Category Archives: engineering

Coding or programming?

In recent years, it’s become popular to call the act of programming computers “coding.” Some people claim that there are differences, that there are no differences, that it depends on the level of the language used, or that coding implies informality and therefore is less thoughtful or skilled than programming. Wikipedia seems to be trying to parse that difference in its definition of computer programming.

My personal experience being in software development over the time this vocabulary shift happened is that both the act and the terms slowly merged. When I started programing (back in the stone age) HTML and websites did not exist. My job title was software engineer and my job was programming computers. The term “coding” simply didn’t exist.

Programing a computer meant designing algorithms and creating the machine instructions that would react to the real world, do complex math or data manipulation, and output results. This applied to programming jet navigation software or programming games. (And I did both!)

After the web and HTML appeared, people were hired in technical positions to make websites. HTML is a markup language, not a programming language. HTML “marks up” the text, just like a human editor does, and controls how text is displayed, like making certain words bold. Way back when, it was pretty simple and making websites was called scripting or coding.

You programmed computers—you coded websites. I can’t say that in EVERY job in every industry this was true, but in my world at that time this was a big distinction in hiring, job descriptions, and pay.

As time went on, websites and the languages used to create them became more complex. Websites are no longer passive,  simple text manipulation. The line between the network and computer became less distinct, and the functions, tools, and practices merged.

There was never one day when people said, OK, coding now equals programming, it just happened. Coding or programming? Whatever you choose, it’s a vocabulary shift that is here to stay.

PBL Gets a “Make”-over: Supercharging Projects with Maker Mindsets and Technology

Maker technology plus PBL

Schools around the world are embracing the idea of authentic hands-on technology-rich projects for students that support all subject areas. Students say these project-based learning (PBL) experiences are powerful and engaging. Teachers agree!

But often there seems to be no time to integrate these experiences into the classroom. Curriculum is overstuffed with facts and assessment tests loom large. How can teachers take the time for “extras” like in-depth projects? When do busy teachers have time to learn about technology that is ever-changing? Several recent trends combine futuristic technology from the maker movement with design thinking – creating experiences that engage and inspire learners in areas that integrate well with curricular expectations.

PBL + Maker

Maker technologies like 3D printing, robotics, wearable computing, programming, and more give students the ability to create real things, rather than simply report about things. They provide onramps to success in STEM and other subjects for students who are non-traditional learners. Students are empowered by mastering difficult things that they care about, and supported by a community that cares about their interests.

These opportunities are not just good because it’s about getting a good grade, but it’s about making the world a better place with technology that is magical and modern. 3D printing is a fantastic learning opportunity because students can work in three dimensions, making geometry and 3D coordinate math come alive. But that’s not all – it’s literally making something out of nothing. It transcends getting the right answer by adding creativity, complexity, and best of all, you get a real thing in the end. For some students, this makes all the difference.

Look for ways to

  • Introduce challenges that are open-ended
  • Solve real problems (student-designed rather than teacher-assigned)
  • Use an iterative design methodology
  • Allow time for mistakes and refinement – there should be time for things that don’t work the first time
  • Support collaboration with experts in and out of the classroom

Maker mindset

Another aspect of the maker movement is the “maker mindset.” Similar to a growth mindset, this is a personal trait valued by makers world-wide. Like MacGyver, the TV show about a tinkering crime-fighter, the maker mindset is more than just persistence. The maker mindset is about being flexible, thinking on your feet, looking for the unconventional answer, and never, ever giving up.

It’s a mistake to think that you can teach students persistence about tasks they don’t care about. That’s not persistence, that’s compliance. When the classroom is about invention and making real things, persistence becomes personal.

Students who experience success on their own terms can translate that to other experiences. Frustration can be reframed as a needed and welcomed step on the path to the answer. Students who figure things out for themselves need teachers to allow a bit of frustration in the process. In the maker mindset, frustration is a sign that something good is about to happen. It’s also an opportunity to step back and think, ask someone else, or see if there is another path. This may be a role shift for teachers who are used to answering student questions quickly as soon as they hit a small speed bump.

