Taming the Tide of 3D Printing

This year, our STEM program was lucky enough to receive a grant that helped us to get three 3D printers in our computer & STEM labs. My students are all pumped about 3D printing, but getting them to understand the process of 3D design and printing has been a challenge. They see the printer and want to be able to print anything they can imagine right then and there.

In my classes, I’m always striving to get students moving at their own pace and am uncomfortable when I see students all working on the same thing, so I’ve tried to avoid having a one-size-fits-all, everyone-look-up-here lesson about the 3D printer and 3D design. Recently, during a session of my overstuffed afterschool club, Makers Gonna Make, I had swarms of 4th graders inundating me with the same questions, so I created a tool to help students more clearly see the steps in this unfamiliar process.

Enter the “Am I Ready to 3D Print?” flowchart:

 

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This simple piece of paper has helped my students to conceptualize the process we use for 3D printing and to track their own progress through the different stages. This afternoon, I had students come in and say, “I know that I won’t be printing today, because I’ve still got 3 steps to go” which was a far cry from the “MUST PRINT NOW!” cries that filled our first session together. I’m excited to roll this out in my general classroom contexts as well, because I think it will help all of my learners better understand the roadmap for getting to print their awesome and creative designs.

If you’re interested in using and/or modifying this document to suit your needs, feel free to grab a copy here!

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Longest Chain STEM Challenge

As a teacher who is working with ten different grade levels, I’m a huge fan of STEM challenges that are low-prep, require everyday supplies, and are still engaging. I’ve used the following challenge with students from grades 3-6 and am always impressed with the depth of thinking that arises from such a simple task.

The Prompt: Create the longest chain possible from a single piece of construction paper.

Constraints:

  • Chain must be constructed of interlocking loops
  • Materials limited to single sheet of construction paper, scissors, and stapler
  • 20-25 minutes to create chain

Supplies:
– 1 piece of construction paper per group (use different colors for each group)
– 1 half sheet of construction paper per group (same color for all groups is fine, but try to
make it a different color than all of the whole sheets of paper)
– 1 pair of scissors per group
– 1 stapler per group
– Extra staples in case groups run out
– Measuring tape
– Rulers

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Procedure:

Quickly introduce the challenge to students by sharing the prompt and the constraints.

(Optional, but recommended) Give teams 7 minutes to work with a half sheet of paper, scissors, and a stapler to create a prototype for their chain. This is the time where I’ll often hear students engaging in some high-quality discussions. You can push these conversations deeper by encouraging them to use a measurement tool to try to prove why their theory will produce the longest chain.

After the prototyping phase, have students discard or set aside their chain experiments. Distribute full sheets of construction paper to groups and have them begin working on their final chain. (To prevent cheating, make sure the new paper is a different color than the paper groups worked with during prototyping.) Give students 20-25 minutes to work on their chains. Most groups will use this full time because of the number of strips they’ll have and the time it takes to staple.

Recommended questions to ask while you circulate around the room:
– What did you learn from your prototype that you’re applying to your final chain?
– (For early finishers) Is there anything you could do to extend the length of your chain?

When the building time is up, have teams measure their chains. I like to do this as a whole class, with teams bringing up their chains and measuring them in the front of the room. Teams come to the front, briefly share their strategy, and then measure their chains with a tape measure. We then record team data on the board. Our follow-up discussion doesn’t revolve around who made the longest chain, but rather, which techniques yielded lengthier chains.

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Teacher Tips:
I have had success with having students complete this task in both pairs and trios. I prefer trios because the conversation has more voices and ideas and they can set up an assembly-line system for creating their chains.

I will often use a random team generator to create groups and get students working with different people in the room.

During the chain construction, I task teams with coming up with a team name for our measurement chart.

