The Robotics Science Class in 5 minutes or less

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

My Robotics science class was the focus of a five minute presentation I recently did at Microsoft’s Mountain View facility, as a Semifinalist for the STEMposium competition, on March 12, 2011. Below are the slides from the presentation, and the script of my remarks.

My name is Luke Laurie. Today I’m going to tell you about the Robotics Science Class that I’ve been teaching for seven years.

Let me tell you a few things about myself.

Science Teacher 13 years -El Camino Junior High in Santa Maria, CA I teach a student population who are mostly English Language Learners, and almost all live in poverty. My school is not unlike many schools in California.

MESA Advisor 13 years -MESA is a statewide program focused on hands-on activities and college attainment in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science

RoboChallenge Director 10 years -A collaborative regional program funded in part by grants from UCSB, providing robotics materials, competition rules, audio-visual and web-based resources, and teacher support to several schools.

Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow- in the U.S. House of Representatives with Congressman Mike Honda, where I worked for a year on Education and Science Policy

and… I Still play LEGOs

From all of my experience in various STEM programs and STEM education policy, it is clear to me that

STEM must be a part of the core curriculum.

In our schools:

We teach science

And we teach Math

but our students need to know more. We need to ensure that they all have opportunities to explore the concepts of technology and engineering too.

To me, it’s artificial to teach Science without integrating technology, engineering, and mathematics. That’s why I created the Robotics Science Class.

 

Kids need more STEM experiences and they need to begin them at a young age to have meaningful impact on their lives.

To change the face of STEM, we need to remove the barriers that keep STEM out of reach for most of our students.

The best STEM education programs don’t require high costs or major sacrifices, nor steep qualifications to participate. Good STEM education needs to be easy to access.

Unfortunately, too often, STEM programs don’t reach the student populations that need them the most, and target their efforts only at small teams in after school settings, or to select students during summer programs.

We do have a way to reach all students with high quality STEM education. We have our public schools. And in our schools we need to look at what we’re doing, and make STEM an integral part of our curriculum, and we must implement policies to provide schools with the technical resources, and training they need.

By making my class open to all students, during the school day, and part of the core curriculum, I have enabled hundreds of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain STEM skills and experience they might not otherwise have had.

My students learn that there are tremendous career opportunities for people with STEM skills, and STEM skills are becoming increasingly important to all careers.

The Robotics Science Class integrates California 8th grade physical science standards with the design, construction, and programming of autonomous robots for a variety of fun and interesting challenges.

Students are learning all the California State Standards for Science, including conceptual physics, chemistry, and astronomy, while also learning to use computers and robotics materials as creative tools to solve complex problems.

The Robotics Science Class adds technology and engineering to the science curriculum in a manner that is effective and efficient.

The class primarily uses low cost, durable, flexible, and easy to use LEGO Mindstorms robotics materials, but we’ve used other materials too.

Some of our challenges have included Tug O’War, Sumo, Linefollowing, Robotic Soccer, and Robotic Exploration.

Students learn computer programming concepts using an object-based programming environment where they aren’t stuck dealing with syntax errors and arcane symbols, and instead can focus on the logic of their programs and how to use the sensors and motors to control their robots.

Robotics is a great way to bring all of the aspects of STEM together. Kids love robots, and the idea of working on them is highly motivating. I believe that with more classes like my Robotics Science Class, we will vastly improve STEM education in California.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

If you wish more information on my class or other STEM work I do, please send me an email, or visit my website or blog.

Thank you.

 

Policies to Improve STEM Education: Focus on K-6

Blog Post at Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

The following was delivered as my opening remarks during the STEM education Policy Panel during the Einstein Fellowship 20th Anniversary Summit, which occured at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on June 27 and 28, 2010.


While I believe in the importance of STEM at all levels, I believe we should focus our policies on improving STEM education at the elementary school level.

We need high quality science education in every elementary school, in every elementary classroom, for every child, regardless of language ability, disability, or income. There is no policy that will have as significant or far reaching effects as one that would ensure that all students have a strong foundation of hands-on science and technical experiences, practice with logical and critical thinking skills, and a knowledge base of facts about the world around them.

