7, 2017
The tournament is an hour away and the day is very cold and very wet. It’s a bit of a shock for our central Florida area. Thankfully, the gym is warm and the 24-team double tournament is buzzing with activity. I sent our schedule out yesterday and made a couple of copies to leave on our table. Everyone arrived on time and we were busy all day long. Our team table was close to the robot game area and the students took advantage of the location. They watched how the other team’s competed and enjoyed hanging out with one another.

This was one long day. We had to be there by 8:15 and the award ceremony finished at 4:00. Our team won the mechanical design/programming award and received an alternate bid to the regional tournament. My co-coach and I were thrilled. This is such a fabulous run for a first year team – and 7 out of 9 members can return next year! They will have a better idea of what to expect. I definitely see some areas for improvement. For example, we left more than 30-seconds on the clock for the robot game and they could do a better job at learning to share speaking roles during the presentations. But more importantly, everyone was well-supported, courteous and focused on building a good team (and good people).

January 2017
My co-coach contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in our area and our team will visit their office to learn more about manatee rescue and how to write a regulation. Although our FLL season is over, we are still helping our team to go out into the community and hopefully, make a difference.

 

Reflections on Being a First Year FLL Coach

My co-coach and I were often coaching “from behind,” as he likes to say. We were trying to guide and ask questions (and sometimes direct) so that the students owned most of the decisions. That was really hard – especially as we tried to figure out the FLL rules. It took a lot of time to give everyone an equal voice, but I think it made for a stronger team. I also returned to being an adjunct instructor this past August and was trying to balance teaching on top of coaching. I felt like I didn’t prepare as much as I could (or should) have, but the students led the way and asked questions when they needed information.

I can’t say enough about First Lego League. This tournament is amazing and the purpose is not to win, or to get better at robotics. It’s to work as a team and to become familiar with the design thinking process. The purpose is to solve the world’s problems and to help kids (and their coaches) to know they have a voice and some power. They have power to work cooperatively. They have power to talk to government officials and business owners. This is project-based learning in action – with a little bit of legos and robotics thrown in for fun.

FETC 2017

Code to Learn: Using Scratch to Demonstrate Learning

I’ll be at FETC this week – and will be talking about my hopes and dreams for how to use Scratch. I’ve done a lot of research on coding and creativity and I’m bringing my ideas to FETC (thankfully, my poster was accepted)! I will be discussing the in-depth learning projects I have done with some of my students. I also have a passion for integrating coding into the curriculum and would love to see if other teachers are doing the same (check out my Wright Brothers course).

Creativity in Coding

For the last few years, I have been teaching Scratch during the summer months. Most of the time we do projects related to video games or general learning projects (animations, mazes, etc.). My one-week camps do not leave enough time for in-depth research projects. However, for those returning campers, I am able to challenge them with more advanced Scratch projects. I’ve had students create interactive country projects and create fractured fairy tales. Even though I am not in a K-12 school, I hope teachers will find these ideas (and lesson plans) useful.

After reading articles by Mitch Resnik, Karen Brennan, and Samuel Papert (most well-known for his book, Mindstorms), I felt like they had created Scratch for this very purpose. After a bit, I realized they had. Check out their Scratch foundation.

Regardless, I think our mission is the same – to keep the creativity in coding. To use Scratch (and computers) to create and not just to consume. For the record, I am not affiliated with MIT or Scratch, nor do they endorse this poster session (though, I hope they would if they knew about it)!

If you will be attending FETC this week, I will be talking about my poster session on Wednesday, January 25 from 4:00 – 5:00 PM  – Booth #2500.

UPDATE: To find the Scratch lessons, check out the Scratch Lessons, Challenges & Prompts page.

Create Stories with Scratch

This past summer, I facilitated six classes on MIT’s icon-based programming language, Scratch, and simultaneously helped fifth – ninth graders learn about computer programming. I taught four sessions of “Video Games From Scratch,” and two sessions of “Create From Scratch.” These last two sessions focused on creating conversations and stories with Scratch. I don’t want to be a biased teacher, but these were DEFINITELY my favorite programming classes.

