Tag Archives: Maker Movement

Making – Homemade Star Wars Costumes

This past spring, the parents in our homeschool co-op chose drama and theater as one of the classes for our weekly co-op day.

Thankfully, the parent who suggested doing a play recognized that he might have an uphill battle with this group of kids. They are mostly boys who love technology, playing ‘battle’ and building with legos.

But, then he suggested a few scenes from a Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars.  Well…you could have heard a pin drop. Those boys started to wrap their heads around the idea of doing a Star Wars play, and the rest they say, was history.

IMG_2359

The book is directed at adults,and not children. The language was sometimes odd and the first few readings boiled down to a translation session. The play was a little bit above their heads, but they learned something about Shakespeare, old English and how to make some costumes on the cheap.

Each family was responsible for creating their own costumes. After initially paper prototyping a C3PO costume, my husband and youngest son declared it ‘perfect’ and finished. (Thanks to two grocery store paper bags). We added some gold acrylic paint and his costume was ready to go.

As usual, my older son already had something in mind for how he would dress as a short robot. After scouring the house for the perfect-sized box, he created his costume entirely on his own. He drew out R2D2, and then painted the box, taking a few days between coats. He even cut a whole in the top so that he could pop his head through and say his lines.

Overall, the play was a success, they had a fabulous time and they flexed their creative making skills.

 

Making and Book-Swap-Palooza

On Tuesday, Gwen and I were fortunate to be a part of School Notes‘ 1st Annual, Book-Swap-Palooza. It’s a mini-celebration that promotes books, reading and pizza. 🙂 The outdoor event was held behind Domino’s Pizza on Archer Road.

We already had a lot of fun, hands-on activities, but we also created these fairy tale finger puppets to go along with the reading theme.

A picture of pig and wolf finger puppets

It’s easy to retell this classic tale with homemade finger puppets.

Making in Action

Coincidentally, these puppets also promote our “Making in Action” camp, where students will design, create and film their own stop-motion animation movie. This year’s theme is fairy tales, fractured tales and Greek or Roman myths.

As usual, I didn’t take nearly enough pictures.  Thankfully, we were kept busy as we met a lot of nice, creative kids and they took their time playing with LittleBits and Legos, while also making a finger puppet (or two).

wolf finger puppet

Made by a student that stopped by our booth.

Making in Action camp takes place on June 20 – 24, from 8:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. To register, go to the Making in Action camp page.

We hope to see you there!

 

Book Review :: Making Makers

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.

picture of cover of making makers

Published by Make and written by AnnMarie Thomas, Making Makers is a good read.

Making Makers

Audience: Parents and Teacher
Thomas, AnnMarie. Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation. Foreward by Dale Dougherty. Maker Media: Sebastopol, CA, 2014

AnnMarie Thomas is an engineering professor (and parent) whose research focuses on technological literacy in K-12 environments. She is a leader in promoting play and learning, especially with regards to hands-on science materials for young children. Her five-minute TED talk on squishy circuits is fabulous, and I’m including it here:

Making Makers – the book

‘Make’ publishes some great books, and Thomas’ Making Makers is no exception. Many are written in narrative form and provide tons of examples and anecdotal stories. It would be nice if the grainy black and white pictures were better, but I think that keeps the price down.  I would much rather read about the inspirational projects featured in each book.

A picture of a grainy black and white picture from the book, Making Makers

While interviewing a number of professional “makers,” Thomas discovered a few traits that many makers seem to have. They don’t have every trait, but they might have a few, or they might have many. It seems to depend on what type of medium they are working with (robots, electronics, fabrics). Obviously, since she is an engineer, there is a heavy emphasis on electronic and engineering projects, but she is quick to note that sewing is definitely part of the maker movement. Who knew that all of those years ago when I taught myself how to sew, I really wanted to be a maker?

This book is sprinkled with interviews and stories about “makers” around the country. Most of them are well-respected in their fields and it’s fascinating to find out how they “fell” into their professions. Some had a love for it as children, while others were just creative, make-do kind of people and could switch mediums as they discovered a new interest.

picture of the table of contents from book, making makers

Becoming an Engineer

As a parent, I was interested in finding out how I could assist the “making” process that is already going on in my home. In her book, I found a lot of similarities between the skills I learned during my Montessori training, and those that I picked up from reading current educational research. Some of the best practices seem centered on encouraging your children’s “tinkering” interests, facilitating their learning (or finding someone who can) and making a point to continue learning yourself – all while trying to maintain a growth mindset.

