Lego Mindstorms Project

A few weeks back, a STEM Outreach Coordinator from Taft College contacted me to see about collaborating with the Coding Club. She brought 24 tubs of Lego Mindstorms NXT and 10 Macbook Pros for my students to use. She also supplied a 10-week curriculum for my students to work on.

After much negotiations, we launched the program on February 21st, 2014. And here are my observations so far.

Lego Mindstorms Robots and MacbookPro Computers

Lego Mindstorms Robots and MacbookPro Computers

Challenges of Sustaining the Club

Even though the Coding Club has been one of the most successful clubs on campus, after our highly successful Hour of Coding event some students began to lose interest. It was partly because of the huge gap between the meetings. Immediately after the Hour of Code event, we were on Winter Break for two weeks. Then I was not in town for two weekends in a row because of my classes and a conference. To make matters worse, we had several Monday holidays in January and February, which made holding the club meetings difficult since they are usually on Mondays.

Furthermore, students were advancing quicker than I could financially support them. They wanted to create complex projects using several Arduino boards and LEDs that required more supplies, which I simply couldn’t afford. This created a huge challenge for the club.

Even though I had all the free tools available, without hands-on projects for the students to work on, learning to code became another “class” for them to manage rather than a meaningful learning experience. Being contacted by Taft college, therefore, was the lucky break that I desperately needed.

Why Lego Mindstorms

On February 21st, 2014, my supplies arrived. It has only been two weeks since we began, but I am seeing amazing things happen.

Students working on Lego Mindstorms

Students working on Lego Mindstorms

1. Name Recognition

Once I began advertising to the student about using Lego Mindstorms robots, I had several new students. They all cited wanting to work with Legos as their reason for wanting to participate. Clearly, the name recognition was working in my favor. Even though a few students have never worked with Legos, they all knew and have heard of them. Because of its reputation and ease of use, Lego Mindstorms provided an edge that neither e-textiles nor Arduino boards had over my students.

2. Practical Challenges that Encourages Students to Play

Rather than simply interacting with a screen, the students must manipulate the materials while working with these robots, which can be programmed to sing, talk, and even “dance.” Although many students are following the designated curriculum, I noticed them simply “playing” with the robot before moving onto the next challenge. One student programmed for his robot to “sing” before turning; another student programmed the robot to flash lights after completing three weeks worth of challenges ahead of everyone else. Because of its reputation as a toy, these robots seem to bring out the playfulness in my students in addition to teaching them engineering and programming skills.

3. Collaborative Learning

While working on the robots, my students constantly communicate with one another. Many of them opted to work in pairs partly because we don’t have enough robots, but partly because they wanted to work with a partner. Even though I tried to encourage them to work in groups, it was not possible while they were strictly learning to program using only the digital tools. I can see that working with these robots facilitates a fantastic social learning environment. It is equally fascinating to see a certain order of information sharing happening in the classroom. I noticed that my struggling students naturally gravitated towards others who already advanced to the next step to get information and guidance, and then passed the information onto others who were still struggling to accomplish the next task.

4. Positive Competition

Since I am aware of the benefits of what Gabe Zimmerman calls the 3-Fs, – Fun, Friends, and Feedback – of game-based learning, I decided to create a “Leader Board” to keep track of my students progress before the project began. I create an area on my board where a student could put an orange star his or her name after accomplishing each task. Seeing others receive stars has done wonders for some students. This became evident when I took a picture of the board to be included in this post. A student said, “Wait, Mrs. Glazer! We are almost done. Please take the picture after we put our star up!”

 5. Rewards for Effort

Since all activities are voluntary and being done after school, some students elected to attend more meetings than others. One such student is a freshman who has spent additional hours during lunch and after school. Even though he is one of the youngest ones in the club, he has accomplished more tasks than any of the other members because he spent the most time on his project. As a result, he has become an informal leader of the group, which has been a great experience for him.

6. Grit

Although these Lego robots can do amazing things, they are also extremely flimsy. My students are having a hard time controlling the robots because all parts are made of plastic. Some of my students have been stuck on a particular challenge not because they didn’t know how to program or construct their robots, but because the back wheel keeps coming off. However, I could tell this has taught them to persevere. Just today, I watched two boys attempting to control their robots while crawling on the floor for nearly an hour. Their robots kept moving out of bounds, which happened at least 15 times, but they kept trying to get it right.

7. Increased Student Engagement

Most importantly, this project has my students’ full attention. Since we began, I have been asked pretty much everyday if I was going to be in my room during lunch and after school. Even though we are only supposed to meet one hour after school on Thursdays and two hours on Saturdays, I had to stay until 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 6th, 2 1/2 hours after school ended. That doesn’t include 1 1/2 hours I stayed after school on Monday, March 3rd, 2 hours on Tuesday, March 4th, and 2 hours on Wednesday, March 5th. Furthermore, students asked if I could stay after school on Friday, and they said they definitely wanted to come at 9 a.m. on Saturday not the normal 10 a.m., so they could spend more time with the robots. Of course, not everyone is coming to every meeting. But at any give day, at any given day I have 3-4 students working on their robots after school.

