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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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

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

2016: A Year in Review

I know I’ve been quiet this year, but this post marks 6.5 years of blogging. Quite an achievement that.



In 2016, I worked alongside teachers, exploring our new digital technologies curriculum; and returned to working with students, establishing our new LEGO Robotics and Maker Monday afterschool programs. There aren’t many jobs where you can say that you get to teach with LEGO and robots!


Scribblebots @ Curtin University Makerspace in Schools workshop


Looking back, these are the events and experiences which defined my year:

  • Our award winning makerspace and robotics program began to flourish, with growing interest from our students, parents, and the wider educational community. We even had a Twitter friend visit from the USA!
  • I led the redesign of our library space, purchasing new furniture and robotics technologies with the goal of transforming it into a contemporary makerspace and learning hub.
  • Our research partnership with Curtin University bore fruit. We hosted three in-school makerspace workshops, helping pre-service teachers and researchers explore how hands-on maker activities (e.g. Scribblebots, LED origami) can build students’ deep understandings of science concepts.
  • I co-presented with the Curtin University team at the Primary Science Conference, and co-presented a Makerspace workshop at the Educational Computer Association of WA Conference.
  • I explored the design thinking process through the Studio Curious ‘design thinking accelerator’, prototyping a project for system change in Catholic Education WA. (This was a fantastic learning experience, one I’ll blog about in more detail later).
  • I coached my inaugural FIRST LEGO League season, taking The Robotic Rebels and The MotherBoards to our first ever robotics tournament. It was an incredible learning experience, both for me, and my amazing robotics girls!


Returning to ISTE

And in a recent development, I’ve just received confirmation that I will be returning to the USA in 2017, presenting at the International Society for Technology Education Conference in San Antonio, TX. I’ll be running a Scratch Game Design workshop; and co-presenting “The FIRST LEGO League Coaches’ Corner” with Louise Morgan and Aaron Maurer. I hope to see you there!

I have no plans to return to the USA for a few years after #ISTE17, so if you’re planning to be at the conference, or live in/near Chicago, Denver, Glenwood Springs, and San Francisco, I’d love to catch up for a coffee and a chat if you have the time.

The Learning Curve


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.


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.


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.