Journey to City X: Adventures in Engineering for Kids

About 6 years ago, as people who are excited about learning new things can be wont to do, my colleague and I emphatically agreed to piloting a 3d printer on our elementary school campus without actually knowing a single thing about 3d printing. There was a huge learning curve just trying to figure out how to get the darn thing to print out one of its pre-programmed examples. Once we accomplished the extraordinary feat of coaxing our printer to spit out a plastic bolt that we could use for pretty much nothing, we realized that we needed to figure out what meaningful objects we could fabricate – and how to design them. Our research was frustrating. Other than mass producing keychains and other items with school logos, no one seemed to have any idea about what elementary students might be able to do with a 3d printer. (By the way, if you are thinking of purchasing a 3d printer for your classroom, or doing a Donors Choose request, here is an article I wrote on some considerations you should make before you commit.)

That’s when we stumbled across City X. And Design Thinking. And Tinkercad.

And that’s when we learned that we didn’t need a 3d printer.

Don’t get me wrong. They are nice to have, and students love holding their own designs in their hands. But the most valuable part of the learning is the Design Thinking process.

The free toolkit from City X helped us to walk our students through the design process. The premise of the program is that humans have started a new settlement called City X on another planet, and the citizens need help with different challenges they are encountering in this novel environment. You can read more about how my colleague and I used the program here.

The toolkit includes a lot of resources, and was a true blessing for the two of us, as we discovered a way to really engage children while helping them to learn about empathy, problem-solving, and multiple other lifelong skills.

Now there is a City X book (thanks for letting me know about it, Amy C!), written by one of the co-creators of the original project, Brett Schilke. Journey to City X: Adventures in Engineering for Kids begins with the same idea as the original project, that the mayor of City X is asking for your help with various problems. In this book, however, there is more detail on how to embark on the design adventures as members of “The Irresistible Futures Agency.” It includes 35 challenges in the areas of transportation, environment, communication, food, health, safety, and energy. Each challenge walks students through solving problems for the fictional planet as they make connections to our own, real-world. There are still choices when it comes to who their “clients” will be and what their final solutions entail, but there are additional activities and recommended explorations in each chapter that are perfect for students new to the idea of Design Thinking.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a 3d printer. Students can prototype and test with any number of easily accessible materials such as cardboard and clay. Also keep in mind that the broad categories of each challenge make them relatively easy to integrate with science or social studies curriculum.

Once students experience the City X project, they will be ready to do “real-world” designs using the same framework.

For more of my posts on Design Thinking, click here. Also, this is one of the professional development sessions I offer, and it includes a ton of free resources.

“Foolsball”: a new game you can play in City X

Plotting Plots

If you have a fascination with literature and graphs, you may have seen LitCharts, which I wrote about back in 2016. LitCharts includes an interactive Theme Wheel for each of the works of prose covered on the site, such as this example for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I enjoy the meaningful conversations students have as they analyze such charts, often giving me many new understandings about the books from their perspectives. “Plotting Plots” is a website that also aims to give you alternative visualizations of books, though its “library” is not a comprehensive, yet, as the one you will find on LitCharts. Tom Liam Lynch is open to suggestions for new books to add as well as any other feedback from users. On this site, you choose a book, then select up to four words from the book that you would like to see plotted on a graph. The graph shows you the chapters where you will find those words and their frequency. For example, here is a graph I made for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

I would ask students to do a “See, Think, Wonder” activity with this graph to find out what they already know about the book, what assumptions they might make based on the numbers, and what questions this prompts. I would say, having read the book a few times, that I think Chapter 5 is right around when Harry comes face to face with blatant displays of magic for the first time, and I would wonder why friendship does not appear very often in the book despite the relationships he develops with Hermione and Ron.

The blog posts on the site are equally intriguing, such as this one on The Hate U Give, where Lynch gives us some insight into his realization that the parents play a more important role in the book than he initially assumed.

Because I love seeing the way different people can find to creatively use graphs and infographics for deeper understanding, I have this new Wakelet to share with you. As you will see, graphing is not just for math!

brown wooden shelf with books

Whichbook

Though this isn’t a resource for elementary or middle school, I could see high school students using this site. In addition, teachers who are looking for books that meet certain criteria (whether for their own personal use or as part of the curriculum) will definitely find Whichbook to be beneficial. Structured a bit differently than sites like NPR’s Book Concierge, Whichbook has several ways to discover new books such as with an interactive World Map and by Character and Plot. My favorite is by Mood and Emotion (a feature I wish the streaming video sites would also employ)! You can choose up to 4 sliders on the Mood and Emotion page to help you get recommendations that will surely include at least one or two that will suit your current frame of mind. Once you decide on a book, you can then choose if you would like to borrow or buy it, which is another nifty feature I like. You can learn more about Whichbook here.

brass colored chandelier
Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com
two woman having conversation

Think Again

I know that it’s hard to imagine doing anything “extra” after this crazy school year, but some schools like to do book studies over the summer – and some teachers, like me, get reinvigorated by reading professional books. I’d like to toss this one out there as an idea for those of you searching for a book for one of those purposes or even as just as a non-fiction book to read for enjoyment.

Think Again is by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton. I received this book as one of three that arrived in this quarter’s Next Big Idea Book Club subscription box. When I read the intro on the book jacket, I thought this book was ideal to read given the current state of our world. “The bestselling author of Give and Take and Originals examines the critical art of rethinking: learning to question your opinions and open other people’s minds, which can position you for excellence at work and wisdom in life.”

