Is It Ok to Have Fun?

GageCalvinAli (2)

As I mentioned previously, the curriculum in this course originally used different topics in each grade until, last semester, I noticed that most kids take STEM-Tech only one time in middle school. In other words, if you disperse topics across grades, then some kids will not see any of the content. Toward that end I am trying to make sure each grade gets what they need most (according to high school teachers): hands on building and making stuff.

Why is that important? Abstract content  is hard to understand if only studied on the level of abstraction. However, when you have a “sense” of how things work by actually manipulating them, then you can apply the abstract ideas to particular -in this case, mechanical  – examples. So one project we are building in grade 7 is “trebuchets.” These are an application of levers and machines. We have made a one piece trebuchet, a trebuchet from paperclips and, lastly, an original trebuchet.

Building so many trebuchets is not the main goal, but doing anything well requires iterations, so students have built several different kinds of trebuchets to permit them to develop their ideas. Design takes time; good design takes several iterations.

And it has simply been a LOT of fun. As the picture below attests, we are designing and building /printing like crazy! The district CTE department has been really supportive and these students have turned learning into what sometimes feels like a party with a lot of fun. And a lot of smiles. [Full disclosure: I did not ask students to pose for the picture; their expressions are their own ideas. Aren’t they great?]

field of treb dreams

“I Can Do It!”

Treb by Eve

For a teacher there are few things that are as exciting as seeing one of your students become excited about learning or flush with the sense of achievement. One of my 7th graders (above) was not the keenest Trebuchet builder, but she was giving it an honest effort. She submitted a “trebuchet base” and an “axle” in her Google Drive folder. They weren’t quite printable so I tweaked a couple things and did a few adjustments for scale (a common oversight in you students.)

Then over the weekend I printed like mad to get all my trebuchet products printed on our 3D MakerBot Replicator 2 printer (purchased by the school district.)  It takes a lot of time, so I have take to combining several students work into one large file in Sketchup; convert file format to STL (using free Sketchup extension) the open in MakerBot Desktop and print! Largest print took about 9 hours, so I run these overnight. That means on weekends I have long print session: Friday night, Saturday, Saturday night, Sunday, and Sunday night permit me an accumulated print time of 45 hours ( 5 sessions up to 9 hours each).

Of course, it does not always (ever?) go as planned so I don’t get 45 hours of printing. It takes about 1.5-2 hours per accumulated print to compile the files and fix student design mistakes or problems. One of the most common mistakes is too much material. Large, solid surfaces can be thinned or cutouts can be added to reduce material (and time!)

Anyway, in the end it was a treat for me – and the students pictured above – to see that her trebuchet not only worked, but it easily met the standard (throwing a small plastic ball an average distance of more than 3 m over three throws.

Her smile is an understatement, but the gleam in her eye and the smile while she was shooting, clearly said, “I can do it!” – and she did!

Making 3D Printers

Kerrby Day 1 image

Teaching technology has been a blast at Fairhaven Middle School this year. A little coding (we used to call it “programming”), a little 3D design and printing, a little trebuchet and mousetrap car design and building.

I was excited that in the first semester we almost tripled the number of printing hours on the MakerBot 3D printer in the classroom. I have had to order 5 rolls of filament so far (if I recall correctly.) In any case I have not been able to keep up with student demand for 3D printed products.

When visiting the Seamonsters Robotics club at our local high school I saw some home-made 3D printers chugging along making parts for their competition robots. Sehome practical engineering teacher, Kevin Criez, told me they were designed by a local engineer. I found that our local makerspace (Bellingham Foundry) has been working in conjunction with a retired mechanical engineer, Jeff Kerr to produce these printer kits. For $350.00, you get all the parts and free advice and coaching from Jeff and other makerspace enthusiasts and space at The Foundry to assemble your printer.

I have been working on “my” two printers for two evenings so far. Frankly? This has been some of the best fun I have had in ages. I get to build my own 3D printers! Then they go into my classroom and kids will have access to printing on their own. We’ll have a battery of 3 printers (1 Makerbot Replicator II and 2 Kerrby’s – as Jeff’s printers are being called). My goal is to make the design and printing even more accessible by kids.