Traditionally, many of our strong engineering students came from farming backgrounds. They would arrive at the university with hands-on experience maintaining and building equipment….while the mechanical savvy that many “farm kids” possess is often discussed, I see that as just one attribute shared among this group. Farm families depend on all members to do their part in getting the work done, and thus most farm kids grow up with a strong sense of responsibility.                       AnnMarie Thomas, Raising Makers.

My oldest son has been saying, since before the age of six, that he wants to be a robot engineer. Will he become one as adult? Who knows? My husband and I don’t care either way, but I do want to prepare him for the eventuality. As the grandson of two mechanically-inclined grandfathers, if there is an engineering gene – he has it. One grandfather was a “farm kid” who has a degree in engineering and the other can build anything out of wood. But, our sons aren’t being raised on a farm, and while we do have some  backyard chickens, I don’t think they count toward “farm life.”

So how is a Montessori tech librarian supposed to change her behavior to accommodate all of these future engineers?  Thankfully, it seems that all of the sewing and reading that we do also contributes to an engineering mindset.

Significance of Being a Reader

There was one point Thomas made that has stayed with me. She mentioned that most of these makers were avid readers as children. They weren’t all “good” students in school. Some struggled, some didn’t do the work, and some did well, but still had to work for their knowledge. However, they all knew how to find out more information – through books.

Although the web has made it “easier” to find certain things, the fact remains that books are still a great resource to begin your research. Certainly, I’m not discounting the wonderful information online, but I have found that we still need a good combination of both tools. Books and web research, combined with a good mentor, seems to be the path to successful learning. Of course, the interest has to be there first.

picture of green LED

You can’t see the 2 AA batteries that are powering the green LED, but the multimeter is measuring their voltage.

 

LED Constellation Art Project

A picture of a light-up LED constellation - cancer the crab

Made by R, age 10.

When I was initially asked if I wanted to be a part of Space Camp, I was hesitant to say yes. I think space and stars are pretty amazing, but I do not feel confident teaching others about them. I have a lot of varied interests, but space is not one of them.

Then, the director asked me if I was interested in the art and craft class. Oh my – yes!!!

While they were completely open to new ideas, they had already thought about some sort of LED constellation art project. I thought that was perfect and right up my alley. I’ve been playing a lot with LEDs and I’ve always been interested in art. This was in November and I quickly began prototyping. I was hoping that we could hard wire the LEDs, but I expected that it might be too difficult for inexperienced students.

Research

Although my family and I like to look at the stars, I don’t have a strong background in space. I needed to read more about constellations and how to identify them. After choosing some books from the library, I realized that I needed something with accurate, but simple illustrations of the constellations. Thankfully, I stumbled upon these two activity books:

A picture of two constellation activity books

Activity books on constellations, written for kids

Wiring the LEDs

I probably should have started with getting the paint ‘just right,’ but instead I grabbed some black and glitter paint and did the quickest job I could…so that I could figure out how to light up the stars.

My first attempt was with copper tape and SMD LEDs. Fail.

My second attempt was with copper tape and Chibitronic LED stickers. Not bad, but I thought it might be too much of a dexterity issue to get them onto canvas. Fail.

My third attempt had me stripping copper wire and twisting LEDs. Success!!! But…way too difficult for young kids. Not to mention all of those exposed wires.

A picture of wires at the back of an art canvas

I’ve since found better wires to use, but this was your standard copper wire from Lowe’s, wired to a salvaged battery holder from an old toy.

Finally, I stumbled across these micro LED lights and knew that this would make it easy for the kids to light up their constellations. After another quick ‘night’ paint job, I made the prototype from which I based my lessons.

A picture of the big dipper in LED lights

The big dipper, which I’ve since learned is not a stand alone constellation, but rather part of a larger one, Ursa Major.

