Dave Cormier did a nice post about getting his kids (7 & 9) playing and learning with an Arduino starter kit for Christmas. (Kits run about $100-150 but you can buy an Arduino board for about $20 if you're already working with maker electronics and coding.) If you are an adult, kid, parent or teacher, this first (with more to come?) post is a nice intro into this popular maker tool.
One very basic thing he discovered is that you do need to understand code. You don't need a lot of experience with it, but if you have never looked at code (even HTML web page code), it will seem a bit confusing at first.
Arduino uses a simplified version of C++ and most people will be able to figure out by context clues (Ah, like reading!) some of what the code is doing.
He also learned right away that "arduino" is also software that you need to download and put on your computer.
As you start to write you "sketch" (code) in order to upload it to your Arduino hardware via a USB cable, you discover that there are lots of sketches available online and with the arduino software itself to get you started. But you will need to learn new stuff.
He shows a simple example of some code with notes (shown above). This code tells the Arduino to send power to pin 13 and then to turn pin 13 on and off at 3 second intervals.
If your Arduino board has an LED bulb in pin 13, it will light up according to those commands.
But he also had to learn that the LED needed to plug into the ground that is right next to it and hat the long leg of the LED is the ‘+’ and it goes in pin 13 and the short leg of the LED is the ‘-‘ and goes in the ground.
Okay, that's not exactly amazing output, but Dave and his kids are a ways off from building a robotic obstacle-avoiding car (like the one in the video below) which requires more parts, some building and more coding - but it is doable.
You can read Dave's first post on his blog and follow his learning. Let's see where the Cormiers go with this.
Coding - transforming actions into a symbolic language - is offered in colleges and in many high schools, but computer science is not part of the core curriculum alongside other courses such as biology, chemistry or algebra that all students take.
Launched in 2013, Code.org is a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Their vision is that every student in every school should have at least the opportunity to learn computer science.
Code.org is organizing its “Hour of Code” event for the third consecutive year as part of Computer Science Education Week. They give students the opportunity to learn about programming with free online tutorials and instructional videos. There are more than 191,000 events in more than 180 countries and one-third of all U.S. schools are participating, They expect to reach 50 million students this week.
Coding is becoming an increasingly crucial skill. If you hear asked (or you ask) "Why do I need to learn to code? I'll never use it to be a ________ (fill in the blank)," I can identify. Teaching English for many years, I always heard that question with poetry or some other item being substituted for "coding." I knew students would need language skills, including learning to interpret language, understand symbolism etc., but it was hard to make the point to someone who had no idea what they would do or need in life.
Do I believe everyone in the future will be doing coding? No, but I believe understanding how code works to run much of the world we live in is essential, at least on a basic level.
This month, the "Hour of Code" campaign from nonprofit Code.org makes that very visible. If you look at its website, you can see that it is aimed at students and teachers in K-12, although it is is clear that people older have as many (or more) gaps in their coding knowledge.
The site uses popular movie characters from films like Frozen and Star Wars as avatars for coding activities.
not unlike when I was teaching students in the late 1970s to make a turtle on a screen move by writing Logo programs. That was Apple Logo which was an early implementation of Logo that was popular then due to marketing for Apple's Apple II computer.
This week (but really all year), educators, extracurricular leaders, and parents are being encouraged to introduce kids to coding. There are many free, online coding tutorials designed for all ages. Some tutorials are designed to be suitable for kids as young as 4 and even for implementation without computers. But many of these tutorials are designed as games that are accessible for computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
This year 3 for the "Hour of Code" and partnerships for licensing with Microsoft and Disney to create tutorials using settings and characters from Minecraft or Star Wars makes coding more appealing to children. "The goal of the Hour of Code is not to teach anybody to become an expert computer scientist in one hour," reads the description on Hour of Code's homepage. "One hour is only enough to learn that computer science is fun and creative, that it is accessible for all ages, for all students, regardless of background."
A sample is an activity (there are also sequenced courses at different age and ability levels) to program characters from the Star Wars universe to make a game of your own creation. In the video below, Star Wars film producer Kathleen Kennedy introduces some broad uses of computer programming, and then Rachel Rose, Senior Engineer for the Star Wars Animation and Creature Team, walks you through the basics of programming using Blockly.
If you try the activity, it is obvious that critical thinking and thoughtful placement of the blocks is required to make the program run correctly.
Using Blockly as a visual programming language is a great start and, although in the working world most code is typed, each block conatins and corresponds to a line of "real" code which students can view.
Students doing any of the most basic activities are learning that an algorithm is a series of instructions on how to accomplish a task. they experience debugging -
finding and fixing issues in code.
If they advance through the activities , they will learn what a function is (a piece of code that can be called over and over), and how to customize their code parameters with extra bits of information that you can pass into a function to customize it.