Right now I receive their files (made in Sketchup) and I export them to .STL format (using a free Sketchup extension). Then Makerbot prints directly from those files. I would like to stop being a bottleneck and have a “PrintMaster” in each class. A student whom I teach to use the printer and respects the technology who can coach other students to preparing and setting up their designs for printing.

This is getting such an enthusiastic response from students that we probably need some kind of after-school time for students to make designs and get them printed.

In the meantime, I am enjoying this at least as much as the students are!



Food Science

tea pic

After a morning of grading I needed to get away from the screen for a few minutes. So I went to McDonalds where I could get a coffee, soft drink or tea for a dollar. Being close to lunch I needed more volume and wanted more sweetness than a coffee so I got a tea. They have, as you can see in the picture, both sweetened and unsweetened tea.

I have purchased sweetened tea in the past, but it is SO sweet that I can’t drink it straight. So I usually get a “half sweetened; half unsweetened” tea. It must happen a lot because when I go to the drive-through the cashier often has a special term for it, calling it something like: “One large ice tea; cut.” In any case, this time I was making the tea myself.

Now the problem with this tea is that it does not naturally mix. Recalling some demonstrations as a science teacher, the sweetened tea should be significantly denser than the unsweetened tea. The question arises then; should I put in sugared tea, then unsugared? or vice versa? Or should I add a little of one; a little of the other; a little of the first, and so on until my cup is full? Which sequence is likely to cause the best “mix.”

If I put in the sugared (denser) tea first, it will sit on the bottom while the unsweetened (less dense) tea sits on top. The result will be that the tea will be introduced to the cup in layers that will not spontaneously mix. I will have to mechanically mix them to produce a homogeneous solution. That is, I will have to stir the tea with a spoon or shake the cup. This is not a significant effort, but  I hope to find a way to do it without mechanical agitation.

If I add the less dense fluid then it will be on the bottom when the denser solution is added to the cup. The result, I think, is that the denser tea will “fall” through a less dense tea, even as the less dense tea, which is more buoyant, rises. This will produce a modest convection that will mix the tea to some degree.

As an anecdotal conclusion, based on my perception rather than objective, measurable data, I can tell you this method is satisfactory: add the low density tea (unsweetened) then the high density tea (sweetened.)

I also make sure the tea squirts into the cup along its circular, inside surface -as I add both teas – so that a modest vortex does, in full disclosure, provide some degree of mechanical mixing, making the tea as heterogeneous as possible.

Not very Vicarious


40 years ago, as an eleven year old, in Regina Saskatchewan, my mom and dad gave me an opportunity, “What instrument would you like to take lessons on?” Interestingly, in some kind of metaphysical symmetry, I asked my son the same thing this year (he is 11 now.) Probably without any coincidence, at events separated by 40 years, we both answered “Drums!”

And both of us were denied: me because of the noise in the house, and the lack of portability, since we traveled back to Thailand from Saskatchewan. I took guitar lessons for that year. Bentley was denied because we had a piano but did not have drums.Until now! Thanks to Craigslist we now have drums! A 7 piece drum set in immaculate condition (thanks to the previous, fastidious, owner!) They also sent along 5 pairs of drum sticks, a metronome, several self-teaching books with CDs and a music stand. We happily accepted the whole thing! And Bentley and I both are enjoying it. He is goofing around a little bit (we are looking for a drum teacher now). I am on lesson 4. And my left shin hurts from playing the “high hat” in 1/8th notes. Hopefully as time goes on my muscles become used to it and don’t hurt after practice. I am starting to read drum music and teaching it to Bentley.

We both are having a lot of fun, but Bentley is certainly not having more fun than his dad!


Quality comes from effort; not from “magic”

Jays Logo Ideas

Making stuff is so much fun that I sometimes get carried away in the “Wahoo!” and overlook the nuts and bolts. One of the fundamental processes I want my students to take away from my class is to an awareness of the “design cycle.” I got this term first from some MYP (International Baccalaureate) colleagues who taught a class my daughter took in middle school called “Design Technology.”

In my class students are not tested on knowing the steps of sequence, but I want to lead them through the process (and later require their documentation of this process in their own development). I want them to think specifically about “revision.”

