Category Archives: 6-12

The One Word Project

One of the challenges I faced this year in the Makerspace was that our classroom got double-booked for the second nine weeks during 7th period.  This meant my Principles of Applied Engineering Class met in a Spanish classroom – and the students who were eager to use large tools like the saws were disappointed at the temporary change in venue.  (We ended up doing a 3D Design project that nine weeks.) I knew when we returned to the Makerspace at the beginning of January that the students would not want to be put off any longer, and racked my brains the entire Winter Break for a project with a purpose that would finally allow them to explore the tools.

Our Makerspace is relatively new, set up in the school’s old Cosmetology classrooms, and it’s definitely a work in progress.  With upcoming renovations we will be getting another space, but we’ve been trying to make this one functional and inspirational in the meantime.  Other than tool storage, our walls are somewhat blank.  With that in mind, and everyone’s New Year’s Resolution tweets about their “One Word” for their year flooding my Twitter feed, the idea came to me that the students could practice using most of our tools while creating signs to hang up on the walls.

The students brainstormed words that they felt represented the Makerspace, and each group of 2-3 students chose a word.  They made construction paper prototypes of their signs, planning out the measurements of the letters and the plaques.  In the meantime, they did some flipped learning with online videos and safety tests for each of the tools they would be using.

All of the students used the table saw and miter saw to make their plaques.  I have to say that this is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job.  Like me, many of these students are fearful before they use these powerful tools.  After watching a few people do it without chopping off any fingers, they hesitantly try.  Their smiles afterward remind me of my daughter’s reaction the first time I convinced her to ride roller coaster.  “Let’s do it again!”  The female students, especially, seem the most empowered after they finish.  There is a noticeable difference in their self-confidence as they continue with their projects – some of them asking to cut other people’s projects so they can repeat their experience.

Once the plaques were made, the students were required to learn how to use at least 3 out of 4 other tools for the more precise designs of their letters.  Each tool requires  different software for design, so that was a bit challenging.  The students could use: 3d printer, laser cutter, Silhouette cutter, or CNC mill.  I encouraged them to use different fonts and types of “stock” for each letter.  They could use acrylic, plywood, vinyl, cardstock, copper, aluminum, and filament. (Students could “earn” access to more expensive materials by meeting certain benchmarks on time.)

One of the cons of this project was that many students needed my help or supervision for different things at the same time.  If I do the project again, I will plan more “mini workshops” about the software and schedule times to use certain tools.  Another con was that our brand new CNC mill has a huge learning curve, and we lost a lot of time and material to mistakes. I think I’m finally learning its idiosyncrasies, so that shouldn’t be a huge problem in future projects.

Despite those issues, I felt really good about this project when we finished.  I decided not to assess the actual signs, or to give any kind of team grade.  Instead, students were assessed individually on their safety tests and on their final reflections of the design process.  These reflections, which required pictures of different stages of the project, will be included in the online portfolios our school is required, and were very informative about how much the students understood about problem-solving and learning from mistakes during a project.

Here is what one student wrote, after describing some of the challenges encountered during the project, “That was all fine because that is how life is. You never truly know what is going to happen next and it allowed me to think on my feet a little better and reevaluate my plans; it was a reality check between what was possible and what I could accomplish if absolutely nothing went wrong, which isn’t life. Life is messy and that is beautiful.”

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Biodesign

In the past, I have taught students about biomimicry/biomimetics, in which designers use inspiration from nature to create new products.  (The Youth Design Challenge is a great place to find resources for this.)  Biodesign takes things one step further by actually incorporating nature, often still living, into innovative artifacts that can be purely for decoration or serve specific purposes.

I first became aware of biodesign when I ran across a website for The Nest Makespace.  The unusual images on the home page intrigued me.  (I admit that I thought the “bioyarn” designs were actually made out of worms, but it turns out that it’s probably more like this material.)

