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

Revisiting Makey Makey

I’ve written a lot about Makey Makey in the past, including recommending it in my “Gifts for the Gifted” series in 2014. (See all of my past recommendations here.) I recently visited their website, and noticed that there is a now a nice layout of lesson plans to use with this versatile tool. Some other ways I’ve seen people use it are as a Book Tasting tool and an Exit Ticket Data Tracker. My students used it for interactive onomatopoeia in one instance, and as a game controller for their Scratch games in our game design unit. There are plenty of ways to get creative with Makey Makey, and it’s very user-friendly. If you are considering integrating more Design Thinking into your classroom, a Makey Makey is an inexpensive way to encourage innovation and experimentation with your students!

image from Josh Burker on Flickr

Scan the World

One of the fabulous things about 3d printing is that so many files are open source and freely available on the internet. You can download the .stl, put it through whatever your preferred slicing software is (such as Cura or the one that came with your 3d printer), and you have your own version. Now, you have access to 18,000 .stl files for ancient sculptures and artifacts through the “Scan the World” project. This was no small task. “Scan the World” partnered with Google Arts and Culture and museums around the world to get scans of their treasures – sometimes using drones to take pictures of larger sculptures on exhibit. You can read more about the project here. View the extensive archive hosted by MiniFactory here.

Roman Marble Head – one of the many artifacts you can now 3d print, thanks to Scan the World

PlayForge

My family and I recently took a trip to Colorado. On our way to our VRBO in Colorado Springs, we stopped in the lovely town of Littleton. Walking down Main Street, we saw many fun shops and boutiques, but it was a Monday and several were closed. I was drawn to one sign, “PlayForge,” and peeked in the windows to see a darkened shop that seemed to sell board games. Disappointed the store wasn’t open, I continued walking down the street, but I kept glancing back.

The next morning, I was doing my daily scan of my Twitter feed, and couldn’t believe the second Tweet that I read was about PlayForge. (Knowing the far reach of social media these days, I suppose I should not have been surprised.) The Tweet was from one of the owners, Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer), and I realized I was going to have to return to Littleton to visit this amazing space. PlayForge had only recently opened, and it seems my initial attraction to the spot was more intuitive than I had realized.

You see, Jesse Stommel is an educator. He and his husband opened PlayForge as a retail store, but also a makerspace. With their adorable 4-year-old daughter, Hazel, as inspiration, they created a game store where children are welcome, and they will eventually be offering classes on game design where kids and families can make products using the store’s 3d printers, laser cutters, vinyl cutter, and other tools.

At PlayForge, you can find games for all ages, a classroom area with tables and a giant digital screen, and a room with accordion doors that can open out to the sidewalk so making can happen for everyone to see. Families will absolutely adore this unique business. Jesse, co-author of An Urgency of Teachers, and an experienced educator, is committed to helping children to love playing and making games.

So, yes, we made it back to Littleton on a day the store was open, and I got to meet the family and get a tour. We bought a couple of games that I thought I might be able to fit in my suitcase, and Hazel the Store Manager took a break from her jigsaw puzzle to scan them for us at the checkout.

If you live in Littleton, you should treat yourself by visiting PlayForge at 2420 W Main St. in Old Town Littleton, CO. You can find store hours and contact info here. You can also follow them on Twitter @PlayForgeGames. You can also listen to an 8-minute interview with Jesse and @reddy2go about the store here.

If you live in San Antonio… hey we need a place like this! I don’t have any money to invest, but I would be a great consultant and maker space teacher!

May the 4th be With You

May 4th, known by many as “Star Wars Day,” is quickly approaching. Don’t worry if you haven’t prepared because a few Jedi educators have got you covered. One of them is Laura Moore, of the Learn Moore Stuff blog, who has a bit of an affinity for Star Wars as you may deduce from her website design. She has provided May 4th resources for a few years, which you can find here.

Shannon Miller, host of The Library Voice, has some May 4th choice boards with a galaxy of activities to choose from. Amy Cowen of Science Buddies has a list of engaging STEM activities, including light saber paper circuit cards, in her article. Another great roundup can be found on Tech and Learning.

Oh, and you know all of those posts I’ve published about philosophy for kids lately? Turns out quite a few people have their own philosophical interpretations when it comes to Star Wars. There are even some life lessons in The Mandalorian

Art Together Now

I’ve written about the OK Go Sandbox before on this blog. For STEM and STEAM teachers, this is a fabulous website provided by the incredibly creative and gifted band, OK Go, to suggest lessons inspired by their music videos. Those videos – masterpieces of science, music, and cinematography – are fascinating to listen to and watch in and of themselves. But combine them with hands-on activities designed to explore topics such as physics and color theory, and you have lessons that are sure to engage your students.

Somehow I missed the band’s release, last year, of their “All Together Now” video, produced near the beginning of the pandemic as each of the members remained isolated in their own homes. They dedicated it to the healthcare workers on the frontlines, and paired it with a challenge to create collaborative art to express gratitude for someone. Curated under the hashtag, #ArtTogetherNow, the art would be posted to this website gallery.

The lyrics of the song mourn the loss of what we had come to expect in our world, but offer hope in the chorus that we will eventually emerge from this crisis transformed – perhaps for the better.