Our class met for eight days; each class was an hour. After a few days of basic concepts (animation, movement), I asked them to create a conversation between sprites. We started with storyboards.

picture of computer with scratch 1.4

Storyboarding

Nothing too complicated – just a simple six-panel, hand-drawn storyboard to tell the events of their conversation. There was a lot of resistance to pre-planning. I asked anyway. Most of them complied (probably because they were locked out of their computers until they finished their storyboard).

Their programmed conversations were allowed to veer, twist and change from their original storyboard. The results were interesting and somewhat mixed, but it prepared them for the deeper challenge of recreating a classic fairy tale in Scratch.

pciture of a projected screen with a scratch project

In the computer lab – sharing projects was an important part of the class.

Recreating classic stories with Scratch

When students returned from the weekend break, I asked them to work on their capstone project: a classic fairy tale. Students were free to retell the story, or add an alternate ending, fracture the tale, etc.

My class was a good mix of boys and girls, but both groups willingly accepted the assignment. Some chose to retell the story with a funny ending. Some made silly graphics which altered the story. Some spent a lot of time creating beautiful graphics, but didn’t change the story arc. There was a lot of choice, creativity and fun.

a picture of humpty dumpty stories with scratch

This “Humpty Dumpty” retelling has a funny ending. Created by one of the students in my class – https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/116815328/

Video Games vs. Stories with Scratch

Why was this my favorite class? Well…I am the mother of two boys. I am married to a man. All of the males in my household love to play video games.

I do not.

I know! I feel terrible just writing that sentence, however, I have come to accept and embrace my biases. I like board games and card games. I enjoy learning about history, cognitive psychology and education. I love art and making art. I cannot live without reading books. I enjoy writing, though, not necessarily fictional stories. I love bringing art and writing together – with technology. That’s why I love Scratch and that’s why I loved this “Create” class more than the popular video game class. Hopefully, it left some of the students with a similar feeling – a way to embrace technology that doesn’t revolve solely around video games.

Review – Code Monkey Island

Have you ever wanted to like something, but just couldn’t bring yourself to do so?

That’s how I feel about the game, Code Monkey Island.

picture of code monkey island

It has a lot going for it – it’s pretty, it has a catchy name and it does a beautiful job explaining how code works. The accompanying “textbook” is just fabulous and is a wonderful resource.

 

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Sadly, the game mechanics are somewhat lacking, and the game instructions are only 2-pages long. There is no description of how to move your monkeys from their start bubble and there are too many similar playing cards.

But the real deal killer?

It’s tedious to play. It’s right up there with Monopoly Jr., Chutes & Ladders and Candyland. All which were played once, and then banished from the house. It’s annoying to play a game that can go on forever, just for the sake of continuing.

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To be fair – Code Monkey Island did last for more than one playing. I had initially purchased it last summer for camp and my campers and I played it one afternoon. Unfortunately, those 8-10-year-olds found it a little too boring for their liking. Maybe that was because we had played (and enjoyed) Robot Turtles and Be the Robot.

However, before I gave up on it completely, I pulled it out last week and my own children and I sat down to play. We set up the game, skimmed the limited instructions and set off to immerse ourselves in the world of boolean logic, variables and monkeys. Sometimes we weren’t sure what to do (like how and when our monkeys could leave their start circle), so we made up some rules. All of that would have been okay, but then my kids started to play the dreaded “remove one of the monkeys from the banana stand” card. This allows a player to take another player’s monkey out of the “home” section. Thus, dragging on the game.

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Of course, you could always remove those cards, but I still think the overall game play is too tedious. My kids likened it to the game, Sorry! That’s a game they somewhat like, but that doesn’t get played as often as Settlers of Cataan or Ticket to Ride. Plus, they said they liked it even less than Sorry!, so it won’t be residing in the game closet.

This game might be better used as a tool to teach programming concepts. Perhaps, it could be made into a Montessori-like ‘work’ that could be placed on a shelf. Students could follow teacher-made cards (taken from the fabulous programming explanations) and create simple scenarios that students could run through. Or, maybe students could use it to write their own “monkey” programs using boolean statements…

Did I mention that it’s pretty?

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Book Review – Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover art & technology books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

cover picture of mindstorms ev3 discovery book

By Lauren Valk

Ages 9 and up
Valk, Laurens. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book. No Starch Press, Inc.: San Fransisco, 2014.

Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

This fabulous book is one of many in a sea of EV3 instructional books, all of which are designed to teach your young roboticist how to navigate the convoluted Mindstorms software. However, this one differs in that it is written directly to your young roboticist. It’s not written to the robotics teacher (ahem), and while it is wordier than my budding roboticist would like, it does provide a lot of little “challenges” to help reinforce the programming concepts. We have been working with it for the last nine months. Plus, it’s in color, which makes my visual-spatial learner very happy.

The target audience is the owner of the Lego Mindstorms retail kit (the ones sold at Toys R Us, etc.)  I have the kit that comes from Lego Education, which means that I own the Educational Software ($99). However, the free version utilizes the same programming, and the only major difference is that it does not include Lego’s video tutorials. Personally, I haven’t been a huge fan of the video tutorials, also known as the ‘Robot Educator,’ though they may be more useful in a classroom setting.

EV3 Mindstorms, Seymour Papert & Constructionism

For those that are unaware, the Mindstorms software was modeled after Seymour Papert’s Logo turtle, and the first wave was created by a team at MIT (including Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch). Papert’s theory being that children learn the best by playing and messing around and building new knowledge out of the stuff they already know. This became the constructionist learning approach.

Constructionism was built off the constructivist learning theory which asserts that if given the right tools and age-appropriate resources, kids (and adults) will teach themselves the knowledge that they need. Papert was especially strong on his feelings that computers should be used in schools, but not just as a tool to complete a typed paper, but rather as a discovery instrument.

Nowadays, the visual Labview computer language is the basis for the EV3 Mindstorms software.

icon-based programming

Screenshot of the EV3 Mindstorms software

EV3 Mindstorms Software

With minimal instruction and guidance, it’s easy for kids to get started with icon-based software. I see the same thing happening with my summer coding camps, where I use the icon-based programming language Scratch. I give a little instruction and let them playfully discover how the software works. However, learning without a mentor takes a lot of time (and frustration). It happens. It’s very beneficial. But, it takes a lot of time. Our society values “well-roundness” and we don’t always provide enough time for deep learning.

But, I think a skilled facilitator is invaluable at this early stage of learning and can get kids started on the path to deep learning, while still offering them a lot of self-discovery. A good teacher will ask questions to help their students to delve deeper into the materials, such as “I wonder what would happen if you changed the number of steps?” or “Is there a way to make your sprite stop at the end of the screen?” Yes, these are leading questions, but they also help children to retain their creativity, love for problem-solving and give them some direction so they don’t become overwhelmed.

Many of the kids need a little bit of – just in time guidance – to make those deep learning connections. The depth of a multilayered language, such as the EV3 Mindstorms, benefits from a good facilitator standing nearby. This mentor should not be interfering, but should step in when a child is getting frustrated because there is not enough feedback in their learning loop. I also want to be quick to point out that the facilitator does not have to be an adult. It can be the more advanced kids teaching the inexperienced ones (and vice versa).

I think the Mindstorms EV3 Discovery book provides enough free choice and challenges to keep an interested student involved, without being stifled or overwhelmed.  There are numerous colorful pictures and a lot of mini-lessons. Some of the lessons include the programming (or at least a guide to what needs to occur), and there are a lot of chances to get some direct instruction. Thankfully, there’s also a chance to play around with the code, and be able to see how their “author-facilitator” did it.

You could work through the book in order. There are nineteen chapters and they teach a number of programming concepts. Valk also provides a lot of sample programs so that you can understand how some of the sensors work. Since I have an educational set, my sensors are a little different than the ones from the retail set, but the concepts are very similar and you can apply the knowledge to those as well.

I tend to veer toward the “work in order” theory of learning, but I have a visual-spatial learner who learns best when he has a lot of control and can follow his interests. So, after the first few lessons on movement, I gave him free reign to choose whatever he wanted to work on next. We started with the ultrasonic sensor and he made a “roomba” like robot that moved away from the wall.

Later, he decided that he wanted to learn more about the color sensors and flipped to chapter seven. He then proceeded to pick and choose random programs to test with the color sensor. This required a little bit of help from mom (to remind him to pay attention to the details of the sensor), but after realizing it was very similar to our line reading Ozobots, he was off and running. He tried a little experimentation – with black markers and hand-drawn lines – which surprisingly didn’t work.

hand-drawn circle for ev3 robot

But, we remembered that we had some black electrical tape and he proceeded to try out his color-sensing robot.

