Excel’s Hour of Code

Like thousands of schools around the world, this week we held our Hour of Code, introducing our sixth grade students to programming using code.org‘s excellent platform and curricula. Building on the computational thinking lessons we’ve been working on so far this year, the chance to apply these concepts to tangible computer science exercises was a thrill for our students. We kicked things off by discussing all of the different career paths in which students would benefit by knowing programming principals, and establishing some common vocabulary like “debugging”. As computers were distributed, the excitement in the room was palpable.

Students chose between three sets of lessons – creating a Star Wars game controlling droids old and new, adventuring in the world of Minecraft, or creating geometric art masterpieces on ice in Frozen. All three started students off with the basics – teaching the computer to move a character around the screen a certain distance (be it a step, a grid square or 100 pixels) and then chaining multiple instructions together to solve specific problems. Soon enough, students were deep into their own creations, dreaming up fractals on ice or spawning hundreds of Star Wars creatures every time they bumped into a wall. Gleeful cries of “I finally got it!” and “Look at what I did!” were well-balanced by concentrated silences and moments of brief frustration that were often resolved by helpful peers.

Continue reading “Excel’s Hour of Code”

Video: Computational Thinking at Excel Public Charter School

If you’ve been following along with our Computational Thinking blog, you’ve likely got a good idea around what our CT program entails here at Excel. If not, we spent the past couple of weeks creating a short video to serve as a quick primer for our program – check it out below and share it with anyone you think may be interested!

An Interview with Cristina Marcalow, Humanities Teacher Extraordinaire

I recently sat down with our sixth grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, Cristina Marcalow, to discuss her perspective on our Computational Thinking program a few months into the school year.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your experience with the Computational Thinking program here at Excel.

Cristina: It’s been awesome to go to Eli with random ideas that I’ve had, like “oh wow, this seems like it might relate to computational thinking”, and I’ll just randomly go up to him and share a quick idea that I have and the next thing I know, a day – one time it was the next day, another time it was a couple days later – he was running my class and applying the random thought that I had, that I probably never would have been able to execute, he was pulling it off in my class with students, getting them to think in different ways.

Continue reading “An Interview with Cristina Marcalow, Humanities Teacher Extraordinaire”

The Rise and Fall of Seventy-Five Civilizations

I remember when the plague struck. It was during Year One, and suddenly every civilization was decimated. The groans of agony made me question my decision to unleash this so early into the game. But only for a moment.

The pain, while palpable, was easily explained. The students in Ms. Marcalow’s sixth grade humanities classes had spent a considerable amount of time dreaming up civilizations they could call their own. These wondrous lands were located in vastly different environments, populated with a wide array of vegetation and animals, rich in various natural resources and technologies. Heartville, surrounded by the Heart Sea (of course), was chock full of roses and horses. Austin Bay Beach seemed like a lovely ocean-side town with fields of wheat and silk. Ellaville had chickens, corn and a row of Victorian houses along the river. Each civilization had a name, a colorful map, and, until the moment the plague hit, a seemingly bright future.

Continue reading “The Rise and Fall of Seventy-Five Civilizations”

Cross-post: From corporation to classroom, a thoughtful leap @ DailyEdventures

Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking with Anthony Salcito, Vice President of Worldwide Education at Microsoft. We discussed computational thinking and our vision here at Excel, as well as my path from former Microsoft employee to my role as Computational Thinking Program Manager at a public charter school. Read highlights from our conversation and watch the video interview over at DailyEdventures here: http://dailyedventures.com/index.php/2015/10/27/eli-sheldon/

Analyzing a LeBron dunk using decomposition and motion graphs – the code

This post dives into some of the technical nitty-gritty powering our lesson on analyzing a basketball play using decomposition and motion graphs. If you haven’t had a chance to check out that post, definitely start there. As stated in that post, 95% of the credit belongs to Savvas Tjortjoglou and his incredibly helpful blog post describing how to access and manipulate NBA movement data.

Continue reading “Analyzing a LeBron dunk using decomposition and motion graphs – the code”

Analyzing a LeBron dunk using decomposition and motion graphs – the lesson

Our students have spent the last couple of weeks mastering one of their favorite topics – basketball. I can safely say that despite their height disadvantage and general unfamiliarity with their rapidly growing limbs, most of them could probably school me in a game of one-on-one. I needed a way to bring the ball back into my court.

Fortunately, students have also been working on basic graphing in their math and science classes, and I’ve been itching for a lesson with which to introduce the computational thinking concept of decomposition. Throwing all of these ingredients in a cauldron and giving it a good stir, the following lesson began to emerge.

LeBron dunks over Klay Thompson in Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals
LeBron James dunks over Klay Thompson in Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals

Take a look at this spectacular play by the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals, highlighted here as the fourth best dunk of the series. There’s a lot going on! LeBron James snags a rebound and takes off across the court, slinging it to Matthew Dellavedova and crumpling the defensive attempt from Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. It’s a four-way race down the court – but was this play really a contest of speed? Who ran the fastest? How fast was he running? And how can we possibly find out?

Continue reading “Analyzing a LeBron dunk using decomposition and motion graphs – the lesson”

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.

Continue reading “The Allure of the Third Dimension”

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?

Continue reading “Algorithms and the Cardinal Directions”