 

 

Family & Community Communication as a Specialist Teacher

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Prior to becoming a specialist teacher, community and family communication was one of the strongest aspects of my practice — I created bi-weekly paper newsletters featuring a different student in each edition, I maintained a classroom blog with my students, I kept a digital e-portfolio for each student that parents could access at any time, I maintained a classroom website, and I sent home weekly update emails/paper notes to each family in my class (Thank you MailMerge!). I spent a lot of time on family communication and I felt that it paid enormous dividends during conferences, events, or family meetings — what was going on in the classroom was transparent and I could easily engage with families about student learning. It also helped to establish an important rapport that I could draw upon during those difficult conversations that periodically crop up and used to cause a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Now that I’m a specialist teacher, everything about communication with families has changed. Other than my eight 6th grade advisees, I’m not the primary contact point for anyone trying to find how their child is doing. I have one small box on the triennial report card that provides a list of standards and scores for my class, without much explanation about what my STEM class is about or the activities that we undertake during it. My classroom is down a hallway that is infrequently used unless you’re heading to my room or the locker rooms, so I also don’t get much in the way of incidental observation when families are dropping off or picking up kids. Overall, then, families would only know about STEM class based on the report card and anything that their child might share about the course. (Which, for my STEM-loving kids, might actually be quite a lot.)

One of my professional goals for the year has been raising family community awareness about what students are doing in STEM class. In choosing my approaches, I’ve tried to carefully balance effort with potential for results. I quickly ruled out a paper-based communication strategy, as I don’t have a lot of faith in students bringing papers from my classroom to their home classrooms, putting them in their backpacks, and then taking them home. I teach 400 students across 10 grade levels, so I also ruled out anything like an individualized weekly update.

I ultimately decided to take a three-pronged approach to reaching families.

  1. A STEM bulletin board in a high-traffic area. As mentioned above, my classroom is located down at the end of a hallway that isn’t highly frequented — except when people need to use the bathroom at school events. I’ve gotten quite a lot of foot traffic now that basketball season is here — I often see people stopping to check out the photos on the colorful board on their way to and from the gym; it’s even prompted a few conversations about what STEM is and what it looks like at our school.
  2. A STEM website with student blog element. Teachers in my district are encouraged to maintain websites and they are linked on our school website. I’ve created a Blogger site that serves as both a content-based site, where families can see STEM curriculum goals and information about activities. But, the homepage of the site is actually a blog, which I update once a week with student work from one of the grade levels. While I’m not sure how many families have actually viewed the site, an unintended benefit of this has been that students are checking out what other grade levels are doing, as the website is the homepage on all of the computers in our lab.
  3. E-portfolios. I’ve created e-portfolios for each of my 400 students. Once a week, I have what I call “documentation day,” and I try to update the e-portfolios of one grade level with work or photos that they’ve completed in STEM class. My 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are increasingly taking on more ownership of their portfolios and I made specific reference to them in my report card comments, which I’m hoping means that at least some families have seen them. I’m currently working on how to easily and effectively share the portfolios with families of my K-5 students — balancing privacy and accessibility is an ongoing challenge. These e-portfolios are also incredibly valuable for me, as I’ll be able to track and monitor student growth over the ten years that they spend at our school. It excites me to think about students have a record of their STEM progress that includes artifacts from both 8th grade and kindergarten.

I’m hoping that, combined together, these three strategies will help to raise family and community awareness about our STEM program. Are you a specialist teacher? How do you get the word out about the awesome things your students are doing in your class?

The Grinch Games!

I’ve been looking forward to this week for over a month! It’s our final week of school before vacation and it’s all about the Grinch in STEM class. I’ve put together a variety of Grinch-related tasks for my students in grades K-4. When they arrive in class this week, students are able to move freely between tasks for the duration of class.

  • Super Sleds: This challenge involves creating a sled that the Grinch can use to slide down Mt. Crumpit. This station is stocked with cardboard, rubber bands, tin foil, index cards, and paper clips.

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  • Balance It On Crumpit: At this station, the Grinch has a bag full of stolen goodies. Students have to make the balance level by adding a variety of weighted objects to the plastic bucket.

