“Mama, this is so exciting”

Strange as it may seem, our journey in promoting technology in classrooms has been linked with Monarch butterflies. We were associated with a creative 2nd grade classroom teacher who was teaching her class about butterflies by hatching and rearing monarchs. We worked with the class to generate what became our “butterfly project”. This was back in the day of the early Macs, before cell phones with great cameras and K12 oriented software such as Kid Pix Studio. We captured images from video and created a slide show using ResEdit to take sound segments from Kid Pix allowing me to create what is now a slide show in Hypercard. Students learned about the life cycle of the butterfly, learned about different butterflies and narrated images for the slide show. This generated a presentation for parents. I remember the student presentation ended with a song about butterflies

We became Monarch caterpillar hunters ever since. We planted milk week at our lake property and still search for monarch caterpillars from time to time. We have spent some time this week driving the backroads of northern Wisconsin looking for milk week and these caterpillars. While we spent several hours over several days doing so, we found one (and one other milkweed moth).

One of our preschool grandchildren is very science oriented. We call him “Sid the science kid”. He knows a lot about dinosaurs and a lot about certain bugs. He helps his mom with her flowers and knows about pollinators. We gave him our caterpillar in hopes he would get to see the transformation to the chrysalis.

This video and the following image are courtesy of Sid’s mom. It did not take long for the transformation we had hoped for to happen. Sid was thrilled and as you can hear he knew exactly what was going on.

Now we wait.

As sometimes happen, I am reviewing the research on project-based learning and direct instruction with my grad class this week. I think I may include a description of the butterfly project (updated).

It is only interesting if you are interested

It is interesting if you are interested – not everyone is.

This is a book report focused on the Martinez and Stager book “Invent to Learn”. My reaction to the book, while quite positive, is captured in my title. I think the book seriously over reaches and makes flawed assumptions regarding what proportion of students would be intrigued by the topics that are the focus of the book. Some students will be very interested. I would have been very interested as a student and am personally an active maker now. At best, I see the topics covered in the book as options among a wider selection of opportunities that might be made available to students.

My wife likes to describe this broader perspective as the 20% plan. This phrase refers to the motivating opportunity Google once offered employees to work on a project of personal interest as part of their commitment to the company. Of course, it was unclear what the 20% represented in real time – 20% of 60 hours still leaves more dedicated and inflexible time than the work week most assume. Google has also backed away from this ideal to focus on a smaller and carefully selected group of projects. I will leave it to you to evaluate the implementation of a similar model in education and to consider whether my observations about Google may also end up applying in educational settings (20% is misleading because it is likely additional rather than reallocated time and Google finally took a look at the bottom line or maybe brought a greater focus to the core business and backed away from encouraging such activity).

Makers do things for themselves. The immerse themselves in projects that to some extent are self defined and self directed. The collection of areas used as examples in Invent to Learn include programming, electronics, robotics, and fabrication. Most examples are technology-based, but a limited amount of attention considers more “old school” construction resources – cardboard, string, springs, and other stuff. If the maker movement interests you, the book does a great job of identifying information sources and physical resources for getting started.

Some reactions and/or related thoughts:

1) The research section of the book was one-sided and weak. I had some experiences working with LOGO and middle school students. I wrote about “programming to learn” and I carefully reviewed the fairly substantial research on the potential benefits of involving younger students in programming. At the time, the move was away from “computers for computers sake” (i.e., programming) and more toward whether programming experiences would develop general cognitive skills (e.g., problem solving). Some of the meta-analyses of these individual studies appear in the most prestigious educational research journals and seem to question the value of programming at the level of commitment that was being made by most middle schools. I have read all of the books mentioned in Invent to Learn written by Papert so I am aware of the arguments that seem so appealing to the authors. Perhaps the focus here is truly on learning to program because programming can be vocational skill. I would accept this position, but then I would return to the question of how many students would be interested (see my title). In my opinion, serious scholarship requires the identification of the existing literature – pro and con. Hence, I see this as a useful “methods” book for what might be an elective area and not a well research justification for a general change in the curriculum.

2) Why these topics? Is it because the areas emphasized are in some way more relevant than other areas of study (technology and new manufacturing methods)? What about options?

