Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Building Engineers in K-5 Classrooms- May 4th DTL Showcase Grant

Time-Lapse of May 4th - Main Gym at Pinecrest HS

PHEW!  What a day!  On May 4th, 2018, Moore County Schools was able to convert our 4th annual Elementary Robotics Competition into a statewide showcase event/PD entitled "Building Engineers in K-5 Classrooms".  In addition to our 300 students (and their coaches, admin, and many parents!) we invited 200 educators from across North Carolina to a) see our students in action, and b) learn how to take some of the ideas around engineering/robotics we've been successful with back to their home districts.

Who attended?
We were pleased to welcome educators (teachers, admin, instructional staff), university professors, preservice teachers, and representatives from NCDPI and the Friday Institute.

What did participants do?
Our full agenda (and all resources/materials from the day) is available here:  While 100 participants observed our students in action, the other 100 received an introduction to the engineering/design process using Keva planks to build an 8-inch bridge.  We then flip flopped the two groups so they could experience the piece of the morning they hadn't yet seen.

In the afternoon, after students left and participants were able to take a full lunch break, we broke into small groups for PD.  In these sessions, participants were able to be introduced to the various types of robotics we had on display for the morning- Lego EV3s, Dash, Drones, and Spheros.  They were able to get their hands directly on the robotics and programming skills that our kids experience throughout our schools.  In the Sphero session, they furthered their understanding of the engineering process through the creation of predators (of which they got to battle with!):

Finally, we wrapped the day up with an enthusiastic promise to remain partners in learning/growing these ideas throughout the state!  

We would like to publicly thank NCDPI for providing us the opportunity to share these ideas with others.  We'd also like to thank all of our hard-working teachers, coaches, admin, and STUDENTS for the wonderful work they have put into this over these past 4 years.  We look forward to continuing to provide these opportunities for our students as well as cementing these new partnerships across the state in order to spread the impact of engineering/design on K-5 students all across North Carolina!

Thanks again,
-MCS Digital Learning Team

P.S. Don't forget to tag your work with #NCRobotics so we can all keep track of each other's progress!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Helpful Reflections of a Secondary Robotics Coach

Reflections are key to success for anyone taking up the task of teaching others, be it in the classroom or elsewhere.  Just as our reflection in the mirror might allow us to see a blemish or pimple or changing mole or tick that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, reflecting on our teaching practices over time can allow us to clearly differentiate between successes and failures.   Hindsight is 20/20 after all, and sometimes our perception of a lesson is much clearer after the shine of prestige, or the fog of failure, has weathered away.   Following are reflections from my time coaching FTC and LEGO robotics at the middle and high school level.   Hopefully these reflections will help you keep smiling as you guide your robotics teams in their quest to kindly and professionally annihilate all comers in competition. 

Reflection 1:  If at first you don't succeed.....yes disassemble.   (Keeping Focused)
"Reflections", so says the song, "of the way things used to be".   I used to think I could give my highly capable high school FTC students a general framework of event expectations, rules, and goals, and watch them soar.  These students were killing it in math classes I barely got to in college, were building all sorts of computerized devices in their free time, and were playing important parts in all sorts of extracurricular activities. 

I failed in my first round of coaching to realize that this thinking power and motivation would create a perfect storm of unfocused creativity.   Some of the team members were born engineers, and provided weekly designs on graph paper for advanced points scoring mechanisms, complete with calculations detailing input and output forces and more.   Some team members were born programmers, and took it upon themselves to improve the program here and there, whether or not there was a means of testing these changes.   S, and took it upon themselves to build and tweak every little part of the robot, whether it could be tested or not.  To be fair, why would you test something if you know its gonna work?  That would take too much time!

What the entire team had in common was that they were dreamers, and everyone had an amazing vision of what the final robotic product should be.   Can you guess how that worked out?

If you guessed that we ended up creating and then killing several versions of the robot, and were left scrambling just to have something come competition time, you would be correct.

With around a month left I had to lay down the law.  Once the team had a driving robot, further changes to the basic chassis were prohibited.  Changes to programming were prohibited too, causing one quiet programmer to audibly voice his contempt each meeting.   A single scoring mechanism was to be focused upon, and this was all the team could work on. 

That year in regionals, we consistently scored points.   The robot mostly ran the entire time, and the team left happy with our performance.  Everyone learned the importance of picking a single, simple, attainable goal, and sticking with it.    

Since that first season, I have made a few changes in my approach to working with these students.   Once the season's challenges are announced, this procedure is followed:

  1. Each team classifies scoring opportunities in order from easiest to most difficult.
  2. Teams brainstorm and list means of scoring for each of these opportunities.  I observe this process closely and play "Reality Police", dissuading teams from designs that we can't realistically produce in the time available.
  3. Teams choose a single, relatively easy design and start working toward it.  My role now becomes keeping each team focused on their specific goal, making sure they don't stray too far from the original concept.  Once the team can consistently score with this design, they may move on to another one.   

