9-hour day includes robotics, dance, cooking

 In a tough Oakland neighborhood, a middle school offers a 9-hour school day, reports Susan Frey on EdSource.  Elmhurst Community Prep students can choose enrichment classes in robotics, music, dance, painting, cooking, blogging and other activities. “They can make collages, dissect fetal pigs or create apps,” writes Frey.

“We’re not just cookies and basketballs,” said Principal Kilian Betlach,  “We have a real moral imperative to provide kids from low-income backgrounds with the services and opportunities that middle-class kids get. We don’t do just hard academics. We offer access and opportunities.”

Classes begin at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. Federally funded AmeriCorps teaching fellows tutor students during the day and teach after-school classes. The regular academic teachers get an hour each afternoon, from 2 to 3 p.m., to work collaboratively and plan.

Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit, helps train the Americorps fellows and brings in “citizen teachers” from the community to teach their specialties. Local companies invite students for “apprenticeship” experiences.

At Pandora, students learned how to make an app. “It was a video game where you dodge fireballs,” Betlach recalled.

The school also works with nonprofits such as Waterside Workshops in Berkeley, where the students built a boat.

In 8th grade, student focus on one after-school activity.  Andres McDade, who tried robotics, skateboarding and film, chose music as an 8th grader. He plays the saxophone and percussion drum. “I like the joy of playing music,” he said.

Betlach and Citizen Schools “have cobbled together federal, state, local and private funding” to pay for the extended day, writes Frey.

In his days as a San Jose teacher, Betlach wrote an excellent blog, Teaching in the 408.

I visited Elmhurst a few months ago. (The school is participating in a blended learning pilot, which I’m writing about for Education Next‘s spring issue.) It’s a small, semi-autonomous school in Oakland Unified, so it has some freedom to innovate but all the usual challenges.

Sylvia Todd, super-awesome maker

The maker of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Mini-Maker Show is an 11-year-old girl, reports the New York Times.

Sylvia Todd’s desk is not tidy. It’s cluttered with small robots (including a solar-powered grasshopper), motors, wires, resistors, a soldering iron and an array of other gadgets and tools.

More than 1.5 million YouTube views have watched episodes of “Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Mini-Maker Show.” She is sought after for speaking engagements, visits maker fairs and even addresses TEDx conferences. At the White House Science Fair, President Obama tested her latest project, a robot that paints.

“Ever since I was really young I liked destroying stuff,” Sylvia said. “I’ve always been interested in making and doing things hands-on.”

She went to her first maker fair at the age of 5 with her father, a Web developer who never finished high school. (Sylvia is 11. Her father is 29. “Do the math,” he says.) Two summers ago, James Todd began videotaping Sylvia’s demonstrations, as a summer project. Her mother got the idea for a YouTube show. So far, Sylvia has aired 19 episodes on making your own crazy putty (extended polymer chains), squishy circuit boards, electricity-conducting dough and more.

Technology for learners thrives out of school, writes Anya Kamenetz in Hechinger’s Digital blog.

Robotics is on a roll in Minnesota

Minnesota has more high school robotics teams than boys’ hockey teams, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s “chic to be geek.”

“Varsity robotics” is treated like an athletic sport.

Robotics team members are getting varsity letters and patches, being paraded before school assemblies like other sports stars and seeing trophies in the same lobby display cases as their football, basketball or baseball counterparts.

At the state tournament, teams compete for the championship by building robots to perform a task set every year. Last year, the robots shot basketballs. This year, they throw Frisbees.

Young inventors

Inspired by the FIRST robotics contest, teens — and pre-teens — are patenting their inventions, reports Popular Mechanics.

The Londonderry, N.H., Inventioneers had already filed three provisional patent applications by the time they created the SMARTwheel in response to a FIRST Lego League Challenge. “We found out car crashes were the No. 1 cause of death for teens, and texting was the main distraction,” says 11-year-old Bryeton Evarts. “We wanted to do something to stop that.” Their solution is a steering wheel cover that detects when a driver removes a hand for more than 3 seconds and emits visual and audio alerts. A data logger communicates unsafe driving behavior in real time. Writing the utility patent application was 16-year-old Tristan Evarts’s favorite part: “You can conceptualize your idea, but until you have to list all its features on paper, you don’t fully understand what it is.”

A team in Rockledge, Florida built a custom robot for the local police department.

 It can climb rugged terrain, deliver a negotiation phone, launch smoke grenades, and conduct surveillance. “We were searching other police robots and were shocked by how much they cost for what they could do,” says Jason Schuler, a contract engineer for NASA, a team mentor, and a FIRST alum. So the team filed a provisional patent for its PDBot and optimized the design for a kit that other teams can use to fundraise. “Instead of washing cars to raise money, they’ll be building robots,” Schuler says.