The Nest Makespace offers some fascinating project ideas here.  I am hoping that more lesson plans will be linked soon.  In the meantime, you can find more suggestions on the Resource page.

For a “Peek at the Possibilities of Biodesign,” click on this link, or watch the embedded video below.

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Picture from Fernan Federici on Flickr

Inventing 101

Alexis Lewis is a teenage inventor who is on a mission to inspire other teens to innovate.  You can read her story, and about the products she has invented so far in her young life, here.  Alexis specifically wants middle schools to guide students with inventing curriculum, and has launched a website to help in this endeavor.  Inventing 101 is a good start as a repository of resources with this end in mind.  You can also visit her personal website to learn more about other teen inventors on this page

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#TCEA2019 – Machine Learning for Kids

I learned quite a bit about Artificial Intelligence at a TCEA session this year presented by Anita Johnson of Austin ISD.  She explained the difference between Expert Systems (where explicit rules are programmed – think “If…Then” statements) and Machine Learning (where the computer identifies and learns from patterns).    Johnson teaches middle school, and introduced us to a site called, “Machine Learning for Kids,”  which she uses with her students. In the “Worksheets” section, you can find many lessons, categorized by difficulty level, that can be done using Scratch, such as creating a character that smiles if you say nice things and cries if you are mean.

I haven’t had a chance to try this with my students, yet.  It looks like you have an option to create a managed class account or “Try it Now”, but check out this page for details on the pros and cons of each choice.

You can also read this blog post to get more information on how to introduce Machine Learning to kids, and why we should even want to educate them about this technology.artificial-neural-network-3501528_1920.png

#TCEA2019 – Gimkit

It’s always fun to return to the classroom after attending TCEA with something new to use with the students right out of the gate.  Of course, as with all things technological, it’s a bit of a risk to try something for the first time without testing how it’s affected by random things like network firewalls.  Fortunately, my gamble worked with Gimkit.

Gimkit is an online student response system similar to Kahoot.  It was developed by a high school student, who added in an interesting twist – monetization.  Students win virtual money as they answer questions correctly.  The money can be used to shop for different upgrades such as making each answer worth more money or “icing” your opponents.

Teachers can make Gimkits from scratch, a spreadsheet, or a Quizlet.  The questions are multiple choice.  Unlike Kahoot, the questions appear on the student devices while the teacher device streams a live leaderboard.  The board shows each student’s earnings, who is ahead, and the collective amount earned by the class.  I ended up setting my two different engineering classes up as opponents in a “season” so they could compete to see which class earned the most.  (Hint: this keeps students from “icing” each other during the game because they will lose out on collective earnings.)

Teachers can also set a time limit, which means that questions will repeat.  To be honest, I thought the students would get bored once questions started coming back around, but they begged for more time after ten minutes.

The game was such a success with my 8th-11th graders on Thursday that I decided to use it for another class I was teaching in rotation to 8th graders on Friday.  Again, full engagement.

Until…

The students in my 4th rotation started getting messages that the site had just upgraded and they were suddenly bounced out of the game.  I almost had a complete mutiny on my hands as they realized they would be out of the running for the class competition.

Fortunately a similar situation happened while Leslie Fisher was presenting Gimkit at TCEA.  She tweeted Gimkit, and they immediately rolled the site back to the working version.  I decided to try the same thing.

My students were dubious.

“What do you mean you’re going to tweet him, Miss?  How is that gonna help?”

“This ain’t fair.  We’re never gonna win now, Miss!”

Withing a couple of minutes, Gimkit tweeted back their apologies and fixed the issue.  My students were astounded.

That class won the competition, by the way.  (Free outdoor time next period.)

So, if you have secondary students, I would definitely recommend you check out Gimkit the next time you want to do something a little different for a formative assessment.  It will be interesting to watch as this site expands its offerings, but hopefully it will always keep the current features for free.