Students are reminded that some of the tools, like autofill, seem like "cheats" but are used by full time programmers too in order to speed up the coding and maintain consistency.
One activity is designed for very young coders and kids without access to computers. Using a predefined “Robot Vocabulary,” students will figure out how to guide
one another to accomplish specific tasks without discussing them first. This teaches students the connection between symbols and actions, as well as the valuable skill of debugging.
There has been more than $750 million in recent years from tech companies to try to help schools bridge the long-acknowledged STEM skills gap. Much of that money was earmarked for what we would term IT. And though I much prefer STEAM (with an arts and digital humanities inclusion) to STEM, most people in any of those areas would probably agree that the gap hasn't narrowed and may have widened.
Reports say that 33% of American workers are not proficient in the technology required to do their job, and only a tenth of workers believe they have mastered their workplace tech tools.
A new report claims that we are still a long way from being able to adapt technology to the classroom and that the link between having more technology and better learning is not a direct one.
It is not news to say that we don't know exactly what skills students will need to know to succeed in their future. I have heard a half dozen presentations that discuss the idea that the jobs of the near future for high school and college graduates will require skills that only 20% of workers today might have.
All these reports and studies are focused on "hard skills." These skills, like coding, are more tangible and easier to measure than some of the "soft" skills that sometimes allow someone to get a job despite having a hard skills gap.
It is not that education has forgotten about problem solving and being able to learn new things as needed or being able to produce solutions to problems that were never covered in class or in the textbook. But in many cases, the refocusing on the hard skills gap may have widened the soft skills gap.
We frequently champion and applaud innovators and creativity, but we know that those things are difficult to measure and so sometimes more difficult to "sell." It may be that having those soft skills is exactly what is needed by new workers who are required to acquire new hard skills on the job.
I was thinking about my earlier post about "learning engineers" after I came across a video storybook on pbslearningmedia.org called "David and Kayleen Design a Glider." Actually, the first thing I thought of was really the hundreds of balsa wood and paper gliders I had made as a kid. From those pre-cut balsa wood airplanes that all my friends bought, built and broke, to the ones I ended up building from scratch using balsa, paper and scraps, I learned the basics of aerodynamics.
Eventually, through a middle school club, I learned to make beautiful rainbow-winged microfilm planes (like the one at top) with rubber band motors that could fly for several minutes in a gymnasium or the several airplane hangars our club visited. It was pretty nerdy at the time and I loved it.
Years later, as a middle school teacher, I had a devoted little club of kids building planes from paper that were part engineering and part origami.
Building these airplanes is a way to learn about aerospace engineering, but it was also a way to learn how to follow instructions, about precision and about learning from the mistakes you and your fellow engineers made.
That video storybook page says that it is a way for children to learn about "the design and structure of airplanes and gliders, and are encouraged to understand the innovation process."
I did some digging online about the lesson and the "hoop gliders" they were building. I know that design from a book I had when I was doing that club that contained plans for folding prize-winning paper airplane designs. The hoop glider doesn't look at all like what most people would envision as a glider - which makes it a good choice of a design to use to get kids thinking about why planes fly.
One of the things I found online was written by Tom Jenkins [@tomjenkinsstem], a middle school science and STEM teacher in Ohio. He wrote Kindergarteners Are Born Engineers about a lesson he did using the video and hoop gliders with a kindergarten class.
He started them talking abou how planes fly, and asking what engineers do and, as you might expect with kids that age, the discussion went in many places. I totally get that part of it involved Thomas the Tank Engine, as many kids think of a railroad engineer first. Eventually one student says that engineers "build things” and that gets him into his true mission.
They select materials and then test and measure the flights of the gliders of their own creation. One student suggests using aluminum foil for the hoops because it is lighter, and another suggests instead strips of manila folder “because it’s less floppy.”
Sounds like a fun and good lesson. But what is most interesting to me about the lesson is what Jenkins fears and discovers.
He was afraid that the class of little ones would test the gliders, see many of them "fail" and then end up crying. He has seen that happen with older middle-schoolers.
As expected, most of the planes crashed quickly. But "not one student cried or was disheartened at all. In fact, they all ran back to their workstations and started discussing a new plan. They had failed and that was okay. They had learned a lesson and were going to continue to improve their designs until they were successful."
That is huge.
And then Jenkins realized that the problem is himself - or as Pogo said it years ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Jenkins: "These kindergärtners get it. They understand that learning is a collaborative process. Oftentimes you have to discuss the problem in order to find the best solution. Failure is also an option, and as long as you learn from your mistakes, it can be a positive experience. They had lived the engineering design process their entire lives."
