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Tag: STEM (page 1 of 2)

The Minecraft Revolution

Last year around this time, I worked with Ms. Kass on a project in which students used Google SketchUp to create a zoo enclosure for an endangered species. The enclosure had to incorporate elements involving basic needs, comfort, health, and visitor safety, all of it researched by the students. At the time, I blogged about how easy it was to help students to use SketchUp compared to several years earlier and attributed the change to the rising popularity of Minecraft.

Lots of people are writing about Minecraft and how much kids can learn from it. Here is a small sample from the New York Times.

Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.

Although there are no official Minecraft manuals, kids know where to go to learn and get the latest news. From a dedicated wiki to hundreds of YouTube channels with clever how-to videos, the Minecraft community is all about collaboration and keeping up with news about mods, skins, and all sorts of things that sound rather foreign to many teachers and parents.

Earlier this year, Minecraft was in the grown-up news when the entire country of Denmark was recreated in Minecraft accurately to scale and including all roads and buildings. The Danish government funded the project as an educational experience. Then it made news again when the server housing the project was hacked and the virtual replica was “invaded” by the United States. While hackers are no laughing matter, this incident calls attention to something else kids can learn from Minecraft: digital citizenship. Learning to communicate in an online environment like a Minecraft server helps young kids navigate later experiences.

Spatial and critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, curiosity, creativity, self-directed learning, digital citizenship. Do any of these skills sound like they have appeared together on any other list recently?

The new item for my wish list is a school account on MinecraftEdu.

Thinking About Citizen Science

I’m currently working on a children’s book about ladybugs, and after collecting video of a larva eating an aphid this weekend, I was trying to find out if ladybug larvae have teeth. In my searching, I ran across something I had heard about before, but forgotten: The Lost Ladybug Project. This, combined with an article sent to me by a friend earlier in the month, made me think this and other citizen science projects could be resources for a really interesting G21 Project next year.

What if kids with iPads went outside a few minutes once or twice a week, or even volunteered time during recess, to document the biodiveristy of the playground? Teachers could create a classroom account on Project Noah and other similar websites. Using LeafSnap, students could learn to tell the difference between oak trees, or even more relevant, between poison oak and ivy. Instead of ordering a butterfly kit from a school supply catalog, students could find their own caterpillars, watch them grow, and document the process.

I have not searched my blog, but I think I’ve written almost exactly the same paragraph above at least once before. This is something I value. It is something important to me. I believe in using the technology kids enjoy to help us better understand and save the ecosystems that keep us alive. I also believe it is important that kids see things outside of books, in real life, to connect school to the outside world.

Note: The ladybug larva is not the cutest bug out there, and watching it eat is not everyone’s cup of tea. I have it here if you would like to see it.

Rotating Objects – Google SketchUp

Last week I was in Ms. Curfman’s STEM class working with students on making 3D models of buildings they designed on paper. We built houses together to learn the basic tools. Now they have a question for me, so I’ve created this brief video to help them rotate objects they are importing from the 3D warehouse.


“Wait! My Bacteria Mutated!”

This weekend I asked my daughter to set the table and her response was, “Wait! My bacteria mutated! It is resistant to cold! Now it is going to wipe out the rest of the northern hemisphere.”

It seems my children have been playing Plague Inc. from Ndemic Creations on their iPads and learning some interesting stuff.

The game simulates the spread of a disease from Patient Zero to either total annihilation of the human race or the cure. If humans find the cure before everyone is dead, the player loses the game. It might sound unsavory, but there is so much learning going on along with the total gross-out kind of things so many middle schoolers just love.

Here is how one of these scenarios might play out: I choose a bacteria (virus, fungus, prion disease, and others must be unlocked). I choose a disease vector and initial symptoms. I select a location on the planet where Patient Zero acquires the disease, and I start the game. As time goes by, I earn points as more and more people are infected and die. With the points, I can purchase mutations for my bacteria to make it more deadly and more resistant to a cure. As I mutate my disease, I must pay attention to newspaper headlines. If the Olympic Games are about to happen, I want to purchase a mutation that makes it easy for the disease to jump from one person to another very easily. When all athletes and spectators go home after the games, they will take my plague everywhere.

At each step of the game and for each choice, there are definitions and explanations. Players can choose to click past these explanations, but knowing what everything means will help refine your strategy. For example, purchasing hemorrhaging as a symptom is good if the disease is a blood borne pathogen. I don’t know that hemorrhaging has been a word in my children’s vocabulary until now. Neither was prion, retrovirus, disease vector, hemophilia, anemia, or much more. It is now possible for my children to discuss the importance of fleas in the spread of the bubonic plague in the middle ages, something that is usually covered in high school history.

If the pattern holds true, my children will tire of Plague Inc. in a few weeks. They will lament having spent a dollar of their allowance on a game they no longer play, but the vocabulary, science, and geography knowledge they have acquired will remain, and that is well worth the money, in my opinion.

This is a game I’d be willing to have on school iPads for students to play when they have down time.

Space Kitchen

Who’s my new favorite astronaut? Chris Hadfield, of course!

Commander Hadfield is currently on the International Space Station, and he has been sharing his experiences with us, poor Earth-bound mortals. Each video has something amazing to see. Whether he is singing with schoolchildren or chatting with Captain Kirk, Commander Hadfield is entertaining and always educational.

In this video, Commander Hadfield makes a sandwich. I love it that he eats peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Those are always better than the grape jelly kind, right? And in a tortilla, too! By the way, I could not stop staring at how his watch moved on his wrist.