For my class, I was lucky enough to have two sessions that lasted an hour and a half. This left plenty of time for discussion and work time. On the first day, we talked about a variety of constellations, but I asked them over and over again, “what do you notice?” I wanted them to see that the night sky was made up of many different colors. There were heavy concentrations of stars in certain areas, but depending on the time, or location that the picture was taken, the stars might have been a light sprinkling.  I wasn’t teaching about the constellations (thank goodness), merely reinforcing the other lessons they were getting from the head of the Planetarium (the guy with the PhD in Astronomy). Thankfully, I found the series, ‘Crash Course for Kids,’ and showed my students the videos on groups of stars and the one on how to locate constellations.  Since we were painting and doing other art activities on the first day of camp, I wanted to draw their attention to the colors and patterns. To truly observe.

The students finished their canvases that first day and by our second session, they were dry and ready to light up. On that second day, I turned my focus to discussing circuits, LEDs and coin cell batteries. I even brought my homemade circuit blocks.

picture of batteries and siren

The output device only works when it’s a closed circuit. This is a rather annoying, but effective, buzzer.

LED Constellation Art Project – Materials Needed

  • 8 x 10 art canvas (from Hobby Lobby)
  • Paintbrushes & Palette
  • Toothbrush for flicking on glitter
  • Paint (see picture below)
  • Newspapers or butcher paper to cover table
  • LED light string
  • Hot glue gun and glue
  • Exacto knife
  • Pencil for tracing constellation
  • Tracing Paper
  • Carbon paper
  • Paper to test carbon paper
  • Micro LED string of lights

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Hand out small bits of carbon paper and let the kids figure out how it works.
  2. Choose a constellation from one of the activity books or draw your own.
  3. Trace or draw your constellation onto the tracing paper. Set aside.
    1. Note – If drawing, be sure your constellation fits in the middle of the canvas. BE MINDFUL of the wooden frame. The lights have to poke through from the back.
Picture of traced constellation

Tracing paper helped the students to make accurate constellations.

4. Place the carbon paper (dark side down) in the middle of the canvas. Set your traced constellation on top and retrace the constellation with your pencil. Remove the carbon paper and see that your constellation is on your canvas.

carbon paper transfer of constellation
5. Circle the stars so that students know to paint around them. Have students write their name on the back of the canvas. Include the name of the constellation, direction and months that you can find it in the sky. Example: Cygnus, December – February, facing North
6. Play around with the paints – mix orange and blue and see how you can get darker blue. Add gray to black, what happens? You can mix glitter paint into the black to get very subtle sparkles.

pain palette
7. Paint your canvas. Paint the sides first so they can dry.

pciture of black painted canvas

Circle the stars so your student knows to paint around them.

8. Take your canvas outside and bring along the toothbrush, the glitter paint and some red paint. Love the red stars.
9. The stiff bristles on an old toothbrush are used to make a nice splatter effect of stars.
10. Set aside and let dry for 24 hours.

LED constellation art project

Flick the glitter paint on at the end so it really pops!

Adding the LEDs to our LED Constellation Art Project

Since I really wanted to make this an art & tech project, I built the second day’s lessons around circuits and batteries. We started with a discussion on what they knew about LEDs and coin cell batteries, passed out some single LEDs and watched these two videos from Adafruit’s Circuit Playground: B is for Battery and D is for Diode.

A picture of a green LED wrapped around a coin cell battery

I handed out one coin cell battery and one LED and asked the students to figure out how to light it up.

Then, we unwrapped the micro LED set of lights and everyone put in the batteries to make sure the lights worked. Surprisingly, they all did.

The coordinators felt that it was safer if the adults used the exacto knives to cut into the canvases, so the kids each had their stars marked by a little “x.” Then, off they went to the pre-heated hot glue guns to secure the lights to their canvas.

A pciture of a canvas with an axacto knife

Make a small x with the knife so that the LED can poke through form the back.

Voila!

An instant project that will help students remember the layout of their favorite constellation. Coin cell batteries do not have a long shelf life (8 hours, I think), but thankfully, these lights come with an on/off switch.

A picture of the back of an art canvas

Tuck in the extra, leftover lights…or, hot glue them to the back so they stay in place.

 

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.

What is Artisan Education?

Five years ago, our eldest son wanted to be a turtle for Halloween. We couldn't find a non-Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one, so we made it out of cardboard using paper mache and paint.

This turtle shell is made from cardboard using paper mache and acrylic paint. Handmade pants too! We couldn’t find what he wanted, so we made it ourselves!