It has only been two weeks, but I am thrilled to have the Lego Mindstorms robots. I can see how much my students are learning to problem solve and work collaboratively. I am certain that they are learning additional computational thinking skills such as problem solving and programming. They are certainly engaged and focused. I can’t wait to see what my students will do next!

The Hour of Code Event at Independence High Scohol

The IHS Coding Club hosted the Hour of Code Event today. We had several elementary school students from the Boys and Girls Club of Kern County. I was so proud of my students who ran the event without much help from me.

I know many people consider teaching high school to be a tough job. Believe me when I tell you it can be!

However, I absolutely love my students for their amazing compassion and willingness to help others. And here are some pictures from that event.

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Learning from Others

As usual, when I attend any face-to-face sessions, I am in awe of the talent present in my cadre.

Here are some pictures of the projects my classmates have created. Clearly, I do not possess their level of talent, but seeing them gave me so many ideas. I have never considered myself to be a talented maker or artist. But seeing them enjoy the debugging exercise inspired me to bring the joy to my students. The more I am doing this, the more I am convinced that my place is in the classroom, working and teaching my students. It might sound like I am taking an easy way out, but thinking about bringing this to my students excites me more than making my project work. Now I must look for ways to fund their passion!

Debugging Exercise

Debugging Exercise

Motion Detecting Music Box

Motion Detecting Music Box



Amazing Light-Up Painting

Amazing Light-Up Painting

Finally, success!

After struggling through for many weeks, I finally experienced success today.

First, I realized that the Flora board program was a must because the LilyPad I was going to use didn’t have a slot for the battery. I was scared to death to plug in the Flora board to the Mac, so I started with a PC. However, afer downloading the Flora program on my PC, I realized that whether you were using a PC or a Mac, you needed to have two completely separate Arudino programs to upload the codes.

Since I had to bring a prototype to my class Tuesday, I decided to go for it. Fortunately, when I plugged the Flora board in, the on-board LED began blinking as I wanted it to! Oh, the sweet sight of success!!!

Then off to the programming and wiring the lights onto the board! After several hours of talking to Skylar on Google Hangout, I was able to program the Flora board to light up with the code below. Of course, I am even going to pretend that I knew what I was doing. Skylar had to walk me through each step! Thank you, Skylar!

Then onto wiring and sewing. Since I have never really sewed before, it was a struggle. Trying to keep the conductive thread separate AND attach the board to the shoe was not easy. I had to tape a lot of stuff to make sure I was doing things correctly. And when I stepped, the lights turned on as I wanted them to. Such happiness!

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Working with Students

During our second Saturday meeting, I took a different approach. Because I only had a few students, I decided to read the Arduino Projects for Dummies book with them to learn with my students. We decided to work on wiring the LED Pet project in the book. Since I was still shaky with everything, I told them that I was learning with them.

What surprised me was that I was able to answer some of the questions posed by my students. When I didn’t know the answer, we looked in the book to figure it out. That was when I realized the power of this kind of activities.

One of my students who never spoke in my “normal” class was really good at working with his hands. When we were stuck because we didn’t have the wire stripper, he was able to use a pair of scissors to move the project along. He was also able to figure out the diagram faster than any other students who were reading the book with me.

We didn’t get very far with the project because the breadboard we were using was too big, and we didn’t have the right USB. But I now believe in this project stronger than ever before!

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After School Coding Club

Despite all the failures that I was experiencing, I decided to call another meeting to see whether anyone would show up after school. Since my school is located pretty far away from a residential area, many of my students take buses. Therefore, calling an after school meeting can be rather risky. I expected to see maybe 5 kids at the most. To my utter surprise, fifteen kids came!

Of course, since I haven’t figured out how to lead these kids, I put them on Code Academy. What I realized was that how little these students knew about the computers. I had to explain the difference among hard drive, network drive, and cloud computing to more than one students. We still had fun for at least 1 1/2 hours after school. But how can I help them?

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Shock to Learn About Electricity

Since I had no idea what I needed but simply knew that I needed “stuff,” I decided to go visit the “Shack” per my professor’s suggestion.

At Radio Shack, I found three boxes of things that were on sale. They were resistors, LEDs, and switches. I knew that I really didn’t need the switches, but they were on sale for only $5.99 – $7.99 per box. Because I plan to continue with the coding club, I thought it was a good investment. The salesman also suggested that I should get a multimeter that was on sale for $11.99. Since I didn’t know what I could do with it, so I didn’t buy it. Instead, I bought an Arduino Uno for the club.

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When I got home, I called Skylar to see whether I could simply plug the LED light strip to the Ardunio Uno. But of course, I struggled to find the regular USB cord to connect the Ardunio Uno to my computer. Another failure….

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While struggling through this process, I learned that as complex as the coding might be, controlling the circuit was much more important in becoming successful in many of these projects. I realized this while reading  Arduino Projects for Dummies. So I went back to Radio Shack and purchased the multimeter still on sale.

The sad part about this was that I was no where near completing my project!

arduino for dummies