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Category: Australian Teacher Standards

STEM Connections – Building a Professional Learning Network (#primarySTEMchat)

This article was originally written in collaboration with Rachael Lehr (@rachaellehr ) for the 2019 STEM X Academy cohort, on behalf of the Australian Science Teachers’ Association. I’m republishing it here with Rachael’s permission.

For more information about STEM X, please visit https://asta.edu.au/programs/stemx

For many of us arriving at STEM X, we are one of the few, if not the only, educators in our schools with a passion and interest in STEM. We are the ‘lone wolves’; and at times this can be a lonely and frustrating experience. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The concept of a Professional Learning Network, or PLN, has been around for some years. It is founded on the idea that “We are better together”; that in order to help us be the best teacher we can be, we want to continually improve our practice and be lifelong learners. Creating an online PLN of passionate educators interested in STEM is a great way of doing this. 

In a constantly changing technological world, the STEM learning landscape is always shifting, and through a connected online world, we can keep abreast of these new developments. It is rare for a teacher to ever have a unique teaching idea that hasn’t been based on something already done; and through an online PLN we can share and improve on others’ ideas that will enhance our practice, giving credit where it is due. 

When we share our teaching ideas and our students’ learning through various online platforms, we provide our students with an opportunity to showcase their learning, and connect with real world experts beyond the classroom walls. This helps us as teachers to be focused on creating truly engaging and authentic lessons that we would be proud to share. With the focus on STEM learning being about ‘real-world’ problem solving, belonging to various social media platforms often provides inspiration for these real world problems that students can address.

As connected educators, our online personal learning networks have empowered us to reflect on and improve our practice over the years. We use different social media platforms and online events to access specific and targeted professional learning. We use our networks to ask questions, seek inspiration, and find new ideas – anywhere, any time. There have been times where we’ve participated in online events in our PJs – in one memorable case, at 3AM in the morning.

Engaging in online networks has enabled us to form connections and friendships with educators around Australia and around the world. These connections have allowed us to meet, work, and present alongside our online colleagues face-to-face. We like to focus on our students developing 21st Century Skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication and through being involved in online PLNs we can build and model these skills for our students.

 

Where to begin?

By just being selected for the STEM X Academy, you have become a member of one of the most vibrant and influential STEM professional learning networks in Australia. Use your time together to connect, swap stories, and follow each-other on social media. These connections can make a real difference in years to come.

The following social media platforms and resources might be helpful as you start out on your connected educator journey. As connected educators, we use a range of platforms for different purposes. In order to avoid being overwhelmed, we would recommend you start out with just one or two, ideally Twitter.

Twitter

You can use Twitter to connect with Australian and international STEM experts and scientists in the field, and to keep up to date with ongoing science exploration missions – from the Amazon rainforest, to Antartica, or beyond Pluto with the New Horizons team.

You can also follow conference events, and join online chats using hashtags like #STEM #STEAM #STEMed #STEAMedu #DESTEM and chat hashtags like #aussieED #21cEDChat #PrimarySTEMChat and then connect with educators who participate. Look for passionate STEM educators and follow people they are following.

STEM Educators Twitter List – https://twitter.com/rachaellehr/lists/primarystemchat

 

Twitter Chats

  • #21cEDChat Tuesdays 9:30 AEDT hosted by @ScitechPL and guest hosts
  • #PrimarySTEMChat Thursdays 8:30pm AEDT hosted by @rachaellehr and @aidancornelius
  • #aussieED Sundays 8:30pm AEDT hosted by @aussieEDchat @MRsalakas @ZeinaChalich @hollis_k_ @madgiemgEDU

Join in live or contribute your ideas after. These chats generally follow to process of a question being posted every 10 minutes and participants respond with their answers at the time. Chats can get quite busy so using an app like Tweetdeck is incredibly helpful. This allows you to follow the host and the hashtag in columns and assists in keeping up with the conversation.

#PrimarySTEMChat creates a story of the chat after and @rachaellehr posts this to her Twitter feed and this is great way to review everything that is shared during the chat in your own time. These are also available via Wakelet https://wakelet.com/@RachaelLehr1293

 

Instagram

Instagram hashtags work similarly to Twitter. You can choose to follow hashtags, or search for, and follow STEM teachers in your areas of interest -e.g. robotics.

 

Facebook Groups & Communities

STEM Teachers Australia – https://www.facebook.com/groups/1466726270300197/

 

Blogs

Top 100 STEM Blogs & Websites 2018 https://blog.feedspot.com/stem_blogs/

 

Pondering Dan @ponderingDan

http://www.ponderingdan.com/

 

Teaching with Game @claireseldon_ed

https://goo.gl/aBWjch

 

STEM in Primary @steminprimary

https://steminprimary.blogspot.com/

 

Global Education STEM @STEMigo

https://globaledstem.wordpress.com/

 

Podcasts

STEAM Up the Classroom – Tori Cameron

https://www.steamuptheclassroom.com/

 

MOOCs

Joining MOOCs can open connections with participants from around the globe.