The fact of the matter is, that the K-6 STEM education pipeline is like the natural gas pipeline Sarah Palin brags about. It doesn’t exist. There are places where great science instruction is occurring for young students. These places are exceptions. We need a rule. We have been putting some modest resources into Math achievement in elementary schools, or at least test score improvement, but science, technology, and pre-engineering lessons have largely gone the way of the dinosaur, the Pontiac, and safe offshore drilling.

We will not be successful if we just impose science curriculum or science standards and testing on elementary schools without considering the workforce that would implement it, our elementary teachers; and the resources they have available for STEM, which, by and large, do not exist.

Our elementary teachers, for whom I have great respect, are, on a whole, unprepared and lack sufficient resources to effectively teach science. Those that do have the skill and ambition to teach it often must do so in spite of administrative directives. The increased emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts has greatly limited the time teachers have to devote to science, not to mention art, music, physical education and other subjects.

Thus, an effective policy would need to train current elementary teachers, improve teacher preparation programs in STEM, provide specialists to coach and teach science in elementary schools, would mandate that comprehensive STEM instruction would occur and that sufficient time would be devoted to it, and would also provide the financial resources to bring science materials and labs to every school.

My experience working in the House of Representatives with Congressman Mike Honda enlightened me to some jurisdictional issues that can act as impediments to improving STEM education.   Perhaps other panelists can enlighten me as to how these issues have evolved in the 3 years since my Fellowship and the beginning of the Obama Administration.

The problem goes like this: I was working on legislative concepts that would best be described as fitting the topic: Science Education, not unlike the policies I just described.

When I discussed these concepts with staff on the Education and Labor Committee, or other knowledgeable professionals, I was told that Science Education was the jurisdiction Science Committee. Indeed, when I looked through the budget for the Department of Education, the only program I found related to science was the Math and Science Partnerships, which certainly don’t impact all schools for what I had in mind, and usually did not impact elementary schools. Also, if you searched the Department of Education website at that time you would find no resources related to science, only links to outside organizations.

Taking these legislative ideas over to the science committee produced similar results. “Oh, you want to do something with K-12, well that’s the Education Committee.” “But this is Science education.” “Oh, well can we turn this into a grant from NSF?”

It seems that the standard path for impacting K-12 STEM education from the Federal level is to create grant programs and other outreach programs that are administered through colleges and universities, and indirectly impact a small number of students in K-12. The vast majority of elementary students are not impacted by such programs.

This is an issue of national significance. We can’t rely on piecemeal grants, small scale experiments, inconsistent industry partnerships, charter schools, or blind faith to ensure that STEM education will happen everywhere in the United States. We need a bold, clear, national policy that will make it happen.

Educational Armageddon

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

If we fire teachers to fix schools, who will take their place?

Under No Child Left Behind, schools serving the most disadvantaged populations of students are doomed to jump through the Machiavellian hoops of norm-referenced accountability. Indeed the expectations of these schools share much in common with the perennial “Saw” movies. Schools are expected to chew off their own arms in order to escape the chains of the testing apparatus, only to find they must climb a ladder to get out of the cage.

In the star-studded film Armageddon, scientists discover a giant meteor racing towards the Earth, and summon up a crack team of experts and load them into a top-secret armor-plated space shuttle with unheard of capabilities. Just when you think the world is going to end, the U.S.A. pulls an ace in the hole by revealing that they have all the technology in place to stop an impending disaster, and the people to do it. (Why you would keep this technology secret is the real question.) Part of the metaphor, which will at some point be clear, is that, while no one knew about it, we had actually invested vast resources to address problem that, while inevitable, was highly unlikely in any finite amount of time.

In the real world, Armageddon is going on in many schools across the country. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, and its successor, Race to the Edge, States are implementing drastic measures at schools that have been deemed underperforming by intergalactic standards. These measures can include firing the principal, firing or moving the teachers, and closing the school.

Now, on its surface these measures might sound reasonable. If a school were something like Jabba’s Palace, it would make good sense to shut the place down. But to set foot on the grounds of some of these “failing” schools, one would be hard pressed to find a lack of effort, a lack of caring, or anything other than the hardest working people around, dealing with impossible objectives and stark realities that remain unchanged, and in some cases, worsened, by education policy.

