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.  

Robots Rock!

This was the first year Hawthorne had a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics team. FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) provided fourth and fifth grade team members with hands-on opportunities in Robotics. They were able to design robots, identify and solve science-based problems, develop models, and apply engineering and math concepts. 

Data from a 10 year evaluation of FIRST demonstrates the benefits of these programs. 98% of the participants improved their problem solving skills.  95% of the participants increased their time management skills. 93% of the participants increased their conflict resolutions skills. 76% of the participants strengthened their communication skills. 88% of the participants were more interested in doing well in school.  87% of the participants were more interested in going to college. 

A FIRST LEGO League challenge has four parts: a research assignment, robot design judging, a robot game, and exhibition of core values.  

For the research assignment, our team was very moved by a movie they saw that showed a beached whale who eventually died because his blow hole was blocked by trash.  We wanted to protect sea animals from the dangers of plastic. We knew that it was good to recycle, but we learned that reducing and reusing is even better. We recognized that everyone drinks a lot of soda so we wanted to design a better soda bottle that needed less plastic.  They prototyped some different ideas and shared them with our teacher Mrs. Ross, who is on the Green Team for our school.
For the robot game, students design and program a Mindstorm robot to solve missions on a special obstacle course. By mid-January, we were able to score 156 points on the robot game.  We used the engineering design process to repeatedly improve and in our final match at the tournament, we scored 329 points. As our principal likes to say “We are the best at getting better!”

For the robot design, students share their strategic thinking about how best to build and program their robot to meet the challenges of the robot game. Since we are a rookie team, we wanted our robot design to be simple and reliable. For our chassis we started with the Base from the Core EV3 Educator kit and added the medium motor to control the arm.  We researched different attachments and our first one was a push plate (like a bulldozer).  Tyler figured out how to easily attach the plate to the arm of the robot. We created a bumper, but we discovered the push plate could do that too.  We also invented a hook.  We decided to start with the easiest missions and work on them one by one until they could be mastered reliably.  Then we added more missions until we exhausted the 2.5 minute limit.

For the core values exhibition, teams are judged on important life skills including teamwork, sportsmanship, and leadership. In school, we follow the Leader in Me (7 Habits of Happy Kids) program. The robotics team has helped us practice Habit 1: Be Proactive - (I am a responsible person. I take initiative. I choose my actions, attitudes, and moods. I do not blame others for my wrong actions. I do the right thing without being asked, even when no one is looking.)  The team also exhibited gracious professionalism because they wished competing teams’ good luck and shared what they learned with each other.

Through FLL, participants not only hone their STEM skills, but also learn how to be effective leaders, creative problem solvers, and better members of their communities.  At the end of the tournament, the team members were proud of what they learned especially about persistence.  They had a lot of fun too!

Value Added Technology

I haven’t posted in a long while and I found this post which I had started in March 2011.  I decided to post it now.

I have been reflecting on the raging debates about the merits (or not) of interactive whiteboards IWB.  A couple of things have happened recently that have added to my inner conversation on this topic. On Thursday, I heard Ginno Kelly of Promethean speak.  On Friday, I proctored a session of the Maryland State Assessment (MSA).  On Saturday, I read some of Breaking Down Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modern World  by R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke. While I highly recommend the first and third experiences, you should avoid the second one if you possibly can.

My “aha!” moment happened when I noticed parallels between the debate over the efficacy of telecollaborative projects (based on my reading of the book) and the efficacy of IWB (based on various blog posts and cemented in my mind through the exceptional application of IWB and LRS by Ginno Kelly).

With telecollaborative projects, teachers may first attempt basic “keypal” exchanges which result in nothing more than social exchanges.  Alternatively, an early telecollaborative project may be a mere “scavenger hunt” which result in nothing more than low level fact hide-n-seek exercises.  If you judge the telecollaborative computing based on these types of projects, you could easily conclude that they do not provide value in terms of student achievement when compared to traditional offline activities. On the other hand, think about data sharing telecollaborative projects (e.g., students from all over North America track sightings of Monarch butterflies, report their data collectively, and infer conclusions from the data) or problem-solving telecollaborative projects (e.g., students brainstorm and share solutions to rain forest habitat loss).  These later projects provide instructional experiences which would be impractical without telecollaborative computing, thus their efficacy is much higher.  I conclude that the efficacy does not depend on the technology alone, but rather on how it is applied. Thus, professional development, adequate time for instructional planning, and freedom to flexibly utilize the available instructional time are variables that matter. 

Let’s follow this line of thought to the efficacy of IWBs.  IWBs are easy to implement in teacher-centered “chalk-n-talk” lessons. In such lessons, the teacher is the one at the board and content is extolled to students by the sage on the stage. If you were to gage the efficacy of IWBs based on this type of instruction and you value student-centered learning over teacher-centered instruction, you’d fairly conclude that IWBs don’t provide sufficient value for their cost. (I happen to feel that “teaching” is not a dirty word. It has its place in a balanced approach to education, but that’s a topic for another blog post.). On the other hand, suppose the IWB facilitated inquiry-based discussion via sharing of thought-provoking visuals, videos, real-world scenarios and other multimedia integrated with rich discussion/debate.  Add to this instruction students collaborating with the IWB serving a digital hub to reveal the classes’ construction of meaning as it evolves.   This instructional approach would also be impractical without an IWB or at least a minimal digital teaching hub (projector connected to a computer). Again, the efficacy depends on implementation approach (i.e., how the IWB is applied rather than the particular technology alone). Likewise, professional development, adequate time for effective and innovative instructional planning, and freedom to use instructional time flexibly are variables that matter.