Luckily, with maker technology, it changes so rapidly that no one can be an expert on everything! In fact, this rapid evolution may make it easier to adopt the attitude of “if we don’t know, we can figure it out.” This attitude is not only practical, but models the maker mindset for students.

Adding maker technology and the maker mindset to the well-researched and practiced methods of project-based learning is a winning combination! Maker + PBL = Engaging learning opportunities for modern students and classrooms.

Future of Education Technology Conference Blog (crossposted) Article By FETC 2017 Speaker, Sylvia Martinez


sylvia martinezSylvia Martinez is the co-author of the book often called the “bible” of the classroom maker movement, “Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

To learn more about supercharging PBL with maker mindsets and tools at Sylvia’s FETC workshops or sessions click here. (Get a discount on registration!) FETC is in Orlando, Florida in January, 2016.

What does “making” have to do with learning?

Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.

—Martin Heidegger

One of the biggest issues I have with many descriptions of “making” in education is that it’s about students just being creative with tools or materials.  I strongly disagree. Making is not just the simple act of you being the difference between raw materials and finished product, as in “I made dinner” or even “I made a robot.” I don’t think we always need to ascribe learning to the act of making — but the act of making allows the maker, and maybe an outsider (a teacher, perhaps) to have a window into the thinking of the maker.

So, do you always need a teacher for learning to happen? No. Some people are good at thinking about their own process and learning from that (“Wow, that butter made the sauce so much better.” “Next time, I’ll test the circuit before I solder.”) and some people are less likely to do that. But if I watch you cook, I will see certain things – how you organize your ingredients, how you react when you make a mistake, how you deal with uncertainty — and that is what teaching is about. A teacher who is a careful observer can see these kinds of signs, and then challenge the learner with harder recipes, a question to make them think, more interesting ingredients, or a few tips — all with an eye towards helping the other person learn and grow.

Technology like Arduinos and 3D printers have not become intertwined with the maker movement in education simply because they are new, but because they are some of the most interesting ingredients out there. Many of these “maker materials” rely on computational technology, which supports design in ways not possible otherwise. The command “Save As..” is possibly the most important design tool ever invented. Saving your design file or code means you can “do again” without “doing over,” supporting the iterative process and encouraging increasingly complex designs.

Complex technology, especially computational technology also allows educators to answer the question, “Isn’t this just arts and crafts?” And of course after defending arts and crafts – we can say that computational technology allows these same mindful habits to connect with the powerful ideas of the modern world that we hope children learn. Design and making are not just important for the A in STEAM, they are essential, but here’s a bigger idea, they are also essential for the T & E — and for them all to come together.

There is simply no technology without design; the definition of the word is literally “things in the designed world.” Making is a way to realize the “logo” part of the word – from the Greek word (logos) that means “word” but specifically words that express the order and reason of the universe. To Greek philosophers, a word was more than a sound or a mark, it was the embodiment of an idea — an idea made real. And yes, the Logo programming language owns this derivation as well.

The power of using computational technology in education is that the versatility and transparent complexity allows learners to make their ideas real, to make sense of the world, and to see their own capacity grow. This visible process also allows teachers to support and scaffold learners on their journey.

Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.

Bio is the new digital

“Bio is the new digital” – Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder

When Nicholas Negroponte predicts the future, you listen (A 30 year history of the future). Now he says that biology is where digital was at the dawn of computers, and that synthetic biology and programmable organic materials are following the same pattern, with costs dropping and capabilities increasing even faster than Moore’s Law.

Watch this amazing 10 minute video from Joi Ito, the current director of the MIT Media Lab.

People ask me why the maker movement in the classroom is so focused on electronics, fabrication, and coding. The answer is simple — that’s what’s available now. More is on the way, and it’s happening quickly. Bio-hacking, organic sensors, and programmable bacteria will be in K-12 schools sooner than you think (and already are in some cases).

Biology or code? Both.
Biology or programming? Both.

When you see this, ask yourself — how long can we teach science and math as if time stopped centuries ago?