A picture of a black line made from electrical tape and a lego EV3 line-following robot

R tested out the robot’s line-following abilities – using the color sensor.

After his success, I (strongly) suggested that we delve deeply into the color sensor and truly get to know it well before moving on to other programming and parts. He reluctantly agreed and we perused other ideas and opportunities from Valk’s book. We printed out the pre-made circle track and my son wrote the program to make it stay within the lines.

printed circle from book, Mindstorms EV3 Discovery book.

All told, we love this book. He loves the colorful pictures and I love the creative challenges that require a deeper understanding of content.

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A project from the book where the robot has to push out the pieces, but stay within the confines of the circle.

Animated Volcano in Scratch

kids' drawing of volcano

Drawn by C, age 7. I’m especially fond of the underground magma.

Scratch animation

It’s fairly obvious that I love Scratch, the icon-based programming language developed by MIT.  It’s a fabulous way for kids to dip their toes into learning about computer programming and computer science principles.

I’ve been using it for almost 4 years and each time I mess around with it, I learn something new. In the beginning, we use it creatively – as it was intended to be used. We start with a few blocks and see what we can make. I do some guided learning, but there’s a lot of choice and a focus on enjoying the language.

Then, we start moving into deeper and deeper concepts – variables, sending messages and conditional statements, etc. But, there still has to be an emphasis on being creative, flexible and offering a somewhat open-ended project.

Animated Volcano in Scratch

Typically, the second lesson I demonstrate deals with animation. We choose a background, change it slightly (the color of the lights, add a disappearing item, etc.) and then apply the following program:

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 4.26.10 PM

 

 

 

Many of them get the concept, though they don’t truly understand it until they try to make their own animation. It’s at that point that they realize the slight differences are what truly matters in animation.

That usually works for most of my ten-year-old and up students, but I needed a more thorough explanation for my newly minted seven-year-old. He has been begging (for over a year) to work with Scratch and I finally relented in January.

Storyboarding with Scratch

We did the above background animation, but it still wasn’t quite clicking, so I decided to start with a hand-drawn storyboard process. I went with an animated volcano in Scratch. That leaves a lot of personal choice options, but the key concepts remain the same.

I made a simple example and asked the younger kids to sketch out the various stages of a volcano. They were allowed ample time to view (and stop) my volcano program.

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Once the steps were labeled, they set out making a different background (or sprite) with four different scenes – based on what they drew.

C's animated volcano in Scratch

I uploaded C’s volcano animation. Check it out: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/108661198/

A simple introduction to storyboarding, and a way to keep the ‘creative’ in Scratch, not to mention a quick glimpse into how basic animation works. Creative programming at work!

Is learning to code a bad idea?

A picture of a computer with Scratch on the screen.

Icon-based programming tools, like Scratch, help to make writing code more accessible…and fun.

Last week I read an article that made me worried for the future.  I was afraid for my children’s future, for my own future and for the future of everyone in the United States – which was probably the emotion the author intended to invoke. Will there be enough jobs for everyone? How will the less fortunate children thrive in this new digital economy? What’s that going to mean for the peace of our nation?

Quite a way to start the weekend, no?

After the fear came annoyance and anger. Then, I stopped to consider the evidence provided by the author. There were a few links. I followed them and researched others that he didn’t directly cite (this review suggests another side to the research by the MIT professors). Yes, I don’t doubt that he has some credentials (so do I), but ‘predictor of the future’ does not seem to be one of them.

No one knows what the future can hold. Yes, we can make some assumptions based on past evidence and yes, we should have important conversations about the future (hello, global warming).

According to the 1999/2000 Occupational Outlook Handbook, there was going to be a glut of master-degree librarian jobs available. The need was going to be much bigger than than the current graduates coming out of school. And then the Internet grew and grew (and grew). The housing bubble collapsed and it affected the local tax market and now librarian jobs are hard to come by these days. Why didn’t anyone see that coming?

Frankly, it was an article such as this one that dissuaded me from learning more about front-end web development during my librarian years. Almost everyone was using Dreamweaver and it was said that no one would need to learn how to write HTML because computers will be doing it for you. Well, how wrong were those people? From what I’ve been reading, a lot of professional web developers still manually code their web pages since those software programs inevitably have bugs and problems. Even though I love my WordPress-powered site, I could do more if I had a deeper understanding of the code.

