Category Archives: Computer Science

Sketch Kit from Wonder Workshop

With two posts in a row related to Wonder Workshop it might appear that I work for them or get a commission.  I don’t!  The Undercover Robots Camp curriculum I wrote about yesterday could technically be used with a variety of robots, but I do like to use the Dash robots because they are so engaging and user-friendly for younger students.  Today I wanted to review one of the newest products from Wonder Workshop, which is customized for their Dash and Cue robots – Sketch Kit.

Students love to program their robots to write/draw, but anyone who has tried to rig contraptions for this purpose knows what a nightmare this can be.  It’s a good problem-solving experience, but not the best use of time if programming is your main goal.  Wonder Workshop has solved this issue by designing a unique harness to attach to Dash or Cue.  This harness allows the robot to lift a marker up and put it down – and the free app updates include these accessory options for coding.

The $39.99 Sketch Kit includes the harness, 6 dry-erase markers, and 6 project cards.  The markers are customized to fit the harness, as you will note in the picture.  Marker Refill Kits (6 markers) are $14.99.  We haven’t had our kit long enough for me to tell you the typical number of uses you will get out of a marker.

As nice as it is to have the Sketch Kit, the whiteboard mat that I purchased for $99.99 is even more worthwhile to me.  Mats for robots are expensive, unless you DIY, and this one screams out versatility.  It rolls up fairly easily, but it is definitely durable.  With measuring guides on the side (100 cm x 200 cm), there is plenty of programming potential.  The marker erases nicely without leaving residual color on the mat.  Knowing I will be using it with several groups of students, I feel that it was definitely a good investment.

Programming the robot to draw what they wanted proved to be more challenging than my students expected.  I put my 5th graders in pairs and they had about 7-10 minutes in each group to create a program in Blockly.  Before we ran the programs, we projected each one on the board so the students could try to predict what the robot would draw.  This was great visual/spatial practice, and it was funny to hear the opposing ideas that were thrown out at the beginning.  No one’s program was perfect the first time, so I also gave them time to “debug” after each initial run.

So far, the programs have been fairly simple – drawing a letter or two, or a few shapes.  With a little practice, I’m hoping my students can advance to this free lesson that Wonder Workshop just sent in their most recent newsletter, which involves using Cue to draw mandalas.

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Can you read what Dash wrote here?  (Hint: this pair of students loves math!)
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Spy School

As regular readers know, I share a lot of freebies on this blog.  Usually, if I’ve made a lesson or activity, I post it here for anyone to download.  However, I sometimes create collections of my work and sell it on Teachers Pay Teachers.  My “Undercover Robots – Spy School” packet is one of those collections.  I developed it over two summers of doing Undercover Robots Camp using the Dash robots from Wonder Workshop.  This packet is a 38 page PDF that contains activities that can be used in an after-school or summer camp with robots that can be controlled by mobile devices. It is designed for use with a camp that has 6 teams of students (2 or 3 to a team) from ages 8-11. The Dash and Dot robots from Wonder Workshop are perfect for this camp, but other robots could be used instead. There are 10 missions included in this packet with unique puzzles for each team. (Note: Most of the missions depend on using a vinyl map of the world on the floor. I have a link to the one I purchased from Amazon in my packet, but you can also DIY if necessary.)

I’ve found that younger students love to get involved in stories around these robots.  There are ample opportunities for creativity (you should see some of their spy outfits!), and problem-solving as they work on the puzzles I provide as well as the programming.  I give some ideas for differentiation in the packet as well.

I have other curriculum that I am still testing out, but will post as soon as I work out the kinks and get it organized.

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The Beauty of Spirals

My 4th grade students are currently studying mathematical masterpieces.  I love showing them examples of the intersection of math and art.  When I saw a tweet yesterday morning from @TheKidShouldSeeThis with a link to the video of John Edmark’s spiral geometries, I knew right away that they would want to watch the video.  It weirdly connected with the magical drawbridge from yesterday’s video, so I showed that part to them first.  We have already talked about Fibonacci and the Golden Spiral, so they immediately found ways to connect both videos to their learning.