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image from Gimkit.com

The Art of Engineering

There aren’t any fancy graphics on this video, but I love the message that Katie Correll gives in this short presentation.  I keep trying to convince my students that engineering is so much more than math and science, that’s it’s not just about following formulas and rules but about learning how to use them to innovate and sometimes even break those rules.  One of my students pointed out that Katie’s message about thinking outside of the box to problem solve can really apply to anyone – not just engineers.

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An Invitation

As some of you may know, I made a giant leap outside of my comfort zone this year – leaving a job I had done for 19 years in a district where I had worked for 27.  All 27 of those years were spent teaching elementary school, and now I teach students in 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 10th.

I haven’t said a lot about the school where I now work, so here is a brief summary:

Advanced Learning Academy is an in-district charter school in San Antonio Independent School District.  The school serves PK-12, but only grades 4-12 are housed on the campus where I work, Fox Tech High School.  The Fox Tech campus also hosts a Health and Law magnet school and CAST Tech High School.

ALA opened its doors 3 years ago, a combined endeavor between SAISD and Trinity University.  It is a school “for students who seek academic challenge with greater depth and complexity and opportunities for acceleration.”  Trinity interns work along with the faculty to provide Project Based Learning activities, Design Thinking, and a variety of enrichment activities.

ALA is diverse, with students who live a few blocks away to students who live outside of the city.  No area is “zoned” for our campus, so the only students who attend are those who have applied.

The first, and best thing (in my opinion), that I noticed when I joined the staff here at ALA was the extreme dedication of each and every teacher.  No one is here for “a job.”  They are here because they want to do what is best for children and they want to improve their craft.  The quality of teaching on this campus has completely humbled me.  Know this: if your child attends ALA, his or her teacher will do everything possible to help that student reach his or her potential.

Project-Based Learning means that our Robotics students collaborate with their Humanities peers to create interactive works of art, our Engineering students work with architects to design the new playground and build a chicken coop for the lower campus, and Biology students work with another Robotics class to produce “Operation” games to represent the body systems they have researched.

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Flyer for Student Art Exhibition at 1906 Studio

Design Thinking means that our students know what it means to make a prototype, test it, fail, and revise.  They have time to “go deep” into curriculum, and they often present to their peers, their parents, and outside experts.  We are working on craftsmanship to develop products that will enhance our campus, and will be lasting legacies.

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Student artwork, created in the MakerSpace for the Some Are More Equal exhibit. (Lasercut, woodwork, robotic movement – all created by students)

Enrichment Activities include field trips – lots of them.  Our campus is located downtown, a block from the Central Library, and within walking distance to the Riverwalk, the Tobin Center, and Hemisfair Plaza.  Our students go on at least one field trip a month, often more.  In addition, the grade levels have built in time for students to take “Wonder Courses,” which they can select based on interest.

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ALA students choose the 5 supplies they would take when fleeing their homes.  This was a Doctors Without Borders event hosted at Main Plaza (to which our students walked) from school.

Because of our unique structure, high school students can visit the 4th/5th grade wing to give students feedback on their video game designs, 5th graders can join 6th and 7th graders in programs like Speak Up, Speak Out, and students in grade 4-12 could work together to produce the musical, Shrek.

So, what’s the downside, you ask?

Transportation may be an issue, depending on your location.  There are in-district transfers on buses, but this may mean a long-ish ride for the student.

Because we are small, we cannot offer the number and variety of electives that larger high schools provide.  We do have athletics, a mariachi band, and a theater program.  The only foreign language we offer is Spanish.

Every child is different.  I would have thrived at ALA as a teenager, but my daughter, who wants to be in 10 million clubs and take Latin, would not choose to be here (especially with her mom as a teacher).

This is an invitation to consider our school if you live in the San Antonio area.  You do not have to be an SAISD student to apply.  The application window for our campus is November 26, 2018 – February 8, 2019.  To learn more about the application process, including opportunities to tour (which I highly encourage), click here.