STEM is everywhere https://www.class-central.com/course/independent-stem-is-everywhere-12074

CSER University of Adelaide Digital Technologies MOOC

https://csermoocs.adelaide.edu.au

 

Connect with Us

 

Michael @mgraffin

Michael Graffin is a STEM and Robotics specialist working in Mosman Park, WA. He is an International Society for Technology Education Emerging Leader and STEM X 2018 Alumni. Michael works with classroom teachers to design, teach, and assess integrated STEM projects. He specializes in LEGO robotics, with a particular emphasis on FIRST LEGO League and FIRST LEGO League Junior. He has presented on PLNs, global connections, STEM, and robotics at conferences in Australia, Qatar, and the USA. He blogs at http://blog.mgraffin.com.

 

Rachael @rachaellehr

Rachael Lehr is a science specialist and digital technologies lead teacher in Perth, WA, where she teaches science with a strong hands-on inquiry and STEM focus. She embeds digital technologies into her science program, as well as assisting class teachers with using digital technologies authentically in their classrooms through coaching and in class demonstration lessons. Rachael also teach students coding, runs a Minecraft club and is passionate about engaging girls in STEM fields and hosts an after school STEM club for the senior girls. Rachael is a co-host and founder of #PrimarySTEMChat – a weekly Twitter chat focused on various topics surrounding STEM.

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Inquiry Learning & The Engineering Design Process in STEM

18 months ago, I had the privilege of attending the prestigious STEM X Academy in Canberra. In January 2019, I was one of four STEM X Alumni invited to return to Canberra, with the job of mentoring the Primary Teachers’ cohort, and sharing my experiences post STEM X 2018. It isn’t often that you can say you get to live a ‘once in a lifetime experience’ twice.

I had planned to write a whole series of posts about the STEM X Academy, but life and work got in the way – it wasn’t an easy year.

So, a year and a half later, its time to have another go at sharing what I learned.

Inquiry & Problem-Based Learning Pedagogical Approaches

Structured Inquiry, Controlled Inquiry, Guided Inquiry and Free Inquiry

From “Personalized Learning Using the Types of Student Inquiry” by Trevor MacKenzie.

STEM: “A Way of Thinking and Doing”

Writing for the ISTE Empowered Learner Magazine in July 2018, I argued that “STEM is fundamentally a way of thinking and doing, an opportunity to explore and pose solutions to real-world problems using design thinking and the engineering process”. For us, inquiry learning and the engineering design process are central to the development and implementation of meaningful STEM projects.

From our experience and research evidence, effective STEM / inquiry learning projects:

  • Place equal emphasis on the learning process and the curriculum content.
  • Are built on effective formative assessment of students’ prior knowledge and skills, and explicit teaching of key curriculum concepts and skills before and during the STEM process.
    • These concepts and skills may come from multiple learning areas – e.g. Science, Geography, Technologies.
  • Promote a culture of curiosity, wonder, and questioning, by both teachers and students. In this environment, teachers need to be comfortable being lead learners.
  • Where feasible, offer students the opportunity to connect with real-world experts in relevant fields.
  • Give students a voice in their learning e.g. negotiating inquiry questions around a central theme, or giving students a choice of differentiated options for presenting their learning.
  • Enable students to actively and collaboratively construct understandings through hands-on learning experiences, shared research, and sharing their learning in different ways, including constructing prototypes.

 

 

Here are some examples of what STEM is starting to look like in our school:

 

Year 3 “Mission Moon” (Junior FIRST LEGO League, 2018)

The Junior FLL Challenge has proved to be a fantastic & relatively cheap ($30/kit inc shipping) introduction to inquiry learning in the early years. Through the Junior FLL process, students participate in a guided inquiry, investigating and designing solutions to real-world problems relating to the theme. We have now had classes participate in the AQUA Adventure (2017 – water conservation) and Mission Moon (2018 – lunar colonisation) challenges. This year, we’ve heavily adapted and improved the Aqua Adventure challenge as our Year 2 STEM unit; and my Year 3 colleague is keen to participate in the 2019 BoomTown Build Challenge – which will focus on problems relating to sustainable cities.

The Mission Moon project, which required students to design and build a LEGO Moonbase, was hands-down one of my all-time favourite STEM projects that I’ve run at this school – and it was a big hit at our community STEM Expo in Term 4, 2018.

 

Year 5 “Mission Mars” (2018)

This was our first attempt at integrating LEGO Mindstorms robotics into a classroom STEM project. We used the Mission Mars LEGO Challenge and adapted the provided project ideas to suit ourselves. We started the project using the question generation process I learned at the STEM X Academy. Students brainstormed questions relating to broad problems that would face a human expedition to Mars, including food production, space medicine, physical exercise in space, and dealing with isolation on long-duration missions. In groups, the students narrowed down their questions to pick a topic and problem of particular interest to them. Many teams were curious about food production on Mars, and one team opted to explore space medicine and surgery. Documenting their research and learning process in STEM journals, teams went on to build physical prototypes of their solutions, which they shared at our first Junior School STEM Expo in Term 4, 2018.

We are planning to rework this unit of work for Semester 2, 2019 – either focussing it on the establishment of a lunar colony or looking at human space exploration more generally.