Meet the twenty-first century artisans. They understand the value they are creating. It’s tactile. It’s real. They made it because they wanted it themselves. They can tell you exactly how everything is made and where their materials come from. They blend the proven tools of the past with the current tools of today, picking and choosing whatever suits their aesthetic.
– David Lang, from his book, Zero to Maker.

They Understand the Value They are Creating

I love this quote from Lang’s book, Zero to Maker. I love it because he values handcrafted items and ideas, but also because Lang’s thinking mimics my own. At the beginning of his “maker” journey, Lang questioned his education and wondered if he could teach himself something about power tools and underwater submarines. I love that he didn’t know where to begin, but started anyway. To me, this is an artisan education. A self-directed quest to create something from raw materials. It’s a “back to the land” movement, but with technology instead of food production.

According to my WordPress stats, my most popular keyword search is centered around the phrase, “what is artisan education?” Unfortunately, I doubt all of those inquiries are for our small tech business (though, it’s nice when they are).

Rather, I imagine people are looking for how skilled craftsmen, known as artisans, became educated.  The librarian in me wants to do a reference interview and guide the web searcher to a better resource, such as this site from The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.  Perhaps, they are looking for the history of how artisans were educated, which was primarily through apprenticeships. However, the artisan in me wants to explain my art, my training, my self-directed path of education and the small business that grew out of it.

Picture of a simple circuit using copper tape to conduct electricity and light an LED

To learn more about how circuits work, I used copper tape to light up a SMD LED. It’s an idea from The Exploratorium.

Meet the 21st Century Artisans

I consider myself to be an artisan. In fact, I think every good teacher is an artisan. However, I can also sew, knit, cook, manage a business, find information, and facilitate learning for a number of topics. Of course, I can do a lot more than that, but I’m especially proud that I taught myself how to sew, how to cook and how to knit. No one gave me a grade and no one stood beside me forcing me to do it. I struggled and fought for every piece of knowledge I earned.

School was fun because I loved learning and the work was easy. When I got a job, I enjoyed the novelty of it, but after a while it became tedious and monotonous. I missed learning. I thought about a PhD, but I had just graduated. I couldn’t go back to school. I needed to learn basic life skills, not just “school” skills. It took awhile, but I realized that if I wanted to keep learning, I was going to have to figure out how to do that on my own. I thought of something I wanted to learn and landed on sewing. I wanted to make my own clothes. I liked a certain style, but couldn’t always find the right color or style and disliked spending so much money on something I wasn’t too crazy about.

How Everything is Made and Where the Materials Come From

My mom knew how to sew and helped me make a few things when I was young, but I didn’t retain any of that knowledge. After running the gauntlet through AP high school classes, varsity sports and a part-time job, such frivolous skills seemed unnecessary and useless. What was the point of learning how to sew when you could just buy clothes? Purchasing pre-made clothing seemed to be a much more efficient use of time.

Like David Lang, I realized how very little I knew. Oh, I could study for a test and receive a diploma, but most of that knowledge was distributed from the top-down. Teachers or professors laid out the material, or pointed me in a direction, and off I went. To figure out how to sew, I needed to make my own path. I needed to struggle with sewing and no one was going to grade me (or pay me) for my progress. To top it off, I had to find my own teachers and resources.

Penguin fabric that became pajama pants for my boys.

It’s pinned and ready to go! This penguin fabric became pajama pants for my boys.

They Made it Because They Wanted it Themselves

Slowly, I learned how to sew and how to find the information to teach myself. I struggled and realized that to learn something well meant that I had to try again and again and again. I had to be content with poorly constructed garments because my technique wasn’t good enough. I had to find other teachers and “waste” money on trying new patterns and abandoning the ones I couldn’t figure out. I had to pay for classes and get out and make friends with people who  knew how to sew and quilt. And, I did. It took awhile and it wasn’t always pretty, but I did it.

I became a twenty-first century artisan because I wanted to make something that was just right for me. I wanted to reflect my own style and to take care of myself and my family with these time-honored skills.

A picture of 4 double-pointed kneedles and a tube being knit.

Learning to tightly knit a tube was made much easier thanks to books and YouTube.

Artisan Education

Which brings me to our business – Artisan Education. Artisan was born out of a need for hands-on classes for our (then) six-year-old. We wanted to help him follow his passion to be a robot engineer. Yes, he truly said that at age six. A few years ago, he was a solid right-brain learner who loved (and still loves) building with legos. He wasn’t interested in the traditional tasks of reading and writing. He wanted to build and work with his hands. A Montessori child if there ever was one, yes?