I teach in a school that probably missed California’s official “Your F’’d List” by a decimal point. The characteristics of nearly all of the schools on this list are: 1) They serve students who live in poverty. 2) The education level of parents of their students is low (many having not finished elementary school) 3) Drugs and crime are common in the communities served 4) They have a high percentage of students who are still learning English. These are schools working extremely hard, some having great success, but not meeting the bar set in an ivory tower far away, where only data matters, and only th simplest and easiest to gather data (The McNamara Falacy).

In the card game, Magic, the Gathering, the card called Armageddon destroys all lands in play. Land, in the game, is the source of energy, the ability to make progress. The card debilitates everyone playing, including the “caster.” Firing all the teachers works the same way. The teachers are everything you’ve got.

There are some notable ironies in eliminating the teaching staff of struggling schools. Often, these schools have staff with the least experience. Many schools in tough neighborhoods have work conditions that are not conducive to teacher retention. Teachers might get frustrated with the quality of the facilities, the lack or resources and support, their sense of safety, the pressure of unreasonable expectations, or the overall difficulty of the job due to the disadvantages of the students. These teachers might not have the highest qualifications. Those who did, mostly went elsewhere. These teachers might have only 1 to 3 years on the job, they’re struggling to figure things out, and the State comes in and says they’re out of job, and replaces them with ???

Another ironic situation can arise for some of the most experienced, hardest working teachers who have committed their lives to working with the most difficult populations of students. Imagine a teacher who has taught for 20 years in a school where many others have come and gone, who knows the student population, has strategies for working with students from poverty, English Language Learners, or students without parental support. Now imagine that teacher caught up in a policy that fires all the teachers in a given school, in the name of reform.

Back to the movie: There is no secret bunker with an armor-plated space shuttle. There is no warehouse full of highly-qualified teachers ready and willing to go into any high-need school and perform miracles. We need policies that are based on best practices, not pipe dreams. Do we really want Owen Wilson teaching Math? Let’s work with the resources we have, intelligently, and not start Armageddon.

The Colors Of Success: Rewarding Positive Classroom Behavior

Maintaining positive behavior in a classroom is one of the most important things teachers can do to enhance student learning. Early in my career, I developed a system for rewarding positive behavior that I have used successfully for 12 years. My students know what it means to be responsible, respectful, and focused, and they work hard to exhibit these behaviors.

The Colors of Success positive discipline system simultaneously rewards students for positive behavior, discourages negative behavior, and teaches the behaviors that help people become successful. I have little color-coded slips of paper labeled with the following virtues: Cooperation, Creativity, Courage, Focus, Respect, Responsibility, and Perseverance. I give these slips out liberally to deserving students. For example, students who quickly get to work after instructions are given could receive Focus slips. Students with the appropriate materials could receive Responsibility slips. A student who makes a presentation could receive a Courage slip. Students working well together could receive Cooperation slips.

To affect whole-class discipline, I announce that I am “looking for focus,” or “I’ll be seeing who is responsible by taking notes during the film.” or “Responsible students have already written down their assignment.” or “Respectful students don’t talk during the morning announcements.” etc.

So, while students are engaging in positive behaviors, they are learning the appropriate vocabulary associated with that behavior. Students who are not receiving slips are seeing their classmates being rewarded for Responsibility, or Focus, or Cooperation. To add an additional carrot, I give out rewards and prizes from time to time, or take kids out to lunch based on whether they are earning the behavior slips. I believe this combination of an extrinsic reward, with instruction about positive behavior establishes a classroom environment where students learn and practice good habits.

As I teach these virtues, throughout my courses, I frame my discussion within the context of how they help one live a successful life; in education, in careers, and in relationships.

Cooperation: Being able to work together to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Students share ideas, listen to each others’ ideas, create a plan, and divide the work.

Courage: Having the will and confidence to be able to do that which is difficult, challenging, or unpopular. Students can get in front of a group of people and present ideas.

Creativity: The ability to create new works or ideas. Students can share questions, ideas, and hypotheses in class. They solve problems in their own way.

Focus: The ability to concentrate on the tasks that are required. Students quickly move from one lesson to another. They listen to instructions the first time, and follow them precisely.