Ongoing Projects (2019)

Year 3 Underground Mining Robots (LEGO WeDo)

The majority of our Year 3 cohort are familiar with LEGO WeDo robotics programming, in terms of being able to build the base robot and make it move forwards and backwards. This year, we taught the students how to program the distance and tilt sensors using Scratch (with the new LEGO WeDo Bluetooth extension); and offered the groups the opportunity to work out how they could engineer improvements to the base robot to meet the miners’ needs. As a result, we have groups working out how to ensure mining robots can travel over uneven ground, transport equipment and/or mined materials using carts, and provide protection and seating for miners travelling underground.

Year 5 Bushfire Project (2019)

In preparation for the Term 3/4 Space Exploration STEM Challenge, the Year 5 teachers and I are trialling a differentiated inquiry project focussed on Bushfire Safety. In this project, students can demonstrate their learning about bushfire safety in three different ways:

  1. Design and build a prototype fire alarm system using Micro:bit that activates in response to an emergency radio broadcast sent out by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services WA.
  2. Design and construct a prototype bushfire prepared house, with a bushfire emergency response plan.
  3. Design and present a public awareness campaign video, Keynote presentation, or Scratch game about Bushfire safety.

 

References

Lutheran Education QLD, (n.d) https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/1360/lutheran-education-queensland-inquiry-based-learning.pdf

Victorian University Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning (n.d). https://ciel.viu.ca/scholarly-teaching-practice/viu-council-learning-and-teaching-excellence/2016-2017-council-action-groups/types-inquiry

 

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The STEM X Academy – Day 1

Let’s not mince words:

The STEM X Academy was a once in a lifetime learning experience.

 

In late 2017, I received a wonderful surprise – receiving word that I was one of just 70 Australian teachers selected from 390 applicants to attend the 2018 STEM X Academy in Canberra.

The STEM X Academy is a five-day residential teacher professional learning program run by the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA), in partnership with Questacon and CSIRO. Its appeal lies in its unique emphasis on empowering participant teachers by teaching them how to design, develop and implement their own STEM-based teaching resources, rather than presenting them with a pre-made package of activities (http://asta.edu.au/programs/stemx).

In preparing my application, I reflected on the professional hurdles I faced last year, and particularly my approach to integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM). 2017 was an experimental, learning year, but I felt like something was missing. I was the STEM Coordinator in a girls’ school, yet I wasn’t confident in my understanding of what STEM is, and how to teach it effectively.

So, in the second week of January, I flew to Canberra, joining 18 other Western Australian teachers attending the #stemx18 Academy. Many of us met at the airport, flying via Sydney on the smallest (and bumpiest) plane I’ve traveled on to date. We were lucky. Due to extreme heat and a broken baggage system at Sydney Airport, some STEM Xers arrived without their luggage, and others missed flights and were rerouted via the Gold Coast 🙁

Upon our arrival, we settled into our (terribly overheated, non air-conditioned) accommodations at Bruce Hall at Australian National University, and participated in some icebreaker games.

Day 1

We were up bright and early for breakfast on Day 1. Most of us hadn’t had much sleep due to the lack of air conditioning in our rooms, and jetlag wasn’t helping much either. Lack of sleep would become normal over the course of the week!

As primary teachers, we spent our first day at the CSIRO Black Mountain Laboratories, where we worked with the excellent CSIRO Education Team to explore and participate in an inquiry-based approach to teaching STEM.

Our base at @CSIRO Black Mountain Laboratories

We started the day exploring the Global Megatrends identified in the Australia 2030 Report, which attempts to outline the global challenges and future scenarios we may face in the coming decades. These megatrends can provide a framework for student inquiry and investigation into real-world problems.

We also had a brief insight into the current research areas at the CSIRO.

Future Scenarios Project

Our first major CSIRO learning task saw us split into teams, with each team assigned a global megatrend to explore and design a solution for. Our team worked with CSIRO Education expert Emily, and Dr Ashmita, a CSIRO Senior Research Scientist specializing in ecohydrology. In my understanding, her research focusses on the relationship between land use and the health/management of water systems.

Photo credit – Olivia B

Using an open inquiry process, we brainstormed questions and potential areas for our inquiry, choosing to categorizing them under global, regional, and local contexts. We were challenged to narrow down our inquiry to one quality question we could research and take action on. This was a harder and more complicated process than I had realised.

After extensive discussion, we decided to focus on the use of robotics and digital technologies for improving irrigation efficiency in agricultural crop production. We ultimately prototyped a mobile phone app, which would use data from ground moisture sensors and weather data to help farmers improve the efficiency of their crop irrigation practices. The sensors and weather information already exist, but we wanted to try and present the data they provide in a more practical and useful way on a mobile device.

After several frantic hours of intense collaboration, we pitched our idea and mobile app prototype to the rest of our primary group.

We ended the day with a visit to the CSIRO Discovery Centre, followed by a dinner back at the Australian National University. The highlight of the evening was a science show by Dr Graeme Walker, featuring vacuum cleaner bazookas, putting a doll’s head in a vacuum chamber, and blowing teddy bears sky high using compressed (and explosively released) liquid nitrogen! We were exhausted, but it was quite a show!

 

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2017 in Review: Teaching Amazing Girls

As 2017 draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to look back on what learned this year.