Reflection 2:  Advanced robotics is for everybody (A well-rounded team)

Early on as a coach, I had an idea of what I thought FTC team members would be like:   High-achieving students, strong in science and math, busy in a variety of extracurriculars, probably sci-fi fanatics, you know the type.  This turned out to be fairly accurate, but I realized we were really lacking in the department of turning wrenches, managing wires, etc. 

Soon, I recruited a student who had no plans for college, but was on the fast track to a good career as a mechanic.  He introduced the team to things like zip ties and using files, and he was easily the team's best builder.  His background racing R/C cars made him the best driver too, by a long shot.  On top of all this, he offered a voice of realistic reason when the rest of the team dreamed a little too much.  Example:
Future Programmer:   "Lets build an oscillating robotic arm that can pick up the ball and place it automatically in the 3 foot high hoop and then grab the bar and make the robot do a pull up at the end!  I can program it while you guys design it!"
Future Mechanic:  (Laughs)
Future Engineer:  "We could have it designed and built by next week!"
Future Mechanic:  (Falls out of chair laughing) 
Future Programmer:  "Well, maybe it would take two weeks....."

Another example: 
Future Engineer:  "Our robot has excessive torque to the rear wheels and insufficient forward weight, and this is causing the front end to lift during acceleration."
Future Programmer:  "We can program the robot to gradually increase speed, thereby reducing the front end lift"
Future Engineer:   "What if we redesign the robot with an all-wheel drive system?  The equal front/rear torque distribution would minimize the differential in transfer of energy, since the front wheels would pull as the rear wheels push.   This would also place more weight on the front of the robot."
Future Mechanic:  "It just needs a wheelie bar."
Rest of team:  "What's a wheelie bar?"
Future Mechanic:  (takes five minutes to install a bar on back of robot to keep front wheels from lifting during acceleration)
Rest of team:   (applause)

The specialized skillset provided by my mechanically-minded team member was a priceless addition to the team, and all of the team members built a solid relationship as the season progressed.  If you are coaching a secondary robotics team, be sure to ask your CTE teachers for suggestions regarding students to fill this role.  I found too that this team member "unlocked" some hidden building potential in the rest of the team.

Reflection 3:  Assume Nothing!  (Leadership)

As I previously stated, I initially thought my students would take FTC robotics and run with it, and that I would wind up with a passive role.  After all I had great, well-rounded team members, and all of them were extremely capable and versatile.  They just needed to build and program a square robot with four wheels and two motors, and then modify it a bit......easy! 

Alas, I was mistaken.

Halfway through my second season of coaching high school FTC teams, I realized the problem was two-fold:  First, the team dreamed up and even put to paper ideas that were well above their pay grade.  They were tough nuggets too, as even when reality kicked them in the face they came back for more punishment.   Second, there was a disconnect between team members that had to be addressed.  While Future Engineers were working on or even trying to build a magnificent point-scoring mechanism, Future Programmers were coding a slightly (or completely) different mechanism that often didn't even exist yet, and Future Mechanic had given up and was watching Fords race Chevy's in mud on YouTube.   The disconnect was unintentional, but a killer no less.

The team needed leadership.   I intended to give this responsibility to a team member, and I observed them to closely to determine who would take that roll.  Then I realized:  My most senior team member had not completed 2 full years of FTC robotics competition.   I had team members that were competent in their individual disciplines, and by the end of that season I had some that were capable in all aspects of robot building and operation.  Unfortunately, because my team was new, I had nobody that was capable of seeing the big picture, the timeline constraints, the limitations imposed by ability and tools and budget on hand, and how all of this should guide the team's direction.   That left the job to one person:  ME.

Once I took on a bigger role in making decisions and maintaining a narrow focus for the team, they made progress very quickly.   By the next season I probably would have been able to hand more of that responsibility to a team member, but even then I would have had to play a big role in the team's day-to-day workings.  As fortunes would have it, the next year would see me taking on two additional middle school FTC teams, and a different coach would take over my old high school teams.   The high school students did a great job, and by the end of that third season a very clear student leader had emerged.   If you are working with a new FTC team, don't be afraid to jump in and play a big part as the team (coach included) gets a good feel for how everything works, and what a good team looks like.   Luckily FTC's rules allow the coach to get pretty involved in building and programming, which is great in my opinion as it provides coaches an invaluable learning experience!

Reflection 4:   Robotics isn't for everybody (Team Size)

I have coached middle and high school teams, and seen a ton of teams at competition as well.   With both FTC and LEGO robotics, I have noticed that there are people actively working on the robot, and people sitting off to the side twiddling their thumbs.   The more people there are on the team, the more thumb twiddling.   Idle hands are the devil's playground, and it's best to make sure everyone has a job. 