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  • Zipping Into Whoville: Using cups, pipe cleaners, string, binder clips, and rubber bands, students try to create the most effective zipline possible to help the Grinch get back into Whoville to return all of the stolen gifts.

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  • A Seuss-ian Creation: This station is open-ended and challenges students to use a variety of recycled materials to create a new toy or musical instrument that a Who can use to make “noise, noise, noise!”

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  • Lifting a Tree: At this station, students help the Grinch stuff a tree up the chimney by exploring how a simple pulley system works.

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  • A Whoville Christmas Tree: Using cups, students try to build the tallest tree possible. Once it’s built, they can decorate it using the pompoms.

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  • Grinch’s Growing Heart: On Christmas Eve, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. At this station, students use Legos to create three different sized hearts.

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  • iPad Grinch Drawing: This activity is geared towards my youngest kiddos — using a Finger Paint app on our iPads, they try to create a picture of the Grinch.

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  • Stealing Presents: Maybe my favorite of the activities! I got this awesome new toy — The Turing Tumble — and have turned it into a Grinch Game activity. Marbles get loaded into slots at the top left and right of the plastic board and students use different components that can get placed onto the board to try to get all of the marbles to wind up on the Grinch’s portion of the bottom of the board. (I’ll try to get a picture that better illustrates how the Turing Tumble works.)

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I’m looking forward to four more days of the joyful noise, noise, noise that these games have created in my classroom!

Reading Day: Making Time for Professional Development

The past several weeks have been a blur — two November snow days (oh, Maine!), report cards, and the holiday season have kept me in a perpetual losing battle with my to-do list.

It’s this continuous sense of hustle and bustle that has led me to create an intentional shift in how I think about scheduling my time. In an article that I recently read (the author and title escape me), the author discussed how we spend so much time working on things that are unimportant because they come with a false sense of urgency — email comes to mind as the big one for me in this area — or because they are quick and seem easy to get done and cross off our list. What happens as we chase all of these small, urgent-feeling tasks is that we lose all of the time for the bigger, deeper things that we’re always saying we’d like to find the time to do.

For me, the thing that I’m always copying and pasting from one week’s to-do list to the next is professional reading and creativity time for curriculum and activity development. Because it never feels as urgent as my other to-dos, it’s the first thing I tend to push aside, even though it’s the thing that would actually be most effective in helping me to reach my goal of being a real-life Mz. Frizzle, who makes learning an adventure with interesting and challenging activities.

Over the Thanksgiving Break, while I had a few moments to catch my breath, I decided that I was going to prioritize this time for my own professional development. In creating my month-at-a-glance, I scheduled in one school day a week to be my “Reading Day.” On this day, the only thing I can do during my prep or those little pockets of time that crop up during the day (what typically becomes compulsive email checking time) is read and gather ideas for future activities. The time to do this is never going to magically appear and planning to do it only during the summer isn’t practical, as I’d like to be continually refining my practice while embedded in my daily context, not just creating plans during the summer when I’m not in the rhythm of teaching.

Thus far, keeping all of those to-dos away from my reading day has been HARD. Way harder than I expected. I keep having to remind myself that email can wait just one day, that I can catch up on setting up materials tomorrow — I’m having to retrain myself to more accurately judge urgency.

Today is actually my reading day, so I shouldn’t technically be writing this now, but this an idea that I wanted to ripple forward. Now, it’s back to my read for the day — Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s work Invent to Learn. Already, in my reading at breakfast and when I first arrived at school, I’m feeling that rush of inspiration that comes from reading about new, exciting ideas.

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Student Entrepreneurs

For our first unit with the 7th & 8th graders, all of the specialists in my building have crafted projects that encourage students to take positive social risks. In STEM class, my project took the from of students coming up with an idea for an invention or product that would help a target user somewhere in the age range of Pre-K to Grade 4.