Designing and testing STEM Projects

Learning about the water journey through Junior FLL

I spent the 2017 school year trying to develop a meaningful personal understanding of effective STEM teaching practice and projects, testing out some ideas and approaches in both collaborative and specialist teaching contexts. We ran some promising experiments with the use of robots to teach basic maths concepts (angles, measurement of distance) in the early years. I particularly enjoyed collaboratively teaching our first Junior FLL AQUA ADVENTURE season in Year 2. I also experimented with teaching marble runs (Year 4), cardboard automata (Year 5), and Scratch storytelling and game design (Years 5 and 6).

Overall, I learned some positive lessons this year.

  • Effective STEM projects are hands-on, collaborative, and underpinned by the design process. Students need time to tinker with ideas and materials, before applying their learning and conceptual understandings to design, build, and refine a solution to a problem.
  • Specialist STEM rotations are a fantastic way to teach foundational Design/Digital Technologies concepts and skills, but for this to make a real difference, students need more opportunities to apply their learning in other curriculum areas – for example, providing students with the opportunities to explain Science concepts using a Scratch animation.
  • Next year, I’d like to try and explore opportunities to better integrate my STEM and robotics projects with other curriculum areas. I am also keen to improve my teaching of design thinking and the design process.

The Tinkering Studio @ The Exploratorium

One of the highlights of my year was spending six weeks touring the USA, where I attended ISTE in San Antonio TX, ran a Scratch game design workshop in Chicago, and visited The Exploratorium in San Francisco. This trip was a priceless opportunity to visit friends old and new, and my visits to one of the world’s greatest science discovery museums in San Francisco were particularly valuable. I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Wilkinson, the Director of the Tinkering Studio, and touring their work and tinkering space.

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The Tinkering Studio felt like the spiritual home of the maker movement, and their book – The Art of Tinkering inspired our experimentation with Cardboard Automata (mechanical toys), marble runs, fused plastic fabrics, and marble runs when I returned home. The Automata project was one of the hardest yet most rewarding STEM projects I have facilitated to date, resulting in a significant growth in students’ understanding of mechanical principles and the design process.

I was also fascinated by the major Cardboard sculpture exhibition in The Exploratorium, and I hope to explore the possibilities of guided, large-scale cardboard construction in 2018.

 

Coaching RoboCup Junior

From March to August 2017, I helped coach two former students through their first RoboCup Junior Dance competition. One of the best aspects of RoboCup Junior is its emphasis on the learning process, especially its recommendation that participants maintain a robot design journal or engineering log. This journal, while not compulsory, proved to be one of the best things we ever did, and the girls went on to win Second Place Secondary Dance at the WA State Tournament.

I took a few big takeaways from RoboCup Junior, which I hope to better implement into our robotics program next year

  1. Explicitly teach the engineering design process & how to keep an engineering journal
  2. Build your own robots – not something you’ve found in a book. You learn so much more this way.
  3. Remember to have FUN! (Even when your team drops and destroys the robot an hour before the practice tournament).
  4. Tournaments are fantastic networking and learning opportunities for the children (as well as the coaches). The more time they spend talking to and sharing ideas with other teams, the better.

 

An epic FIRST LEGO League season

In the latter half of the year, my life felt like it revolved around preparations for the FIRST LEGO League “Hydrodynamics” season. In our second season, we once again fielded two teams – “No Signal” and the “Robotic Rebels”. Our goals for this season were to improve our robot design, engineering documentation, and raise the standard of our project research and solution. We invested more hours (mostly on weekends) than I’d care to admit, and while our robot games were a demoralizing disaster, the girls performed remarkably well overall. One team won the Project Presentation Award, and the other, against all expectations, won the Regional Championship Award. We flew to Sydney in early December for the National Tournament – which was an eye-opening learning experience.

The Hydrodynamics FLL season is one that I will remember for many years to come, and not just because we brought home some really nice LEGO trophies. I’ll remember it for the girls I coached, and the lessons we learned during the course of the season. Perhaps the most significant of these is that the FLL Core Values matter. 

In my estimation, we fielded two of the top 5 teams in our regional tournament, but the one which qualified for the national competition was the team which fully embraced, and communicated their experience with the FLL core values. During the year, and especially in the first few weeks of the season, these girls seriously struggled to work together, let alone be kind to each other. We did a few core values activities, had a few rather blunt conversations about teamwork … and gradually, I saw signs of real change. It was extraordinary to watch their transformation over the course of the season. It was an insight into the true spirit of FLL, and one which I will treasure.

Some of our other takeaways

  • While we made significant strides in our engineering documentation and robot design, consistent robot performance was a major issue. At nationals, we learned to use a minimum of two sensors at all times, with the wall being a sensor. While we were making extensive use of wall squaring and line align techniques, differences in the competition table contributed to inconsistent robot performance. Using a touch sensor to confirm we had hit the wall would have been helpful.
  • At nationals, we were lucky enough to receive a masterclass in advanced robot and attachment design from Project Bucephalus, one of the best teams in Australia. We were really intrigued by the possibilities of having a small base robot and large-scale attachments which could complete multiple missions in one run. This is something we will endeavour to explore further next year.
  • We made fantastic improvements in the project research component, but designing innovative solutions to the problems is something we will work on next year. We have started teaching design thinking skills this year – and hopefully, the girls will be better prepared for this component by the time we start our 2018 season.