I sought out ways to incorporate his interests into his daily learning. He still had to work on learning how to read, but I also incorporated his desire to be a robot engineer. I looked for classes in our area, but there weren’t a lot of options – especially for his age. So, we stuck with legos until six months later, I discovered Lego Education. The rest, they say, is history.

A picture of Lego Education's kit, Simple Machines

The first Lego Education kit he did – at age 7. Simple Machines.

Here was a company who was using hands-on materials to teach the things my son actually wanted to learn. When I realized that they made tools for learning computer science concepts, my business was born. I could reach other students who had the same interest and help them to learn about computer programming, but still stay to true to my Montessori background. All of the materials are concrete, hands-on tools and offer multiple creative options. Repetition is encouraged and so is using the materials in a new way.  I also discovered other age-appropriate tools for kids to work with, specifically the icon-based programming language, Scratch.

They Blend the Tools of the Past with the Current Tools of Today

We named our business Artisan Education because we think that learning is an artisanal process. The type of material or learning path is going to be different for each person – even if those same people want to be robot engineers. Each path will be unique. We want to honor that type of learning and crafting. We strive to include a lot of creative paths for discovery, while still allowing students to work at their own pace. We utilize our tools of the past (the Montessori philosophy) with current tools of today (Lego WeDo, Ozobots, etc.)

A picture of a computer with Scratch on the screen.

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

In addition to our technology-based summer camps, we also design and review online courses, putting our instructional design skills to good use. Like good teaching, high-quality instructional design requires a unique approach. And, like a librarian, you need to conduct an interview to determine what the client truly needs. These are the tools of our past and we are combining them with the current tools of today. We are twenty-first century artisans.

Picture of tomato soup with a heart drawn with cream.

Knowing how to cook – and how to improvise – is an important skill. My husband made this tomato-based soup for me on Valentine’s Day.

Making :: Knitted Washcloths

It’s not always easy balancing my “simple living” persona with my crafty, creative side. But, it’s something that I eventually figure out because I have to be creating. I know a lot of parents feel the same way – especially those of us steeped in daily care. However, the maker mindset isn’t limited to parents. I also felt the creative drive as a young working professional – I just didn’t recognize it as such.

Shameless adorable picture of my then newborn and his hand-knitted baby blanket. (He's now six)!

Shameless, but adorable picture of my youngest son with his hand-knitted baby blanket. (He’s now six)!

Regardless, it’s something I need to do because it keeps my mind calm and my hands active. Many years ago, I learned how to sew and I used to be an avid scrapbooker. That was my art and I loved it. But, once I had kids…well, there was no time for multiple hours of crafting, so sewing and scrapbooking took a backseat to the daily demands of young children. Thankfully, my brain took it upon itself to encourage a new craft: knitting.

Blue cotton yarn and size 7 needles. Pattern made up by me.

Washcloth in variegated blue cotton yarn – knit with size 7 needles. “Pattern” made up by me.

I actually tried knitting eleven years ago – before I had my first child – but I found it so boring and tedious that I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to do it for long periods of time. I decided that knitting must not be my thing and went on with my other crafty projects.

But something strange happened when I was pregnant with my second child. I simply had to knit.

I can’t tell you why the time was right – maybe my pregnancy hormones were on overload?
I think I was desperate for something creative, but my tiny house and a very, very active toddler prevented any crafting time. Maybe my brain knew that knitting would be something I could take with me on our daily walks and park play dates? I can’t even claim an internal response to keeping my family warm. We lived in central Florida and were 15 minutes from the beach. It rarely got cold enough for a hat, let alone a wool scarf.

Whatever the reason, I ordered up some chunky alpaca yarn, bought this book and away I went. The first year, I made scarves and a hand-knit baby blanket. Then, I tried my hand at hats. I eventually took a class on intarsia and – with a lot of help – made a sweater for one of my sons.  I had become a knitter.

Hand-made hat - Blue Sky Alpaca Chunky yarn.

A knitter who lives in Florida.

A knitter who has some minimalist values.

Today, my knitting has to have a purpose and be very, very useful. Recently, when I felt that itch to knit, I checked out my small stash and looked at what I had – lots of skeins of cotton yarn. Not so good for hats or scarves, but just perfect for knitted washcloths.