He concludes that although he usually spends the first few weeks of a school year the engineering design process (and in his situation, to older kids), they already knew it and he was probably breaking them.
Kids entering school may be more likely to not fear collaboration, experimentation, guessing at a solution and even failing than the older ones who have been "taught" by assignments, correct answrs and grade to be more hesitant.
Failure is still often discouraged as a learning experience - intentionally or not - rather than seeing the gift of failure as a learning tool. We need to remember that children have "an innate ability to learn through the iterative process" and are closer to being engineers and scientists than we give them credit. Not only STEM but STEAM (with that important art and creativity segment) and DIY and maker brought into the K-16 classroom is powerful.
Pogo Earth Day 1971 poster, licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia
Do we need learning engineers? Most people would answer that they didn't even know there was such a job. Currently, I don't think anyone does have that job (though I could imagine it being on someone's business card anyway.)
Wikipedia defines engineering as "the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective. The discipline of engineering is extremely broad, and encompasses a range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of technology and types of application.'
From that I could imagine many teachers, instructional designers and trainers feeling like they might be "learning engineers."
I have read a few articles that suggest that we consider using the title.
One of those articles is by Bror Saxberg who is chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc. On his blog, he wrote:
The creative educator or instructional designer can and should draw inspiration for tough challenges from everywhere and anywhere, if there isn't evidence already available to guide him or her. Unlike many challenges faced by an artist or author, however, instructional designers and educators also need to be grounded in how the real world actually works. (Even artists have to battle with the chemistry and material properties of the media they choose, it should be noted – you might want glass to be strong enough to support something in a certain way, but you may have to alter your artistic vision to match the reality.) Simply imagining how learning might work is not enough to build solutions that are effective for learners at scale – whether we like it or not, whether we get it right or not, how learning works in the world is going to affect the outcomes at scale.
A few years back, I heard the term "design thinking" used frequently in education circles. The graduate program I teach in at NJIT is still called Professional and Technical Communications, but "design" has become part of many of the courses.
That is enough of a trend that you can hear others asking if design thinking is the new liberal arts. One example is the "d.school" at Stanford University (formally, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) which considers itself a training ground for problem-solving for graduate students. Rather than stress the typical design path of making products, they look at design thinking as a way "to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field."
Perhaps, "learning engineer" is more of a way of rethinking how teachers and academics design instruction. Maybe it is another way to look at engineering.
A few years ago, Bill Jerome wrote about the engineering side and said: "Imagine a more “traditional” engineer hired to design a bridge. They don’t revisit first principles to design a new bridge. They don’t investigate gravity, nor do they ignore the lessons learned from previous bridge-building efforts (both the successes and the failures). They know about many designs and how they apply to the current bridge they’ve been asked to design. They are drawing upon understandings of many disciplines in order to design the new bridge and, if needed, can identify where the current knowledge doesn’t account for the problem at hand and know what particular deeper expertise is needed. They can then inquire about this new problem and incorporate a solution."
I think that there is a place for design thinking in engineering and also an engineering approach to designing instruction.
Design thinking as an approach to problem solving is often described using some basic principles:
Show Don’t Tell
Focus on Human Values
Be Mindful of Process
Bias Toward Action
Those could be viewed as five modes that fit easily into engineering and education: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.
Saxberg gives the example of needing someone to design a new biotech brewing facility. Do you want a chemist or a chemical engineer? He says the engineer - someone who "deeply understands modern chemistry... but is also conversant with health regulations, safety regulations, costs of building, and thinks in an integrated way about designing things for scale."
Do we have "learning engineers" now that understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively? Are they teaching or are they doing research? Do all teachers need to be learning engineers?
I somewhat fear that if the title becomes used that it will end up leaning heavily towards educational technology. That's something I see happening to many "teaching and learning" and "teaching excellence" center at colleges.
Technology can help. I have spent the past fifteen years working with that. But there is no guarantee that instructors using technology will somehow be better instructors. We know a lot about how people learn, but most of that isn't being used by those who teach.
When I started at NJIT in 2000, I was hesitant about telling seasoned instructors "how to teach" (pedagogy). But I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, the people who came to me or to our workshops were open to learning not only about new technology but about pedagogy. I was also surprised by how many of them were willing to say that no one had ever taught them "how to teach" and that they were always a little unsure about running only on intuition and their personal experiences with learning. "I try to teach like the good teachers I had and avoid being like the bad ones," was a sentiment I heard fairly frequently.
Having come from teaching in a secondary school where everyone had a split educational background of subject matter expertise and educational pedagogy with continuing professional development in the latter, it took some transitioning for me to settle into the higher education setting.
Being that NJIT is very much an engineering (and design) institution, the idea of learning engineers might have been a good approach to take with that faculty.