Besides, do we really know what type of jobs are going to be available? In what city? In what town? Certainly, it’s good advice to not take on too much debt while a learning a new trade, but learning something new, even if you don’t use it for more than a few years, is very, very valuable. It will still be valuable if all of the jobs disappear and you have to become an urban homesteader just to survive. At least you’ll be able to build your own automatic, Arduino-powered watering and lighting system. Your vegetable garden will be the most productive one on the block. All thanks to the empowerment you gained from learning a new skill. Even one that you don’t use anymore.

Book Review – Mindstorms

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

As relevant today as it was 35 years ago…

Target Audience: Adults (especially teachers, parents)
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. Perseus Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.

Mindstorms

It’s taken me awhile to write this review, partly because I have so much to say and yet, I’m not sure how to organize everything I’ve read. Quite frankly, I really need to read the book again, but I had to return it since I borrowed it via interlibrary loan. It was as if I found myself at an amusement park, but only had an hour left before it closed. What would I do and what was the most important thing that I wanted to see? Sometimes, you just need to sit and think about it. That being said, I am going to attempt to provide an overview, but wanted to throw it out there that I could have used a little more time to digest the information.

A picture of the Table of Contents from the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

I do think I understood the overall point of his book, namely that students should be learning with more real-life experiences, thus constructing their own knowledge, and computers can be used to help them reflect their learning. However, he seems to differ in his educational thinking from the Montessori method because he acknowledges that interest plays a big role in how well a student learns. For example, in a primary Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to explore their own interests, but there is a limited prepared environment from which they can explore. Papert seems to advocate for an open-ended, real-life curriculum where a student can explore their own interests in daily life, but still be guided by a facilitator.  I thought it sounded a lot like project-based learning with a little bit of homeschooling thrown in.

But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.
– p. 32

Throughout the book, he uses his own interests – gears and mathematics – to make the case for creative computer use in schools and learning. In chapter one, he discusses the culture of computers and the hopes (and fears) teachers and educators have for their use in school. He mentions that there is indeed a potential for students to only consume computer programs, to use them to idly fill up their time, but that others will use them to make further explorations. It might allow children to tackle complex subjects at an earlier age because physical barriers, such as handwriting and spelling, will be eliminated by the use of computers.

Though the book was originally published in 1980, this second edition was published in 1993. So, how can a book on ‘computers in schools’ still be relevant more than 20 years later?

A picture of the opening screen of a Scratch project.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

Sadly, it’s incredibly relevant because computers are still primarily being used to transmit information. It’s top-down learning where a teacher dictates what a student will learn rather than using the computer to help a child to express the concepts that they learned and make their own changes. Papert advocates for using computers to help students see what they are learning, for them to construct their own knowledge based on the programs they are running. While the topic they tested included geometry concepts, he acknowledges that computers could and should be used in other ways.

A picture from the book, Mindstorms. It shows simple line drawings that could be made withthe robot turtle.

A sampling of projects that students could make, and while doing so would learn key math concepts.

He and his colleagues created the LOGO computer language and used it to teach geometry. Since Papert’s background, training and interests are in mathematics, he uses math as a backdrop to explain his theories and his desire to see our thinking made visible. This is especially relevant to me as I am always on the look out for more reality-based ways of using math with my own children. I will admit that he sometimes lost me during his mathspeak (it has been 25 years since I took geometry), but it really isn’t about learning geometry, it’s about learning how to make learning visible so that the students can recognize their mistakes, fix their “bugs” and learn how to learn. He was definitely an advocate of a growth mindset before it became a ubiquitous term.

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are ‘smart people’ and ‘dumb people’…as a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of ‘dumb people’ or, more often, to a group of people ‘dumb at x.
– p.43

Teaching fifth graders how to program with the simplified text-based language of LOGO was not meant to teach them to be programmers, but rather to help them express their ideas of geometry. Papert wasn’t talking about specific programs (or apps), rather he was discussing learning in general, thinking about thinking, and using computers to express that learning. In fact, he meant for the LOGO turtle to show them where they made mistakes so that they could learn to fix them – in context. No teacher required, thus making the learning more valuable and sticky.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own "bug," by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own “bug,” by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

This book has made it very clear that the creators of the icon-based programming language, Scratch, were following in his work and wanted to honor his vision of constructionist learning.  Having read some of their papers on Scratch and taken the course on Tinkering from the Exploratorium Museum, I was able to understand much more about how and why these tools were developed.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

I made these circuit blocks while taking the Tinkering with STEM course. A great way to help students learn about direct current.

