Silo-Busting through EDTech: Growing in the Garden with the Internet of Things

I hate that we teach education in silos. I hate the idea that some students believe what they learn in English doesn’t apply to Science. Math can’t be used in History. Health and Phys. Ed. are best left in the gym. The Arts and Math & Science just don’t mix. I wish we did a better job of getting more authentic, more cross-curricular, in our schools. I wish we did more silo-busting!

I’ve been thinking about this more than usual recently. Over the last six weeks, I’ve been working on a project. I’m getting ready to introduce Agricultural and the Internet of Things into The Innovation Lab, so I setup a play area in my kitchen to plan and experiment. I have been planning and experimenting on what getting students to use their Design Thinking skills to tackle questions like, “how might we better grow vegetables to meet the needs of a growing population” or “how might we harness technology to improve our ability to grow food” looks like in The Innovation Lab. Our goal is to get our kids thinking now about real-world problems that will likely affect them when they’re older.

In my kitchen laboratory, I started growing tomatoes and peppers hydroponically using things I would have likely thrown out, 3D printed parts from 3dponics, and ground coconut coir and/or Perlite as a growing medium. I’ll post about my experiences surrounding the grow soon, but what was a lot of fun was the building I did last night.

Last night, I used my Raspberry Pi and Cayenne to create a light meter so I could monitor in real-time, from anywhere in the world, how much light my plants are getting throughout the day. This creation has also been logging the level of light my plants are getting, every second, all day and loading the data into a Google Sheet. Check out what I’ve done with the data today (1.00 is pitch black, 0.00 is max brightness):

Lumens over a 12 hour, cloudy day on 1/18/16

 

Update: Lumens over a 12 hour, mostly sunny day on 1/19/16

Using this data over time, I can setup future experiments that tackle questions like, “how much light are my plants getting during the day,” “where am I getting the best light in my house for my plants,” or “how much light do my plants need to grow better.”

This experiment had me using knowledge you’d find in every silo in school as well as important 21st century skills like interpreting data, computer science, and finding resources and experts since Electrical Engineering isn’t my strong suit (Thanks, Twitter!).

In the classroom, if I were still an English teacher, I would tell my kids we are going to experiment with growing plants in sustainable ways to meet our research and nonfiction standards. I would then guide them in doing their research and finding experts, develop driving questions, design experiments, finding quality resources, start growing, collecting data on the amount of light plants are receiving vs. how fast they are growing using the Raspberry Pi light sensors they’ve built,  and using data to answer some of their driving questions. Finally, we would wrap up by reporting and reflecting on their findings and producing something for a global audience to educate people on what my kids have learned (video, infographic, etc.) and then push it out via social media. The funny thing is, if I was a Science teacher or a Math teacher or a Health teacher – any teacher, really – I’d do the lesson almost exactly the same. I’d just change the emphasis and standards/objectives to align with what I was expected to teach.

I think this is an untapped area of educational technology: using edtech to get cross-curricular. I used the internet, social media, our 3dprinter, Raspberry Pi, and GSuite as tools to help me bust down educational silos. Without edtech, it would be much harder to get cross-curricular.

Whether we call it problem-based learning, project-based learning, passion-based learning, inquiry-based learning, authentic learning, or any other type of learning: we need to do more silo-busting. Let’s start silo-busting and letting our kids realize that learning doesn’t happen only by subject or in a vacuum. Let’s stretch ourselves as teachers, embrace technology, and find ways to get silo-busting with our kids even if we don’t have all the answers; that will just gives us the opportunity to learn together!

Until next time,

GLHF

Sometimes It Is Just About The Technology

slide2We hear educators say it all the time: technology is just a tool or it’s not just about the technology, it’s about how a teacher uses it. While I fundamentally agree with these types of statements, I’ve noticed something in the Innovation Lab that has me pushing back a bit: sometimes it is just about the technology.

When we were rethinking the Innovation Lab at Fair Haven this summer and applying lessons learned from our beta year, one thing we knew we needed to address was our stuff. We didn’t have the right technology nor tools to do what we wanted to do. The tech and tools were a bottleneck for us. We had old laptops that couldn’t do things like edit videos, make games, or produce 3D renderings. Recording digital arts was harder than it had to be because we were using older camcorders with SD cards and didn’t have microphones for podcasting. Kids were forced to animate with a mouse instead of drawing tablet. We didn’t have the right tools to deconstruct iPads and other electronics and turn them into works of art. You get the idea.

As we targeted the technology we needed in the Innovation Lab for students to learn the skills we wanted them to, we started to realize that we were targeting some serious stuff. We grew hes2016-11-04-13-12-57itant. Could 5th and 6th graders handle the stuff we wanted to put in the Lab? Would they respect the tech and tools we were going to buy? One of the rules I try to live by as an educator is to make my decisions based on my best kids. Of course I could think of some incidents where I was unhappy with the respect kids were showing toward our stuff in the Lab last year, but I also thought of our kids who would flourish with better technology and tools. We pulled the trigger and bought the good stuff; we would manage the exceptions instead of making them the rule.

