Friday, October 24, 2008

Matthew Dalton in the Maker's Shed Kit Building Area

Matthew Dalton worked Maker Faire in the Kit Building Area of Maker Faire Austin. He showed people how to solder, and helped them through the process of building the kits that they bought at Maker Faire. By helping people get familiar with the tools of electronics, he's teaching them so that they can work on electronics at their home doing the projects they want to do.

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Steve Davee Shows His Maker Notebook Projects

Steve Davee came to the nublabs Fab Lab at Austin Maker Faire 2008. He has been working on his Maker's Notebook, and shows some of the way he has modded the book and how he has used it as a way of storing and developing his ideas. He also talks about his experiences in education and how he is able to inspire kids to do amazing things. Steve is a teacher at the Opal Charter School in Portland Oregon.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Cultivating the Joy of Learning

Lately I have been thinking, both on and off the clock, about the school year ahead. As we go into the last weekend before school starts, I am mostly wondering "How Can I Cultivate the Joy of Learning?" The information that has been delivered to me has mostly been facts about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and what the lawyers need me to know. Most of this information has been delivered lecture style. There was some discussion about 21st Century Skills, how to become critical thinkers and effective problem solvers. That was the good stuff, and unfortunately was over within ten minutes. Most of the rest of the days were filled with smart people at the front of the room telling the audience what they needed to know.

When I go to a conference about a topic I find fascinating and important, I sit up front. When I go to a concert, I see the audience crush the stage. When I go to a meeting, I see empty rows in front of the room. In a classroom with optional seating arrangements, I see students with interest sitting in the front and goof offs in the back. What is it that causes these differences in seating arrangements? What causes the conference members to crush the speaker while the meeting attendees and students crush the back wall?

While I don't know the answers to these questions, I am very interested in helping people learn. As a person who dislikes lecture format information delivery as both a student or teacher, it is always important to me that other styles of teaching and learning have a chance.

Back when I was being trained as a teacher, we talked about the Teacher/Learner. It was expected of us that we knew some things and that we were committed to finding out more. We were trained to believe that our students knew about things that we didn't. We were not encouraged to always be The Smart Person at the Front of The Room. It was our responsibility to uncover the possibilities within our students and ourselves. As our students learned, so did we. We were facilitators in the construction of knowledge. The class that just left the room would have a different personality and set of interests than the one that was about to come in. Last semester would be different than next semester.

As I have taught, I have learned a great deal about the subjects in my classes. Often I have had, like I will this year, five completely different subjects in a semester. Eight different subjects in one year may be the greatest number, but even when I have had multiple classes of the same subject, the unique qualities of each collection of students brings out differences in the same subject.

So the school year looms large at the other end of this weekend. How can a mere mortal teach five different subjects, have each course contain meaningful learning experiences and be fun for both students and teacher?

Each class is filled with a group of individuals who most likely chose to be enrolled in this elective class. Since they chose, and since the class is an elective,unlike their math, social studies or English class, the people should be able to buy into working with the subject. Every person has interests, and every person knows of some issues that need to be addressed in the community.

Here is one recipe for making this work:
Build a Community of Learners
People need to get to know each other. People need to treat each other respectfully. We need to be committed to learning and sharing our knowledge with each other.

Assess the topic
We need to look widely at the topic and examine its components. For example, what is robotics? What is computer programming? What is building and repairing computers? How can a computer be used effectively and creatively? Making a publicly visible statement of the topic as the group understands it and working from there will give a good base.

Determine our level of understanding
Each group will come into the subject with unique perspectives and experiences. It is worth determining some of what we know and don't know as we embark on the learning experience.

Identify our interests in the subject
Each person will come into a subject with personal desires and agendas. Having these known up front to the group as much as possible will help the individuals move forward in the group community. In this area, it is worth noting that some people do not feel confident in speaking up about this part of the topic, and sometimes find themselves working on a project that they did not really buy in to. When group decisions are made, it is important that people not look back in unproductive regret on the choices of the group.

Name the public/external expectations of us as a community of learners
The learning group may have been given an expectation in the form of course description, behavior code, state curriculum frameworks, or other Fact based expectations. Name them early, and the group needs to commit that they will be adhered to. What are the facts that we will be expected to demonstrate at the end of this experience?

