The Allure of the Third Dimension

There are two great reasons for a school to purchase a 3D printer. The first, and likely the most obvious, is that you can create some really cool things. Students can design and print a phone case, a dinosaur, the missing gear on their favorite childhood toy they assumed would never work again… the possibilities are nearly endless.

The second reason, not entirely unrelated to the first, is perhaps even more important. It’s to get students excited. Sure, there are arguably more affordable ways to pique interest and grow enthusiasm for STEM programs, but I’m not sure others are as palpable as what we here at Excel experienced last Friday as we unboxed our new Flashforge Creator Pro. We’d already been hyping our STEAM Room, the new Makerspace that we’ve been building for a few weeks, but with the unveiling of this creativity-stimulating monolith, suddenly everything clicked for our students.

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The All-Encompassing Makerspace Shopping List

“Sorry, that’s a great idea, but we can’t build it here.”

That’s my nightmare. A student in the STEAM Room, our student Makerspace, approaching me with a brilliant project concept requiring some reasonable tool we didn’t even consider. Of course, there are worse nightmares involving our reciprocating saw or our drill press, but those scenarios are easier to plan around.

How do you come up with an all-encompassing list of tools and materials that will facilitate every student’s wildest dreams, while staying within budget and within space constraints? How can you avoid stifling creativity when you haven’t even polled your students for their interest areas? How do you know when your Makerspace is complete?

In my previous role as a program manager at Microsoft, I would have started with user scenarios. I’d have come up with two or three representative projects and backtracked to see what it would take to get students there. In the end, our STEAM Room would have been very good… at making those two or three projects with some minor tweaks. Continue reading “The All-Encompassing Makerspace Shopping List”

Algorithms and the Cardinal Directions

“Mr. Sheldon! Mr. Sheldon! You forgot a step.”

It couldn’t be true. This was my first time teaching a computational thinking concept to our sixth graders, and I’d obsessed over the lesson all night. The material was flawless, and yet, somehow, a dozen hands were raised, eager to point out my mistake.

Let’s back up a few steps and see how this moment of panic came to be. The previous day, our sixth grade Humanities teacher, Ms. Marcalow, realized that she had the perfect opportunity to plug some computational thinking ideas into her unit on the cardinal directions. Students were learning how to navigate from one country to another. For instance, to get from the United States to South Africa, one would travel east and south. Brazil to France was east and north. String a few of those together, and pretty quickly you’ve got a set of directions – or is it an algorithm?

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Computational Thinking at Excel

We’re three weeks into our inaugural year here at Excel Public Charter School, and every student can already define computational thinking.

Every single student.

Their definitions aren’t canned sentences they were asked to memorize and recite. Students are not only aware of what computational thinking means – they’re living it. In English Language Arts, sixth graders learned how computational thinking applies to breaking down complicated ideas and structuring their notes. In Computer Science, seventh graders used algorithmic design and abstraction to programmatically create intricate designs on graph paper. And starting in a couple of weeks, all of our scholars will have access to our STEAM Room, the Makerspace we’re building to bolster our students’ creativity, design thinking and engineering skills.

Computational thinking is much more than writing code, and equipping our students with these skills doesn’t mean we at Excel want or expect them all to major in software engineering. Skills like pattern recognition, decomposition and abstraction can be leveraged just as often in a history assignment as they can while programming. As my colleague Taylor Williams put it in his recent article for Teach for America, “when schools emphasize computational thinking in interesting contexts and not just traditional computer science, all students can be empowered by computing.”

The Computational Thinking board featured prominently in Mr. Williams' classroom.
The Computational Thinking board featured prominently in Mr. Williams’ classroom.

Our academic mission at Excel is to provide all students an academically rigorous, STEM-focused, college preparatory educational program that will help them achieve both academic and personal success in college and career. Our students will use computational thinking each and every day they’re here at Excel. This blog will serve as a living record of their journeys: documenting new manifestations of computational thinking in and out of the classroom, highlighting student projects and STEM-centric activities, and transparently discussing our accomplishments and our flops along the way.

Follow us on Twitter for more frequent updates, and check back soon for a sneak peek at our STEAM Room!