Soldering – it’s not scary!

Soldering is a way to join electronic components by melting metal to join the parts, so that when it cools, your parts are strongly connectedboth electronically and physically.

Soldering is sometimes avoided in school makerspaces because it seems too technical or perhaps unsafe. But soldering is a way to continue an iterative process of building circuits with more reliability and good visibility into how things are connected.

One of the most important engineering principles when building things with electronics is how reliable your physical and mechanical connections are in your circuit. The thrill of getting a circuit to work can be immediately undone when it fails in mysterious ways because the connections are weak. It also makes troubleshooting circuits more difficult when you constantly have to wonder if the components are even connected, much less doing what you expect.

As a metaphor, the solder builds a bridge at the atomic level for the electrons to walk acrossthose lazy electrons! When your parts are just touching, even if you hold them tightly, there is always a microscopic chasm for electrons to cross, and they won’t do it if they can avoid it. If you are teaching about electricity as movement of electrons, this reinforces your lesson. (Even if you aren’t there yet, you can just say that the electricity won’t jump across empty space, even spaces so small we can’t see them, and leave the atomic stuff for another day.)

There are a number of ways to make a circuit by putting the components in close physical proximitywrapping wires as tightly as you can, tape, sticky copper tape, tightly sewing conductive thread, holding things together with your fingers, binder clips, alligator clips, etc. Those are all good ways to start, because they are immediate and easily changeable. But hopefully you don’t stop therethe next step is to build circuits that are more complex and/or more permanent. Breadboards are good for that, but introduce another way for things to failbad jumper wires, incorrect placement, knocking the parts loose by accident, etc. Anyone who has every tried to use a breadboard on a moving robot can testify that the connections are never permanent. And it’s also a level of abstraction that can confuse a beginner. I believe that soldering is much simpler and easier to learn than breadboarding.

Soldering is a skill that improves with practicethere are ways to make the joins betterand of course you can learn to not burn yourself and others. There are other skills for the teacher to learn and sharekinds of solder, different soldering irons, safety concerns, the mysteries of flux, and the joys of unsoldering. There are lots of good guides and videos available online to get started.

Soldering is useful for simple circuits, even just a few LEDs and wires can be joined quickly for a huge improvement in reliability. It also works for circuits with copper tape and (some) conductive thread (here’s a trick). Soldering does not require a printed circuit board. If you are building fun paper circuits, a simple next step once your circuit is working is to reinforce the places where the LEDs touch the copper tape with a bit of solder. The reward will be a much more reliable project that will last even when it’s taken home or put on display.

Using soldering as a solution to the problem of unreliable circuits teaches students that engineering is a continuing effort to solve the small problems as you make progress toward bigger goals. That means beginners absolutely SHOULD start off WITHOUT soldering so that they actually run into the problem and authentically need a solution.

If you are considering introducing students to soldering, know that all of this gets better and easier with practice, but the bottom line is that while we wait for someone to invent conductive superglue, soldering is the best way to create reliable circuits and successful electronic projects.

CMK18 reflection – building intentionality

It’s been a month since we wrapped up the 11th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge. I hope to offer other posts about the experience, but this is one short thought. Often people say things like “Oh, you just put out a lot of fun stuff and play. That’s not the way school really works. How does that help a teacher when they get back to the real world?”

At CMK, we try to offer a view of what education looks like with as few compromises as possible. The goal is that an attendee sees that a successful learning experience is possible, and even wildly successful, without many of the things we assume are “normal” at school. 

The hope is that when that educator goes back to their school they are more aware of the compromises, and then can choose them with more intentionality. Every human endeavor has some element of compromise, and school is no different. But it’s easy to overlook that structures like grades, age segregation, textbooks, quizzes, separated subjects, the bus & bell schedule, etc. are choices, not handed down on stone tablets.

So if the experience of CMK helps a teacher go back and think about choices in curriculum, courses, or their own practice, that’s the point.

Constructionism, the gift that keeps on giving

I’ve just returned from Lithuania where I attended and spoke at the Constructionism 2018 conference. Constructionism is a term that Seymour Papert used to describe how learning happens. It extends the Piagetian idea that knowledge is constructed  inside the head of the learner, building on the existing knowledge and unique experiences of each learner. Papert added the idea that this knowledge construction is aided when the learner is involved in constructing personally meaningful things that can be shared with a community.  More than just “hands on” or project-based learning, constructionism can be a subtle thing to explain.

Eight Big Ideas poster
The Eight Big Ideas of Constructionism Poster (PDF)

In 1999, Seymour Papert embarked on his last ambitious institutional research project when he created the constructionist, technology-rich, multi-aged Constructionist Learning Laboratory inside of Maine’s troubled prison for teens, The Maine Youth Center. This project was the basis for Gary Stager’s dissertation. As Gary shares in our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, Papert outlined “Eight Big Ideas” as a handout to help visitors understand constructionism as a living, practical approach to creating an optimal learning environment.

Over the last year, the Stanford University FabLearn Fellows have translated the Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Laboratory into various languages. Thanks to some new friends at Constructionism 2018, we are now up to 11 translations of the original English text!

German, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, Italian, Swahili, Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Korean, and Galician

Korean translators Ungyeol Jung and Doyong Kim said, “We have felt the power of learning by doing again through translation, because it helped us understand much more than before.”

Students in Mathias Wunderlich’s makerspace collaborated on the German translation with more enthusiasm than a school exercise because it connected with what they do everyday in the makerspace. Read more of this story here.

“Felix, Aaron, and Oskar do their very best to understand Papert’s ideas.”

If you’d like to add another language, please comment here!

Constructionism – the gift that keeps on giving!

Creativity and making

What is the connection between creativity and making? Is all “making” creative? Is creativity expressed solely through these types of experiences? Do maker experiences give kids the chance to be creative and a structure to be creative within? Are we just parsing words?

I don’t want to spend time with dictionary definitions, suffice it to say that in everyday English, while creating is a synonym for making, they aren’t the same. Creativity is about imagination and ideas, the ability to make and think about new things in new ways.

Interest in the maker movement by educators is about creativity, yes, but also about honoring how people really learn. We can look to giants of education like Piaget who said, “knowledge is a consequence of experience” or Maria Montessori, who honored the child’s intellect expressed through play, or hundreds of other really smart people from John Dewey to Mr. Rogers. We can make schools places where these powerful ideas come to life.

In recent years, we’ve ignored a lot of this simply because it’s more efficient and cheaper to ask kids to sit quietly while a teacher lectures. The problem is that’s not how people learn. And in a blind pursuit of the false goal of “rigor”, we’ve pushed this nonsense on younger and younger students, and then complain that kids aren’t creative!

I think the interest in the maker movement is hopefully a return to our senses that children learn best by doing, by diving deeply into ideas that interest them, exploring interesting things, and being surrounded by people who care about them and want to explore interesting ideas with them. Creativity and making are deeply intertwined. But simply having children touch things other than pencils is not what “making” should mean. When we talk about making in schools, hopefully creativity and learning are coming along for the ride.

Connecting creativity with making has multiple benefits for schools:

  • Rejecting the idea that creativity is something that happens after the “real work” is done, like decoration.
  • The ideal of “openness” is powerful and modern. Students can share designs, code, and ideas and remix into their own inventions. Modern creativity means understanding how to share things with the world.
  • The inexpensive yet futuristic tools and materials can be easily learned and used by students to make subjects come alive. The ease-of-use creates new opportunities for project-based learning and iterative design. Creativity can be expressed in lower risk, lower stakes ways.
  • The “get it done” ethos of the maker movement is extremely valuable for all students in all subjects. Constraints are not impediments to creativity, in fact the opposite is true. Creativity comes in making do, making it up, and making it happen.
  • The focus on “making” rather than planning or reporting is a breath of fresh air for students who are increasingly getting fewer opportunities for hands-on experiences. Students who are worried that they are not creative or artistic need more opportunities to show what they know.
  • The wealth of projects can invigorate classrooms, and also capture the imagination of teachers who are looking for real things for their students to do. Creativity is enhanced when the whole community is excited and engaged. Enthusiasm is contagious!

Creativity is about creating things, of course, but also about developing the mindset and confidence to trust yourself in the act of creation. We do kids a tremendous disservice when we overplan every bit of work that they do. I think the message of the maker movement is a reminder for teachers to allow for more student agency, including more time. We need to give students time to step back and look at their work (work that they care about) and think about what to do next, just like a painter steps back and looks at their painting. This is not celebrating “failure” – a painter is not fixing the painting, or failing and correcting, but absorbing, reflecting, and continuing on.

So if this connection between creativity, making, and learning isn’t new, why all the fuss?
Part of this is human nature. We love new things and new ideas. It’s a terrific instinct to keep things fresh and enthusiastically embrace the future. However, that falls apart when the focus jumps from one shiny object to the next. Educators are rightly skeptical of the latest fad that comes and goes with the wind. A few meetings, plans that never get implemented, boxes of cool stuff that go directly from the loading dock to the supply closet… and then some other initiative careens into view and the process starts over again.

With the maker movement being seen as the “new new” thing in education, it’s a worry to think that this is simply part of the hype and hide cycle. I do see signs of this—teachers being told to “do maker” without any changes to schedules, materials, resources, or even time to collaborate with their colleagues about what this actually means. It’s human nature to believe that there is a magic wand out there that will make hard work unnecessary. One only has to look at the diet or beauty product industry to understand how desperately people want fast and easy change. Unfortunately, this is a shortcut to nowhere that will never result in real change.

In any implementation of new practices to make schools better, there are always a wide range of results. When you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it all – every extreme and combination of intention, implementation, context, logistics, and luck. But the patterns often remain the same.

In the best of all worlds, students are doing challenging and creative work on authentic problems with lots of materials, time, and guidance from engaged and empowered educators. However, this requires time and trust that teachers can learn to create these experiences, and trust that students are learners with good ideas of their own.

The most important part of creativity is trust in the creative process and the creative instincts of humans of all ages. That should be a fundamental part of making as well.