I refuse to have more than 6 students on an FTC team, or more than 4 students on a LEGO team.  I am very, very happy with these numbers.

6 students on an FTC team allows for at least one great programmer, one great builder, one great engineer, one great PR person (help with notebook, poster, etc.), and a couple utility players.   The utility players can be younger team members growing into one of the main roles, or just kids that are into robotics that can help out wherever needed. 

4 students on a LEGO team makes for a couple of good builders and a couple of good programmers.  Competing in FLL, I would swap a builder for a PR person.

Reflection 5:  When it comes to robotics, robotics isn't everything (Engineering Notebooks, etc.)

I love working with building and programming robots.  I love watching the students drive their final product around.   I love troubleshooting, and helping other teams, and guiding my team to help other teams. 

I can't make myself excited about engineering notebooks or team posters.

If you are like me (and I know I'm not alone), start the season with a strong emphasis on the engineering notebook.   Create a template, share it out, and provide a concrete document showing when each team member is responsible for an entry.   Appoint a team photographer while you're at it.  You may have a student that is quite happy to take on the entire notebook, and that is fine too. 

For the team poster, find that outgoing student on your team and guide them through the process of getting the poster started.  Odds are there will be a parent from the team that is more than happy to help with this task too -- gladly accept that help!   You won't be sorry!

Reflection 6:  Hit the track!  (Practice!)

This past year, due to a most excellent job change, I got the opportunity to coach a brand new middle school FTC team.   There is something nice about a clean slate, and I was able to run with it.   With the support of a second coach (she took care of the engineering notebook and poster), we started with the task of building a driving robot.   The team took about two week's worth of practice (around 4 hours total time) to build the standard Push Bot from the instructions, leaving them about 1.5 months to prep for regional competition. 

I asked the students to practice driving, and they ran with it, timing one another around an obstacle course they created.   Once the best driver was identified, the team decided to stick with that driver the rest of the season (great idea!).

Moving forward, there was never a practice where the students couldn't practice driving for the last few minutes of the day.   The robot was lightly modified, never fully disassembled, and the students were intimately familiar with its operation by competition time.   It wasn't the best-built in terms of points-scoring mechanisms, but it worked consistently and the students practiced a lot.

We had a county-level competition in December.  The new team competed against a variety of middle- and high-school teams, all of which had at least one year of experience.   Prior to the competition, I told these new students that they would probably get crushed at their first competition, and that that was okay. 

The students easily passed all tech inspections, they rocked the interview (which got them a trophy), and they pretty easily won their first round of competition.   Then they won the second round.   They were one of a very few teams consistently scoring, even though their robot was a lot more simple than most of the others there.   As the competition continued, they stayed pretty high up on the scoreboard.  They got the opportunity to compete in the playoffs, and made it to the final round, and darned near won that.

Come regionals the team continued to perform well, very nearly making it to the state playoffs.   Not bad for a first year team! 

This was the first time I've had a team practice so heavily, and there is no question this was a huge part of their success.  In the off-season we were able to acquire an FTC field for their school, which will help them continue to improve next year.   

The low-pressure practice sessions provided an invaluable opportunity to catch design faults, such as grinding gears and overheating motors, will in advance of competition time.   Case in point:   Be sure your practice schedules leave plenty of room for driving practice, in addition to building and programming!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Little "Moore" Engineering

Southern Pines Elementary School Teacher Mrs. Moore, wanted to make sure her 5th grade students were 100% engaged while learning the concepts of force, gravity, and inertia for science class.  She agrees that it is not enough to simply teach the concepts - 
students must EXPERIENCE the concepts! 

While implementing the engineering process, 

which is reviewed before every engineering thread lesson in Moore County Schools, the students, in teams of 4, used the following supplies to create their very own rollercoasters:

 -  10 sheets of regular copy paper
 -   4 sheets of card stock paper
 -   a roll of masking tape
 -   scissors
 -  A sheet of poster board (for a base)
 -  2 paper plates (for optional funnels)  






Wednesday, April 25, 2018

This Teacher Works the Right AND Left Side of Your Brain

I am probably one of the least creative people you’ll ever meet. I am constantly on Twitter or reaching
out to the people I work with to get new ideas of how to integrate technology into the classroom. And I
am without a doubt the least artistic person you’ll ever come across. I hated Thursdays when I was
little because that was arts and crafts day at my elementary school. But I think my view on arts and
crafts would be totally different if I had Barbara Kennerly as my art teacher back in the day. The entire
right side of my brain would be way more developed if “Mrs. K” had been around in my younger days.
I have had the pleasure of working with Barb for a couple of years now and in my opinion, she is one
of the best art teachers we have in our district. She expands the cultural awareness of her students
tenfold from what they’ve had prior to walking in her classroom. She’ll even wear the clothing that
goes along with her lesson, which makes her even more special for her students. Here she is wearing
a Japanese kimono to go along with the lesson I'm highlighting:
She knows her curriculum like the back of her hand but it doesn’t stop there. She reaches beyond
the art program to make connections to what’s going on in the other areas of instruction. One of my
favorite projects that I helped out with this year was a collaboration with Mrs. K where she integrated
art, science and technology into the 5th grade literacy curriculum. Her students created a dragon
tooth that we then 3D printed for them!