Hand-made washcloth - made from Rowan organic cotton natural yarn. Knit with size 6 needles.

Hand-made washcloth – made from Rowan organic cotton natural yarn. Knit with size 6 needles.

This natural-colored washcloth was knit in Rowan Organic Cotton. I had a lot leftover from when my youngest son was a baby. The pattern can be found here. It’s a simple pattern, very forgiving, but enough to keep me from finding the knitting too tedious. Rows and rows of knit stitch can get tiresome. Thankfully, this pattern is pretty simple and as a result – this is the nicest washcloth I’ve ever made. So, of course, I started a new one which promptly went with us to the park.

Crafting while enjoying the amazing weather? I think that’s a great way to balance creativity with simple living.

Have knitting - will travel. I see a couple more washcloths in my future.

Have knitting,  will travel. I see a couple more washcloths in my future.

 

 

Extensions for Robot Turtles

This is the second 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 first post about Robot Turtles.
After my older students have played through most of the rounds of Robot Turtles, we make our own game of Robot Turtles.

After my older students have played through most of the rounds of Robot Turtles, we make our own game.

During my Montessori training, we encountered a lot of extension material. For example, there were extensions for the pink tower which would reinforce the original concepts (biggest to smallest and visual discrimination). These extensions would also allow the students to use the pink tower in a slightly different way. A prime example is of pink cards that mimic a tiny tower. The square shapes are the exact same size as the cubes – on one side. It’s another way for the students to grasp the concepts that the pink tower means to impart.

In that same vein, I try to find extensions for the materials I use during camp. This week, we’re talking about extensions for Robot Turtles. Last week, I talked about how I use the board game, Robot Turtles, in my summer camps. I like it because it reinforces programming concepts in a new way. I also like that you don’t have to use a computer. Does that make sense? Yes, because much of computer programming is using logic to solve design problems (or how to make your characters appear, etc.)

Since many of my students lost interest after a few rounds of Robot Turtles, I wanted to find a way to reinforce the concept of giving specific instructions. (To be fair – it is designed for 4-year-olds). I decided that my seven to ten-year-old students should make their own version of Robot Turtles.

A half-finished, multi-day game that involves elephants and lava.

An in-progress photo of a game that involved elephants and lava – made by Rebecca, age 10.

This lesson plan evolved over the summer and toward the end, there were a few more guidelines than I initially thought I needed. My students had a hard time replicating the game,  but once I helped them get started, they seemed to take off.

I walked the students through making a grid (eye-balled for accuracy). This set the game board in a semi-consistent manner. Then, they had to think about the purpose of their game. Together, we talked about the different aspects of the Robot Turtles game – how does the turtle win, how does it move, etc. After we broke down the game, I asked the students to think about a game where they had some characters that moved, but who would also have to complete a task.

In the final version, I drew a large square on the paper to help the kids get started. Next time, I will have yardsticks on hand.

In the final version, I drew a large square on the paper to help the kids get started. Next time, I will have yardsticks on hand.

I provided pre-printed “movement” cards, but they could add additional “moves” if needed (see picture below). I checked on them as they were working – making sure the final game would make as much sense as possible (it didn’t always – and that was okay). We would play the game as a way of “testing” and they found the errors in their game design – and fixed them.

Hand-drawn set of command cards to mimic those found in Robot Turtles and other "instruction" games. I make a copy for each student. They have extra spaces to make their own commands.

Hand-drawn set of command cards to mimic those found in Robot Turtles and other “instruction” games. I make a copy for each student. They have extra spaces to make their own commands.

When they were finished with their games, I sat and played each one and encouraged them to play with their fellow campers. Now, they all had something to take home from “robotics” camp and when the novelty wore off – their parents could easily recycle it. This is really important to me as I hate to deal with the cheap, plastic crafts that come home with my own children. I don’t want to have to store (or throw something away) that they made in camp. And, since the kids can’t take home any of the robotics (due to the expense), I want to make sure that the stuff they do bring home can be recycled or reused.

Harry Potter game, made by Wes, age 10. Wes had just finished reading the Harry Potter series and he made a cool game with wands, muggle obstacles and a cast of Harry Potter characters.

Harry Potter game, made by Wes, age 9. Wes had just finished reading the Harry Potter series and he made a cool game with wands, muggle obstacles and a cast of Harry Potter characters.