Teaching Amazing Girls

So, in closing, I’d like to dedicate this post to the amazing children I taught this year, especially my Scratch addicts and my FLL robotics girls. Your passion, and willingness to share your learning with your peers and myself gave me a reason to push through and try out new ideas. I’d also like to thank for my (now former) Principal, who inspired me through her words and actions to become a better teacher. In a year of massive change within our school community, your example and leadership were greatly appreciated.

While there are more significant changes on the horizon, I hope 2018 will be a better year.

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Empowering girls’ learning & creativity through @Scratch #scratched

Over the course of the 2017 school year, my approach to teaching Scratch changed dramatically as I came to better understand how to support my girls’ learning and engagement with Scratch visual programming.

As I have previously explored here and here, my students thrive on challenging, authentic visual programming tasks which focus on storytelling and game design. One of my professional learning goals this year was to bring my students’ up to the year level C standard for visual programming, assessed against the WA version of the Digital Technologies Curriculum. I also set out to develop a scope and sequence of Scratch skills and assessment tasks for each year level.

We made a great deal of progress, although at times, I felt like a victim of my own succcess. In addition to our classroom projects, it was not uncommon for students to spend many happy hours in their own time exploring and building Scratch projects of all kinds. In addition, my lunchtime Scratch club proved to be so incredibly popular that I had to split it across two sessions due to overwhelming demand.

So, as the year draws to a close, I thought I might share what I’ve learned, and take this opportunity showcase my students’ learning and creativity in Scratch.

Our Scratch Progression (A Work in Progress)

YEAR 3

Various storytelling and simple animation projects using Scratch Junior on iPads. Scratch 3.0, to be released sometime next year, will no longer require Flash, and will be iPad friendly. I can’t wait to use it with my students!

YEAR 4

Projects: Animations, Storytelling, Maze Games

Skills / Teaching Points

  • Create and edit sprites in Scratch
  • Create and edit backdrops
  • Use the switch backdrops control block to switch scenes/screens (instead of a strange combination of key presses to progress a story)
  • Script and code a conversation between two sprites
  • Explicitly teach how to use the arrow keys to make sprites move, eg. through a maze.
  • Use repeat blocks to repeat a sequence of steps (e.g. a dance)
  • Informal introduction to IF/THEN branching and use of clickable buttons to enable user interaction with stories or games

Relevant Scratch Tutorials

  1. Getting Started with Scratch
  2. Animate Your Name
  3. Let’s Dance
  4. Make it Fly
  5. Fashion Game
  6. Hide & Seek Game
  7. Create a Virtual Pet
  8. Create a Story

Example Projects

(Note: You may need to enable Flash in your browser to view these.)

 

YEAR 5

Projects: Choose Your Own Adventure Stories, Character Animation, Simple Games, Teach/Explain/Model a Concept (2018), Scratch Geometric Art (2018?)

Skills / Teaching Points

  • Explicitly teach use of flowcharts and IF/THEN, IF/ELSE control blocks (branching)
  • Explicitly teach how to use coordinate position to control sprites location on the screen, and arrow key movements (up/down, left/right).
  • Introduce use of sensing blocks to detect colour or other sprites (essential for game design)
  • Explicitly teach how to use Broadcast and Receive blocks (better to do here than in Year 6).
  • Encourage experimentation with Pen tool, variables, operator blocks, and user input sensing blocks (e.g. question and answer)
  • Experiment with the use the random operator block to affect my sprite’s movements and position on the screen

Relevant Scratch Tutorials

  1. Race to the Finish
  2. Hide & Seek
  3. Catch Game
  4. Create a Pong Game

Example Projects

YEAR 6

Project Ideas: Game Design (In-depth), Storytelling, Quizzes, Scratch Art

Skills/Teaching Points

  • Reinforce appropriate use of IF/THEN branching, Broadcast and Recieve event blocks
  • Explicitly teach how to use sense, IF/THEN, and operator blocks to create quizzes, games, and stories which require user input through the use of clickable buttons and text entry – catering for multiple possible answers.
  • Explicitly teach use of Pen and Data (variable) blocks.

Game Design Resources

I created a Scratch game design website for my ISTE presentation in June. Please take the time to explore, and feel free to share it with your networks – http://bit.ly/scratchgamedesign17.

 

Example Projects

 

A Quick Note on Scratch Educator & Managed Student Accounts

Scratch now has Education accounts, allowing teachers to create user accounts for their students without the need for email addresses. We created Scratch accounts for our students based on their anonymised usernames for another site and taught them how to protect their online identity when participating in the online Scratch community. Despite one or two teachable moments, overall our girls really appreciated receiving constructive feedback from other Scratchers – both within and beyond their school.

While our experience with managed student accounts was broadly positive, they are a nightmare to manage and transfer at the end of the school year. If I were to create student accounts over again, I’d create Scratch classes for each Year/Grade Level – e.g. Year 5 2017. At the end of the year, the class can then be renamed, and new students added. Students are taught to add their projects to Scratch Studios, although I will need to think through a proper naming convention for these as well – as they are visible to all students in our school.

