Category: STEM


This year’s ISTE conference in Denver was quite interesting. Norma and I spent most of our time in the HyperDuino booth showing our new CubeSat using Roger Wagner’s HyperDuino system. This CubeSat was the subject of my recent Instructable that received thousands of visits almost as soon as it was released!

The main activity at the booth, though, involved visitors learning how to use HyperDuino as a tool for student projects. After learning how to do it themselves, they were encouraged to show someone else how to do the same thing, at which point they would received a full HyperDuino kit to take home. Even though the booth location was near the back of the exhibit hall, it was packed three-deep with people most of the time.

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HyperDuino booth on a slow day

A brief tour of the hall showed that there were a few other booths (e.g., Fablevision) that were similarly packed, and a large number of booths with few attendees. The well-attended booths engaged people in learning through the building of artifacts, and the sparsely attended booths focused on telling people about a product or service.

It quickly became obvious that verbs were more important than nouns – that “doing” was more popular than “knowing.” In some ways this is reflected in the popularity of Maker Faires, and ties in with Dewey’s quote that he didn’t care what a child knew, but what he could do with what he knew. Dare I think this means we are finally ready for progressive education? I think so! The Next Generation Science Standards represent a tectonic shift in pedagogy, and – consciously or not – this year’s ISTE attendees seemed ready for it.

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In the last few years, we’ve visited flagship Maker Faires in San Mateo, California and New York City where we got to hang out with over 100,000 kindred spirits for whom tinkering is a critical component of life.  While formal Maker Faires are a fairly recent phenomenon, the educational application of “making” dates back to the dawn of the previous century when John Dewey said that what a child knew was not as important as what he did with what he knew.  This perspective from the Father of Progressive Education remained central to the thinking of educational leaders like MIT Professor Seymour Papert who, in the early 1990’s, coined the word “constructionism” to describe the process of building representations of knowledge separate from the learner himself. (Papert, Seymour, and Harel, Idit. “Situating constructionism.” Constructionism 36 (1991): 1-11.)

Even libraries have joined the movement with public “makerspaces” being added to facilities previously dedicated to quiet, paper-based, research.  As Erica Compton from the Idaho Commission for Libraries has said, “Libraries need to become more like kitchens and less like grocery stores ― a place where patrons are able to construct knowledge, where they can create, build, make and be actively engaged.”

One would think that a recent surge in constructionist activities has taken the world by storm, perhaps at the expense of reflective thought or of activities of value, even if they don’t result in artifacts.  Well, as far as traditional schooling goes, the progressivist philosophy of Dewey has yet to become the norm.  To be fair, every school has students engaged in making things.  Whether it is a science fair project displayed on a tri-fold board, or more complex constructions, every teacher engages students in some sort of project that requires “making.”   But it is the rare school that embraces the “making” philosophy across the curriculum.

As a product of a progressive public high school in Chicago, my life was pretty equally split between hand-based and head-based learning.  And, it was the work we did with our hands that made what we learned with our heads “stick” and make sense.  As a result, my first year in Engineering at Northwestern University was basically a walk in the park.

While any subject at any grade can benefit from a rich “making” component, the STEM fields are clearly low hanging fruit in this regard.  There are two reasons for this:  First, the scientific method is based on the testing of conjectures through experimentation and our curricular interest in technology and “coding” (programming) feeds into “making” as well.  Second, the Next Generation Science Standards and (to a lesser extent) the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics mandate the use of inquiry and project-based learning as the vehicles through which these subjects are navigated.

And, yet, in too many schools the ground in which these forces are planted lies fallow.  The time has come to change this, and the tools needed are inexpensive and easy to get.  We’ll describe some of these tools, but first there is another topic to explore: the physical structure of school.  According to the architect Prakash Nair, too many schools are built around “bells and cells.”  Children move from place to place at fixed intervals and (especially in the upper grades) sit in rooms at desks all facing the front so they can harvest the wisdom imparted from their teacher.  It is a rare school that allows the free flow of students from place to place and lets them work on projects as long as they need to.

While the incorporation of makerspaces in traditional schools is possible, there is a long way to go if the goal is deep pedagogical change.  In some cases, schools have a STEM lab where groups of kids work on a variety of projects with the freedom to move from place to place as needed.  Except for the burden of bells, such environments can be quite productive ― functioning more like studios than classrooms.  For many, this is a great first step, but it carries the risk that it will be isolated in fear that the practices there would infect other rooms.  As Professor Papert asked on numerous occasions, “What would be the impact of the pencil on education if you had to go to the pencil lab to use one?”