Classroom supplies of the (near) future
Classroom supplies of the (near) future


Grand Challenges for Engineering

Grand Challenges for Engineering

On February 15, 2008, the National Academy of Engineering announced its list of 14 “grand challenges for engineering,” examples of the types of challenges confronting societies in the twenty-first cen- tury. The solutions to these challenges will all have large engineering components. Although engineers cannot solve these challenges alone, neither can the challenges be solved without engineers.

The fourteen grand challenges are:

  • Making solar power economical;
  • Providing energy from fusion;
  • Developing carbon-sequestration methods;
  • Managing the nitrogen cycle;
  • Providing access to clean water;
  • Restoring and improving urban infrastructure;
  • Advancing health informatics;
  • Engineering better medicines;
  • Reverse-engineering the brain;
  • Preventing nuclear terror;
  • Securing cyberspace;
  • Enhancing virtual reality;
  • Advancing personalized learning; and
  • Engineering the tools of scientific discovery.

From: Engineering in K-12 Education, National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council of the National Academies. 2008.

Reverse engineering for 3D printing – at any level

Here’s a quick thought experiment. Take a look at this article, “Reverse engineering for 3D Printing: Replicate, Replace & Improve Real Parts!” If you are using a 3D printer in a school, you may be on the lookout for practical articles that help explain how to tease the most learning out of your new cool technology. The article goes through five steps for taking apart a real world object to create a CAD design to make a 3D printed copy.

But I know for many teachers who don’t have an engineering background, “reverse engineering” doesn’t mean a whole lot, and about halfway through the article, there’s a picture of the CAD model that’s simply going to freak people out. It’s pretty clear that it was written for people with a lot of CAD design and 3D printing experience under their belt. If you are teaching elementary or middle school, it’s easy to just think “there’s nothing here for me.”

But this article has gems of wisdom in it – it’s worth trying to puzzle them out and think through the parts that anyone at any grade level can try.

Reverse engineering isn’t scary – it’s a term used to mean to take something apart and see how it works. Once you see how it works, you can make it yourself. For a 3D print, this means physical objects, perhaps with mechanical parts. Once it’s apart, you can figure out how to design the pieces, make them yourself, and hopefully, if you did a good job, you can make the object wholly out of your own parts. And yes, you can reverse engineer non-physical things like code, or non-mechanical things like electronic circuits, and the principal is the same. Break it down, figure it out, make it your own.

So let’s do a close reading and see what gems we can find. You might say we can reverse engineer this article! Let’s break their steps down:

1. Get Your Tools Ready
The tools recommended in this article are pretty universal. Paper,  pencil, and measuring devices. For some ages, a tape measure and ruler will work fine. Graph paper is useful, but not necessary if your products aren’t going to be that precise. A step up in complexity is to use a caliper, a more precise measuring tool that is really useful for complex shapes. A caliper grabs the object (or spans an interior space) that you are measuring and you can read the measurement directly.

If you have other devices like laser measuring tools or a scanner, you need to evaluate whether or not they will be useful. You know your kids, so it’s your call whether your students are ready to use them. If the scanner is TOO good, you will simply see students scan things in and skip the breakdown and understanding steps.

As an aside, here’s a small problem with this article – the item they’ve chosen to break down and recreate is a brake caliper, like those found in cars. However, here’s the problem – one of the primary tools they are explaining is also called a caliper*. If you are reading the article and not really familiar with either kind of caliper, it could be where you simply stop reading.

But I think it brings up an interesting point – why did they choose a brake caliper? So here is where I would add a Step Zero – Choose your items to reverse engineer wisely.

It’s not just about avoiding confusing terms. A brake caliper is a nice product to break down. Why?

  • A brake caliper is mechanically interesting, and can be taken apart with hand tools. You want those “goldilocks” objects – not too hard and not too easy. Not too many parts, but enough to cause some head scratching. This may be a matter of trial and error, because in CAD design, sometimes seemingly simple things can be very complex. A flat cube is easy. A die is not.
  • The most important parts of a brake caliper are easy to see and the mechanical interactions are out in the open (once the case is off). You can poke it with your fingers and see it move. Objects where the internal parts and actions can’t be seen without completely taking it apart to the point that it no longer works, or objects that rely on electronics that can’t be modeled with 3D shapes aren’t as interesting.
  • The brake caliper has a few layers, but the parts mostly lay flat without a lot of tricky 3D jigsawing.
  • It’s not all just straight lines, but the curved parts aren’t too complex. If there are curves that need to be modeled, you need to be sure that the CAD program you use can actually model those kinds of shapes.

