Tag Archives: STEM

Sometimes We Just Need to Throw Out the Instructions

Quote from Randy Rodgers
Quote from Randy Rodgers

In his TCEA 2014 presentation, “Failure to Innovate,” Randy Rodgers stated the above quote, and I realized that it really says a lot about the problems in education today.  Our students are far too reliant on following directions, and so many are afraid to deviate in order to do some creative thinking.  I remember my daughter being the same with an old Lite-Brite we had inherited from a friend.  She loved it as long as there were papers she could stick on it to make the designs.  But as soon as we ran out of the papers, she didn’t know what to do.  When I suggested she make up her own designs, she looked at me like I was crazy.  As parents and teachers, we need to find ways to encourage creation, rather than only rewarding products that basically just prove our students know how to follow directions.

Even though I feel this in my heart, I still catch myself squelching innovation sometimes.  In our new Maker Studio, the students have a Little Bits station.  I downloaded task cards from the site that give suggestions for exploring the different parts.  Ten minutes after one group started with the task cards, I walked by the table to find the cards strewn about and various “Little Bits” being connected in the spirit of complete exploration.  I had to bite my logical, sequential tongue to stop from saying, “Wait!  But you didn’t do the task cards in order!  You didn’t even do the task cards!”  One of the few times my students didn’t consult me to find out what they were supposed to be doing, but dove in without fear, and I almost blew it!

If you’re looking for tools for innovation, check out Randy Rogers’ presentation, as well as his website.  He has a great list of all kinds of fabulous resources for those of us looking to bring more creativity into our classrooms.  A couple that I am hoping to add soon are: MakeyMakey and Hummingbird. (Watch the MakeyMakey video that shows bananas being played like a piano, and you’ll be sold, too!)

Whether it’s high-tech or low-tech, try to resist telling your students what to do with everything.  Sure, they need to know how to follow directions in certain situations.  But they also need to know how to lose them.

B.O.S.S. HQ is Now Open for Business

Working on our sign
Working on our sign



At the beginning of this school year, I found myself working next to an empty classroom.  I thought, “Hey, now we can spread out a bit more during Robotics Club meetings.”

In the meantime, I had been reading about the surge of Maker Spaces in libraries and schools.

I decided to move the gigantic executive desk I had inherited into the empty room to make more space in my classroom.  I thought, “Now that the top of that desk is cleared off, it looks like a great space to spread out a fun art project.”

I kept reading about Maker Spaces.

I’m not exactly sure when the idea hit me – probably in the middle of a Tae Bo workout, the usual time I get inspired.  Finally, I thought, “What if I make that empty room into a Maker Space?”

There’s not really a rule or blueprint for Maker Spaces.  Some are heavy on technology, with 3-D printers and such.  While others seem to lean more toward craft-type making, such as sewing.  The common thread, so to speak, seems to be that they are all designed with the idea that people need an inspirational place to create.  And, now, with so many requirements for what students must know, many feel we should offer them some outlets for their imagination.

When my students participated in the Global Cardboard Challenge near the beginning of the school year, I saw how completely engaged they were in “making.”  I knew I needed to reproduce that experience as often as possible.

Our PTA offers a grant to teachers.  I applied for some money for some materials for our Maker Space: Little Bits, Cubelets, Roominate, Goldiblox, Squishy Circuits, and Play-i.  We have a Green Screen and iPads (hoping to add a tripod and green screen software or app at some point). In addition, I had already bought a 3Doodler with my own money, and we have a proposal for a 3D printer on Donors Choose (not going well, so any donations greatly appreciated!).

My goal is to make this a place for the students – and not just my GT students.  So, in my proposal I suggested that my students would pilot the space this semester.  Next Fall, I will start a “Maker Club.”  And, hopefully, we will open the room for teachers to sign up their classes to visit.

The students voted on the name for the space.  They eventually settled on B.O.S.S. HQ.  That stands for “Building of Super Stuff HeadQuarters”, for those of you who have a hard time translating Elementary GT-speak 😉

This week was our “soft” opening.  We started with the Little Bits center.  I explained to the students that we are piloting this idea, and I’m not sure how it’s going to go.  One of the 3rd graders said, “So, we’re beta testing it?”  We’ve been doing that with some apps lately, and I guess the idea fits!

In my room, students “Level Up” for privileges.  Maker Studio is Level 3.  And not everyone has made it there, yet.  But you can bet there are going to be some fast risers in the next couple of weeks now that they’ve seen what’s in store for them!

By the time I left school today, 2 of my 4th graders had already shared their blog post with me on Google Docs about class today.

It concluded with, “Today in G.T was a good day to show the creative side of yourself.”

That pretty much said it all.

Here are a couple of resources about Maker Spaces if you are interested:  Invent to Learn, Making a MakerspaceMaking a Makerspace (Almost Finished), Maker Education: A Good Trend.  I also have a very new Pinterest Board on the topic.