On the classroom computer front, it might appear ― at first glance ― that recent trends are moving us further away from supporting a culture of making.  The reason I say this is because Chromebooks are now the number-one computing platform in America’s schools.  Since Chromebooks rely on cloud-based applications, traditional software is no longer supported, leaving users at the mercy of those developers willing and eager to create applications that can be run over the Internet.  Also, it was not clear at the start how Chromebooks would accommodate maker hardware like 3D printers, and robotics control devices like the popular Arduino board.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.28.56 PMIt turns out these fears are unfounded.  In the domain of student programming, for example, everything from MIT’s Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) to Terrapin Logo has (or will soon have) versions that work splendidly on Chromebooks  This helps move the Chromebook from a content delivery platform to one that supports unbridled student creativity.

With the current interest in students learning to program (coding) these developments are welcome.  In some ways this harkens back to the early days of personal computing when there was little commercial software, and students had to learn to write programs themselves.  Of course, the programming world has changed a lot since the early 1980’s with construction block languages like Scratch coexisting with text-based programming languages like Logo and Python.

Of course, with programming languages, the results reside on the computer screen.  With peripherals like the Arduino, computer programs can interact with remote sensors and output devices like lhyperduinoamps and motors.  Using tools like HyperDuino for Chrome (www.hyperduino.com) students can build projects that bridge the virtual and physical worlds.

A popular starting point for HyperDuino is the making of interactive tri-fold displays where, by touching certain areas of the display, the computer might play a video and lights on the physical display turn on to show the area being explored at that time..

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.47.09 PMMore elaborate constructions can be made using the Fab@School Maker Studio software (www.fablevisionlearning.com) that cuts out elaborate paper shapes designed by students using the Silhouette computer controlled paper cutter.

Even 3D printers have joined the cloud, making them work perfectly with Chromebooks as powerful tools for making.  Two companies with excellent cloud-based printers are Polar3D (www.polar3d.com), and New Matter (newmatter.com).

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.51.38 PMWhile cloud-based design tools for 3D printing have been around for awhile (e.g., Tinkercad), new and more powerful tools have arrived, such as BlocksCAD (blockscad.einsteinsworkshop.com).  This tool uses Scratch-like programming to design 3D shapes of amazing richness and complexity.

My point is that the maker movement in education is supported on many levels ― from the new standards to the new technologies and beyond.  It is time for heads and hands to be unified in support of learning across all grades and subjects.

Meet the author

Dr. Thornburg and his colleagues conduct workshops on maker technologies ranging from 3D printing to using the HyperDuino technology with Chrome.  He can be reached at david@tcse-k12.org.

There has been a recent push toward a more progressive approach to education that is likely to have a positive impact at all grades and across all subject areas. This move is based on Seymour Papert’s ideas of “constructionism” in which learning is demonstrated by the creation of artifacts that are separate from the learner herself. As Papert has said, it doesn’t matter if the expression is a poem or a sand castle – the fact that it exists outside the learner where it can be shared with others is the critical part. John Dewey famously said, “I don’t care what a child knows; I care what he can do with what he knows.”

This shift from knowing to doing is reflected in the Next Generation Science Standards where the focus is not on learning about science, but learning how to think and act like a scientist. The same approach applies to other subjects – from mathematics to the arts – and the benefit of this approach is that it engages students and increases their learning.

One of the strategies that supports this shift is inquiry-driven project-based learning in which students start with a compelling question that drives the creation of projects to provide an answer to the question. For example, suppose a class is exploring the seasons. In early grades, questions might deal with why certain holidays are held during particular seasons. In later grades, a question might be whether or not seasons exist on other planets. If you want to bring the arts into the topic, there are rich areas of exploration from the music of Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) to Monet’s seasonal paintings of haystacks. In fact, a good starting point for this module would be to use a mind mapping tool like Freemind Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 3.13.51 PM(http://freemind.sourceforge.net/) for students to use as they brainstorm a list of interesting questions. In short order, a list of 50-100 questions might get posed by a classroom full of students, any one of which could be an interesting project for a student. By having students work on individual questions and then sharing their work with the rest of the class, everyone benefits from the combined efforts and the depth of learning increases as a result.

What tool is best for creating projects? To me, the answer is Hyperstudio (http://www.mackiev.com/hyperstudio/). This product has amazing capabilities as a multimedia authoring tool. Basically, the user creates a stack of “cards” on the screen, each of which can have buttons, graphics, sounds, movies, narrations, text, etc. Once a project is completed it can be shared with others who can navigate through the stack to explore the project. In the case of a linear sequence of cards, a stack even can be converted to a movie for posting on YouTube. Because Hyperstudio works with both Macs and Windows, a student can start a project on one kind of computer and finish it on another. The versatility of this software is amazing.1 card sample

In fact, if it only did what I described, it would meet most people’s needs. However, as they say on late night television: “But wait, there’s more.” In addition to everything else, Hyperstudio has the built-in capability to interact with the Arduino interface card (https://www.arduino.cc/). This card connects to your computer through the USB port and allows you to read a wide variety of sensors (light, temperature, pressure, etc.) and control external devices (lights, motors, etc.) The result is that the virtual world of the computer is now extended to the physical realm, adding even more capabilities to student projects.