As might be expected from a book on education from a computer scientist, his theories and main ideas are sometimes muddled and he seems to jump from one abstract topic to the next. His work with LOGO was partially based on his work with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and partially from his own work at MIT where he worked on artificial intelligence. His theories are sometimes unclear, I think, because he doesn’t want to have a prescribed curriculum. Also, there’s the question of cognitive, age-based abilities. Was he advocating for preschoolers to use a computer to reflect their learning? I don’t know.

That being said, I really enjoyed being challenged by this book. It made me rethink some of my own teachings and I am now ready to tackle the Making Thinking Visible book that has been sitting on my shelf since last fall.

A picture of the book, Making Thinking Visible.

From the Harvard-based project that tried to help students see (and change) their own learning.

 

 

 

 

 

CS For All

A few days ago, President Obama announced a new initiative to promote computer science classes for all students – CS for All. The proposed funding will be $4 billion for states and $100 million directly to schools to fund this initiative. Apparently, it’s even supported by both parties! It’s a definite nod toward the importance of CS principles and certainly what many organizations, like code.org, have been advocating – and the purpose of ‘Hour of Code‘!

A picture from the book, Help Your Kids with Computer Coding.

A picture from the book, Help Your Kids with Computer Coding.

I’m excited right now to be a tech educator – especially one who focuses on programming and robotics. I’m excited to see the shift to this type of learning, especially for kids who might struggle with traditional, paper-based learning, which is usually the case with reading, writing and math. This will give those right-brain learners something to feel confident about. However, I am waiting to see how these programs will eventually play out.

CS for All

My biggest fear is that CS will become one more subject that students are required to learn – rather than integrating it across the curriculum. For elementary-age students, that doesn’t mean sitting them in front of a computer and teaching them to hard code. It means finding age-appropriate resources, such a Robot Turtles, Ozobots, and Lego WeDo kits (3rd grade and younger) and Scratch, mbots, and Lego Mindstorms (in addition to many others) for upper elementary and middle school.

It also means there needs to be a lot of room for creative free expression and in-depth tinkering. Coding is fun and empowering, but there needs to be a focus on mastery and it must have a personal purpose to it (a la Daniel Pink’s research in Drive). I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t want the teaching of computer science to be one more thing that a student has to learn.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. An interactive presentation, designed and programmed by R, age 9.5.

I want Scratch to be integrated into math and language classes – not separated. I want logic games and math games to be integrated into daily lessons – not just pulled out as a ‘CS’ curriculum. I want students to learn how to make presentations to reflect their learning – whether that’s while learning about Greece, the Wright Brothers or the xy-grid. I want them to have time to explore and tinker, not just to memorize a piece of code.

So, I hope the National Science Foundation will look to the creators of Scratch and to Seymour Papert and base their grant funding on that type of CS teaching – creative expression and tinkering – which will lead to more students choosing computer-science-based careers.

 

 

Computer Science without Computers

This is the last post, in a series of activities, that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices. Check out the previous posts about the game, Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, the game of ‘Be the Robot’ and What’s Inside of a laptop.
computer science without a computer - workbooks

These are some resources I’ve found that teach logic and computer science skills – without a computer.

Since I am not a classically trained computer scientist (or programmer for that matter), my use of the term ‘computer science’ may differ from others (here’s a really great explanation of the differences). I use the term vaguely – to imply a lot of different computer-centered activities. That might include logical thinking, seeing things from a different perspective, noticing patterns, finding out about computer parts, learning about key programming concepts, such as repeat loops, and of course, using icon-based programming languages to write programs.

So, with that being said, I have gathered a lot of great materials and hands-on tools over the last few years, such as Lego WeDo kits, Ozobots and creative instruction with the icon-based language, Scratch. But, I have had times when I’ve needed activities that didn’t require a computer. I needed to teach computer science without computers. Sometimes these activities were used to fill a break in my coding or Robotics camps. Sometimes, I was asked to teach where there were few resources and only a couple of computers. We needed a way to rotate computer use, but still be working with programming concepts.