So the brake caliper is not a beginner CAD project – the number of parts, multiple layers, and the modeling required takes it up a notch. These are not hard and fast rules, and in every grade level there will be a wide range of abilities.

2. Plan For Your Design & Print

The article does a good job laying out steps that will scale to almost any age student if you can generalize them. But this step is primarily a step for the teacher to think through and do some trial runs (maybe with some peer student leaders).

  • What features are the most important to be printed?
  • Can you simplify shapes?
  • What do you need to do to get the best print, such as orienting the model, designing supports, rafts, struts, etc.
  • How precise do you need to be?
  • What will the scale be?

Precision is a crucial topic at this stage. Precision is a sometimes overlooked engineering concept that can actually help you decide what level of detail is needed in your model. Precision is precious — it costs time (and sometimes money) to make precise measurements and manufacture precise parts. Do think carefully about what precision is needed, and the math behind that. Your printer will also force some of these decisions, as you may find that your printer simply cannot print as precisely as you had hoped. If you have a model with measurements like .000002 mm, your software may happily oblige, but your printer will just laugh at you. Tolerances vary from printer to printer, and melted filament always sort of oozes in unexpected ways, so find this out before you assign students to model something that is beyond the capability of your printer or a real stretch mathematically (a little stretch is always good)!

Scale is another concept that is simple on the surface, but can result in interesting tradeoffs. For example when you make an object bigger, EVERYTHING about the object becomes bigger, including gaps and mistakes. So choosing an object that has pieces that need to fit tightly together, or fit with precision (like a hinge, gear, or snap fitting), requires more precision than a simple, single object. If you are scaling something down to make it smaller, you may run into tolerance issues where your printer simply can’t make it work. But if you don’t need precision, it’s not worth worrying about. Nobody was ever harmed by the giant paper mâché pack of gum being off by an inch or two.

3. Disassemble and Study – Understanding

This is where the fun begins. Everybody gets to take an object apart. Provide the right tools, paper, and art supplies (to make visual notes and observations) and a place to lay everything out. Students will have different styles – there will be methodical ones vs. the exploders – let them mess around with the objects and make sure there are enough backups if things get broken past the point of being able to continue to measure the parts. Provide a place to keep the parts — once the CAD starts, it often helps to go back to the original object for another (or three or ten) more looks. Sometimes you don’t know what to look at until you start work and you make connections or have questions that didn’t occur to you originally. This is part of the iterative process. Give it time.

One resource to help students learn to think carefully about the parts, purposes, and complexities of everyday objects is the Agency by Design resource called, you guessed it – Parts, Purposes, and Complexities. (All Agency by Design educator resources here.)

4. Start Your CAD Work

If you read the article I pointed to at the beginning of this post and got to step 4, you saw these images. If it made you want to run for the hills, you aren’t alone. This looks complicated, but really, it’s just shapes! Everyone starts from a beginner level and builds up. Building design skills, including reading diagrams like this, are all part of a gradual process. Trust your problem solving skills enough to know that if what you are looking at is too complicated, it’s not a threat, it’s an invitation to a future where it will make sense.

Reading these kinds of articles is helpful for the process you can extract and try in your classroom. If the particulars of a project look daunting, just skip those details for the time being. You’ll get there.

Selecting and understanding your CAD software is a big step. At younger ages, Tinkercad is always a popular choice. But like any easy to use tool, it has limitations that will eventually show up as designs get more complex. There is no “one right answer.” Try some different ones before you get locked into any one app. Read The Invent To Learn Guide to 3D Printing: Recipes for Success for suggestions. This is again a super time to use a small group of students who want to help. Let them try out different software packages and “sell” you the best one. And remember, there may be more than one choice for different students, different age ranges, and different design objectives.

