Podcast – No Such Thing: Learning in the Digital Age

No Such Thing podcast logo

Recently, I was a guest on the No Such Thing podcast hosted by Marc Lesser. Marc is Chief Learning Officer of MOUSE, a national youth development non-profit.

MOUSE designs computer science and STEM curriculum and engages students through the Design League and maker events.

MOUSE does similar work to Generation YES, where I was the president for over a decade. Both organizations support students as learners and leaders in their schools and communities. It was great to talk to Marc about my background in engineering, the 2nd Edition of Invent To Learn, how schools can be a glorious explosion of interesting things, and the (hopefully) lasting impact of Maker Education.

Be sure to check out other podcast episodes of No Such Thing. Marc has a fresh approach to K-12 education in the digital age, focusing on youth led initiatives. And to find out “why the ice cream truck?”

Direct link to podcast page if the embed above does not work.

New! Second Edition of Invent to Learn Released

We are excited to announce that a newly revised and expanded edition of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom has just been released.

It’s been five years since Gary Stager and I published the first edition of Invent to Learn. In that time, schools around the world have embraced making, makerspaces, and more authentic STEM/STEAM experiences for all children. It’s been fun to be a part of this worldwide phenomenon!

The brand new second edition includes a lot of new material reflecting how much has changed in a few short years. There are many new microcontrollers to choose from, and many more that are better for school use. The fabrication chapter has been updated to reflect how the design process has been streamlined by hardware and software progress. There is an entirely new section on laser cutters and CNC machines.

Programming options have expanded as well with software appropriate for students as young as four years old. Finally, there are some fantastic and accessible environments for programming microcontrollers. When we published the first edition, we were positive that a good block-based programming language for Arduino was just around the corner. Although new software environments emerged, they lacked the polish and stability required to make a difference in classrooms. Now things are different.

There is more research about the positive impact of fabrication, robotics, and coding to share. All of the suggested resources have been updated and expanded. The online resources here on inventtolearn.com are even more extensive.

The additions and updates to the book go beyond mentions of new technology and fixing broken URLs. There are new examples from educators around the world who have embraced making in their classrooms. There is more context provided for the connections between project-based learning and making. We attempt to be clearer about the real reason that making matters—not to build a special room or purchase equipment, but to make schools a better place for ALL students and teachers to learn.

The second edition is now available in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle on the Amazon website and other online retailers. For volume sales, using a PO, or international sales, please contact sales@cmkpress.com.

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.

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.