We made the right decision. The difference in the way our students treat the technology in the Innovation Lab this year compared to last year is night and day. Not once this year, have we had to talk to a student about how they were treating the technology. For example, through our partnership with Dell, we got top-of-the-line laptops. Our Innovators hold these laptops with two hands and walk them to their workstations. They know they share the laptops with other students throughout the week, so kids do their best to make sure the laptop is in good shape for their peers. They don’t tap to hard on the touchscreen and they shut down the computers the right way, rather than just hitting the power button. Get this: at the end of Innovation Lab students put the laptops back into the correct, numbered slots in the cart and most of the time – most of the time – they plug them in!

I also see their respect in the way students regard our stuff as well. A student accidentally broke off a piece of a laptop. This was more of a design flaw than him being careless, but to his credit he came right over, told us about it, and apologized. We thanked him for his honesty and discussed the design flaw with him.

2016-11-04-13-10-32They’re careful, too. We added a workstation where students can cut, drill, glue, or solder pieces of old technology which they then turn into pieces of art. Students have been great in making sure they get me or Ms. Smith before they start. They always follow the safety procedures and wear their safety gear. We use a heat gun, which contrary to many students’ beliefs is not a hair dryer, to lift glass off of iStuff. Students have been very careful with this, too. We were hesitant to add the heat gun, but since we did, we have had students successfully remove broken iGlass for the first time. This wasn’t possible last year. If we had given into our fears when buying our stuff, learning experiences like this would have never happened. We have a Glowforge coming and hope to do some serious soldering soon. Once upon a time, we were nervous about this. Now, we’re excited by it.

Students attitudes are different, too. More than once I’ve had students tell me or overheard them say to each other how serious the technology in the Lab is and how that must mean this is a serious program or how they are taking their making “extra serious” because of the equipment they have access to. I even see our kids self-policing. They remind each other how they should be treating the stuff in the Innovation Lab.

There was a time over the summer where we debated only putting Chromebooks in the Innovation Lab. We even made a list of the not-as-good browser versions of design tools we could use with them, but we decided we didn’t want to our kids to only have access to Tinkercad. We wanted them to be able to use Fusion360, too. We didn’t want them to just use Scratch to make a game. We wanted them to be able to build in Unity like the professionals if they wanted to. That’s what this is about, not putting a ceiling on possibilities. 

2016-11-03-12-46-58Don’t get me wrong, stuff still ends up on the floor. Kids still need to be reminded it’s a screw driver and not a pry bar sometimes. Tools don’t always get put away in the right drawer, but they are getting put back in the right tool chest now! Our kids are working harder, completing more projects, and taking their learning more seriously just because we bought them the good stuff. What we’ve affirmed comes down to this: make decisions based on your best kids and don’t be afraid to buy them the good stuff. The good stuff has had a profound effect on students’ attitudes and productivity compared to last year. If we had given into our fears or fretted about their age, our students wouldn’t be half as productive as they have been this year and would have been exposed to even less.

At times we want to underestimate our students and what they are capable of. Don’t. They can do it. They deserve the good stuff.

Cultivating Accountability and Motivation in the Makerspace

cropped-slide2-1.pngIn the Innovation Lab, our fifth and sixth grade blended learning makerspace, we see students once a week for the entire school year. During the school year we “grade” students based on their use of our design thinking process rather than grading students solely on their final products. Because we’ve blended the Innovation Lab and focus more on the process than the product, students can take as long as they like to finish a project; they can work on something, fail forward, until they are happy with the results. While we think its the best way to run the Innovation Lab, at least until we move away from the weekly format, these factors can make holding students accountable and motivating them to complete a project difficult. With lessons learned from last year, we’ve developed a few tricks to get the most out of our students. Here is how we hold students accountable and motivate them in the Innovation Lab.

Lanyards. Our Innovators physically wear lanyards during Innovation Lab. The lanyards have proven to be the best method for holding kids accountable that we’ve ever come up with. Part 1: when students enter the Lab, they grab their lanyard and an index card. On the front of the index card, students write their challenge statement. The challenge statement, part of the (re)define stage of our design thinking process, is a one sentence declaration of what students are designing, for who, and why. For example, “I’m designing a grocery reminder app for my mom because she always forgets something at the store,” would be an example of a good challenge statement. Once they’ve written their challenge statement on the index card at the beginning of class, they put their lanyard on and get to work.

This is great for students because they have a constant reminder hanging around their neck of what they should be designing. If they decide to change their project, which they have the freedom to do, they must let us know and rewrite a new challenge statement. Writing the challenge statement on the lanyard is great for us because we can review them before students come in. We like to spend a few minutes talking to each student about their project each class and thanks to the lanyards we don’t have to waste time asking students what they are working on, we already know. Instead, we can start the conversation by discussing what phase of our design thinking process they’re on. This saves a precious few seconds per student that adds up by the end of the day.