With student work, try to pick the right time to move from paper and pencil to CAD. At some point, the CAD program is going to be more helpful with the design details than paper and pencil. Making students complete the whole design on paper is really a waste of time, since once they go to CAD it’s likely to change anyway.

It’s always good to have people in the room who understand how CAD design will translate to 3D printing. These skills are largely won by trial and error. The most important part of this role is that they don’t tell students exactly what to do. Don’t forget that this may include the students themselves or near peers! Spread the expertise around.

Your big picture objective at this stage is to keep the projects moving forward — bumpy roads are OK, but not driving off a cliff.

In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we introduce the idea of “mouth up, mouth down frustration.” Kids should have experiences that challenge them and propel them forward. They should be gleefully leaping over hurdles, or maybe digging under them or walking around them. The smile and victory dance when a hurdle is overcome is the “mouth up” part. The other kind of frustration, mouth down, is not part of the learning process. You don’t have to “help” kids towards a predictable catastrophic failure, like setting them up with tools that are too difficult to use, or objects that are simply too complicated to model. Having one or two kids occasionally struggle through to the end is not proof that it is the right path for all kids.

5. Choose Your Filament

Here’s an example of some really good advice in this article that you might overlook because you don’t have a choice of filament. But the bigger lesson to learn here is to think about what you will do with the models you make. Do they actually have to work or are they for display? Will students use them for other classes, continue to refine the model, or do you need them for another purpose? It might change your choices on how sturdy to make the piece or how hard you work to make a precise scale model.

You may not have objects that need parts with different rigidity, as discussed in this example, but at some point, you will likely have the PLA vs ABS discussion, and these material properties are part of the decision-making process.

* Why are they both called calipers? Just like a measuring caliper grabs the object being measured, a brake caliper grabs the rotor, which is attached to a wheel, slowing the car down.

Noticing Tools – New Apps from NYSCI

The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) has just released a set of apps called Noticing Tools.

size wise app
Size Wise app lets you explore ratios and proportions

The suite of five apps gives educators and parents a new option for inspiring kids to want to learn math and science by using technology as a tool for creativity and collaborative exploration on topics ranging from ratios and proportion to fractions, physics, angular momentum, surface area and volume.

My learning journey

People ask me often how I got involved with education. In part, my interest in learning stems from thinking about my own learning journey, and taking lessons from that path.

In school I did pretty well in every subject. Getting good grades was just expected. I was a solid B+ student in all subjects from kindergarten on. When I took Algebra 1 in ninth grade, though, that changed unexpectedly. Suddenly I knew everything the teacher was going to say before he said it. I always had time to do all the extra credit problems when we were only supposed to choose one. The teacher finally told me to cut it out. I spent every day on the phone with friends talking them through the homework problems. It bothered me somewhat that none of my friends were getting it, but I didn’t think much of it. It was just what I did – like my best friend who could magically draw perfect horses.

I was a good, complaint kid. When you are good at school type stuff and do what you are told, they say you are smart. But, for me at least, I never felt smart or special, it was normal to just get up every morning, go to school, and do whatever they said to do.

In high school I had the same math teacher for two years in a row and one day he called me up as the bell was ringing and said, “There’s not much that’s challenging you, is there?” He gave me a brochure for a summer program at a university for gifted math students. I was shocked that he thought that about me. I’d never thought of myself as being particularly good at math, it was just easy. It honestly never dawned on me that my friends not understanding meant something about me.

I keep this in mind when I work with kids – they are massively clueless about themselves and massively egocentric all at the same time. They do not realize that what they perceive about the world may actually be a reflection of their own talents. They have to be explicitly told what it is about them that is special. This does not mean blanket feel-good statements, that’s a waste of time. When you announce “You’re special!” to a room full of people, it’s obviously not true. That’s true at any age.

It takes a lot of adults talking with children, not at children, to help them realize that their own talents are unique and valuable.