Computer Science Without Computers

This need led me to the DK Workbook, Computer Coding. This looks to be a companion to DK’s book, Help Your Child with Computer Programming, except that this slim workbook starts out by introducing the Python programming language, which I do not teach. Although I will be teaching a kids’ web design class this summer, most of my classes do not use text-based programming languages.

I know, we could have a whole other debate about how HTML isn’t a true programming language…but let’s hold off for now, shall we?

DK's book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

DK’s book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

If you skip ahead in the Coding workbook, there are some really cool exercises on “thinking like a robot” and writing out simple commands, such as ‘forward(50).’ I drew out some of these on the board and had us work together to complete them. Honestly, it wasn’t as much fun for the 9th graders who were my captive audience. They had a hard time making the connection to why this type of learning was important – and they weren’t intrinsically interested in coding. In that case, I really could have used some computers to set them free with Scratch. Usually, the free expression in Scratch can hook any reluctant teen programmer.

But alas, that wasn’t an option for a cash-strapped camp who wanted to offer some computer science programs. I did find a curriculum that looked interesting, but didn’t come across it until after my “no-computer” camp experience. This free “Computer Science-in-a-Box” curriculum is from the National Center for Women  & Information Technology. Although this curriculum is geared toward ages 9 – 14, I haven’t used it in my camps. It does seem a bit like “school” work and my campers are not so willing to take up paper and pencil during the summer. But, like most curriculum, I’m sure there will be some great insights that I can find to use with my students.

A good resource from Code.org.

A good resource from Code.org.

I’ve also looked over the curriculum from Code.org – “Intro to the Art of Computer Science.”  Both of the above items are well-researched, but most of the activities are too tedious or abstract for my younger students to appreciate or enjoy. Don’t get me wrong – I like the guides and learned a lot from them. I also think think they offer a lot of valuable information, but not for my age group (or for uninterested kids). They seem to be written for the computer scientist in mind – those kids who know they want to work with computers, have played with Scratch and maybe Python, and want to know everything about how binary works and how a computer thinks.

Many of the kids I encounter are unsure that they can even tell a computer what to do, so we have to find a way to break down the abstract concepts into something much more concrete. It’s why I love Scratch so much. Regardless, I do recommend the guides – if only as a way to gain more background knowledge and vocabulary for the teacher.

I would also recommend reading more about Seymour Papert and his thoughts on computers in schools and how children use them (or should use them). Palpert was at MIT, helped to develop the Lego Mindstorms concept and has left his lasting influence on the openness of creative learning, which is something that the creators of Scratch have carried forth into their teacher’s guide. I also think their article on computational thinking is well worth reading.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

Since we are talking about abstract concepts – I am a huge fan of logic problems and really like the ones put out by the Critical Thinking Co.  Last summer, I made some copies for a few kids in my camps because I knew that they would finish up faster than the other kids and might like a good challenge. Some of my other students found these too difficult and had a bit of a fixed mindset about discovering the solutions. Either way, having them look at information in a new way (which is what logic problems do) is a great skill for any kid (or adult) to try.

Lauren Ipsum

Finally, this book has been sitting on my shelves for many months now…just waiting for the right opportunity to read it aloud to my six and ten-year-old sons. Of course, we had to get through The Magician’s Nephew, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and now, we need to finish The Odyssey (abridged), but we’ll get to it because I’m really looking forward to reading a fantastical story that has computer science elements.

All told, there are a number of resources to impart logic and computer science concepts – without a computer. As noted above, you can check out my previous posts on Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, Be the Robot and Making a Paper Laptop.

Unfortunately for those schools (or camps) that do not have the resources for a computer lab, these non-computer activities will only take you so far with computer programming. As far as other materials that teach “programming,” I am a huge fan of the 1.0 Ozobots since they have their own “color” language and students can use regular markers and a large sheet of paper to write some programs. They don’t require as much space as laptops or desktops, and students could work together as a group, so it would cost less money. To see how I’ve used Ozobots in my camps, check out “Using Ozobots in a Classroom” and “Making Maps with Ozobots.”

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.