 

So, where to from here?

It has taken me nearly two and a half years, but I finally feel like I am starting to understand Scratch and how to teach it in a way which is accessible to students with a range of experience and confidence with visual programming. It was wonderful to see students achieve success with Scratch, even if it took some of them considerably more time and help to start realising its’ potential. I am indebted to my early adopter students for both showing me what is possible with this programming platform, and for helping teach their peers and teachers. The power of peer teaching, and the wealth of tutorials available on YouTube and Scratch Online are not to be underestimated!

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Returning for #iste17, a conference like no other

Well, in less than four weeks time, I’ll be traveling via Auckland on a 16 700 km journey to San Antonio, Texas. I will be presenting on my students’ learning adventures with Scratch game design and FIRST LEGO League robotics at the International Society for Technology Education Conference. Following ISTE, I’ll be embarking on my most ambitious journey to date, visiting Dallas / Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Glenwood Springs, Sacramento, and San Francisco over the course of four weeks.

ISTE15 in Philadelphia, where I took home an ISTE Emerging Leader Award, feels like yesterday. The memories of the people I met, the places I went, and the meetups with locals in Philadelphia, Virginia and NYC are very dear to me. If you plan to be at the conference. or live in/near the cities I’ll be exploring, please let me know. I’m always happy to catch up with Twitter folk, especially if you share my love of coffee, conversation, and/or photography. Especially coffee 🙂

 

My ISTE Presentations

FIRST LEGO League Robotics – Coaches’ Corner

Poster session with Aaron Maurer and Louise Morgan

Tuesday, June 27, 1:15–3:15 pm
HBGCC Tower View Lobby, Table 34

Are you interested in LEGO Mindstorms robotics, engineering, and computational thinking? Come along and meet three robotics coaches from Australia and the United States, and learn how you could empower your students’ STEM learning through the international FIRST LEGO League robotics competition (http://www.firstinspires.org/robotics/fll)

 

The Scratch Game Design Challenge (BYOD)

Wednesday, June 28, 1:00–2:00 pm
HBGCC 006AB

Michael Graffin  
Find out how to extend coding and computer science lessons beyond code.org by using Scratch to empower students to collaborate, problem solve, and share their learning through the creation of animated stories and computer games.

 

Scratch Game Design in Chicago, IL

I will be repeating my ISTE Scratch Game Design workshop in Chicago. If you live in the area, please come along to say hello! All welcome 🙂

Thursday, July 6, 10am12pm

Archdiocese of Chicago
Quigley Center, 835 N Rush St.

Registration: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe2NzAX1VUKRhgIvSfALcBrk0WZRXvSepNc6HWADuqMs9j6fg/viewform?usp=sf_link

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Starting from @Scratch: (Re)thinking visual programming

Several years ago, I started my exploration of Scratch coding with a group of highly motivated students who were happy to dive in, figure out how it worked, and answer my questions – which typically started with “How on earth did you do …?” We went on a learning journey together, and considering that I didn’t really know what I was doing, it is quite surprising how far we managed to travel.

Fast forward to 2017, the first year that we had to assess and formally report on our students’ understanding of, and application of visual programming. I spent my Christmas holidays teaching myself Scratch, drawing upon tutorials published by MakeBlock, and any resources I could find on the Internet. I delved into event blocks, loops, IF/THEN branching, and tried to work out which Scratch skills should be taught at each year level. I was fairly sure I understood the content; and based on my experiences teaching Scratch in our after-school/lunchtime clubs, I thought I knew how to teach it. The assessment was still a grey area, but that wasn’t going to stop me diving in and attempting to teach Scratch coding to all students from Years 4-6 for the first time.

Teaching Scratch Game Design

As part of my new STEM and robotics teaching role, I have been teaching a Scratch game design course in Year 6. Term 1 proved to be rather challenging. The sheer scope of students’ skills and past exposure to Scratch, ranging from absolute beginner to extremely advanced, were hard to differentiate for. In addition, this was the first time many of these students experienced my approach to teaching Scratch, which relied heavily on the use of online learning videos and tutorials shared via YouTube and Google Classroom. While some students produced some extraordinary games like the one above, there was signficant room for improvement.

For the Term 2 unit, I decided to explicitly teach and demonstrate some Scratch skills, running 5-10 minute mini lessons and demonstrations of the use of event blocks, loops, and IF/THEN branching. Students then had opportunities to delve further, using differentiated Scratch tutorial cards to learn more about Scratch. During one of these sessions, a question started to arise.

When designing a maze game, students need to work out how to control their character sprite movements using the WASD and/or arrow keys. I was pointing the girls in the general direction of using IF/THEN branching blocks (aka conditionals) for their arrow key controls, but we kept encountering problems … Firstly, the IF/THEN block ran once when triggered by an event block; and secondly, the colour sensing (for maze walls) didn’t seem to work properly.

Problem solved?

Putting everything in a forever loop seemed to work. It used a single script, and in my mind at least, was a “logical” solution. Yet, I was struggling to understand, let alone explain, this question: Why did the IF/THEN blocks have to be in a forever loop in order to work?”

Uncovering a fundamental misunderstanding …

Standing on the train station platform one morning, I found myself revisiting, and pondering this question. It occurred to me that I actually knew someone in the programming industry who might actually be able to provide an answer in terms I could understand.

