Thursday, October 27, 2016

Support STEM

Support Interest in STEM Careers by Supporting Robotics

In earlier blog posts, I wrote about my passion for Robotics in general and specially FIRST LEGO League (FLL). Being a FLL coach was rewarding to me and memorable for students on my team.

This year’s FLL challenge is called Animal Allies. In addition to building and programming robots, teams will do a research project about how humans help animals and vice versa. At the culmination of the project, the team needs to propose an innovative solution to a human or animal real-life problem of their choosing. Our team is made up of fourth and fifth graders at Hawthorne Elementary in Middle River, Maryland.  If you have a background in human/animal interaction, our team would love to gain insight from you through a visit or skype session.  Please contact me at

Dean Kamen, FIRST founder states, “FIRST gives kids the opportunity to develop the muscle between their ears; to gain experience that will directly affect their future and our future as well.” If this resonates with you as well, consider getting involved by starting a team, volunteering at a tournament, or helping in other ways.

To learn more about FIRST, visit

To learn more about participating as a volunteer:
    if you are in Maryland,
          visit Maryland FIRST Call for Volunteers
          visit Information on Volunteering for FIRST worldwide.

To learn more about supporting FIRST financially:
      visit Ways to Give.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is teaching computer science (CS) worth it?

Some educators wonder if teaching computer science as early as kindergarten may be forcing children to be more like adults too early.  I have wondered the same thing about parts of the Common Core CCSS (i.e., Is it developmentally appropriate for certain CCSS skills to be pushed down into earlier grades?).  Children love computer science even in Kindergarten (while the same cannot be said for certain facets of the CCSS). If enjoyment and accomplishment are key to determining the efficacy of CS in the earlier grades, then my teaching experience with elementary school students would argue that CS as early as Kindergarten is worthwhile.    

As mentioned in my previous post (see Robots for Resilience ), I assert that robotics promotes resilience.  In this post, I’d like to add that effective CS instruction does as well for the same reasons.  When completing CS projects, students are faced with rigorous work, but work that is doable with persistence. When they persist and conquer these tasks, they are empowered. This empowerment spills over to other parts of their lives as well and promotes agency.

In addition to promoting resilience, CS instruction is essential. New jobs created in the CS field are expected to grow at twice the rate of other jobs. We are facing a large deficit in the number of employees trained in CS.  In 2020, there is expected to be a 1 million person gap between the number of CS jobs and trained people to take these jobs.  This is huge. Computing knowledge is needed for a multitude of careers not just those in the technology industries. As a matter of fact, over 70% of computing occupations are outside the information technology industry.  CS jobs are well paying (graduates with a computer science major can earn 40% more than the average college graduate).

To quote Hadi Partovi, founder of, “Computer Science is not just vocational it is foundational”. I agree.  Developmentally appropriate CS teaches indispensable 21st century skills necessary for students to be globally competitive. Computer Science develops students’ computational thinking and critical thinking skills.  When students receive effective CS instruction, they are more engaged and have fun.  CS instruction teaches collaboration, project management, reasoning, and presentation skills. When students understand how computing works, they are transformed from consumers of technology into creators of solutions. For further support, see this Edutopia article on Why Teach Coding.

Despite the benefits of this type of instruction and computer science (CS) in particular, it is not universally available in the early grades.  With a fully packed instructional day, it is sometimes difficult to fit in “one more thing”. Innovative schools are addressing this problem by embedding CS across content areas. Also some schools are encouraging students to use CS as another medium for learning and demonstrating understanding. Although more research is needed, positive correlations have been shown between learning CS and performance in other content areas.

Furthermore, many teachers do not have adequate training on how to implement CS instruction and may not have a district sanctioned CS curriculum. Only 1 in 4 schools teach CS. Twenty states don’t count CS courses toward graduation.  Never-the-less, free training and curriculum resources are popping up on the Internet (see , Google’s cs first, and Microsoft’s CCGA, Apple, CodeAcademy, CSTA).  Companies are also launching in-school / after-school programs, teacher training and curriculum resources (Code to the Future, Project Lead The Way, IDTech)

I am proud of the White House’s Computer Science for All (#CS4All) initiative.  Things are moving in the right direction. Yet we still need to increase minority and female representation in CS. If you agree, please sign the commitment page.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Robotics for Resilience

In the aftermath following the death of Freddie Gray (Baltimore City resident in police custody, see ) and other physical confrontations between police officers and minorities, the nation is contemplating how to address the essential social issues.  Issues include economic inequality (see  and ), unemployment, injustice, violence, drugs, and race relations.

Education is supposed to be a vehicle for economical mobility, but now a days this is a daunting undertaking. We tell our children that no matter your race, gender, our wealth, in America you can become anything you want to be. Unfortunately, not all economically disadvantaged students believe this. Outside of school, children of disadvantaged households may become discouraged by circumstances out of their control. For example, only 12 percent of poor children live in two parent households as compared to 60% for all children.  Households with children in poverty may experience unstable parent employment, housing instability, insufficient access to adequate health care, or food insecurity.   Poor children are also more likely to start school at a disadvantage. There is a 27 percentage point gap in school readiness between poor children and those from moderate or higher income families. A child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family. This gap does nothing but grow as the years progress, ensuring slow growth for children who are economically disadvantaged and accelerated growth for those from more privileged backgrounds. In addition, two-thirds of America’s children living in poverty have no books at home.   How can educators overcome these circumstances?

As a recent teacher in a high poverty elementary school in the Baltimore area, I have witnessed first-hand how poverty, parental unemployment, and a lack of trust have driven children to lose hope in their chances for a better life.  Moreover, some of my school’s economically disadvantaged students regularly avoid taking academic risks to “save face”.  They will do anything to not be embarrassed by their weaknesses in performing schoolwork. I have had many private conversations with youngsters in efforts to convince them that such tasks worth trying and that they will only improve by putting forth effort.

Students can be successful when they experience rigorous instruction which promotes a growth mindset, resilience, and it relevant to their needs (see  When students face and accomplish meaningful, challenging problem-based learning, they grow in confidence and grit.  I have witnessed how robotics allows students to accomplish great things and develop more positive attitudes toward not just Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) but also school in general. 

Simultaneously, robotics provides important career and life skills which will make students globally competitive. Robotics provides a foundation for the type of thinking required in the 21st century (see ). It promotes creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.

One reason robotics is so successful is that there is less fear of taking a risk.  Everyone starts with a level playing field because in elementary school nobody comes in knowing how to program a robot.  Students who may not excel linguistically often shine when working with their hands with robots. If a robot doesn’t work, then they tinker with it until it works.  The moment of “failure” is transformed into an opportunity for learning.  How does this work?

Rather than artificially boosting esteem through superficial praise, real agency is earned by overcoming rigorous challenges. We present tasks of gradually increasing, but manageable levels of difficulty.  The instruction provides students with alternative paths to learn and demonstrate understanding. By holding high expectations, but providing multiple pathways to meet such expectations, students are able to conquer tasks by applying their own unique talents. With properly scaffolded tasks and just-in-time coaching, students rapidly see success. This methodology promotes agency.

At the conclusion of our robotics team tournament, we held a debriefing.  I asked students to reflect on their experiences. Paraphrased comments included “If it doesn’t work at first, you should keep trying different things”, “Initially, I was afraid to present to the judges, but I learned that I like it and am good at it”, “It doesn’t matter if you win, as long as you learn something and have fun”, “I’m good at being a leader”, “Teamwork makes it easier to get the most points”, “When it is hard to do something, it feels when you finally make it”, and “When can we do more?”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.