A student works with the Little Bits kit
A student works with the Little Bits kit


from Modular Robotics
from Modular Robotics

So, weirdly, today’s “Gifts for the Gifted” post has to do with cubes – again.  If you have been reading my last few Friday posts, you may have noticed this pattern. It was not pre-determined, I promise.  In fact, when I realized the odd coincidence, I almost chose another product to review for today.  However, I am just too excited about this one to wait.

In a perfect world, every child would have access to a set of Cubelets.  I cannot emphasize enough the educational value of this modular robotics system.  And the absolute fun factor is best expressed by my 5th graders today, who got to test it out for the first time.  “It’s awesome!”  “I could play this all day!”

The magnetic Cubelets easily combine to create all sorts of robots.  Each robot must have a Battery Cubelet, but that is the only requirement. Using different Sense, Action, and Think Cubelets, you can design a robot that turns on a flashlight when the room grows dark, or sounds the alarm when the temperature gets too warm.  You can make a robot that flees from your hand or one that follows it.  There are infinite possibilities.  These little cubes contain lessons in systems thinking, logic, creative problem solving, programming, engineering, and collaboration all rolled into one hands-on, interactive set.

We were fortunate enough to receive a grant from our PTA to purchase the Standard Kit, which is a hefty $520.  The kit comes with 20 cubes, and really is almost perfect for a center for small groups of 4 or less.  We ordered an additional Battery Cubelet as the kit only provides one.  This way a couple of robots can be going at the same time.

If you want to start out smaller there is the KT106 Kit, which offers 6 Cubelets for $160. Or you can go whole hog, and buy the Educator Pack, which includes 4 KT106 Kits and a Standard Kit at the educator’s discount of $999.

You can also buy Cubelets individually if you see a need to add certain types to your collection.

So far, no kid I’ve put in front of this set has wanted to leave it.  Once they do some exploring and get the gist of each Cubelet’s capability, they eat up the challenges that are listed on the Educator page – and then start thinking of their own challenges.

This is a relatively new product. (Our box says “Beta Release” on it.) There is a community forum for suggestions, and I have a feeling educators, students, and parents will have many ideas. It’s definitely a work in progress with a great future. The Education page offers some Lesson Plans and Challenges, and I predict there will be more to come.

It was interesting to see the different ways my students, who voluntarily separated themselves into small groups by gender, initially approached the Cubelets.  The boys enthusiastically attempted to build things with them immediately, while the girls started by trying to identify and organize them.  The boys would start a challenge, but go off on tangents almost immediately with new ideas, while the girls preferred a more systematic approach.  In the end, however they all agreed on two things – the awesomeness, and the need for more time with them.

If you think that your budget might be a bit too stretched by Cubelets, I urge you to try to get some funding, as we did, from another source.  Cubelets are not a “flash in the pan” type product.  They have outstanding educational value, and you will not be disappointed if you purchase them.

Below: Video of my students creating a “conveyor belt” with some of the Cubelets.

(For my gift ideas, visit my Pinterest board.)


A young girl reacts to solving a challenge on cloudBoard

I’m a big fan of crowd-funding campaigns. I’ve already backed a few, and I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of these products (2 of which should appear on my doorstep in December!!!!):


Robot Turtles Game


I recently found out about a new Kickstarter project from Digital Dream Labs that looks very promising to use at school and at home.  It’s called cloudBoard, and it combines the physical and digital worlds in a unique way that could dispel some of the criticisms many have about the prevalence of technology in today’s world.

cloudBoard’s Kickstarter site explains the product best, but I will try to summarize. Basically, cloudBoard is a platform that includes a piece of hardware that interacts with digital games through the use of plastic puzzle pieces that can be inserted into a board as commands for the game.  It’s compatible with different types of mobile devices (Android and iOS) as well as Mac and Windows computers.  (Be sure to check out the “Compatible Devices” heading on their Kickstarter page to verify compatibility with your device.)

What sets cloudBoard apart from many other products currently available is not only its combination of the physical and digital worlds, but also the way that it fosters collaboration. When you watch cloudBoard‘s Kickstarter video, you will see the joy the kids experience as they work together to problem solve while they play.

I got the opportunity to talk to Justin Sabo, one of the co-founders of Digital Dream Labs, and was very impressed with his philosophy.  All you have to do is read this sentence from their Kickstarter page to know how Digital Dream Labs feels about education, “We founded Digital Dream Labs because we know that curiosity thrives when learning is intuitive and playful, but too many children have to resort to memorizing rules to get by (and who can say that memorizing is fun). ”

Justin also acknowledged the need for more girls to get involved in computer science, and mentioned that this was in the minds of the team as they worked on designing a gaming platform that would appeal to both genders.

The first cloudBoard game is “Cork the Volcano”, which teaches the basics of programming.  Some other games they have in the works are: a music game, an engineering game, and a chemistry game.  Even more exciting is that Digital Dream Labs is designing cloudBoard to be open platform, and wants other people to contribute their own games.