Part 2: during the last five minutes of class, students take the index card out of their lanyard. On the back, students are expected to write their goal for next week and one thing they learned during Innovation Lab. When students come in the next week, we have them start by reading the goal they wrote last week and (re)defining their challenge statement again. This cycle continues each week. The lanyards help everyone stay focused, organized, and encourages students to work through our design thinking process. This lanyard system is the back bone of accountability in the Innovation Lab.

Digital Portfolios and Digital Evidence. Our students are expected to write an entry in their digital portfolios every three weeks. In each entry, students give a big picture overview, complete with digital evidence, on what they have been doing and learning in the Innovation Lab. The digital evidence piece is important because it requires kids to take pictures and videos of their design thinking process, which makes them more mindful of how they spend their time in class. For example, while a student might want to play Survival rather than design in Minecraft, if they know that screenshots that capture the process of their build are expected in their portfolio soon, they are less likely to lose focus. Digital evidence helps students stay present and focused as they work through a design. The portfolio entries are then used as a jumping-off point for a more focused, interview-style conversation the following week. During the interview, students are asked to make direct connections to the design thinking process as they walk us through their portfolios. All of this adds a layer of urgency to what they are doing.

Time, Date, and Preparedness Limitations. We have a recording studio in the Innovation Lab. As you can imagine, it is a popular destination for many students. To keep things orderly, and to help students move forward in a design, we use limitations on when, where, and how students can use the recording studio. Whether making a podcast or a video, students can’t enter the recording studio without having a script or storyboard. Once they talk us through what they are recording, they have up to twenty minutes in the studio, then the next group goes in. Additionally, whatever they are recording can’t be longer than five minutes. If they have previous recordings that haven’t been edited into a final product, they can’t use the studio. Finally, students can signup for the studio a week in advance. By limiting how long a product can be, how long they can use the studio for, and asking them to have a plan before they can use the Studio, we have been able to get a much better workflow and more finished products than we had last year. By requiring students to have any previous recordings finished before making a new one, and allowing students to sign up a week in advance for the studio, we have added an additional layer of incentives for students to be prepared to make. We use these tactics in places other than the recording studio.

Competition. We were lucky to have Hot Wheels send us a Speedometry Kit and bunch of great video game companies like Paradox Interactive and Mohawk Games gift us some great learning AAA games. Ms. Smith and I make posters to hang on the wall that track some of the design challenges students can tackle in the Lab. Challenges like highest population, happiest population, lowest pollution, longest jump, most loops made, allow competition between classes which have many of our kids running to class to see if they still hold the record. I love gamification, so I try to use these types of game mechanics where I can to motivate students to keep them moving forward.

Entrepreneurship and Narratives. More motivating than competition, narratives are great to insert into the Makerspace. Our narrative invokes pride in ownership and all the lessons and learning that comes with running a business because we’ve brought entrepreneurship to the Innovation Lab. In the Innovation Lab, students can sell their creations on FH Gizmos, our student-run school store. I made the store not only to expose students to entrepreneurship, but to also motivate them to finish more designs. When we talk about FH Gizmos with students, we talk about it as if we are part of a startup. Students who open a store on FH Gizmos are given a stock certificate which entitles them to vote at the share holders meeting; the meeting where we decide how we get to spend the profit we’ve made. Students also earn “commission” on what they sell. They can use the commission to buy things from FH Gizmos. By trying to make the experience of running their FH Gizmos store as authentic as possible, we’ve wrapped the experience in a narrative where students feel like they are part of a real business. Anytime you can add a story, or even better, an authentic narrative to the works students are doing, they’ll be more motivated to participate.

Pushing to a Larger Audience. Pushing student work to a larger audience was something I started doing as an English teacher. My students hated writing essays, but when we started blogging instead, they loved it. Part of the appeal was being able to count likes and views. Students will never work harder than if they know the whole world might see their creations. This is why social media is great in the classroom. I love social media as a tool to build relationships with students. We use social media in the Lab to capture the great things students are making. Students are generally excited to see their efforts pop-up on the Instagram feed. We also push student work to a larger audience through our digital galleries. We show off student work on the Innovation Stations, where anyone can see and hear the great things our kids have made. Students love to know how many views they have, and often start to design, create, and speak to their audience. When I told one of our podcast teams that their podcast had 500+ views, they actually started to talk to their listeners during the podcast and thank them. They even started to call their listeners Squiggly Monsters, taking a page from many celebrities who nickname their fan base. A larger audience through social media and digital galleries have been great for increasing motivation.

Hopefully you found something here you can start using in your class tomorrow!

Until Next Time,

GLHF

 

 

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