Digital Learning Day – Flashback 2017

As Digital Learning Day came around in February I wondered if the distinction between digital and non-digital even exists.

I am old enough to remember when we actually celebrated an annual event called E-Day here in Phoenix, as part of the IABC. In the early 2000s, Business Communication then was pretty much analog, with smatterings of digital. Soon E-Day became passé.

Just seven years ago –a long time in Internet years! -at Salt River Elementary School, STEM had pushed its way through the door. Ed-Tech was a buzzword, as was digital learning. In my computer lab I was introducing students to Mars exploration, Robotics, VR and 3D Printing. With tremendous support from my colleagues at Salt River Elementary, Mrs. Decker, Mrs. Yurek, and Mr. Filhart –from Music, the Library and PE respectively – we created an entire day for this across K-6.

Today, digital learning encompasses almost every facet of what we do, whether it is in libraries or the gym. Online school has made the digital device a necessity, when it once was a nice-to-have. Platforms evolve, from Quizlet to Khan Academy; Grammarly to Google Classroom; Mindstorms to Scratch and so much more.  Students now create podcasts with a simple free AnchorFM app on a phone – intros, outros and all. Screencast-O-matic has taken the pain out of video-supported lessons for teachers like me, furiously posting them to Google Classroom. 

The VR glasses of yesterday are gathering dust on my shelf at Benjamin Franklin High school as the pace accelerates. Will Digital Learning Day become an archive of education too?

Team Lanka at Robotics Olympics in Mexico this week

Last July, our team went to to the kickoff  Robotics tournament in DC.

This year, the team’s expanded to include students from other schools in the country.

  • Students: Cong, Daniel, Felix, Hamza, Lasith, Navod, Sachin, Sherwin, and Syanthan.
  • Coaches: Shankar, Jekhan, Dilum, and Srimali

This is one impressive gathering of 170 nations. It is hosted by the ‘FIRST’ organization, which is the umbrella organization that holds 5 other robotics tournaments around the country, such as FIRST Lego League Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics for grades K-4, 4-8, 7 – 9, and 9-12 respectively.

I’ve worked with FIRST for the past 6 years, and met Dean Kamen, the founder, who’s one of the biggest STEM promoters I’ve ever known. He puts his money where his mouth is, a serial entrepreneur and educator who inspires youth across all ages. If you like to know how to get your school involved in robotics, or STEM, let me know.

 

10 STEM Vacation Ideas

It may be time to box up the microphone and the rocket, the robots and the VR headsets. But truth is, we could do a lot of interesting things related to science and technology during the long summer break.

So here’s what I am asking my students to do in July and August.

  1.  Become a ‘Maker’ – Build something. A tree house? Make a parachute out of a plastic bag, or a scarf, and a large eraser. Drop it from a balcony (or that tree house!) and change the way it lands.
  2. Create a Rube Goldberg device. Use scrap material, some dominoes, a tennis ball, a discarded cardboard tube, and a flower-pot… Watch this amazing example for inspiration
  3. Practice Coding. Work on a project at Code.org, or Scratch.Mit.edu
  4. Create a paper airplane or rocket contest. As we learned at the recent STEAM Night, some of the rockets that flew the furthest cost nothing, and were made of paper!
  5. Conduct a potato battery experiment! Two potatoes, a few nails, copper wire, and a light bulb from a flashlight. Ask an adult to download the steps here.
  6. Build a robot. Wrap a shoe box in tin foil. Add wheels and axles using bottle caps and skewers. For accessories like an antenna, and a probe, cut a coat hanger, and bend it into shape.
  7. Take up photography! Last year I taught a class using point-and-shoot cameras, and (the horror) phones! Figure out how depth-of-field, and back-lighting could enhance your pictures. No (Instagram) filters required.
  8. Write a short story! Try your hand at science fiction. Write your friends into the plot, and see where the story takes you! Check out these YA sci-fi authors
  9. Produce a skit. Before there was this thing called the Internet, we kids down the street created our own ‘drama.’ Find a friend who could help you co-write a short play about pollution, or landing on Mars.
  10. Build a solar oven. Start with a pizza box. Watch this video for inspiration! 

The day rockets flew!

Rockets soared at our school, on April 30th –the same day news broke of China’s plans to test a reusable launch vehicle, the ‘Long March 8.’ STEAM night was quite an experience, six years since we began on this journey.