The deadline to back this project is December 10, 2013.  As with all Kickstarter projects, there are various levels for backing the project.  $129 gets you cloudBoard and the “Cork the Volcano” game, with an estimated delivery of August, 2014.

I urge you to check out cloudBoard.  It has great potential!

“Cork the Volcano”, the first cloudBoard game
cloudBoard with puzzle pieces and interactive game

More Coding Resources

I recently started dipping my toe into Twitter chats, and participated in a few regarding teaching kids how to code.  During these chats, I’ve come across a few more fabulous resources that I want to share with any of you who are considering the idea of teaching programming to kids.

from: "Why Children Should Learn How to Program"
from: “Why Children Should Learn How to Program”

I recently started dipping my toe into Twitter chats, and participated in a few regarding teaching kids how to code.  During these chats, I’ve come across a few more fabulous resources that I want to share with any of you who are considering the idea of teaching programming to kids.

Here is a free ePub book from Wes Fryer – Hopscotch Challenges: A Free Curriculum eBook for iPad Coders (You will need an ePub reader on your computer to view this.  I like Adobe Digital Editions, which is also free.)

Also, here are a couple of Google Docs:

First is an amazing Coding/Robotics Learning Continuum that is a Google Doc.  It was created by Verena Roberts (@verenanz), and shared with me through Margaret Powers (@mpowers3)

Another fabulous Google Doc is “Making the Case for CS in K8” from Patrice Gans (@reesegans).

Both of these are chock full of links to products, sites, and apps that support teaching kids basic programming skills.

If you are interested in participating in a Twitter chat about coding for kids, the #kidscancode chat takes place at 8 PM EST on Tuesday evenings.  This past week, it was co-hosted by the #patue chat.  It seemed to be quite a hot topic, because tweets were flying all over the Twittersphere!  As a relative newbie to chats, I had a bit of a hard time keeping up, but I learned a lot, and made some great new connections.

Not interested in chatting?  No problem.  I can hook you up with tons of additional resources.  E-mail me at engagetheirminds@gmail.com, or take a look at my Programming for Kids Pinterest Board.


Bo and Yana robots from Play-i
Bo and Yana robots from Play-i

Okay, I’m going to admit it right now.  I really want Bo and Yana.  The only reason I’m not featuring these guys in my “Gifts for the Gifted” series is that the earliest you will be able to receive either one is the Summer of 2014, which is a bit late for this holiday season. However, if anyone is looking to get me a gift for Independence Day, go ahead and put this on the list.

Bo and Yana are being offered by Play-i through a crowd-funding campaign, and the project has already met its goal.  But there are still 20 days left (as of today, Nov. 6th) for you to reserve one or both of these little guys.  Check out the video on Play-i’s site to find out more about these robots designed to help your child learn how to program with the benefit of a tablet interface or with Scratch or Blockly.

Play-i states that their mission is to “make programming fun and accessible for every child.”  I like that they show commitment to this promise by including an option for donors to contribute to a fund for low-income students to get access to their products.  What I also notice is that their video has several girls in it.  And, I am guessing that is by design because they feature this infographic on their blog:

How Girls Hold Themselves Back from Pursuing Computer Science [INFOGRAPHIC]This infographic by Play-i. Play-i is creating a programmable robot that teaches computer science to kids ages 5+ in a fun, accessible way. To get updates, sign up here.

I like what Play-i is trying to do, and I hope that they will be successful in their mission.

Design Squad

Design Squad

Recently, I did a post on Engineering for Girls Resources, and included Design Squad as one of the resources.  I realized, though, that Design Squad really deserves its own post, so here you go!

As Maker Education becomes more and more prevalent in schools, Design Squad, a product of PBS Kids, is the perfect website for finding projects for elementary aged children.  Similar to DIY.org, it has everything from “Hack a Greeting Card” to “Build a Blaster.”  There are videos and instructions galore.  You can choose by topics of interest, such as:  food, art, sports, etc…

Design Squad includes resources for Parents and Educators here.  There are lesson plans and other links for the adults who want to get kids involved in hands-on engineering projects.

The site features a “Top Builder” challenge.  Today, November 6th, is the deadline for the current challenge, “Newspaper Power.”  But you can always take a look at the Past Challenges, and find some great ideas for your classroom, club, or at home.

Kids can also take the “Build it Better” challenge, such as designing school supplies that work better or clothes that you can wear in any kind of weather.

To enter the challenges, kids will need a log-in, but the great thing is that the log-in does not require any personal information.  Once students are logged in, they can also offer feedback on the other designs that have been uploaded by awarding stickers to the ones that they like.

Design Squad is a great site for involving kids in creating and problem-solving.  Whether you are using it in your classroom, after-school, or at home, it is sure to offer you ideas that will keep students engaged and excited.

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