Create the base of knowledge we will need

Every time the learning group meets, the members of the group needs to build its base of knowledge. Each person needs to commit to learning about the subject in meaningful ways. This may involve there being a teacher from the ranks of the group who delivers information, or it may involve people working collaboratively helping and assisting each other. It may also involve independent study and work on projects.

Collaborate to make an enduring public artifact to represent our learning and promote the work we have done together
During the larger time frame of the learning environment, the group and its individuals need to collaborate to create some thing or collection of things that will help demonstrate what was learned. The external community needs to see and recognize the learning and achievement that has occurred within the learning environment. It is important that the learner's peers see what they have done. The elders in their community need to see and recognize and support what they have done and created.

This enduring public artifact should be documented and archived in easily retrievable ways such as web pages, online photos and video. The learners should present their work publicly in front of the people of their community. After the presentation of their work, the evidence of the work should remain so that their learning can continue to affect the interest and inspire the learning of others.

So this could work. Personally, I have been involved in each part of this process before, but not so much as a comprehensive whole learning approach. It may be that by using this approach, it could be refined and repeated in other communities of learners.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Idea Capture with Writing

One of the things that I do is to reflect on the things that I do and write them up. As I write, I get more questions, and more clarity. I consider you to be my collaborators in education at this point, and value your opinion. It may be that I raise questions and observations that you share as well. If that is the case, then it would be very helpful to have a dialogue.

In reading the grants that funded the program this year, I did see several references to growth of the program to other programs and other cities. If that is to happen, we must make a trail of information for future program leaders and participants to follow. If we are to recruit teachers and organizers into the fold, then we need to have something to point to so we can show them the way we think about teaching, learning, organizational structure and the topics we cover in the program. We cannot rely on oral history to spread the word of how the program works. At some point, there must be a manual of sorts written so that others can emulate the policies, techniques and community building that has gone on at SETC for so many years.

While it is very important for the youth leaders and participants to write about their techniques and experiences, it is also important and essential that the adult leaders find ways of writing accessibly about their beliefs and techniques of how these programs and systems work and don't. There really should be a place for the adult leaders and mentors to share their ideas, theories experiences and dreams about the programs. It could be a great benefit in ways that we can't quite see at this time. The writing does not have to be extensive, and can be pointers to the important work of others.

It is my belief that the more that is written, the better. The reasons for writing are several:

Writing helps you remember
If you write something in a trusted place where you know you can access it again, you can stop trying to remember it. Your system remembers it for you. You can use email conversations, which can be archived. You can put it online in a blog or wiki, and make sure that the account stays active for as long as you need it. You can write it in a notebook and hang on to the notebook for as long as you need it. You can use loose pieces of paper to write it on, and keep the paper as long as the information is valuable. Using the writing, you can come back to an idea hours, days months or even years later when you need the idea again.

Writing helps you think
As you write, new ideas and questions come to mind. These will give you a better understanding of the issues you face. It may be that the solution comes to you as you write, or you get a clearer view as you write about it. It may be that you come up with other parts of the issue show up in the form of questions to ask and find out about.

Writing saves you time
In the learning style we are advocating, participants get what they need when they need it. If somebody comes to you with a question and you have ten minutes, a half hour or an afternoon to answer it, then you do it right then. But what if people keep coming to you with the same question? It is better in that case for you to write it up and make it accessible. Then when people get in the habit of reading and researching in addition to speaking and using conversation to gather information, then they will come to you with better and more informed questions.

Writing can evolve as the ideas evolve
As people's beliefs, opinions and experience evolve with time, it is possible and advisable to go back and refine the written body of work. As ideas change, then they can be updated. If an idea becomes outdated, then it can be ignored and not read, or it can be rewritten to reflect the new thinking. Where the writing resides can make a difference to. It is possible to place greater or lesser prominence on it by showcasing it in various ways, like printing it out, putting it on the front page, quoting it in a blog entry and more.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Solar Panel simulator in Scratch

Learn more about this project

This is a project I have been cooking up this week to combine Solar Energy with Scratch. Scratch is a programming environment created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.