I will admit, this project found more favor with my girl campers than my boy campers. My boy campers were just as creative, but they seemed to dislike the idea of adding color to their board games, whereas the girls would spend extra time making their games look complete.  My sample is self-selected (they choose to sign up for my camp), so perhaps the boys I attract are more interested in the Lego WeDos that are part of camp and thus dislike the use of paper and pencil?

Either way, it offered another way for my students to think about the concept of giving specific instructions. It wasn’t always easy, but it did offer a chance to be creative. The only requirements were that the board had to be a grid and the characters had to move by arrow commands – just like in Robot Turtles.

Wes made muggle obstacles - similar to the ice blocks and wood towers from Robot Turtles.

Wes made muggle obstacles – similar to the ice blocks and wood towers from Robot Turtles.

 

 

PBL :: Bridges

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 Week 5, Week 6 and Lessons Learned.

My six-year-old's first time with a hot glue gun.

My six-year-old’s first time with a hot glue gun. He loves this method of tinkering.

Our project-based “class” continues to meet each week and the kids have finished up their initial projects, so they are in need of a new one. The class has evolved from a ‘group project class’ to one that allows the students to follow their own interests.  It was left to each parent to decide whether or not their children needed to stick with the original topic of physics. My own kids went in opposite directions, but my youngest chose to study bridges. I thought it was quite sporting of him to choose a topic that still relates to physics!

In fact, this is a topic that has resurfaced in the last four or five months, so I knew it was something that truly interested him. Often, my children will mention something and in the past, I would jump on the topic – only to find that it was a shallow learning request. The interest wasn’t there for an in-depth study. I’ve since learned to be patient and see if the topic is brought up again – in a different situation – to determine if my children are truly interested.

C, age 6, begins his self-directed project on bridges. His only "requirement" is that he teaches what he has learned to the other kids at co-op.

C, age 6, begins his self-directed project on bridges. His only “requirement” is that he teaches what he has learned to the other kids at co-op.

Thankfully, we had a friend who did an in-depth study of bridges last year, so I had some ideas of how to help my six-year-old. Perhaps because of my Montessori training – or the fact that I am a kinesthetic learner – I always try to find a concrete, hands-on way to introduce a topic. And, since this is supposed to be a self-directed project, I showed him this K’nex set and asked if he would like to begin his bridge study with that. I received a resounding “yes!”

One of the projects we found suggests learning about the strength of an arch.

One of the projects we found suggested learning about the strength of an arch. We used his brothers library books to weight the sides of the paper.

In addition to the borrowed K’nex set, we also went to the library where he found all sorts of books on bridges to check out. Unfortunately, many of them were meant for parents, but we did find a story or two.

Pop's Bridge - be Eve Bunting - is a multicultural story about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pop’s Bridge – by Eve Bunting – is a multicultural story about building the Golden Gate Bridge.

After doing some reading and playing with the K’nex set, he built a cable-stayed bridge. Would I have chosen to build one of the more advanced bridges first?  No!

I think that project-based learning provides many opportunities to observe your children – as their own people. It’s quite humbling to realize that neither one of my children wants to build the items in the order they are suggested. Instead, they decide which one looks the most interesting and they build that. At least I think that’s how their brains work.

Thankfully, he was able to build it entirely on his own and then decided that he needed to draw it and create another one – out of popsicle sticks.

C chose the first bridge he wanted to build - a cable-stayed bridge.

C chose the first bridge he wanted to build – a cable-stayed bridge.

He decided he needed to draw a picture to be able to make his popsicle bridge. Hot glue is amazing.

He decided he needed to draw a picture to be able to make his popsicle bridge. Hot glue is amazing.

He then chose to repeat this formula with the beam bridge and the suspension bridge. All of the work was done on his own. He asked for help with the initial pillars , so I held those in place while he glued them down.

In the background - a cable-stayed bridge. Foreground- a suspension bridge and on the far right - a beam bridge.

In the background – a cable-stayed bridge. Foreground- a suspension bridge and on the far right – a beam bridge.

At this point, he is a bit stuck. He wants to bring the K’nex suspension bridge as part of his presentation, but he still wants to build an arch bridge and a double-bascule bridge. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to take the suspension bridge apart and rebuild it. So, I think it might be time for me to step in and suggest some of the projects from this book. We’ll see how it goes.