Before you read, you may want to take the free quiz to find out which type of thinker you most resemble: Preacher, Prosecutor, Politician, or Scientist. This tends to influence the methods you use to open the minds of others when you disagree.

If you have never read a book by Adam Grant, I can assure you that he is a talented writer who engages the reader with anecdotes sprinkled with relevant facts. I was prepared to find some good nuggets of advice in Think Again, but didn’t realize I would use up all of the ink in one of my highlighters as I turned each page to discover more and more guidance that would be helpful in my everyday life.

Even though the entire book is valuable, I want to summarize some takeaways from one specific chapter because it addresses “teaching students to question knowledge.” As this is primarily an education blog, “Rewriting the Textbook” is probably the most pertinent to you, the educators who read this blog.

Grant discusses the importance of questioning information no matter the source, being willing to take risks and accept being wrong some of the time, and students taking ownership of their learning – all precepts that I have also encouraged in my classroom and on this blog. He, of course gives evidence to support why these are vital skills and interesting examples of teachers (including himself) using student-centered techniques that encourage this type of thinking. One of the observations he makes from a collaborative lesson he taught in his college classroom is that the Straight-A students often struggled on the open-ended project, quite possibly because the obsession with being “right” was interfering with any inclination to take creative risks.

Among the teachers Grant showcases in the chapter, he mentions Ron Berger who worked summers as a carpenter and during the school year as a public elementary school teacher who “devoted his life to teaching students an ethic of excellence,” which includes “constantly revising our thinking.” I liked reading about Berger’s habit of posing “grapples” to his students that were multi-phase problems rather than beginning every lesson by presenting information. As Grant described more of Berger’s unconventional methods, I was impressed by the iterative mindset he instilled in his students, prioritizing revision and increased mastery rather than racing to completion. It should not have surprised me (but it did) that Berger became the chief academic officer of EL Education, one of the schools in which the famous video, Austin’s Butterfly, was filmed.

From the Black musician who confronts members of the KKK to an epilogue that analyzes the communication of leaders during the pandemic, Think Again is a book that parents, educators, leaders, and followers in all walks of life would find meaningful and timely. I plan to thumb through those pages often to remind myself of the power of re-thinking.

Think Again, by Adam Grant

ethnic worker writing in notebook in house room

LatiNext Poetry Project

April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and it is not too late to celebrate! You may remember when I posted about the Teach Living Poets site way back in January right after being blown away by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of the poem she wrote for the Inauguration. Scott Bayer (@LyricalSwordz), who contributes to the Teach Living Poets site, tweeted out this amazing interactive Google Doc of poetry and accompanying lessons for Latinx poets featured in the publication, LatiNext, from Haymarket Books. Next to each of the eleven poets’ portraits, is a link to a detailed lesson plan, and a link to an interactive image made with Genially that provides even more resources. Kudos to Scott Bayer and Joel Garza (@JoelRGarza) for putting together this excellent compilation of meaningful activities submitted by participants in #TheBookChat. In addition, thanks to the @breakbeatpoets editors, @_joseolivarez @WilliePerdomo and @writeantiracist!

For more Poetry links, visit my Wakelet here. I also have Wakelets for learning about Amanda Gorman and Anti-Racism.

positive diverse children in astronaut costumes in studio

Astronauts Zoom!

I’m excited to announce a new nonfiction book by Deborah Lee Rose, author of Scientists Get Dressed and co-author of Beauty and the Beak. The latter will always be near and dear to my heart because Rose first contacted me when she saw the connection between the story of Beauty, an eagle who received a 3d-printed prosthetic beak, and articles I had posted about my students’ adventures with 3d printing back in 2016. With her new book, Astronauts Zoom!, Deborah Lee Rose continues along her path of providing first class STEM materials for young children.

Persnickety Press/WunderMill Books is publishing ASTRONAUTS ZOOM! in celebration of 20 years of astronauts living and working on the International Space Station (ISS). This “Astronaut Alphabet” features high-quality photographs of male and female astronauts from several countries so that children of any gender and race can see someone reflective of them representing this incredible career. One unique aspect of these pictures, as Rose pointed out to me, is that “you can rotate the book fully, and the photos taken in space will still be correct because there is no true “upside down.”

public domain photo from NASA

With age-appropriate – yet challenging – vocabulary as well as inclusion of both the technical and entertaining aspects of spending time in microgravity, Astronauts Zoom! will be an excellent addition to any classroom library or child’s reading collection. Though it is a picture book, there are many levels to approach it from, so re-reading it is definitely a pleasure.

There are informational pages in the book that expand on the simple sentences used for each letter, list the vocabulary, give additional facts, and name the astronauts who are pictured along with their countries of origin. In addition, you can download this free Educational Guide to accompany the book:

In the past couple of years, we have watched the first all-female spacewalk and the first African American astronaut to spend an extended period (longer than a few weeks) in space. On April 9, 2021, the station is scheduled to have 10 people aboard as crews rotate in and out. With all of these historical events, as well as excitement over Perseverance and its implications for humans to make trips to Mars in the future, Astronauts Zoom! is the perfect book to share with students to garner enthusiasm for STEM and reaching for the stars.

Click here for more information!