Digital Technology is seldom a stand-alone solution. It’s often a resource and if done well, a catalyst for learning. Most of my work revolves around projects and products from the Pittsburgh area, including K-12 outreach activities from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU). For twelve years I served an an adjunct professor in the Heinz College at CMU. I tried to find ways to connect K-12 educators to learning innovations from CMU. That was the before the CREATE Lab happened. Today at CMU the CREATE Lab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), and the LearnLab all provide opportunities for K-12 educators to discover new and innovative strategies, processes, and products to use in the learning environment.
On July 23-25, 2018 Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off from the CREATE Lab, will host a new conference – Catalyze Learning Summer Institute: Integrating Robotics With Your Curriculum. Registration will open in mid-February. Birdbrain Technologies is now impacting learners in over 40 countries. The conference intends to bring to Pittsburgh some of the best practitioners and practices found at global sites such as Hong Kong, Korea, Cyprus, or Dubai, as well as the United States.
Key to the Birdbrain/CREATE Lab model is the focus on computational thinking and an engineering design process. The CREATE Lab calls this approach, Digital Fluency. At the conference users will have a chance not only to hear about success stories, but more importantly to experience them first-hand. Participants will have the opportunity to choose from beginner to advanced tracks in making and programming. There will be workshops on using Hummingbird Robotics Kits and Finch robots with tablets and computers for both block-based and text-based languages. Birdbrain will also provide some sneak peaks at what is in currently in development.
The conference aims to create a network of users who will share their ideas at the conference and then implement their discoveries back their own sites. The conference will provide users an opportunity to immerse themselves in robotics across the curriculum and give them time to plan for their 2018-2019 school year. Catalyze Learning will be a practical, hands-on, and immersive experience that impacts not just academic learning, but changes the social landscape for learning.
Due to my work with Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, I get to work with educators around robotics and computational thinking. In June I observed students and educators at South Fayette’s STEAM Innovation Summer Institute. In July educators from the GEMS Education schools in Dubai came to Pittsburgh to interact and join the 2nd Annual Robotics and Computational Thinking Conference hosted by Birdbrain Technologies and the CREATE Lab.
Over the period of three days the educators investigated the Birdbrain tools developed at the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University – Hummingbird, Finch, and the new Flutter. The GEMS Schools has begun to develop a computational thinking framework focused on computer robotics for grades K-12. At every level teachers are designing multi-disciplinary units that include physical computing with the Birdbrain Robotics tools.
At the first day’s keynote Illah Nourbakhsh, the director for the CREATE Lab, outlined the key concepts behind computational thinking – algorithmic, abstraction, and problem-solving. Illah provided concrete examples. For instance, think about dance as an algorithm. Dances are broken down into a series of steps or movements. That’s an algorithm.
In today’s world it’s not just learning how to code that is critical. It’s tackling problems and coming up with creative solutions to those problems. That’s what the GEMS educators did for three days. Every educator had a chance to become a creative producer using the Birdbrain technologies. Educators worked in collaborative teams to design and create unique products that will jump-start the educators for their work in the 2017-2018 school year.
For the past four years I’ve helped to produce the South Fayette STEAM Innovation Summer Institute. This year’s two week set of workshops were extremely well received by educators and students who attended. Close to 98% of the participants gave a 4 or 5 to the workshop instructors and 99% for the organization of the sessions. Here’s a quick look at just five of the fifteen workshops that happened with quotations from the participants:
Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0
Aileen Owens, the Director of Technology and Innovation for the South Fayette School District and the Coordinator for the Summer Institute, gathered together a team of South Fayette students to co-teach a four-day workshop. The students worked with Carnegie Mellon University graduate and faculty members to develop a course for 8th grade students. The summer workshop provided an opportunity not only for the students to teach, but also for other students to test out the course along with several teachers from around the Pittsburgh region. The course includes a variety of activities that incorporate the Finch robot as part of a unit based on the novel and movie, The Martian. Both students and educators enjoyed the opportunity to test out this new beta course. One the teachers commented, “I will be teaching a coding course this upcoming school year and this course exposed to me Python for the first time. It also gave an insight into what the kids would be doing in a course, how they learn the software, what intrigues them in the coding world and how they adapt to the new language they are learning.”
Shad Wachter, the STEAM teacher for South Fayette’s Intermediate School, shared his talents for the fourth time this summer. Shad shared his years of experience working with Scratch for a team of educators who ranged from beginners to experienced teachers. At South Fayette everything fits into a computational framework. Shad constantly provided stories from his classes on how sets Scratch and the classroom experiences part of a larger context that includes the ability to problem-solve, develop algorithms, find repeating patterns, and use coding as part of other tools, such as BlocksCAD, a free kids-focused graphics program. According to one of the educators, “Everything was new! If I begin working at an intermediate or middle school, I can absolutely see fitting Scratch into the curriculum to introduce computational thinking!
Join the Maker Movement
Melissa Unger, the South Fayette Elementary STEAM teacher, has become one of the premier educators in the Pittsburgh region taking the Making tradition into the primary curriculum. She sets the stage at South Fayette for students’ foray into computational thinking. In her workshop she shared a variety of activities that she employs with her K-2 students. To get students to start to work in collaborative teams she uses BreakoutEDU, an immersive learning environment where students (or teachers) need to find clues to open a series of locked boxes that have clues toward a final goal. Educators who had never worked together quickly became a team working together to figure out the clues to open a series of locks. In another activity Melissa challenges her students (teachers) to use an electric toothbrush and stickers to create a machine to generate mathematical drawings. The challenge is really an introduction to the design and engineering process, a key component of South Fayette’s curriculum. Teachers come to South Fayette to learn from workshop facilitators who have become leaders in the region. One of the teachers remarked, “We are starting a maker space extreme in the fall and this workshop gave me many, many ideas from equipment to storage. Instructor was remarkable.”
Building Sustainable Mindsets
For the first time South Fayette partnered with Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus. According to the Summer Institute program: Topics in sustainability have great potential to help integrate across the disciplines while providing fodder for meaningful, student-driven projects in schools and communities. This workshop will introduce participants to mindsets and topics in sustainability, including: food systems and access, biodiversity, green buildings and schools, air quality, renewable energy, aquaponics, vertical gardening, community development, systems thinking and ecoliteracy. For the session participants used a Project Based Learning (PBL) framework to begin planning units to encourage students to take action in their schools and communities. The participants were quite enthused by their experiences in Sustainability and PBL. One of the educators indicated how well the two themes wove into her work, “My job is mostly project based so this helped me think about sustainability for my program.”
Another key component for South Fayette program is infusing the arts into the STEM framework. Stephanie Deluca, South Fayette’s Curriculum, Technology, and Innovation Coordinator (K-12), shared her experiences with the Summer Institute participants. One of the favorite projects tapped into the power of the Hummingbird, a Robotics kit developed at Carnegie Mellon University, and used as part of intermediate and middle school projects at South Fayette. Educators had to design their own interactive representation for a language arts unit. For another activity participants had to create their own visualizations for cells using water colors. How did the educators react? “It was great getting to know different fun things to do in a STEAM classroom.” “There were interesting ways to implement coding and robotics into the LA curriculum, science, social studies and STEAM. Creating a scene from a book, or play, demonstrating how body parts move and work.”