To read the next post on self-directed learning, continue to the presentation on bridges.

Lessons Learned

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 Week 5 and Week 6.

R is hard at work on his ever-expanding city map for an Ozobot robot.

R is hard at work on his next project — an ever-expanding city map for an Ozobot robot.

We finished all of the project presentations last week and so this past meeting we had kids wondering what to do next. To be perfectly honest, I thought they would just be done with this class for the Fall, but one our parents had a great suggestion. She told her kids that they needed to pick a new idea to research – and to create a new project and presentation. They were all for it. And, yes, in retrospect, that does seem like a pretty obvious next step.

The students are now familiar with the relaxed format of the class and many of the them began new projects this past week. I think I’ll be continuing the project documentation, but I have to limit it to my own children’s projects. There are just too many to keep track of otherwise.

In the interest of learning from our mistakes, miscues and general experiences, I compiled this “lessons learned” post about our first-ever once-a-week, homeschool co-op, project-based learning class.

1. Self-directed project-based learning is good. But, facilitators are important too.
Each child (or group of children) completed a project and were happy with their final results. The design, research and presentation skills that they practiced were well worth any perceived shortcomings. Since there were so many different projects, I don’t think the students reached the depth that is typical of many self-directed projects. In the experiences with my own children, I will often do some side research to find hands-on materials that might help them deepen their understanding. Until we tried self-directed project-learning as a class, I didn’t realize how much “behind the scenes” work I do to help move my children into deeper learning. Quite often, it is still their choice to choose which materials to use, but it helps to have an adult finding those hard-to-reach materials and activities…and leaving them out to be discovered by the kids. This didn’t happen for every group at our co-op. So, to fix that problem, I might suggest…

2. When working with a group, choose ONE topic or project.
This can still be chosen by the students, but I think it would make for a better understood topic. For instance, the kids could have chosen to focus on gravity and then figured out a way to create a project or presentation as a group. I think the learning would be deeper as they discuss ideas with one another and create a unified project. As the designated facilitator for this course, I had too many different projects to keep track of, to document and/or to help gently push along.

3. Space and supply access really do matter.
While we are quite happy with our borrowed space (it’s free, after all), we definitely lacked materials and the right supplies. Many of our projects were wood-working and that doesn’t exactly lend itself to portability. It was much easier to help my own kids at home when I knew where to find the hammer, safety glasses and wood glue. Being in a well-designed space was also much better for the last minute changes that often occur with a self-directed project.

4. Tinkering is great, but…
For the catapult projects, the tinkering that the boys did was great, but it seemed to limit the depth of their projects. Only at the end did they haphazardly throw together some written research and while I know that they learned a lot – I don’t think it was as much as they could have (but maybe that’s the parent in me talking). With their new projects, I have been encouraging my kids to do some reading and research before working on their “final” project. Sketches and designs are okay, but no full-scale models until we’ve done the research.

5. Different ages have different expectations.
This isn’t really something that we learned, but rather I think it’s important to point out. The group of two young boys (ages 5 and 6) had a completed catapult, but no “official” presentation materials, whereas the group of three nine-year-olds had a wooden catapult and a tiny presentation. They also did a lot of their own research and it shows. It wasn’t nearly as thorough as the 11-year-old’s presentation on gravity. Help your students…not too much…but more if they are younger.

6. Group learning is part of the project.
Sometimes I was part mediator, part teacher, part parent for a couple of the groups. With a clash of different personalities, learning to work together is just as important as learning about  the topic. But, they need help. It’s important that the louder, more organized group member doesn’t railroad the quieter or less-prepared group members. Each member is equal and it’s important for everyone to figure out how to work that out.  That doesn’t mean assigning jobs, but it might mean that there is more mediation, discussion and written goals to be sure that everyone is happy with the direction of the group. I can’t say that I did this perfectly, but I recognize that this is an area where I can improve.

Overall, the project-based class was a big success and the kids have already chosen their next projects. Some will choose science topics, whereas one of my children is studying cities and the other has decided to explore bridges. But, more on that next week…

Kid's drawing of a cable-stayed bridge

C’s next project is learning all about bridges…using popsicle sticks and a glue gun. Fun!

To read about the next self-directed project, continue to the post about bridges.