My longtime friend and programming expert can be best described as a maths geek with an incredibly logical mind. He specialises in developing software controlling LED signs, such as animated city carpark signs which tell you how many bays remain, and bus stand information displays somewhere in New Zealand. To this day, I still enjoy teasing him when his little dots don’t work, including the time his code was used to display terrible Christmas decorations on a city carpark sign. Anyway, I digress …

As I hopped on the train, my friend replied to my Twitter message, kindly pointing out that “IF/THEN branches did NOT need to be in any kind of loop in order to work”. After reviewing his suggested reading links on the Scratch wiki, it became apparent that I had a serious gap in my understanding of the underlying logic and structures of the Scratch visual programming language.

Oops.

A whirlwind professional learning experience

For all my research and experimentation with Scratch over the years, I’d missed something that should have been blindingly obvious. Scratch reflects the logic and syntax of a formal, event-based programming languages, and includes events, and structures such as branching (IF/THEN conditionals) and repeat loops. To my chagrin, I’d been seriously muddling up my teaching of events and IF/THEN branching.

Meeting up with my friend for coffee a few days later, I began what was to become a whirlwind professional learning experience. We spent hours talking through programming concepts, examining and evaluating example Scratch projects, and discussing the best way to introduce and develop students’ visual programming skills at different year levels. The conversations continued via Twitter for weeks, and I’m just starting to feel like I can comprehend and apply what I’ve learned.  

Visual programming and formal written programming languages are machine languages

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Creative Commons License Christiaan Colen via Compfight

Formal languages are designed so that applications written in those languages can run on devices such as desktop and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones. Each formal language has its own syntax (similar to a natural language’s grammar), which include set programming structures and rules which define how the computer reads and executes tasks. A computer is a machine, which only understands your typed code if you use the exact words, logical structures (e.g. IF this condition is met, THEN do this), and punctuation that conform to the syntax of that language. Scratch is a formal language that is presented visually rather than as text, though text can be used in some of its structures.

In terms of Scratch, an event could be a key press, a mouse movement/click, or the broadcast/receipt of a message. Whenever an event is triggered, it activates a script, a programmed sequence of actions. For example, whenever the right arrow key is pressed, the sprite will move 10 steps along the x axis (to the right). Branching (IF/THEN conditionals) are used for a different purpose. They change the sequence of the script or instructions depending on whether a condition is TRUE/FALSE. Branching is especially useful for sensing walls, monsters, traps, and other sprites in Scratch game design.

Rethinking how I teach visual programming

While the original solution involving a forever loop does work, it is not considered to be good practice because of the demands that it can place on the device. While it isn’t the end of the world that my young students have been using a forever loop as a container for IF/THEN branching to control user input via the arrow keys, it is important that they understand the logic, structures, and recommended techniques of the language they are working with – especially if they choose to explore other formal languages, such as Java and/or Python, in their secondary schooling.

There is no one right way to write a program, so we need to try and teach our students to create code which is logical, structured, easy to implement, and which addresses the user’s needs. 

So this is a simple example of the recommended programming technique for controlling a sprite with your arrow keys, with colour sensing branching.

 

Drawing some conclusions

Firstly, I am extremely fortunate to have a friend with programming expertise and experience teaching adult education. Without his patient assistance, I’d still be stuck teaching the same flawed thinking and approach for the foreseeable future

Secondly, it has become really obvious that in order to teach visual programming effectively, I need to develop my understanding of the logic and syntax structures of the programming languages I work with. While it isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for introducing and experimenting with Scratch, it really, seriously pays to understand the concepts that students are exposed to as they tinker, problem solve, and create digital solutions with code.

Developing my professional knowledge and expertise with Scratch has taken me years, and I still find myself filling in the gaps – including the ones I didn’t know I had! One of my professional growth goals this year was to develop my understanding of how to effectively teach, assess, and support my students’ learning in visual programming, with a view to eventually exploring formal written programming languages.

Ironically, I wasn’t expecting to have to go back to the very beginning, and start from Scratch!

 

 

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What makes me curious?

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I recently applied to join a new Catholic Education WA design thinking accelerator program, known as Studio Curious. Considering that there were nearly 300 applications from across Western Australia, I was shocked and delighted to be accepted into this exciting program.As part of my application, I was asked to reflect on what makes me curious, and what innovation means to me. I’d like to take a moment to share a few excerpts from my application here.

What makes you curious?

As a lifelong learner, my curiosity and desire to explore new ideas, take positive risks, and collaborate with global educators have transformed the way I teach, and the way I see the world. I’m a teacher, but most importantly, I’m a learner. I learn with my colleagues, both in my school community, and through my online professional learning networks. I am also learning alongside my students, sometimes teaching beyond my comfort zone, especially while teaching LEGO robotics.  

I am curious about online professional learning, design thinking, global collaboration, and leading pedagogical change within a school. In particular, I am curious about how we can support teachers’ acceptance and implementation of new curriculum and pedagogical initiatives; and how we can empower our students to connect, communicate, create, and collaborate with other children around the world.

What does innovation mean to you?

