‘Computational thinking’ in every class

Fifth graders sketched designs for “Rube Goldberg machines” that would turn on and off lights or feed a pet fish. Each team member “spent a few minutes sketching out how one part — a marble run, say, or a Lego Robotics kicking foot — would operate within the machine,” then handed it off to the next person, who’d design the next step, writes Chris Berdik for the Hechinger Report.

Each fifth grader designs one part of a Rube Goldberg machine. Credit: Chris Berdik

Each fifth grader designs one part of a Rube Goldberg machine. Credit: Chris Berdik

In the affluent Pittsburgh suburb of South Fayette, “computational thinking” is integrated into every grade and class.

In the past five years, South Fayette has created STEAM (science, technology, engineering art and math) labs where K-12 students can work on coding, 3-D printing, computer-aided design and robotics.

“Computational thinking means breaking complex challenges into smaller questions that can be solved with a computer’s number crunching, data compiling and sorting capabilities,” writes Berdik.  That problem-solving approach can be “used in everything from textual analysis to medical research and environmental protection.”

The elementary school STEAM lab is filled with “markers, clay, straws, motors, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, sensors, felt and wires,” writes Berdik.

. . .  one class of second-graders recently learned how to use simple circuits to make a game in which the correct answer to a double-digit math problem would light up a little bulb.

“Last year, we did a digital storytelling project in here using stop-motion photography,” (STEAM teacher Melissa) Unger said. “It was spring, and the kids were learning about the life cycle of a butterfly in their regular classroom. So the teachers took that technology piece out of here and back to their classrooms, where students created animations of the life cycle.”

In Anthony Mannarino’s seventh-grade technology education class, “students have created everything from model planes to gears to more ergonomic handles for pots and pans.” Their designs are printed on 3-D printers. Students learn “habits of mind,” such as persistence.

“Whatever you design, there’s a lot of math,” one student said. And there’s plenty of trial and error. “I printed a case for my phone, and the first time, it was a couple millimeters off,” the student explained. “So I had to fix it and print it again. You have to keep trying until you get the result that you want.”

In middle school, a STEAM coordinator helps teachers weave the technologies into their lesson plans.

Students have made apps to help learn foreign languages. They have parlayed a science lesson on energy into the building of tiny, electrified, energy-efficient houses. They’ve used Scratch to animate their writings from English class and mixed music lessons with coding to build digital bands.

High school students can take technology entrepreneurship and human-centered design, as well as Advanced Placement programming. South Fayette students have won awards for their designs, such as  a “geriatric walker that deploys an extra stabilizer when helping someone get up from a chair and sounds an alarm when the walker is tipped beyond its center of gravity.”

Learning how to discover

Americans need to learn how to discover, writes David Edwards in Wired.  Over the next 20 years, as population rises by 2 billion people, we need to discover new ways to feed people,  “new science, engineering, design, and architectural methods, and pioneer economic models” to deal with climate change, “new approaches to medical treatment” and so on.

Neri Oxman lays in her Gemini Chair (Photo by Michel Fuguet)

Neri Oxman lays in her 3D-printed Gemini Chair, which simulates being in the womb, at Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, Mass. (Photo by Michel Fuguet)

A new kind of learning by doing is catching on, writes Edwards, who teaches a class called “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter” at Harvard.

Sometimes discovery learning is called maker classes, after-school innovation programs or innovation prizes, he writes. “Discovery environments are showing up as culture and entertainment, from online experiences to contemporary art installations and new kinds of culture labs.”

The ArtScience Prize lets students “learn the thrill of discovering the undiscovered.”

The maker movement is reinventing education, according to Newsweek.  At High Tech High’s network of San Diego charter schools, learning happens mostly through “kids making, doing, building, shaping and inventing stuff,” says CEO and founding Principal Larry Rosenstock.

Stanford’s design program, known as the d. school, is very cool. I toured the Product Realization Lab yesterday as part of Reunion Weekend. Students design, make a prototype, see what works, modify their design and, eventually make final products. Bending sheet metal changes students, said our guide, Jonathan Edelman, a consulting assistant professor in mechanical engineering. “It opens up their creativity.” So does silversmithing.

However, few students have the chance to take shop classes in middle or high school, Edelman said. Unless they’ve gone to maker fairs or competed in FIRST robotics, even would-be engineers don’t know how to turn a screwdriver.

The d.school welcomes students from art, architecture, biology and chemistry (think biomedical devices) and humanities and social science disciplines.

Beehives inspire Learning Towers

Singapore’s new Communal Learning Towers were inspired by beehives, reports My Modern Metropolis.

The new Learning Hub for Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University was designed to encourage students and teachers to interact easily.

Students invent classroom door lock

“Shaken by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and determined to prevent future tragedies, a team of high school students in Washington, D.C., has invented a new locking device for classroom doors,” reports Discovery News. Often classroom doors can’t be locked from the inside due to fire-safety regulations. They hope their low-cost device will help teachers keep intruders out.


Ten Benjamin Banneker Academic High School students, led by math teacher John Mahoney, created the Dead Stop. A PVC pipe that’s hinged on one side can be locked on the other with a steel pin. Fitted over a hydraulic door closer, it will prevent the door hinge from widening.

 When the students did research about patents and commercially available door locks, they said most of the devices they found required physical installation either on the door or the jamb. Other devices were expensive and complicated to install. Theirs should cost less than $5 and be simple enough that a teacher could lock the door in under 30 seconds, they said. Once the danger has passed it should be easy to remove as well.

