Robotics and Computational Thinking

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

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.

 

Studio A

What happens when you add  a variety of artists to Project-based Learning with a Design Thinking approach? The result it Studio A. That’s what the Avonworth School District has created for the past two years as part of a summer workshop for educators sponsored by the Grable Foundation. Educators from the Pittsburgh area (and beyond) gather together with Avonworth teachers and students to engage in a series of activities led by experts in Human Centered Design from the LUMA Institute and artists that are part of the Artist Residency program at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

I’ve been fortunate to have joined the activities for both this year and last year. There are few summer programs that not only stimulate educators to rethink how they work with learners, but also provide fun and engaging activities. As adults we forget how important it is to “play.” You need to use your body as well as your mind to express ideas. The Avonworth workshops used the theme of “Civic Engagement” this year. Each artist and LUMA expert developed a lesson around the Civic Engagement theme. Alison Zapata, a visual artist, provided a hands-on session where we learned how to use basic elements of art to create a design for a poster that communicated a civic message. In my case it was about how trees reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Other artists tackled the Civic Engagement theme by using dramatic ensembles to build communities that understand acceptance and kindness or by writing poetry through the lens of another “persona.” In every arts situation we were learning how to work with other people and to look at how our group ideas could solve a common problem.

The LUMA team walked us through a series of scenarios that used the LUMA strategies against the backdrop of Project-based Learning. For instance: how do you get input from students around a Driving Question? As a group we examined a “Concept Poster” that represented student responses to a Driving Question. Our challenge was to give well-rounded feedback using a strategy named “Rose, Thorn, Bud.” In this strategy, each person writes positive comments on pink Post-it notes (Roses), problematic issues on blue Post-it notes (Thorns), and potential improvements on green Post-it notes (Buds).

For two days we worked with the LUMA team and the artists. Then on the final morning we were able to work on our own problems. Artists and LUMA experts were available for private conversations. People with similar interests, elementary teachers, for example, met with elementary students to understand how the process works (or doesn’t work) from their perspective. Teams from schools that wanted to develop their own approach had the opportunity to have their own gathering.

What will I take from the Studio A experience? I’ll continue to refine the Design Challenges that I coordinate for the Energy Innovation Center for Parkway Consortium schools. I’ve already created a new schematic that will add one or two new LUMA strategies that I’ve found on the new LUMA Workplace website. I also plan to incorporate a warmup activity adapted from one of the improvisational art sessions. For the evaluation of the Design Challenges I’ll add a LUMA activity based on “Statement Starters” to gather data about the experience.

STEAM Innovation

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:

Python

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.

Scratch Programming

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.

STEAM Innovation

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.”