Since the students have also been using Scratch coding, I found a Scratch project for making spirals.  First we looked “inside” to decipher the code.  Then the students explored running the program.  After that, I talked about creative constraints, and gave them the challenge of changing one and only one part of the code to see how it made the program run differently. They recorded the results of their new programs and the class tried to guess what variable each student changed based on the videos.  Then I gave them time to freely remix however many parts of the program they liked.

This was one of those times that the students could happily have explored all day.  It was their first time remixing a program, and they delighted in trying to take it to the extremes by putting ridiculous numbers in to see how large or small or non-existent their spirals became.  Some of them created spirals so tiny that they appeared to be flowers blooming as they popped on to the Scratch stage.

And I still haven’t blown their mind with this Vi Hart video yet.  With the school year almost over, we may have to take this unit into their 5th grade year.  There is so much beauty in math, and we have barely scratched the surface!

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image from Marco Braun on Flickr

Meet Your Cubelets Units

My students are fascinated with Cubelets.  It would be easy to just dump the box of Cubelets on the floor and walk away for 45 minutes because they would use all of that time to explore.  Exploration time is great, and I definitely recommend it (maybe not for 45 minutes), but you won’t maximize the learning potential of these modular robots without offering the students some guidance and some carefully worded challenges.

Modular Robotics recently unveiled an updated version of its Cubelets lesson plans that can help teachers from PreK-12 find ways to make the most of Cubelets.  The lessons are not detailed, but they are perfect for any educator who is new to using Cubelets in the classroom and looking for how to introduce them to the students, and there are tons of ideas for taking it further.

If you are not familiar with Cubelets, here is a post I did that I included in my Makerspace Essentials list.  I don’t think that you should spend a lot of money on “things” for a Makerspace or a classroom, but if you can get a grant or have the budget Cubelets are one of the few products that I recommend purchasing.  They provide an endless supply of entertainment and education.

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image from GCPL on Flickr

Make it Snow in the Classroom with Scratch Jr.

I was invited to help a couple of first grade classes with Hour of Code activities last week, and thought that we would try using Scratch Jr.  I had a different lesson planned for our Friday morning (“Can I Make the Sun Set?”) – but then it snowed in San Antonio Thursday night.

For those of you in northern climes, snow may be somewhat unexceptional, but in San Antonio snow is pretty close to miraculous.  Many of my younger students had never seen snow in their entire lives, so it seemed only fair to change our Scratch Jr. lesson the morning following our unusual weather phenomena.

Most of the students in the class were as new to Scratch Jr. and programming as they were to snow.  I started the class with the BrainPop Jr. video I mentioned in last week’s post.  Then I used Reflector to demonstrate the Scratch Jr. interface on the classroom screen.  I talked about the meaning of “character” in Scratch Jr., and how it could be any object that you want to program to move in some way.  I showed them how to add a background.  I also demonstrated that they would need a “trigger” for their character such as the green flag, and how to program characters to move.  Then I gave them some time to explore.

After they played around a bit in pairs on the iPads, I asked for their attention so I could show them how to add a camera shot as a background.  This was something new I had learned last week, and it takes a bit of practice.  This video explains it well. (She is using the tool to make a character, but you can use it for a background as well.)

The students worked on taking pictures for the background.  Some chose the classroom for photos, and some chose themselves.  Their homeroom teachers and I definitely needed to give support to many students – especially when we realized the camera tool wasn’t enabled for Scratch Jr. on all of the iPads.

Once most of the students had backgrounds, I showed them how to add snow as a character.  They clicked on the + sign to add a character, and then the paintbrush icon to make their own.  After choosing the color white, I told them to make white dots all over with the tip of their finger.  It’s difficult to see the white dots on the white canvas, but after they click the checkmark at the top, the dots should show up on their background.