For illustration purposes, the table below shows that various technology’s efficacy is dependent upon instructional approach.

Basic Approach
Advanced Approach
Telecollaborative computing
o   Keypal exchanges
o   Scavenger hunts
o   Data sharing
o   Problem-solving
o   Lecture
o   Multimedia enhanced real-world examples
o   Rich inquiry-based discussions
o   Student collaborative reflection shared at the board
1-1 Computing / Computers on Wheels (COWs) – writing
o   Word process to publish pre-edited hand-written drafts
o   Students create interactive multimedia products to share over the web to synthesize their understanding of a topic
o   Wiki discussions to reflect on thinking about your thinking collaboratively with your peers
1-1 Computing / COWs – Internet
o   Explore the web (without a specific purpose)
o   Visit links about a topic and summarize them in a “bird report” (i.e., an exercise in recall)
o   Use a webquest which requires synthesis of your new learning into a new product
o   Publish on the web
Learner Response Systems
o   Answer factual questions as a summative assessment
o   Use as  a formative assessment tool (check for understanding) through out the lesson to provide direction for subsequent instruction
o   Ask thought provoking higher-order questions to stimulate discussion
o   Have small groups confer and reach consensus in order to submit a group response
o   Seed voting results for subsequent classification / analysis
Digital photos /  videos
o   Capture a field trip or student performance
o   Collect students thinking about their thinking for subsequent analysis
o   Students create a mash-up / montage using a collection of content-related photos or videos
o   Students write and produce a video documentary or public service announce which synthesizes important points of a unit
Video on demand
o   Play a whole movie with not particular instructional accountability for the material shown
o   Select a particular salient clip and sandwich it with before-viewing, during viewing, and after viewing instructional activities.

Let’s explore the ramifications of the realization that the efficacy of a technology depends upon how it is applied.  This “realization” is not news to anyone who works with educational technology, but it seems to be easily forgotten.  Over zealous vendors and educational technology evangelists are partially to blame. In order to justify the expenditures to funders, great instructional approaches of the technology are disseminated.  These successes are then attributed to the technology rather than the instructional approach facilitated by the technology and the hard work that lead to the success.

Frequently, the hard work entailed:
  • Indentifying visionary teachers who see the potential efficacy of the technology for their instructional needs
  • Visionary teachers teach their students using the technology after expending untold quantities of their personal time to innovate, reflect and revise their instructional approach until they are satisfied with the results
  • Visionary teachers reshape their instructional approach into a replicable best practice and then disseminate the best practices through varied, differentiated, and distributed professional development activities
  • Leaders foster buy-in with the next wave of adopters
  • Repeating this process for each successive wave of adopters
  • Meanwhile providing just-in-time technical support and pedagogical coaching so that as each wave adopts the technology, they have a safety net if glitches arise.

Call this hard work “adoption effort”. When the adoption effort is done well, it is labor intensive.  It frequently costs more than the initial cost of the hardware or software.   When the adoption effort doesn’t happen, often the technology is only adopted by the first wave of early adopters. Then, the rest of the teachers are perceived as resistant or poor teachers.  While this may sometimes be the case, it isn’t necessarily a fair conclusion unless the adoption effort has occurred.

Let’s assume that each technology requires some form of adoption effort. Also, we don’t evaluate a technology per se, but rather the technology along with a particular instructional approach, i.e., technology / instructional approach (TIA). Borrowing from the concept of total cost of ownership (TCO), I posit an equation for evaluating efficacy of TIA. The increase in student achievement achieved (i.e., its value (V)) for a TIA must exceed the initial cost (IC) of the technology plus the cost of the adoption effort (AE) in order for the TIA to have efficacy.

V for a TIA ≥ IC + AE

While this equation over simplifies a complex issue, it think it still provides a useful as a mental model.  For example, let’s say a TIA makes the instruction more engaging. Engagement is not included separately in the equation.  Instead if the increased engagement leads to increased student achievement then it provides value (V). What if the TIA helps students learn about how to use technology (i.e., technology literacy)?  Well technology literacy is fine but there is so little instructional time, I feel that unless the TIA provides some value, there isn’t time for teaching technology for technology’s sake.

I then thought back to one technology rollout that I viewed as a success (Video on demand). See my earlier post on this rollout.  The initial cost IC was absorbed by the district. The adoption effort (AE) to reach advanced instructional approaches was low. Therefore, the value was realized fairy rapidly.

Where does that leave us on the debate about the value of IWBs?  My opinion is that IWBs do provide value because the make it possible to bring a wide variety of digital / interactive resources to the classroom, make it easier to model use of technology, and facilitate collecting data through learner response systems. Moreover, with the incorporation of the IWB, the class has gained a user-friendly instructional design authoring tool. Students are completing teacher-created flipchart at their own computing devices and/or creating their own flipcharts to demonstrate their learning.

Note:  In hindsight (now in 2016), I still believe in the value of IWBs.  I feel that at the time (in 2011), they paved the way for converting to a more digital curriculum which ultimately made it easier to evolve to a more learner-centered model especially with 1-1 computing. In a typical lesson today, whole class instruction takes a lesser and smaller portion of the instructional role, but my IWB is indispensable for that role. Students more frequently request to take up the pen at the board to model for their peers and small groups meet for mini-lessons at the board.