Perseverance: The ability to keep working on a task. Students do not quit, do not pack up early, even when the work is difficult, and even if others do quit.

Responsibility: The ability to do what you are supposed to do, even without direct instruction. Students have all of their materials and work. They follow all the rules, and do not wait to be told what to do.

Respect: Treating people and things with dignity. Students take care of all materials, use appropriate manners, and are especially kind to guests in the classroom.

Innovations in Education- Robotics Science Class

This 2-part video covers my 8th Grade Robotics Science Class, and was produced by the Santa Barbara County Office of Education. In the video, you’ll see how we use LEGO Mindstorms NXT robots to apply physical science concepts.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Career Skills, Motivation, Student Discipline

studentsnrobots

Not so long ago, I wrote a blog entry blasting the concept of running schools like businesses, In which I speculated about the kinds of harmful effects that would result if we increased the influence of the private sector on public education. While I believe that the stability and integrity of education relies on it’s separation from the free market, I also believe that public education of all kinds must prepare students for the world of work, and the myriad opportunities for employment and continuing education. After all, what would the state of our economy be if we didn’t have… never mind.

The Real World

The world of work, or the ‘real world’ (as opposed to the ‘fake world’ of school and academia), is far from a monolithic place. Careers are diverse, and the skills, talents and strategies for life success are not reducible into some five point program of some motivational speaker. Nonetheless, there are a variety of strategies teachers can use in their classrooms to shape lesson design, classroom management structure, and discipline to create parallels to the world of work, and forever erase the need for students to ask, “Why do we need to know this?”

Classroom Management and Discipline

Many strategies of classroom management emphasize extrinsic rewards. Most common of these are the negative warnings, threats, and consequences established to deter negative behavior. Name on the board, putting one’s card on a different color, checks, conduct marks, discipline referrals, being sent to the principal’s office, and detention all fit this category. These sorts of measures are necessary in some form, though when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, or the penalty doesn’t clearly identify the crime, students can find themselves unable to distinguish the negative behavior from anything else. These deterrences work best when students are instructed about why their behavior was unacceptable, and what they could do differently. Teachers cannot allow negative behaviors to persist in a classroom unchecked. Doing so is a disservice to all students. Without consequences, negative behaviors will persist.

Because of the distasteful nature of becoming a behavior cop, teachers, especially of younger students, turn to methods that reinforce positive behaviors, to turn the focus away from the negatives. These methods can turn the classroom setting into a microcosm of capitalism, where students are motivated by greed and selfishness. Kids are rewarded with stickers, smily faces, marbles in a jar, grades, and various other incentives. There are some benefits to these extrinsic rewards, and they can produce immediate positive results for teachers. They can also lead one down the slippery slope where students see their work and behavior only as a means to an end, and that end being some kind of payment.

An effective classroom management and discipline system needs to do more than reward students for their present behavior. It needs to instill positive behaviors that will persist, and become part of an individual’s lifelong patterns of behavior. Learning behaviors that are universally transferable, and don’t rely exclusively on the presence of a unique reward system, will enable success in a variety of social, intellectual, and employment situations.

How do you combine the need for social-behavioral lessons facilitated by a teacher in order to positively influence current classroom behavior, with the greater goal of providing life-long behavioral skills? How do you make this system manageable and facile?

I take a hybrid approach, that I call the Colors of Success (.pdf). I invented this system during my first year of teaching, culling together things I had learned about character development and classroom discipline.

The Colors of Success (.pdf)

The Colors of Success positive discipline system simultaneously rewards students for positive behavior, discourages negative behavior, and teaches all students the behaviors that help people become successful. I have little color-coded slips of paper labeled with the following virtues: Cooperation, Creativity, Courage, Focus, Respect, Responsibility, and Perseverance. I give these slips out liberally to deserving students. For example, students who quickly get to work after instructions are given could receive Focus slips. Students with the appropriate materials could receive Responsibility slips. A student who makes a presentation could receive a Courage slip. Students working well together could receive Cooperation slips.

To affect whole-class discipline, I announce that I am “looking for focus,” or “I’ll be seeing who is responsible by taking notes during the film.” or “Responsible students have already written down their assignment.” or “Respectful students don’t talk during the morning announcements.” etc.