I took a wild ride into Barb’s head to pick her brain about this assignment and get all the details. Here’s
what she had to say about this amazing lesson. Buckle up...
“It started with Dana Wyckoff (the 5th grade ELA teacher), she was doing a story Where the Mountain
Meets the Moon. I was integrating the Chinese New Year and how the dragon is used as a symbol in
more than one culture. Then the assignment was that we were going to be dragon scientists and we
discovered a new dragon. We logged all the scientific information into our notebook (where it lives,
what it eats, its environment and how it would influence its color, antarctic dragon would be white or
blue, etc.) In this project they designed the tooth that went with the dragon. The shape of the tooth
would indicate whether it was a carnivore or not. This was also connected to the Dragonology books
that students were working with in the media center.

Barb is going to take the dragon teeth that we 3D printed and turn them into a necklace that students
can wear! Almost like those shark tooth necklaces that you get at the beach. The students at Cameron
Elementary and Southern Pines Primary are very fortunate to have Mrs. K as their art teacher. I’m so
jealous of those Scots and Bees. They get to have an offbeat, inspirational, funny (in a good way)
and creative art teacher to open their eyes to the wonderful world of art.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

4th Annual Digital Learning Showcase!

On March 15th, 2018, Moore County Schools put on our 4th Annual Digital Learning Showcase at Vass-Lakeview Elementary.  It's hard to believe just how far we have come since our first showcase at Union Pines High School in 2014.

Once again, our students, teachers, and DIFs stepped up and showed how they use digital tools in their classrooms to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and create.  Below are just some of the examples from the night:

Students shared how they:

  • collaborated across the globe to create 3D printed flashlights
  • used Dash the robot to study black history month
  • learned about cyber security through Cyber Patriot
  • utilized virtual reality to connect to amazing environments way outside Moore County
  • built and programmed advanced robotics
  • used green screen technology connected to their reader's theater
  • used 3D printing to design and print ancient structures in HS social studies
  • coded circuits with Arduino
  • And so much more!!!
However, one of the most exciting parts of our showcases each year is how the kids get a chance to visit and learn from other students throughout the night.  It is so rewarding to see our students being exposed to all the wonderful possibilities that technology and digital learning can bring!

Thanks to all who came!  We look forward to seeing you again next year!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Curricular Coding Infusion

According to Emily Hayden, "Learning code requires thinking and encourages curiosity" (2016). It is a form of engineering with planning, problem solving, and tons of trial and error.   Coding even offers that "gaming" or "level up" feeling when the finished product executes correctly.  Teachers will often hear those delightful words shouted aloud -"I got it!" and "It works!"  

Additionally, "Computer-related jobs are expected to grow at the faster-than-average rate of 12 percent through 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also reports that the median annual salary for these professionals in 2015 was $81,430, which was more than two times the average for all occupations.  This figure has been increasing!

So, how do we make coding more accessible to students?

The answer is by infusing the curriculum with coding!

Mr. Thomas' 7th grade math students, at Crain's Creek Middle School, enjoyed putting their knowledge of complimentary and supplementary angles to the test today while infusing a little Python Coding.  The programming even progressed to include a little introduction to artificial intelligence! 

Using the website Trinket, students started with a basic code, which drew a 90 degree angle.  

This was the code:

from turtle import *

turtle1 = Turtle( )


Then, they were asked to write a program, which drew a 40 degree angle.

Students tried different coding combinations.  The first thought was to simply change the 90 to a 40.  Using the Desmos Angles Site in conjunction with their coding attempts, they soon discovered that this did not work.  Students realized that they needed to think of their initial line as 180 degrees 
(a straight line).

Students' hands flew in the air as they realized many different iterations, which achieved the desired outcome.

Some examples included:

from turtle import *

turtle1 = Turtle( )


from turtle import *

turtle1 = Turtle( )


from turtle import *
turtle1 = Turtle( )

Then, students experimented with a "magic function machine" code, which allowed them to choose any angle they wanted and the computer would draw it automatically.

Students realize that functions in coding made the code easier and involved less typing!

This is the start to understanding abstraction
a very important term in computer science!


Finally, students experimented with a little "artificial intelligence."

If you would like to test out this code, please click HERE and have fun!

Happy Coding!