With a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant, the students plan to build and test several prototypes of their design, publicize the DIY instructions and collaborate with a company to manufacture the device. They’re hoping for pro bono help in applying for a patent.

Kids make cool stuff, learn ‘grit’

Teaching kids to make things teaches problem-solving, perseverance and “grit,” reports Wired.

When Eugene Korsunskiy and seven of his fellow students from Stanford University’s d.school set out to tour the nation in a brightly painted truck full of laser cutters and rapid prototyping machines, they thought they were bringing a chance to play with high-tech maker tools to school kids who hadn’t had one yet.

And they were: SparkTruck, the educational make-mobile, made 73 stops this summer, treating 2,679 elementary and middle school students to hands-on workshops covering the basics of electrical engineering and digital fabrication, and giving a chance to make cool stuff in the process, like small robotic creatures and laser-cut rubber stamps.

The SparkTruck team learned to let children struggle with design problems, get frustrated, beg for help — and then figure it out. “Once you make it clear that you’re not there to provide the answer, they completely rise to the challenge,” said Korsunskiy.

American kids are said to be low on “grit,” the ability to learn from setbacks instead of giving up, Wired writes. Design teaches problem-solving, Korsunskiy said. Students learn to brainstorm, test ideas and go back to the drawing board.

To quote Barbie: Engineering is hard

My daughter, an American Studies major, was talking with her lawyer friends. They all decided they’d raise their children to be engineers. “No sociology majors!” she says. “No English majors! No American Studies!”  Engineering graduates have it made, the lawyers decided. (They’re assuming their children will earn engineering degrees at top universities.)

But attrition is high for college students who plan on science, technology, engineering and math majors, writes the New York Times. In middle and high school, kids decide that science is fun. In college, “the excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls ‘the math-science death march.’ Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.”

Some 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors switch or quit. That rises to 60 percent when pre-meds are counted, twice the  attrition rate of all other majors.

While some students lack the math skills or the work ethic, the attrition rate is high at super-selective schools, says UCLA Education Professor Mitchell Chang.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

Grading is tougher in science and math classes than in the humanities or social sciences, discouraging some students.

Others find the coursework abstract.

Some engineering programs are breaking up large lecture classes, giving students more design opportunities and pushing social engagement.

(Notre Dame) students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.

“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” (Dean of Engineering Peter Kilpatrick) says. But he also says it’s inevitable that students will be lost. Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.

In other words, it’s hard.

President Obama wants U.S. universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year. Not going to happen, say engineering professors.


Design a 21st-century clasroom

Design a 21st-century fifth-grade classroom — one that Laura Ingalls Wilder wouldn’t recognize instantly – as part of Slate’s “Hive.”  The deadline is Oct. 29.  The winning design may be built as a model classroom in a new charter school.  

The “open classroom” of the 1970s — no walls, lots of noise — made school redesign look bad, concedes Linda Perlstein.  “Teachers taught as they always had, just with far more noise to shout over. The lesson was obvious: Education reform must start with educators, not architects.”

The 21st-century imperative is to closely monitor students’ individual progress and teach them accordingly. Teachers are supposed to work together to analyze data and coordinate their approaches. Most classes include at least some traditional instruction: one teacher up front, addressing 20 or 30 students. But it is also common for students to work on projects in small groups, for aides to conduct “interventions” with a few kids around a table, and for teachers to assess children one at a time. Where the space has not been modified accordingly–which is to say, most everywhere–you see lots of kids sprawling on cold tile floors and huddling in converted closets.

Many top-performing schools are getting the job done in rectangular rooms filled with desks, Perlstein writes.  “Classrooms in South Korea, which is kicking our ass in international rankings, look like ours do, just with far more kids packed in.”

If you want to shoot a movie set in a 1950s’ school, go to a Catholic school.  Many teach very well in old-fashioned buildings.

New school buildings usually feature at least one soaring atrium, and a lot of skylights and windows, Perlstein writes. “Some experts think sunlight helps learning. (Then again, there are architects are designing schools without eye-level windows, for security’s sake.)”

 Hallways are bigger, and when you see students hanging out there during class, they’re not cutting. They’re working. There are more carpets, fewer lockers. Some schools are LEED-certified. They have started to embrace technology, albeit haphazardly: interactive whiteboards, laptops, Wi-Fi, more convenient electrical outlets.

The emerging new model of classroom design should take advantage of changes in the way schools teach. In places where schools have moved away from the idea of teachers as sole practitioners, away from the science-then-reading-then-math-then-social-studies way of breaking up the day, and away from treating students as a mass toward treating them as individuals, some innovative classrooms have emerged. Architects have begun to toss out the usual set of spaces–classroom, cafeteria, auditorium, gym, hallway–for more flexible layouts.

  Read Slate’s terms and conditions, then submit a written description, and preferably a sketch, of your fifth-grade classoom of tomorrow. Entries already are coming in.  You can comment on entries and vote for your favorites.

DASH for the future

You can vote for the best eco-dashboard in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE contest. Semi-finalists from Henry Ford Academy (of course!) in Dearborn, Michigan, Harker School in San Jose and Dos Pueblos High in Santa Barbara have designed automotive dashboards that encourage energy efficiency. Entries include the concept, a technical plan and a video explaining how the design will change driving.