Students can move the white dots to the top of the background, and then program their snow “character” to move down when the green flag is triggered.  I showed them how to add higher numbers under the down arrow so the snow would reappear at the top and come down again if they wanted.

To make it look a bit more realistic, the students can add snow as characters several times, positioning them at different spots on the top to fill the screen with snow falling once the flag is tapped.

Another extension would be to teach the students the “bump” trigger so that when the snow hits another character, such as the Scratch cat, the character can say something, such as, “It’s snowing!”  You could also ask them if they can figure out a way to make the snow accumulate at the bottom of the screen.

There were various rates of success in the classroom for this project.  Some students got confused and added snow to the background instead of making it a character, and the camera tool required patience and practice.  However, there was a lot of learning going on, and great engagement.

This lesson could be another way to connect to the Snow Globe lesson that I have posted about in the past. . Hopefully, the students will now think of other ways to use Scratch Jr. for storytelling and creating in their classrooms and at home.

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Gifts for the Gifted 2017 – beanz

A few years ago, I thought I would help out the parents of my gifted and talented students by writing about some games, toys, or books that I thought might make good purchases during the holiday season.  I called the series of posts, “Gifts for the Gifted,” and I have continued to do it annually on every Friday in November and December.  These gifts are suggestions for any child – not just those who qualify for a GT program. Sometimes I receive a free product for review, but I am not paid for these posts, and I never recommend a product that I wouldn’t buy for my own child.  For past “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, you can visit this page. Also, you can see last week’s recommendation here.  And, if you want to see the more than 100 games and toys I’ve recommended over the years on my blog, check out my Pinterest board.

Despite the popularity of mobile devices and computers, I think that children still get a thrill out of getting something from a physical mailbox.  If your child is interested in making video games, reading about new technologies, and learning different programming languages, you may want to consider getting her/him a subscription to beanz, a monthly magazine about “kids, code, and computer science.”

beanz would probably appeal the most to children between 8 and 13 who are avid fans of reading and technology.  However, if you are a parent or teacher who wants to develop a child’s desire to create, this magazine could also be a huge resource for you.  This monthly periodical explains technical topics, such as coding with Python, in a way that any layperson can understand.  It gives a lot of examples, great graphics, and many suggestions for projects that children can do.

To me, it’s not just important for children to learn how to use technology responsibly but also to learn how to maximize technology’s potential for creativity and innovation.  beanz helps to inspire kids to use technology for making things – not just for consuming entertainment.

beanz is available online and as a print magazine.  You can view the latest issue here, but some articles are only available to subscribers. For $29.99/year, you can receive the print magazine and online access.  I think this is a great deal, but if you want to spend a little less you can opt for the $15/year online subscription.

For a unique gift that will delight any creatively “geeky” parent or child, you should definitely consider beanz!

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Scratch Jr., BrainPop, and PBS

When participating in Hour of Code in our GT classroom this week, the 2nd graders were introduced to the free Scratch Jr. app on our iPads (also available on Android and on the Chrome Web Store ).  Before we started exploring the app, I thought it would be good for them to learn a little bit about computer programming.  BrainPop Jr.  has a great free video that explains computer programming and some of the terminology.  As an added bonus, the sample screen in the video looks very similar to the Scratch Jr. interface, so this particular video was an excellent introduction to our lesson.

You can find Hour of Code lessons for Scratch Jr. here.  Additional lesson ideas can be found on the “Teach” tab of the Scratch Jr. site.  As I was looking up resources to use with my students, I also found this PBS site that includes lessons integrated with some of the popular PBS kid shows, as well as printable task cards.

Scratch Jr. works very well as a starting point for block coding for primary students.  My 2nd graders quickly found many “cool” things that they could do after about 10 minutes of exploration on their own.  Familiarizing themselves with this app will make the transition to Scratch (a web based program for computers that does not currently work on mobile) almost seamless.

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image from Wes Fryer on Flickr