I hope teachers are making the most of these videos and sharing with their students. There are so many interesting ideas to explore. From Commander Hadfield’s comments about crumbs, to the tethered scissors and Velcro-attached bottle of honey, there are examples of creative solutions to seemingly-unimportant problems.

So, watch the videos, and then visit the Canadian Space Agency’s website. There are tons of good reads and pictures there. One related to the above video is Eating in Space. What would you like to rehydrate for lunch today?


Into the Woods

I just returned from an outing with a group of students in Mrs. McKenzie-Mohr’s Life Science class.  We went exploring in the woods behind the tennis courts, searching for decomposers and symbiotic relationships between organisms. Unfortunately, the weather is cold and dreary right now and we had to cut our adventures short. We still managed to see lots of interesting things.

I brought my two Ollocip lenses with me, one for my iPhone, and one for an iPod Touch for the students to share. On our way back to the building, we stopped to look at a dandelion. We talked about the way dandelion seeds take advantage of the wind to spread and grow new plants.  Then we searched our clothes for hitchhiker seeds that spread by attaching themselves to people and animals walking by.


This was the first time we went out to look at organisms through a macro lens. We will be doing this at regular intervals between now and the end of the school year to see how organisms, dormant during the winter, emerge and repopulate the area surrounding the school as the weather warms up again. We will also compare the biodiversity of a square meter of grass close to the woods and adjacent to the football field to get an idea of how human activity (fertilizers, weed control, mowing) affects the variety of organisms present in our environment.

I’m really excited to be working with this group of students to help them explore the world with their own eyes instead of relying on textbook images.

Connecting the STEM Dots

In October, I clicked on a link in a tweet and discovered hexaflexagons. I watched a couple of videos from Vi Hart’s channel on YouTube, and then I set out to make my own.

When I left my office to find a teacher, I took my best hexaflexagon in my pocket. I finished my task, and on my way back to my office, stopped to say hello to Mrs. Falconer (blog). She had taught Math last year, so I showed her my hexaflexagon. Then I showed her one of the videos I had watched.

Mrs. Falconer was excited, and although she now teaches Social Studies, she came up with a perfect way to bring hexaflexagons into her classroom: the mathematicians mentioned in Vi Hart’s videos were very active in the 1920’s, a period Mrs. Falconer will be covering with her students anyway. So, instead of focusing just on Jazz and flappers, why not talk about the incredible advances in math and science? This is the time when Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, and so many others worked out ideas we find all over textbooks and applied science today.

As I watched Vi Hart fold her hexaflexagon on the screen a second time, I was not so focused on how to make one myself. I had already done that. My mind drifted and I found myself thinking that proteins fold themselves up in the same way the paper folds for making a hexaflexagon. I thought I’d look into it, but I moved on to whatever happened in my next email and forgot about it.

Then, today, I read about a robot developed at MIT that can change its shape by folding itself in different directions. At a glance, the little robot looks like a metal version of the strip of triangles that is folded to make a hexaflexagon. And, yes, the robot is intended to mimic the structure of proteins in how they fold themselves. Eventually, this little robot prototype could end up serving as the basis for something really great. In my mind, it is all connected.

When we talk about STEM in schools, we focus too much on test scores, as always. How are we doing compared to the kids in China? Can we answer dozens of problems on a bubble sheet in a limited amount of time? I think this is the wrong approach. We should show kids that math, science, and engineering can be fun and beautiful, like decorated hexaflexagons and tiny transformer robots. We need more teachers like Mrs. Falconer. She is willing to deviate from her rigid curriculum and pacing guide just a bit to give her students an experience that might lead to a meaningful a-ha! moment in the future.

Building a Better City

Ms. Curfman and her STEM class have been working on designing the city of the future. They are looking at issues such as financing public works, water runoff, and sprawl. I visited their classroom today. Everyone was having a really good time. Have a look.


Seeing the Bigger Picture

If you teach, attend school, or have kids in school in Virginia, you most definitely have heard about last spring’s Math Standards of Learning all-new test. It threw quite a few people for a loop, and I do hope the results won’t be used to punish anyone in any way. I do hope, however, that these new test items will change the way some of us approach teaching these days.

While change is scary, it is not necessarily bad, and what this new test format is trying to do is get the kids to think through a problem to find an answer rather than spending a year memorizing answers. While a multiple choice test is not my favorite way of finding out if kids can solve problems, it is a practical way to do so, and for now, we have to live with SOL testing.

But don’t throw in the towel yet. You can help your kids train their brains to look for solutions. Have I ever stopped by your classroom to talk about Scratch? Stop rolling your eyes. I can see you.



Yes. Scratch. You might not know how to make the cat dance on your screen, but hundreds of thousands of kids around the world use Scratch, and their teachers agree: when kids make things in Scratch and work out all the kinks, they learn very important skills: perseverance, creativity, logical thinking, computational thinking. All those add up to, yes, you know it, problem-solving skills.

So, yes, again. I would love to work with you and your students and we will have a really fun time using Scratch. Make the time for it. You won’t regret it.




It’s Scratch Time…Almost


Last night I found out the Scratch team at MIT has the new Scratch up and ready for testing. I did not have much time to play around, but saw enough to know I really like it. Everything seems to work as well as it did before. The paint editor looks like it will be much nicer once it is active. paint editor

I’m excited to have Scratch available for students without the need for downloads and updates. Here in Goochland we are pretty nimble when it comes to deploying new software, but in some surrounding counties, getting the application on student computers has been a barrier to kids accessing this amazing tool.

I can’t wait to have many more teachers and students scratching soon.

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