Ours too were reusable, but they were built by students from Kindergarten upwards. Made of paper, drinking straws, Popsicle sticks, and rubber bands they traveled where no rocket had gone before on the basketball court. (One flew way out of our test range, covering 70 feet!) Most were powered by rubber bands. Some preferred to use wind power – blowing them out of the launch tube! The judges were quite impressed. Said Orbital ATK engineer, Monique Dalton of one model:

While most rockets flew pretty flat and straight, this one showed a curve visible to the naked eye of the sort of trajectory rockets take in space. It was as if this rocket really was on a mission delivering a payload.

This student’s rocket traveled 58 feet, 7 inches.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, is looking for ways to go beyond ‘reusable’ into mass production of rockets, just like GM does cars. Some day one of these kids will be in Mission Control –and I’m going to watch it from my rocking chair!

         

Note: Check out

 

Google’s drag-and-drop ‘Scratch’ doodle

As Google doodles become more interactive it’s fitting to see it launch Hour of Code with a drag-and-drop doodle. It’s their first Coding-based doodle. Have you tried it? It’s on today’s Google landing page.

Worth reading: A description by MIT’s Champika Fernando, who was on one of the 3 teams that built this doodle.

Hour of Code runs through this week, which is also Computer Science Education week, and the anniversary of 50 years of programming languages. Scratch was developed at MIT.

Another eclipse crowd-sourcing project captures sounds, not pictures

My wife and I were discussing the eclipse –her two-and-a-half year old Montessori students had been excited about it!– and wondered if animal behavior was being tracked.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I saw Ruben Gameros’ post today on FB about his participating in the Purdue University ‘sonic effects’ project. Their “huge, continental scale” project was to study how animals will respond to the solar eclipse. Using acoustic sensors (from Alaska to Puerto Rico) they invited citizen scientists to collect data –acoustic behavior of  birds, crickets, cicadas, and frogs.

Why record sounds? Purdue researchers are looking at if animals that are typically active during the day stop making sounds during an eclipse. Among other questions:

  • Are there patterns for birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, and even fish?
  • Are the changes in the circadian cycles different in coniferous forests, temperate deciduous forests, grasslands, and coastal ecosystems?
  • Is there a difference in behavior in the total eclipse zone compared to areas that are in the 90%, 80%, 70% and 60% or less zones?

Caltech had a different crowd-sourced project calling for eclipse-related animal behavior. It called for young scientists to make 3 observations during the event, and record it via a special App. It was supported by a teacher webinar, and a web-chat.

I wish students across the country would have been motivated to do more than look for the umbra and penumbra. Or dodge the event, entirely. (One school I know cancelled the viewing even after they ordered glasses.)

If only schools can be like this!

I just interviewed Kris Canekeratne, CEO of Virtusa, a 20,000-strong global business consulting and IT outsourcing company headquartered in Massachusetts. Among the many strands we talked about, I was fascinated by his take on learning, and how schools ought to be the ‘ignition’ for curiosity.

“Students have an innate proclivity to curiosity,” he says – no different how engineers are inherently curious, with problem-solving and design thinking as part of their skill set. If only we could design schools to be the spark plugs of knowledge! It’s time we began exposing students to Big Data, Nanotech, AI, user experience, and gamification, he says, instead of teaching them how to memorize material just to pass exams.

To this end, here’s an example of design-thinking class at a Charter School in Berkeley, California.

Solar oven Chili Cook-off returns as school winds down

For the second year, I’m holding the Solar Oven Chili Cook-off.

Nothing like bringing the school year to a close at the computer & tech lab, than something that does not involve batteries, software or screens. I think we have all had enough of that!

So let’s chow down and enjoy some class recipes!

  • Three 5th grade classes and three 6th grades will bring their own recipes and compete.
  • Next Tuesday’s temps should reach 105 degrees. The oven usually gets to 275 – 300 degrees, even without reflectors.
  • I’m bringing a Sri Lankan killer chili for those who dare!

Though this is the second annual Chili Cookoff, this is the third year of incorporating a solar oven project into my STEM curriculum, thanks to Solavore. We use the Solavore Sport ovens. In the picture, extreme right is Solavore founder and CEO, Ann Patterson.