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.

Facing the Challenges of the new Digital Technologies Curriculum

As schools around Australia prepare for the implementation of the new Digital Technologies curriculum, teachers are starting to come to terms with some difficult new terminology, content, and skills. While Western Australian schools have been given two years to implement a slightly more user friendly version of the national Digital Technologies Curriculum, we are facing a number of significant challenges in common with our interstate counterparts.

Challenge 1: Explaining the difference between Digital Technologies and ICT

There is a common misconception that ICT and Digital Technologies are the same, and teachers who haven’t read the curriculum are in for a shock.

While ICT focuses on the use of technology for learning, Digital Technologies focuses on empowering students to be creators, producers, and developers of technologies through the development of computational thinking. 

For example, students use ICT skills when they make movies, podcasts, and digital stories. They develop understandings of digital technologies when, for example, they explore the role of hardware and software in their smartphones;  and when they use computational thinking to code digital solutions to problems – e..g. programming a robot.

A good way of defining the difference is comparing ICT General Capabilities to Literacy Skills, and Digital Technologies to the English learning area.


Challenge  2:  To integrate, or isolate, that is the question.

At the start of 2015, we introduced major changes at my school. In line with the purpose and goals of the ICT General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, classroom teachers became responsible for integrating ICT across the curriculum. There were two reasons for this change. Firstly, we believed that learning with ICT should not be isolated in the computer lab, segregated from the rest of the curriculum. Secondly, building our school’s reputation for high-quality ICT and digital technologies programs will rely on the expertise of every member of the school community, from the Principal down. Can schools really afford to reply on one expert? What happens when they leave …?

In our school, many teachers are exploring the power and relevance of ICT and digital technologies to their classroom teaching. I’ve watched teachers become the most excited learners in the room, empowering their students’ creativity and problem solving through digital storytelling, coding, and robotics – and starting to see authentic connections to maths and literacy.

My coaching experiences this year, and discussions with teachers (through Twitter and ISTE), raises an important question in regards to the implementation of the Digital Technologies curriculum.

What is the point of teaching students to collaborate, think computationally, and solve real world problems in one lesson a week outside of everyday classroom learning?

Yes, this may be appropriate for a technologies extension program, but surely these skills are important and applicable for all students, across a range of learning areas?


Challenge 3:  Supporting Teachers’ Engagement with Digital Technologies

The implementation and integration of the Digital Technologies curriculum will be a steep learning curve for most teachers. Some of the concepts in the new curriculum are scarily new, especially the parts about binary language and coding. Yet, others are familiar. For example, we use algorithms for problem solving, cooking, and giving directions / instructions in English , Science, and Maths. We use spreadsheets for collecting and making sense of data in Maths and Geography. These learning activities provide an authentic, relevant context for the integration of digital technologies.

As indicated by the WA curriculum writers, it makes sense to integrate Digital Technologies at the primary level – both through classroom learning activities, and through your library makerspace (if you are lucky enough to have one). If we learned anything from last year; however, it is that teachers are going to need a lot of support, both through collaborative PLCs and resourcing, to become comfortable teaching this new curriculum.

At my school, I have been working as a part-time teacher coach, supporting teachers’ integration of ICT and digital technologies in the classroom. This approach is most empowering for those teachers seeking help to develop their relatively limited technology skills, and those keen to push pedagogical and technological boundaries. I know that most schools can’t afford to fund this kind of role, but I would suggest that teacher relief for collaborative planning, classroom observation, and targeted professional development in Digital Technologies would be money well spent. I’d start by developing the skills and capabilities of a small group of interested teachers across a range of year levels, and then giving them time and space to share their learning with their colleagues. I am hoping to do this in my own school this year – it is just too hard to lead this change process alone.


Challenge 4:  Finding resources and fellow pathfinders.

As we begin our Digital Technologies journey, I take a great deal of comfort in the knowledge that we’re not alone. Around the country, and around the world, teachers are developing resources, activities, and tools that we can adapt for use in our school.

As schools begin their familiarisation and planning with the Digital Technologies Curriculum, it is important to consider what tools and resources they already have available, e.g. iPads; and plan for strategic investment in edtech tools which add value to the curriculum, such as BeeBots, Dash (Wonder Workshop), Sphero, and MakeyMakey. I’d add LEGO EV3 robotics if you can afford them!

For developing skills in computational thinking and coding, there are a range of free resources and communities available online, including:

If you’re interested in developing your understanding of the curriculum, or if like me, you’ve been tasked with leading its implementation, I’d highly recommend connecting with your local ICT subject association, joining Twitter, and exploring the CSER Digital Technologies MOOC. With the rest of Australia (except NSW) implementing this change from 2017 (2018 in WA), things are about to get really interesting!


 I’m learning as I go, and I don’t have all the answers.

Leading the familiarisation and implementation of the new Digital Technologies Curriculum in my school is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career to date; and I’ve learned some valuable lessons.

You don’t need to have all the answers when you’re starting out. If you can develop a basic understanding of the concepts and tools, don’t be afraid to learn and experiment alongside your students. It took me months to overcome my fear of learning in front of my students and colleagues, but I soon discovered that the more I threw at our girls, the more they came back and surprised me..


 Leading curriculum change isn’t easy, but its worth fighting for.

You will treasure those little moments … Watching a girl who struggles in class successfully code a robot for the first time . Noticing that a group of students have continued the Hour of Code 2015 activities independently through their Christmas holidays. That time I sat down with a Year 5 student and asked her how to explain how she did things I didn’t know were possible with Scratch.

At the end of the day, my students are the reason I teach.