For me, innovation is the freedom to take productive risks in my teaching and learning. It is a mindset, a way of thinking, and above all, a way of doing. Over the years, I’ve introduced and developed several initiatives, including The Global Classroom Project, which I co-founded and led for over four years while working as a relief teacher. Now working in a school, I’m leading the development of our makerspace and robotics programs, empowering our girls’ engagement with digital technologies.

Through these projects, I have learned a great deal about leading and implementing change. It is one thing to dream and come up with creative ideas, it is another thing entirely to work with others to implement, and realize the potential of those ideas. Innovation is a fluid, challenging, collaborative process of working out what works, what doesn’t, and how you can make your ideas work better within your local and global community. Innovation isn’t necessarily easy, but it can have a tremendous impact on the teachers and students involved. In my case, my innovation experiences have been life changing.

So, what is Studio Curious?

Studio Curious is an exciting experiment “designed to provide educators with the permission and confidence to create change; promote knowledge of evidence-based best practice in education; and encourage new connections”. 

We are a group of thinkers and change agents, coming together from all around our state to explore how we can use design thinking to empower curiosity in our education system.  At this point, no one is sure where this program will lead, or what innovation projects will come out of it.

I, for one, am really looking forward to finding out.

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CEWA LEAD Awards for Excellence 2016

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A photo with my Principal, a passionate advocate for our makerspace and robotics program.

A few weeks ago, my library colleague and I accepted, on behalf of our school, a prestigious Catholic Education WA LEAD Award for Excellence in Learning. This award recognized our work in establishing our school’s makerspace and robotics program, which includes a research partnership with the Schools of Education and Engineering at Curtin University. Unfortunately, due to a family emergency, my library colleague was unable to attend the awards event.

Working in a girls’ school, we are primarily focused on engaging and empowering our students’ interests in digital technologies and engineering. After setting up our library makerspace late last year, we were introduced to several researchers at Curtin University, who were interested in researching the impact of makerspace projects on girls’ engagement with Science, Technologies, Engineering, and Mathematics. As a result of this connection, we have hosted several “STEM makerspace workshops”, facilitated by pre-service teachers and engineering students. Earlier this year, we created our after school “Maker Monday” program, run in the school library, which provides interested students with the time and space to pursue design and engineering projects – going beyond tinkering with electronics and robots. At the start of 2016, I also established our competitive LEGO robotics program. As you can probably imagine, it has been a rather busy year!

Our makerspace and robotics program is very much in its’ infancy, but our curiosity, risk taking, and experimentation are beginning to have a real, positive impact on our students’ learning and engagement with digital technologies. We know we have a lot to learn, and we have a long way to go before what we can meaningfully integrate the makerspace philosophy and pedagogical approach across our school. We are indebted to our school leadership team, both past and present, for without their support these projects would never have happened.

Having our work acknowledged by our system as an example of innovation and excellence in learning means a great deal, and it is a huge confidence boost as we continue on what has been a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, teaching and learning journey.

 

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The Learning Curve

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It is been a while since I’ve ‘put pen to paper’ here, but it is nice to be back. In light of my experiences and the challenges I’ve faced so far this school year, I’m dedicating this post to the ‘learning curve’.

For me, good teaching is about learning. It is about taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and collaborating with colleagues to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of our students. As an educator, taking risks and exploring new ideas is not an easy or straightforward process; and without leadership support, you are likely to fail. It is one thing to dream up an innovative idea, it is quite another to implement it within your school community.

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This year, with the benefit of a FIRST Australia grant, and the support of my school leadership team, I found myself teaching an extracurricular LEGO robotics program, preparing two teams for the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition. I’d never worked with these sophisticated robotics kits before, and I wasn’t sure how the program would run in our school, let alone how I’d teach it. After many hours of internet research, watching YouTube videos, and adapting teaching materials from EV3Lessons.com & Carnegie Mellon University, I set up my Google Classroom groups, and set to work.

Admitting that “I don’t know, but let’s try it and find out” is not an easy thing for a teacher to say to their students.  Yet, this quickly proved to be a common refrain in my robotics class! Learning isn’t linear, and sometimes it can be messy. I based my teaching and learning approach on the idea that we could explore robotics concepts and skills through guided problem solving and hands-on experimentation. If it doesn’t work, let’s keep experimenting, and work out why. I was teaching out of my comfort zone, trying to stay one step ahead of my students. I could hardly pretend to be the font of all knowledge – I was often building and testing programs and mechanisms an hour before my students arrived for class.

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Our FLL robotics program was never intended to just be about ‘teaching girls to code’, or capturing their interest in ‘STEM’ careers, although these were important underlying goals. We were interested in teaching our girls to think, and empowering them to become confident learners and problem solvers. Now, a little over three months into the program, I’m starting to appreciate the impact of this approach, particularly for those girls whose academic results would usually deny them this kind of opportunity.

Learning how to teach robot programming and engineering with LEGO EV3 Mindstorms has been a steep, yet extremely rewarding learning curve. My teaching programs are covered with notes about what worked, and what I’ll need to do differently next year. Yet, by taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and facing my fears – I am not only growing as an educator, but I am making a difference in my students’ learning.

At the end of the day, that’s what teaching is all about.

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