The Arduino is not without its challenges, however. First, the native programming language is a tricky to learn, especially for younger users. Second, the physical connection to sensors and lights requires additional components (resistors, etc.) that complicate the creation of a finished project.

Both of these challenges are nicely addressed with Hyperstudio. First, the programming tools for the Arduino are built into Hyperstudio using easy-to-understand commands that students at most grades easily can learn. Second, the need for external resistors, etc., is eliminated through the use of a plug-in card (called a shield) that greatly simplifies the process of making connections. This card is called the Hyperduino, (http:www.hyperduino.com).hyperduino

It plugs into the Arduino card and provides all the resistors an other components needed to supplement the lights, motors and sensors so the student can focus on the project itself, not the mechanics of connecting components. As Roger Wagner (designer of both Hyperstudio and the Hyperduino) has said: “The HyperDuino does for the maker movement what HyperStudio did for hypermedia: it makes it possible for everyone, regardless of age and experience, to create interactive maker projects.

The result is that student projects can have both a virtual and a physical component in which, in addition to a rich piece of multimedia on the computer screen, a physical model can be constructed with touch switches and LED lights that turn on or off to show aspects of the physical model that are related to what is being shown on the computer screen. The result raises the constructionist bar, and makes student projects even more compelling to those who experiment with them.

For example, if a student builds a physical model of something related to a season, the act of touching a switch can light up the model and have the computer go to a card related to the season and start playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The point here is that everything is created by the students.

Because Hyperstudio stacks can launch each other, the teacher can create a master stack with buttons that link to each student’s project. This becomes a really neat thing to display during open houses so parents can see (and explore) the work of their own children as well as the work of others in the class. The greatest benefit, though, comes from students sharing their work with each other. This sharing is likely to trigger new questions that can result in even more work on the topic – all without the direct intervention of the teacher.

The result is a huge leap away from the traditional text-book driven model of education with the bulk of the work being moved into the hands of the students themselves. In fact, with a project like this, it is possible that teachers may learn something they didn’t know before. The excitement that comes from new learning makes everyone eager to learn more.

As mentioned before, the constructionist approach described here cuts across grade levels and subject areas. One would he hard-pressed to find a curricular area for which it doesn’t apply.

As for us, we are busy doing workshops with teachers that explore both the pedagogical underpinnings of this approach, as well as the mechanics of working with Hyperstudio and Hyperduino. Because we want the workshop to have an immediate impact on classrooms, every participant receives both the Hyperduino kit (including the Arduino board) as well as a full licensed copy of Hyperstudio. To schedule a workhop at your school, e-mail us using the form below.

For several years I’ve been promoting virtual environments as a way to help build STEM skills in students.  This work culminated in the creation of the educational holodeck ― a hybrid learning space that blended the physical world of furniture with the virtual world of computers.  For example, we converted a room into a virtual mission to Mars, with a large viewscreen in the front of the room where students could see where they were going.

As enticing as this environment was, the images were flat 2-D representations.  Even so, the environment was quite compelling to most students.

About two years ago a friend of mine encouraged me to see a new environment ― zSpace ― that generated highly interactive 3-D models of everything from living organisms to physics experiments.  This system uses a special computer and glasses with markers on them so that, as you move your head, your point of view changes.  Using a special stylus, you can reach into a model and pull pieces of it apart.  The traditional frog dissection, for example, is supported in this system quite nicely, and without the mess!

One of the things I saw in the original demo was a physics modeling environment incorporating ramps and balls.  The behavior of the system mirrored that of real-world experiments, without having loose parts falling on the floor or getting lost.

The timing of zSpace couldn’t be better.  With the roll-out of the Next Generation Science Standards in many states, the emphasis is on experimentation and modeling, not on lectures and textbooks.  Of course educators need to set the stage, but once that is done, the students are expected to explore topics by modeling the behavior of real scientists.  In other words, the shift is from learning about science, to actually doing experiments.

The fact that experimentation using zSpace is virtual is not a problem because objects have true 3-D representation.  The potential of this technology to transform STEM education is very high!

If you want to see this environment for yourself, free educational seminars are being offered across the country by zSpace. Please register at http://zspace.com/eduseminar. In my opinion, this is a technology worth watching closely