So, while students are engaging in positive behaviors, they are learning the appropriate vocabulary associated with that behavior. Students who are not receiving slips are seeing their classmates being rewarded for Responsibility, or Focus, or Cooperation. To add an additional carrot, I give out rewards and prizes from time to time, or take kids out to lunch based on whether they are earning the behavior slips. I believe this combination of an extrinsic reward, with instruction about positive behavior establishes a classroom environment where students learn and practice good habits.

As I teach these virtues, throughout my courses, I frame my discussion within the context of how they help one live a successful life; in education, in careers, and in relationships.

Cooperation: Being able to work together to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Students share ideas, listen to each others’ ideas, create a plan, and divide the work.

Courage: Having the will and confidence to be able to do that which is difficult, challenging, or unpopular. Students can get in front of a group of people and present ideas.

Creativity: The ability to create new works or ideas. Students can share questions, ideas, and hypotheses in class. They solve problems in their own way.

Focus: The ability to concentrate on the tasks that are required. Students quickly move from one lesson to another. They listen to instructions the first time, and follow them precisely.

Perseverance: The ability to keep working on a task. Students do not quit, do not pack up early, even when the work is difficult, and even if others do quit.

Responsibility: The ability to do what you are supposed to do, even without direct instruction. Students have all of their materials and work. They follow all the rules, and do not wait to be told what to do.

Respect: Treating people and things with dignity. Students take care of all materials, use appropriate manners, and are especially kind to guests in the classroom.

Framing the Situation

We teachers often reference the end products of education as reasons for engaging in a particular activity: “If you don’t learn how to divide fractions, you’ll wind up flipping burgers.” “You can’t get into college without passing your lab science courses.” Less often, we discuss how one would keep a given job, or continue success in higher education. For years, in my motivational discussions with students I would frame the future in terms of these artificial, ‘one-time’ moments: graduating, going to college, and getting a job.

Life is a lot more than getting a job or attaining any specific milestone. College success is certainly much more difficult than admission (at least in non- ivy league schools). While you would want students, on their own, to be intrinsically motivated to be respectful, responsible, and focused, some students still need additional context to make it worthwhile. For these students, often the promise of graduating from high school or getting into college can be too obscure to be a motivating factor. But making money, and keeping a job, these are things that I find (my) students tune into.

Considering the demographics of my teaching situation, where nearly all students are from low-income, often agricultural, migrant, low-education backgrounds, the concept of stable employment strikes a chord. Keeping employment, and the stability associated with maintaining income, are real struggles for the families of my students.

Recently, in my junior high classroom, I have taken to describing classroom situations, from time to time, in the context of, “What if I was your boss, and you were my employee, and the work you are doing is the work that earns your pay?” I’ve learned that this kind of dialog can really transform the situation, so that students may be more likely to engage in deliberate behavior.

For some students, the teacher-student relationship is one they may have become (too) comfortable with. The consequences for failure to complete work or disrupting class really aren’t all that bad for some kids. Detention and low grades can be little more than annoyances. Not being in good graces with the teacher can have little or no bearing on their all important social status. However, a new degree of seriousness can arise when the classroom situation is transformed into a role-play of the employee-supervisor relationship, where the teacher is not just as the authority figure, but is someone on whom your livelihood actually depends.

The point is to take away the sense of “fake-world-ness” of the classroom, and to bring a sense of applicability to lessons.

Here are some examples of things I might say or do in a class:

  1. The kind of reading you are doing right now is similar to how you might read a technical manual as an electrician or mechanic.

  2. If I was your boss and gave you a week to complete a job, like your homework assignment, what would happen, if at the end of the week, you had nothing?

  3. Your superiors make decisions about your career, your pay, promotions, or other opportunities. You want to make a good impression on those superiors, you don’t want to embarrass yourself or insult someone.

  4. Any kind of high-paying position will require you to understand complex ideas and complex procedures. Therefore, anytime you are learning anything, it is practice for understanding your future job skills.

  5. Using computers and the internet to find information is practice for any career or college major.

  6. Think about the quality of your homework like the quality of a craftsman. You are making a product that you can sell, and the quality of the work determines how much you will be paid.