This project challenged teams of students to identify a meaningful problem that children encounter, develop a viable solution that addresses that problem, create a prototype of the idea, produce a slide deck aimed at persuading an audience to support their product, and presenting their product in a “Shark Tank” style pitch. Oh — and they had only 6 days to complete all of these tasks! It was certainly a heavy lift, but my students more than rose to the occasion.

After having five classes of 7th and 8th graders complete this project, I was blown away by their engagement, passion, and creativity. They have displayed a keen ability to put their fingers on challenges faced by younger students and their products have attempted to help students with problems including making friends, reaching or using things not designed with children of their size in mind, avoiding getting lost, losing things, staying focused and motivated in class, helping when they experience bullying, and encouraging them make healthy food choices at school.

The biggest takeaway for me in this project has been the magical results of allowing students voice and choice in their work. While I provided a frame that included specific “must haves” and a target audience, the assignment left plenty of room for students to develop something that mattered to them. While there was some variance in total effort, all but a tiny handful of my 70+ students clearly cared deeply about their projects and showed determination and perseverance in bringing their ideas to fruition in their prototypes and slide decks. The diversity in the resulting projects also created a lot of “buzz” and excitement in the classroom, as students were also curious about the work being completed by other groups.

The amount of spontaneous exploration and learning that happened due to this project also impressed me — I had groups engage in experimentation with LEDs and circuits, structural integrity when working with cardboard, sewing, programming, working with a saw, and a host of other skills. I am excited to continue to look for ways to allow learning to unfold authentically as it did in this project; my students’ work confirmed what research tells us — that immediately applying skills learned “just in time” leads to more meaningful and durable knowledge-construction.

Frightfully Fun Fall STEAM!

October is upon us and that means one thing is on my youngest students’ minds: Halloween. In fact, back in September, during one of my very first classes with one of my kindergarten groups, when asked to respond to the prompt, “Tell me something that you like you do,” one little person replied, “Go to the Halloween store to pick out costumes.” So, needless to say, they’re definitely thinking about it!

In order to harness some of that energy, I created a series of Fall and Halloween themed STEAM challenges for my youngest engineers (Pre-K and kindergarten). I find that many STEAM challenges targeted at this particular age group often tend to be simplistic and not as open-ended as I’d like, so I wanted to find some tasks that would strike a happy balance between being independently accessible but also highly scalable, that is, leaving room for boundless complexity or creativity in devised solutions.

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The ten activities that I devised for the month were incredibly fun to create and I couldn’t wait until it was finally time to roll them out this week. My plan with implementing these activities is to offer four different choices each time that my kindergarten classes come to the STEM lab. I’ll rotate and mix in different stations as we go to help keep it interesting, but also will offer the same activity over multiple weeks to hopefully see growth in the sophistication of their creations.

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Week one of these activities has been a sweeping success! My kindergarteners particularly loved “Pumpkins on a Fence” and “Ghost Tower.” Here are a couple of their creations.

 


Having the students engaged in these activities also allowed me to introduce our BeeBots to small groups with a task I’m calling “BeeBot Trick-or-Treat.” I created a set of cards that features different types of human and animal homes. I put one set on my BeeBot grid board and kept the other as a set of cards. When I gathered my small groups, students took turns selecting a card and then trying to program the BeeBot to reach the corresponding spot on the board. It’s been a great opportunity to practice perseverance, as programming the Bee and understanding that he moves from his perspective and not his driver’s has been tricky for many of my kindergarteners to grasp. But, once they do reach the goal, there’s been a lot of dancing and celebrating!

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Looking to add some STEAM fun to your classroom this fall? You can purchase a copy of my Frightfully Fun STEAM activities pack by visiting my TPT store. (This Way to the Product Page!) (Note: the product doesn’t include the BeeBot cards, but I’ll send you the set if you email cultivatequestioners@gmail.com.)

 

Get your own set of these STEAM tasks!