I have a long term interest in school-based, field biology projects. I spent some years associated with a program funded by the state Game and Fish Department that focused on the cultivation and study of habitats (OWLS – outdoor wildlife learning sites). The core idea was to develop small areas of land near schools as habitats – most were small patches of native prairie. Some were simply plots including butterfly gardens, bird houses and feeders, etc. and some in more rural settings might be several acres in size that bordered a pond or stream. Such ventures were developed to incorporate local history (state history is required), biology/ecology, communication, data collection and analysis. I was involved as the technology person – probe use, digital photography, web sites developed for communication among program participants and presentation to the general public. This type of project bears some similarity to schools that sponsor a school garden and use this resource to explore biology, nutrition, and exercise.

These experiences taught me some interesting things about changing the curriculum and project based learning. I learned that teacher passions vary and commitments change with personnel. The projects I mention are challenging because they require an investment of time over time and a critical part of the time involved with projects that make use of plants is that these projects do not mesh well with the school calendar. You cannot ignore the plants over the summer as you might equipment stored in the back room. There was typically money for the materials but not for the personnel. If there was not a teacher committed to maintain the garden over the summer, the plot turned to weeds, the administrators were embarrassed by the appearance of the school yard, and the plot was returned to grass because it was far easier to maintain.

I think I can describe hands-on experiences growing things in a way that argues for educational value. A wide variety of experiences have educational benefits. I liked the argument that technology exists all around us and is not limited to the stereotypical notion that technology involves programmers putting in hour after hour in a room relating to a computer. I like the counter-intuitive argument that technology can take us out of the classroom into the world and allow us the means to investigate that world. Students receive far to few of these experiences.

Again, I return to the question of whether the book argues for a specific addition to what schools already do or whether the commitments reviewed are a proxy for the notion of “deep electives” and choice. Can making apply to gardening in the same way it applies to fabrication?

3) It is inaccurate to represent schools as having no opportunities for passion-based learning. I would suggest that athletics and arts (music, theater, etc.) are obvious examples. Such activities are school sponsored extra-curricular activities often involving part of the school day (a scheduled open period). Sports and arts have advocates claiming learning outcomes that warrant the time and resources allocated. Each area also has critics questioning the time allocated to what might be seen as a distraction from a core mission.

Other “clubs” do exist with differing levels of participation from location to location. Is this book about an area of emphasis that is to receive the level of attention focused on athletics or the arts, but with the focus that is more typical of a club?

4) Do students really want to be independent, self-guided, deep learners? The answer from the book would seem to be – “yes, they just are never really given the chance.” I wonder. Existing clubs focused on the topics described in the book do sometimes exist and have a loyal, but small clientele. Anecdotal reasoning is a serious problem in thinking about educational practice. Assuming that the passion of a specific student you may know explains what would interest most students is dangerous. My experience with similar issues comes from higher ed. The university experience actually offers students a great deal of flexibility in selecting courses as long as general requirements are met. Beyond this general flexibility in the selection of courses, the department in which I work offers specific individualized opportunities – readings and special projects – that would allow a student to identify a topic, develop a learning plan, and with faculty supervision generate a product. I can tell you based on my experience as a department administrator that these opportunities are very seldom utilized. I wonder why? Is it possible that these opportunities just come too late and students have long since given in to the notion that education is something done to them and not something they, with assistance, do for themselves,

Music streaming from Twining

I would like to think that one factor giving our writing some credibility is that we prepare teachers, but are also directly involved with classroom activities. I have written before about Cindy’s unique employment with both the university and the Grand Forks Schools.

The school in which Cindy does most of her work is located on an air force base. This situation presents some unique challenges. One and sometimes both parents may be deployed and as a consequence miss their son or daughter’s school activities. This reality became part of the school’s interest in streaming today’s end of year band and orchestra concert (actually the full concerts are this evening, but performances during the day allow the students to perform for peers).

Twining Concert

The project was accomplished using UStream, a wireless connected laptop, and the type of camcorder you probably own.  This is what the video looks like. I selected a frame with the intent of not revealing too much. The content was not recorded (although an option) because of copyright issues. I listened from my office. I have a pretty nice AV setup (Klipsch speakers, large monitors) and the sound quality was great (reminded me of the concerts I used to attend when my kids were the same age). The concert drew 33 online viewers.

There were a few glitches. Cindy had to operate the camcorder in record mode so that a signal could be sent to the computer. At one point, the tape had to be rewound so the camera would continue to function. The camera was plugged in, but the connection was bad so the battery ran down.


Cindy and I are chatting during the concert. I was attempting to let her know the first time I lost the signal.  Mysterious things always seem to happen when technology is involved. Cindy seems to find the unexpected problems an interesting challenge. She decided she would go back this evening just in case.

