Monthly Archives: May 2015

Don’t Just Play on Your Phone, Program It!

The title of this post is a quote from President Barack Obama, as he kicked off Computer Science Education Week in 2013 by urging kids (and students of all ages) to learn problem-solving STEM skills — specifically, learning how to code.

I have a long love affair with coding (I prefer “software engineering” — coding is like writing a sentence, but engineering, well… engineering is like writing a book; engineering is true problem-solving) — it began in 1986 when I was 8 years old, teaching myself how to create video games using MS-BASIC on an IBM 286 PC running DOS.  Like many kids, I liked loved video games — first the Atari 2600, then the Nintendo NES — and a realization grew in me that I could make computers do what I wanted them to do, and that was an awesome idea, even to 8-year-old me.

I have recently been giving some conference presentations about how to jump in and get kids programming, but it wasn’t until now that I have found an excellent way to actually use coding and app development as an authentic product to assess learning of science concepts, directly integrated in with our science standards.

It began when I exposed my students to MIT App Inventor, a free online resource that allows you to create actual Android apps using a simple blockly-style interface, familiar to anyone who has used Tynker, Scratch, or

When students saw that they could manipulate my Android phone’s speech recognition and voice synthesis tools to create a talking (and listening) app, they were amazed and excited! (Easier said than done with jaded and technology-inundated 6th graders…)


So when I saw that my colleagues had put together a science project including creation of a mobile (you know, the dangly arts & crafts kind you probably haven’t made since 3rd or 4th grade, in which things are suspended from a clothes hanger), something clicked in my head.  Why show your knowledge through a mobile when you could demonstrate the same knowledge — in a much more engaging way — via a mobile app. My thinking is this: if the kids are just as excited about an authentic production tool as they would be about an arts & crafts project, and the end result demonstrates the same — or superior — understanding of the content knowledge… then why not do the project that incorporates relevant 21st century skills which could potentially prepare them for future college and careers?



So, we have begun creation of “Animal Expedition” — a simulation game for Android devices, in which you must rescue an animal by relocating it to a suitable environment.  This project covers science standards related to ecosystems, abiotic and biotic factors, energy pyramids and food webs, symbiotic relationships, and more… all while learning real-world-relevant skills of mobile app development. Stay tuned for finished product…!

Click here for app planning template

#InventionHour for #STEM and #STEAM – Better than Genius Hour!

As mentioned in the previous post, this year we have begun a new endeavor in which students learn the process of invention through authentic application. I am calling this exercise #InventionHour, and I wanted to explain a little more about what it is and why I started it…

It is more imperative than ever that we begin integrating true, authentic opportunities for problem-solving and product-producing in our classrooms. The fact of the matter is that just about every job in existence requires employees to solve problems — whether it’s finding cures for diseases, inventing new forms of green energy, or even just cleaning toilets. These are all problems that need to be solved.

This is especially true of modern careers in our information society. Some of the highest-paying careers with the most demand are those that require the most rigorous problem-solving capabilities. In particular, colleges and employers are finding that students and job applicants are severely lacking in requisite #STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills.   More recently, people have started recognizing a need to include Art into that mix, as well (#STEAM), which makes a lot of sense, because you need those aspects of imagination, creativity, and visualization for many of these tasks — graphic designers for software and apps; industrial designers for cars, computers, and other inventions.

To that end, our class has begun the inaugural participation in something I call #InventionHour. The idea is similar to “Genius Hour.” During Genius Hour,  students pursue an academic investigation of their choice, increasing motivation to learn. For one hour per week, students take ownership of their learning through individual research projects and reports, or producing  a variety of products based on student interest.

However, while the idea of Genius Hour is a great one, I have personally found Genius Hour to be a bit lacking and difficult to execute in practce.  Last year, while some of the class attended Band practice for one hour each week, the remainder of the students did “Genius Hour” during that time period. Right away, students were lost and confused — they had never been presented with a situation like this before. What was the goal? What was the product they were expected to create? How were they going to get the information they needed?

These questions, in and of themselves, are not a problem — they are exactly the kinds of questions we want students to learn to ask, because it represents the kind of open-ended problems they will face in the real world: Where are we going, and how do we get there?  That is the value of PBL (project-based learning), engineering, coding, invention and, yes, Genius Hour.

However, even with the role of teacher as a “Guide on the side” instead of a “Sage on the stage,” the very open-ended nature of Genius Hour poses problems:

  1. Students don’t know what they don’t know. Thus they have a tendency to stick to what they know, which defeats the whole purpose of Genius Hour (in which we want them to learn something new)
  2. Research and presentation is an easy choice, but product creation is a more relevant and engaging one. The problem with product creation, however, is that: (a) students will choose to create products they already know how to create or are already good at (see point 1 above); or (b) students will simply try to find something other people have done and to follow a simple recipe or tutorial (via YouTube or website) … while this is fun and does allow them to do something new, merely following a recipe to replicate what somebody else has done doesn’t really enforce the types of 21st Century skills we want the kids to be learning: inquiry… planning… failure (yes, failure!), and what to do when failure arrives: troubleshooting, revision.

Thus I found Genius Hour both difficult to teach/conduct, and lackluster in its final results.

This is how #InventionHour was born. Rather than simply do some research, or replicate products others have already made, why don’t we actually try to obtain and apply knowledge to actually solve problems and make the world a better place? Because, in the end, that’s what education is for: to get the tools you need (whether it’s reading, writing, math, or electrical engineering or quantum physics) to solve problems and make the world a better place.

A few years ago, when I was teaching GATE (gifted) students, we participated in a Smithsonian/ePals Invention Challenge and ended up being a Featured Classroom as well as being First Place Winners in the 5th grade age division of this international contest.  I figured… why not bring that process and that challenge to all students? You don’t need to be gifted to come up with good ideas for solutions to problems (you really just need to think “outside the box” a little bit), and you don’t need to be gifted to learn a step-by-step process to make that idea reality.

I am currently developing and sharing #InventionHour resources at, so be sure to check that out and give it a try… you’d be amazed what kids (or even you) can do!

Introducing the Tri-Stand Tablet Stand!

This year our class has participated in the inaugural year of an exciting endeavor: #InventionHour!  Invention Hour is a new activity I have created, similar to Genius Hour, but with a more specific goal: to learn the process of invention and actually invent an authentic solution to a real problem. [Click here to read more about #InventionHour !]

Despite being very similar to Scientific Method and the Engineering Cycle, the “Invention Process” was a very new concept for most students, so as a first step we decided to undergo the invention process together to learn the process before working on our own individual or group inventions. The real problem we identified in our classroom was this: since the Lenovo Bluetooth keyboards caused problems, we switched this year to using USB wired keyboards. However, that meant we also needed tablet stands.  I had ordered adjustable metal stands off of Amazon for $8-9 each, but soon discovered that there was a design flaw in them which caused them to eventually break or fall apart even with regular, responsible use.  So we came up with an idea… could we invent a stand that would still allow us to have multiple angles, while being durable and inexpensive and with no moving parts to add complexity and chance of breaking?

In the end, we completed the entire Invention Process (including publicizing our invention) by inventing the “Tri-Stand” — a durable one-piece solution that allows multiple angles and can be printed on a 3D printer for less than $2!