ISTE sessions – Chicago in June

I’ll be speaking at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) June 24-27, 2018.

STEAM to the Future: 50 Years in 50 Minutes
Tuesday, June 26, 10:15–11:15 am
Location: Available in May

Let’s time travel 50 years forward to see what science, technology, engineering and math will be like, and the prominent role that the arts, design and creativity will play. This session will provide entertaining and thought-provoking insight into the challenges of adapting today’s classroom and curriculum for the future.

STEAM: The TEA Stands for CrEATivity
Tuesday, June 26, 11:45 am–12:45 pm
Location: Available in May

Creativity is not just being artistic or having new ideas. As many schools are working to incorporate STEM and STEAM into the classroom, design and creativity are the keys to real and relevant experiences in the classroom.

Video – Maker Movement in Education: Keynote from INTED

This video is a keynote from the INTED conference in Valencia Spain on the topic of “A Global Revolution Goes to School: The Maker Movement”

This 30 minute keynote covers why the maker movement is something schools should pay attention to, and how to get started using the maker mindset and tools to revolutionize all subjects. The power of design as a way for students to learn is just beginning to be recognized in schools around the world. As innovative schools develop makerspaces and more hands-on curriculum, students benefit from real and relevant exploration of STEM and other subjects.

Swift – do you learn to program by solving logic puzzles?

I spent some time working through the first bunch of “coding” tutorials in Swift Playground from Apple. It’s slow, wordy, and arbitrary about how it introduces concepts. Just one example – the tutorial lets you turn left, but not right, because it wants you to make a “right turn” function out of three left turns. That’s weird and bossy. It’s immediately annoying that it takes 3 times as long to turn right as to turn left. What if I didn’t want to do it that way? Do they think I can’t handle a right? Oh, they just want to force me to realize that you can group multiple commands. And if I don’t get it, they over-explain it with lots of words. LOTS. OF. WORDS. Thanks Swift – coding is all about doing what you are told instead of figuring things out with flexible tools!

There are a lot of quirks in how you add and edit the commands–clunky is a kind description.

It reminded me of Lightbot, a cute puzzle app. Except Lightbot is more fun and is at least 10 years old. They couldn’t do better than that? LightBot says it’s “a puzzle game based on coding” and “teaches you programming logic.” At least they are honest!

We don’t pretend that solving crossword puzzles teaches writing. (Well hopefully not.) The same applies to coding.

The way to learn to code is by coding, not doing logic puzzles.

Video – Design & Innovation in Schools Keynote (TECH 2017)

I keynoted the TECH 2017 UNESCO Conference in Visakhapatnam, India in December 2017. At this interesting conference, they had 15 minute keynotes, then a response panel and audience questions for maximum interactivity. They asked me to be as provocative as possible.

This is a video of just my 15 minute keynote.

Sylvia Martinez keynote Design & Innovation in Schools TECH2017  on Vimeo.

If you liked that – watch the whole thing (about an hour)! Panelists: Mila Thomas Fuller President, Board of Directors, ISTE; Olivier Hamant Research Director, Lyon; Gautam Khetrapal Founder, LifePlugin.com and Head of Product Marketing, Mindvalley

And if you liked that – check out the other videos from this conference, including Sugata Mitra’s keynote, which was very provocative and caused a lot of good conversation throughout.

Two weeks – ICE, then Spain and Italy

I’m heading out for a string of presentations and workshops – hope to see old friends and new!

ICE 2018 – Feb 26 (Chicago) I’m part of an “All-Star” lineup of presenters who are participating in the Illinois Computing Educators conference. Instead of one keynote they are bringing back keynotes from previous years to do panels and featured presentations. It’s a bit embarrassing to call yourself an “All-Star” but that’s their term, not mine! Check out the whole list and join us!

Then I’m flying straight to Italy where Gary Stager and I will keynote a School Innovation conference in Modena and lead a workshop in Bologna on March 2 & 3. Then we hit the road (by train) for lectures at Universities in Padua, Vicenza, Venice, and Pistoia. Finally a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy in Rome with an innovation policy advocacy working group.

Oh, and in between I’m flying to Valencia, Spain to keynote a conference there! INTED 2018 will be March 5-7 and I’ll be keynoting on March 5.

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Sir Ken Robinson + New workshops at FETC + Bonus book signing!

Come see Sir Ken Robinson at the Future of Educational Technology Conference  January 2018 in Orlando, Florida. The fine folks at FETC have supplied a code for you to get a super discount to this conference — 10% off by using the Promo Code MARTINEZ18.

I’m a featured speaker with lots of new stuff to share!

1/24/18 workshops:

  • PBL Gets a “Make”-Over: Prompts and Assessments for Maker Classrooms
  • STEAM You Can Wear!

1/25/18 sessions:

  • Invent to Learn: Remaking School for the Future
  • Book signing – Main Concourse
  • Making and Makerspaces: The Four Keys to Success

Use this link to go directly to the discounted registration.

My 10% discount code is good until Jan 22, 2018. See you there!