The UStreamTv technology is very easy to implement. My previous experience was in viewing the distribution of  conference presentations, but there would seem to be many school applications. The equipment requirements are minimal and getting started requires little preparation or background. Information is available online if you want to explore.

Books of Hope

The end of the school year is rapidly approaching and long-term projects are being wrapped up. One of the more interesting projects Cindy worked on this year was called “Books of Hope”. As part of their participation in this project, students from Nathan Twining elementary and middle school wrote books that were sent to Uganda.The 6th graders were working on a unit concerning ancient Egypt and wrote stories by reworking traditional American fairy tales within an Egyptian setting. The 5th graders wrote an original story on a topic selected by the student (everything from an ABC book to the story of a student’s trip to the hospital).

The project allowed U.S. children to learn something about the experiences of children faced with difficult and dangerous conditions and also to participate in an authentic language arts activity resulting in the production of a book. The books become reading material for children who have few resources.

Image of Books

A page on the Twining web site offers additional information about the project. A local grant from the Qwest foundation provided a way to extend the project by preserving and sharing the books for other audiences. The books were converted to enhanced podcasts with Garageband or Kid Pix. Sometimes sharing involved a parent who might be away from home. While clearly not facing problems of the magnitude faced by the children from Uganda, Twining school is located on a military base and these students face their own challenges as parents are deployed.

If you are curious, the podcasts are available from the Twining web site (use link provided above).

GF Podcasters

I have been spending a great deal of time in K-12 computer labs and classrooms this past month. It would be great if I could claim I was making a conscious attempt to get a better view of what goes on in the learning environments I often write about. While it works out in this way, I am primarily in Twining Middle School two days a week because I must move Cindy and her equipment around. Cindy broke her leg during the holiday season and can now neither walk nor drive. So – I either push the wheel chair or carry the bags.

Today was T-Rex day at Twining school. I never did figure out what T-Rex stands for. I am guessing the reference is to a dinosaur, but the mascot is the Thunderbird. This is a special events day during which the students get to select from among several “special” recreational/learning activities. Some left early this morning in the below 0 temperature and wind to ski. Some went to a water park. Some stayed in the school for a variety of activities including podcasting, art projects, and rocket building.

Cindy worked with elementary school children to help them create simple podcasts in KidPix. We have been around KidPix a long time and like so many products you have to pay attention because the companies keep adding new features. A recent option allows the slideshow created from individual images to be exported as an “enhanced podcast.” You hear the audio associated with each image (I guess you could call this the podcast part) and see the images, animated embellishments, etc. matched to the audio (this is the enhanced part).

T-Rex Day

I have also been waiting for a chance to provide a link to the weekly podcasts generated by Deb Canton’s sixth graders. Deb works with curriculum technologhy partner Carla Haaven to orchestrate a process by which a rotating set of three students generates a weekly one-minute podcast. The students have from Monday through Wednesday to generate a script related to an event or topic relevant to the class (a list of possible topics is kept on the board). Carla meets with the group on Wednesday (with a camera in case an image or two is needed) and they turn the script into a podcast with Garageband. Check a few of these out – the quality is great.

Canton Kid's

Blogged with Flock

End of Year Project

It is the end of the K-12 school year in Grand Forks. Some classes are wrapping up projects before everyone takes off for the summer. Students from Mrs. Bethke’s 5th-grade class were off to Valley 4000 to share their completed projects with their partners for the year.

Student and partner have met monthly and become friends. Some of these meetings have focused on social outings – the celebration of Christmas and Cinco de Mayo, playing a little bingo, and a talent show.

The partners also spend time discussing historical events. Participants from Valley share stories and memories of one-room schools, the depression, and life on the farm some 70 years ago. The young students ask questions during interviews and learn. They take notes, they make audio and video recordings, and organize the information they collect. Students are using technology to capture and perserve history – KidPix, Inspiration, audio recording, Library of Congress images, iMovie, and Quicktime.

At the end of the year, it is time to give something back. The students integrative their work, save it as a DVD, and present copies to their partners. The last meeting allows them to demonstrate what they have done. Imagine sharing a DVD of personal reflections with your 95-year-old partner (see below). Her comment – “You are never too old to learn something new.” Well put – no matter what your age, there is always the opportunity to learn from each other.

West School Project

Some additional details – GF Herald article