It’s amazing that my parents let me go to that summer math program. I had never been away from my parents, didn’t participate in any after-school activities except music lessons, and had never gone to camp. This was going to be six weeks at a dorm on a college campus 100 miles from home. It was BIG.

That summer I met some amazing people from all over the US. The program was funded by the NSF and we took three college level math courses over the six weeks: Geometry, Number Theory, and Computer Science. We built geometry from the ground up, explored weird puzzle-like theories, and I got my first exposure to computers using punch cards and FORTRAN. And we stayed up late and ate ice cream for dinner and did the usual sorts of things 16 year olds do when away from their parents.

I discovered an amazing thing—I belonged. At my high school it was quite apparent that I didn’t belong. But that summer, I was just one of many like me. Even better, I was right in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t the smartest, but I wasn’t the slowest either. I wasn’t the geekiest or the coolest. It felt comfortable in a way that high school never had. I had talents that other people envied like being able to debug the FORTRAN programs. I needed other people because the Geometry was painful for me. The rule for Geometry class was that all of us had to prove ALL the theories. In Computer Science, we didn’t move on until everyone’s program worked. We weren’t supposed to copy each other’s work, but we could help each other and talk about it. There was no competition, no grades, and no tests. It was the perfect learning environment.

When I came home and it was time to apply to colleges, I didn’t know what major I would choose. I guessed that math would probably be a good major since I was good at it, so I might as well. It was a lucky chance that my parents asked my uncle to talk to me about my decision. Unlike my parents, he’d been to college, so he would know.

He asked me what I liked about math, and I said solving the problems. He asked, real problems or theories and proofs. Real problems, I said. Aha, he said, you should be an engineer. And as ridiculously simple as that sounds, that’s exactly what I did.

I keep in mind even today when I work with students and teachers is how seemingly insignificant comments and events can change a child’s life forever — if it’s specific and part of a real conversation.

In the years since I’ve been an electrical engineer in aerospace, a programmer, a student again, a designer and developer of video games and educational software, a manager, head of a non-profit, a mom, and more. But through it all I know that engineering (meaning solving real problems) is the lens through which I view the world and the way I approach the world. And I thank all the inexplicable events and people who helped me along this path.

Girls & STEM: Making It Happen – resources

Resources for my ISTE 2015 presentation:

Girls & STEM: Making it Happen Tuesday, June 30, 4:00–5:00 pm Sylvia Martinez PCC Ballroom B

July 2, 2015 – Updated with slides!

Other ISTE events

Citations and other resources mentioned in this presentation


Invent To Learn

MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology through Making, Creating, and Inventing (Intel infographic)

Power, Access, Status: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Class in the Maker Movement

Leah Buechley – Gender, Making, and the Maker Movement (video from FabLearn 2013)


National Girls Collaborative Project (links to many others)

National Council of Women and Informational Technology

American Association of University Women

Unesco International Bureau of Education (IBE)  – Multiple resources such as: Strengthening STEM curricula for girls in Africa, Asia and the Pacific10 Facts about Girls and Women in STEM in Asia

WISE (UK) – campaign to promote women in science, technology, and engineering

My posts about gender issues, stereotype threat, and other topics mentioned in this session

Stereotype Threat – Why it matters

Inclusive Makerspaces (article for EdSurge)

What a Girl Wants: Self-direction, technology, and gender

Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer


Securing Australia’s Future STEM: Country Comparisons – Australian Council of Learned Academies

Generation STEM:  What girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – Girl Scouts of the USA (2012) (Girls 14-17)

Effective STEM Programs for Adolescent Girls: Three Approaches and Many Lessons Learned

Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. (2009)

Gresham, Gina. “A study of mathematics anxiety in pre-service teachers.” Early Childhood Education Journal 35.2 (2007): 181-188.

Beilock, Sian L., et al. “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.5 (2010): 1860-1863.

Teachers’ Spatial Anxiety Relates to 1st- and 2nd-Graders’ Spatial Learning


National Center for Educational Statistics

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

FabLearn Resources for Making in Classrooms, Libraries, Museums, & Community Centers

The Stanford FabLearn Fellows have posted some of their favorite resources on making in education.