You can move the mouse over the left hand side to show a sprite which will allow you to adjust the brightness. If you have access to a Scratch Board, this script makes use of the light sensor on the board.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Fab Lab and Scratch Field Trip - Saturday Programming

On Saturday February 17, Tim Hovey and I took our Saturday Programming group on the road. The South End Technology Center (SETC) hosted us for the day, where we worked in the Fab Lab in the morning, then experimented with Scratch in the afternoon. We were met by Ed Baafi, who runs the Fab Lab portion of SETC. Ed introduced us to the lab and some of its possibilities. Mel King, who runs the South End Technology Center stopped by for a bit during the morning. Michael Nagle assisted the group in the Fab Lab. Amon Millner of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT worked with us on Scratch.

We ended up taking the T, but there was some kind of track repair and trains were not running on the usual tracks. Taking the train added at least 45 minutes to our travel time in. I guess that kids ride free on the train, so we actually saved a lot by not having to pay $50 for parking two cars. As it was, it ran $110 to bring the group in and feed them.

Mr. King was there for a few minutes, but I didn't get much of a chance to talk. Things were busy, kids were figuring out how to work the equipment and get what they needed. Nagle helped out with the late morning part of the day. There was a definite Creative Buzz in the room. The kids figured out their pecking order for who would cut on the laser. When Amon finished up his conference, he stopped by. When I left, Geoff and Amon were handling the lab and lockup.

The kids had a great time in the lab. They were all able to make things of their own design, starting with a cardboard product and working up to plexiglass when they had their design right. OpenOffice was new to most of them, making designs that are based on only lines was also a new concept. Kids tend to design stuff with color. The laser doesn't care about color, only line.

The scratch session was not as productive as I had hoped. They did figure out how to do a bunch of things, but we could have used about another hour to really get some product. The scratch boards don't work with the older version of the software on most of the machines. Most of the kids made accounts on the Scratch site, and saw how to find it by searching for scratch, top entry on the google search. They sounded like they would like to do some more experimentation with it. In about an hour and a half, they were getting the software to work and programming their animations to do what they needed. Alec did a demonstration on how to get the background to change. With headphones, they could hear the audio of what they were programming.

Angela tells me that the group dynamic was a bit off by her observation. She would have liked to work with more of a variety of kids. Two of them were spending too much time working together. I had to tell a some of the boys to moderate their behavior. These suburban kids really don't have their 'city faces' yet. They were excited.

On the whole, everybody agreed that it was a fun time, and they would all like to go back again. We will do some work with scratch at home and in our saturday sessions. I will also see about bringing them over to the high school to show them some of the possibilities there.

At this point, there are some parts of it that can and should be repeated with other groups:
We introduced new users to the lab. We showed some of the things that other people had done in the lab, such as some furniture made on the Shopbot and prototypes made on the lasercutter. We demonstrated the software tools of open office and CAM. All the participants had enough time to design at least one thing on open office draw, make a series of cardboard tests, with the lower settings, then a finished piece with the more powerful settings to cut in plexiglass. They had to measure their piece, and place the cut on a piece of plexi that had already been cut by other users. Some of them had the opportunity to make relatively complex designs by merging shapes to remove interior lines. The older kids made more representational pieces, alien, spaceship, star in a circle, while the younger participants were active in making shapes which had their names or other words etched onto the interior. Everybody was able to make something of their own imagining that they could carry a physical representation of out the door. They were universally interested in returning to the lab to make more.

Nagle's reference to Buzzing Creativity - Link

Scratch Website - Link
South End Technology Center Website - SETC Site

Ed Baafi runs the fab lab portion of SETC link
Mel King runs the South End Technology Center - link
Amon Millner works on the Fab Lab and Scratch projects at the Media Lab link
Alec Resnick is a senior at MIT, helped facilitate in the lab - link
Mike Nagle is an MIT grad, runs a summer camp in cambridge, will help facilitate - blog link and Camp link
Chris Connors is a technology and engineering teacher at Duxbury High School and cofacilitator of the Saturday Morning Programming Group - Connecting link and blog link
Tim Hovey is a programmer by profession and helped initiate the Saturday Programming group to fill an unmet need for teaching kids how to use the computer as a tool through programming.

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