Time - In referring to time, I mean the amount of actual time for students to work on projects. Given the need to cover some foundational concepts together (circuits, very basic programming, Arduino sampling, and digital design) and to gradually bring students up to speed on the process of project development, the remaining time is devoted to project work. However, we meet three times per six day rotation, for 45 minutes each, so every minute counts. And as teachers know, we can't capitalize on every minute, as some time is given to set up and clean up, not to mention the occasional fire drill.
Schedule - The second greatest challenge this year was being scheduled at the end of the school day. I understand the need to put core classes in the morning and early part of the day, to hit the mind "while it is fresh", so to speak. Unfortunately, this need places elective classes at the end, where students often miss class due to sports activities, doctor's appointments, and the like. A number of class sessions this year saw students absent for these and various other reasons, which makes project completion even more difficult.
Gender Balance - Through the two sessions of Creator's Studio this year, there were five girls out of 24 students, representing approximately 20%. Obviously, I would like to see the numbers increase. A more balanced roster allows for a much richer learning experience for everyone. I also find that mixed grade levels is important, as my second session which contained both 7th and 8th graders demonstrated. In looking at the requests coming in for the fall, this more blended mix of grade levels and gender will indeed happen.
End of Project Blog - One very important goal of this class is to have students document their project work for themselves (reflection) and a larger audience (sharing). We do this through the student blogs section of this website. While my original intention was to have each student document the entire project process from idea to prototype to revision and final product, the reality is there is not enough time. However, regressing a small bit, I still want students to wrap up their project with an End of Project blog, with very specific guidelines to show what the project was about, what challenges they faced, including photos and/or video along the way. While a few students put a considerable amount of focus in documenting their work, the majority struggled. This is something I need to place more emphasis on in the coming year. I believe it's a matter of demonstrating the value and importance of documenting one's work, and giving students more opportunities for writing and reflecting in class.
Meeting each student at her/his level - With every student taking on a unique project, it can be difficult in a 45 minute class period to support each individual. I let my students know, from the beginning, that there will be times in a class that I may not get to everyone, and that much of the responsibility for work done will reside with the student. This is a tremendously important skill to have, the ability to self-motivate, take risks, and try things out without someone else telling you what to do, or how to do it. Most children this age haven't had a great deal of experience doing this, so I see it as a huge learning opportunity. However, sometimes a student is just stuck. And while these learners are the ones I most often spend my time with, in some sessions the numbers are greater than I can handle, even with 12 students. My goal in the coming year is to provide more instructional videos online for learning the tools, so that I can spend more time on project design and development specific to each child. Additional information on this can be found in the Next Year section below.
Creative Project Selection - I am amazed at the variety of projects that were generated this year. In somewhat "if you build it, they will come" fashion, once students had a handle on the kinds of projects they could take on, and the kinds of tools they had access to, it was a matter of just getting out of their way so they could proceed to build something they were very passionate about. If anything, I had to help tone things down a bit, since one idea would spark another, and soon a child had 4 or 5 projects she/he wanted to work on. And while there were a couple of students each trimester that were able to complete multiple projects, the majority focused on one big project. See my previous blog post for details on the most recent student projects.
Task Boards - During the first trimester, in order to help students gain as much focus as possible during any given class period, I implemented task boards. These 2' x 3' shower boards (dry erase) were used at the beginning of class to allow students to externalize their thought process and identify specific steps they needed to accomplish that day. The boards were left out during class so that we all had an idea of where we should be focusing our time.
Google Doc Project Dialogue - While the task boards worked well for trimester 1, I felt the need for greater dialogue in the second trimester. I am uncertain if this had to do with the fact that 8th graders were now a part of the class, or whether the students in general approached work in a more sophisticated manner, as even the 7th graders were now older and more mature. In either case, to be more effective as a coach/mentor, I created individual google docs called Project Dialogues that I shared with each student. Using this doc, I had students reflect on their progress throughout the project and I gave feedback before each class meeting. I always ended the dialogue with "What will you work on today?" Students got accustomed to walking into class each day, opening up the dialogue, and writing back to me. This step was required before starting any hands-on work, and it was evident that going through this process helped students focus on the tasks at hand.
My Own Learning Journey - While students worked on their projects, I also took my own journey through discovery of the various tools we used. Building my own 3D printer was an incredible experience, while shadowing one student's Arduino project forced us both to dig deeper into the code than we expected. Setting up, configuring and using the laser cutter was a thrill, and now I am embarking further into 3D design as I build instructional videos around Autodesk 123D. Learning is a life-long pursuit, and I am in it for the long haul.
The New PIRL Space - One challenge I failed to mention above was classroom size. This first year was a prototype, and as such we used a space that was formerly the student store. Not an ideal classroom, about half the size, and thus the need to limit the roster to 12 students. Even with just 12, I often found myself sending students outside to work on projects, particularly those that might have involved a power tool. This summer we will turn the existing middle school computer lab into PIRL, the Project & Idea Realization Lab, moving most of the elements from Creator's Studio into a much larger space. Please stay tuned for more information here on the blog.
New Tools - The first trimester of this year began without access to the laser cutter and minimal access to the Cube 3D printer. Over the course of the past nine months so much has changed. The second trimester students had full access to these tools, along with additional design software and resources. In the coming fall, two Makerbot Replicator 5th Gen printers will be added to the suite of tools, and we are exploring the options for CNC, vinyl cutting and vacuum formers. I am also interested in other tools coming down the pipe (no pun intended) including DIWire from Pensa Labs. I first saw this tool on Kickstarter, but as of this writing, they are now taking pre-orders. We are living in very interesting times.
More Course Instructional Videos - As I mentioned previously, part of my strategy in handling the issues of limited time and difficult scheduling is to provide more resources outside of class. By giving students access to lessons on their own time, and of their own choosing, I can focus more in-class time to specific problems and questions that arise during project work. I've recently added videos for Autodesk 123D Design, and will follow these up with tool use (soldering, drilling, sawing) along with any other hard and soft tools as necessary for the coming year.
There is no doubt that this year was exhausting, but exhausting in the best possible ways. I have learned so much about new technologies, new teaching strategies and new classroom management approaches, all prompted by the needs of Creator's Studio. I look forward to next year with just as much energy and enthusiasm.