Very cool.

Nearly 300,000 students participate in FIRST programs, which start with Junior Lego for grades K-3.

Woz: Ask for new answers

To encourage innovative thinking, schools should let students work on semester-long projects, said Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in a speech, reports Computerworld.

“A really innovative person is known for something that usually took an awful lot of thinking, maybe even over years, and a lot of development in a laboratory putting it together and getting it to work. And it’s new and it’s different. And it’s not something you read about in a book,” he said.

“In school, intelligence is a measurement,” he continued. “If you have the same answer as everyone else in math or science, you’re intelligent.”

In English class, students write essays that express their own ideas, Wozniak said. (He may be overestimating the creativity of  assigned essays.)  Computer science students also should seek “different answers than what I’ve known in the past or what I’ve read or heard,” he said.

Technology development projects reward innovators with a feeling of personal pride of accomplishing something no one else has done before, and “that’s the sort of thing that inspires you to believe in yourself as an inventor type, not just an engineer who knows the equation.”

“The value of these big projects is you learn diligence, lot of repetition. A lot of hard work results in something that’s your own. Your own. You built it. You have personal pride,” he said. “Personal pride is the strongest motivating force there is.”

Wozniak taught computer science for years in the public schools his children attended in Los Gatos, a wealthy suburb of San Jose.

As an example of what Wozniak is talking about, I highly recommend Neal Bascomb’s The New Cool, subtitled “A Visionary Teacher, his FIRST Robotics Team and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.”

Physics teacher wins ‘genius’ prize

Amir Abo-Shaeer, a physics and engineering teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara, is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, one of 23 recipients of a $500,000 “genius” prize, reports Noozhawk.

Once a mechanical engineer, Abo-Shaeer, 38, created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy to give students — half are female — hand-on learning opportunities in science and engineering. The academy’s robotics team is one of the best in the nation. (Click on the link and look at the team picture: I’ve never seen so many blonde girls at a robotics contest.)

With a $3 million state grant and help from parent volunteers, Abo-Shaeer created a foundation to raise matching funds for the construction of a new facility, Elings Center for Engineering Education, which will let the academy triple its enrollment. The capital campaign is about $500,000 short of its goal, but I hope Abo-Shaeer won’t use all the MacArthur money for that.

The New Cool, by Neal Bascomb, slated for March release, follows Abo-Shaeer and his robotics team as they work to prepare for the FIRST robotics competition.

Should I let kids fail?

An after-school robotics club advisor asks whether she should let students fail at what’s supposed to be a fun activity. Laura Reasoner Jones, a technology teacher in Virginia, coached fifth and sixth graders, who were supposed to build and program robots for a demonstration to which parents were invited. Two of the five teams didn’t get a robot to work.

Am I going to let them experience the natural consequences of inaction, or am I going to intervene and fix things?

. . . They spent weeks playing with the software but would not use any of the canned programs that are great starting places.

. . . When they finally got a robot built and found they could not get the program to work, they were unwilling to either tinker with it or start over, and the time just dribbled away. So, now it is the last week before the demo, and they have nothing. Nothing!!!

Jones decided she could not let them “watch all of their friends be applauded and praised by staff and parents,” while they had nothing to show.

(The after-school program) is about personal success, whatever form that may take.

I think about my goals for this project. I want each child to build and program a robot, learning that he/she can do new things and stretch his/her brain into new fields without fear of failure. I want each child to see herself/himself as an engineer, a builder, a creator. And above all, I want each child to feel pride in his/her work.

But personally, as a mother and as a teacher, I also want each child to learn from mistakes, to take risks and experience the consequences of risk-taking. I don’t want to rescue kids. I want them to learn to rescue themselves.

Finally, she decided to ask the engineer mentors to rescue the slacker students so they could “experience success.”

Is it really success? Would failure have been more educational?

In my book, Our School, a hard-knock charter school, Downtown College Prep, sends teams of students to compete in a Silicon Valley robotics contest called the Tech Challenge.  The best team takes fourth place; another team’s robot fails the challenge, while the girls’ team is sidelined by a bad battery.

“You’re all champions,” says the presenter. Adam and Rico look dubious. They don’t want anyone saying this was their best effort, because it wasn’t. They can do better.

. . . The Lady Lobos also aren’t satisfied with their performance. They glare at their yellow ribbons, given for participating. Their machine didn’t work, and they’re not going to pretend it did.

After three fourth-place finishes in the Tech Challenge, a DCP team won the grand prize in 2004. One of things those kids learned was how to try, fail, get up off the floor and try harder and smarter next time around.