I was thinking about this yesterday: These days, we see so many advertisements of polished products, we see polished dramas on TV, we see polished people advertising razors and lipstick. We begin to subtly assume that this is normative. What we overlook is that this is the end product of a lot of development. A lot of money and time and revision went into the final product.

Students need to know that making great products (essays or posters of paintings or baskets on the basketball court) is the direct result of effort over time. This sometimes is included as an aspect of a “growth mindset.” I want students to realize that they can do many things if we put time and effort in. One thing I took away from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, was that the difference in “ability” is really a difference in time spent. Individuals who spend more time developing a skill end up more proficient than those who spend less time.

Quality is not the result of magic; quality is the result of work.

Polished Objects

Build Understanding Logo 3One of the things which I want my students to practice when they are making stuff, whether virtually or tangibly, is the idea that a great design is not epiphany, but is the product of multiple iterations. In other words, making great things requires trial and error.

Valuing mistakes is sort of what this boils down to. We live at a time when we use tools (iPhones), we wear clothes (Nike), and we see (on TV), that the world around us is “fantastic.” Somehow we internalize this to mean that we should do fantastic stuff. What we write, what we make, what we do should be fantastic.

Of course the polished objects we use (Samsung phones, Levi jeans and Toyota cars) everyday are the result of careful research and development. “Development” means that the thing grows (in quality) over time as we “work on it.” We know that cognitively. But minute to minute we expect that WE should not require the development phase. We expect of ourselves that we are so amazing that what comes out of our mouth should be exemplary; what we draw should be brilliant; what we make should exceed all expectations.

But this is not so. Great art (Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” or Frank Lloud Wright’s buildings) requires sweat and tears to make. The product is the result of development. Development takes time.

So back to my students. I want them to learn that: (1) Making great stuff takes effort and time, as you develop your idea; (2) All early efforts are steps toward a better product; (3) Not stopping at the first iteration is the key to making great stuff.

[Images from


“Technology” means … (?)

8b Mousetrap Kimberly building

Kimberly using online resources to assist in her design and build of her 2015 “Recycled Mousetrap” car.

This school year I began teaching “technology” in Bellingham, Washington. Technology is such a broadly used term (often as a synonym for “computers”) that the job seemed quite open ended initially. And that has been good for the program.

In the first semester I adopted the previous curriculum: 6th grade – media, 7th grade – coding intro (programming), 8th grade – Lego robots. This was functional, but over the course of the semester I learned that students do not take these courses in sequence. This means that a students taking “Robots” in grade 8 for the first time may have no coding experience – and a large part of Robots is the programming! In addition, while “coding” is part of grade 7 curriculum the kinesthetic learning aptitude of most of my students was not a good fit for sitting in front of a screen; they needed to use their bodies and DO things.

So in semester two I am making all my courses more heterogenous. All the sections are getting to do 3D design and printing; all will be introduced to coding; then in the third part of the course we will branch out: 6th to do media like stop animation and podcasting; 7th to make functional machines (like trebuchets to complement their study of machines in science and medieval history in social studies and 8th to build Lego robots and have fun competing in Sumo wrestling.

Stay tuned as this all unfolds! It is a group of great kids (that is growing weekly as I get transfers into the course).



A Downside of Security

WP login screen.PNG

Since my last post in Malaysia, I have been unable to return and edit this blog. Ok; full disclosure: I forgot my password. That is no big deal. Unless you have taken pains to make your site secure. This blog was made “more secure” by a secondary verification protocol. If I forgot my password, say the instructions, verification over the phone, by text, would protect me.

Protect me from myself what was I did not foresee. When I moved to Seattle in summer 2014, I did not have access to my Malaysian phone number. So all those, “I forgot my password” buttons that I punched, took me to a window which assured me that my code, sent via SMS would let me log in. Off course, WordPress sent those codes to Malaysia. I, however, was trying to access my blog from Seattle. “Two roads diverged [on the information highway]…”

But today I was able to chat a WordPress Happiness Engineer and she “engineered” happiness for me! After several strategies (thinking of alternatives is indeed a skill of the 21st century) she got back into my account. I can’t thank her enough!

I’m home!



Fishing for Work

Flyfishing in Korea


Finding a teaching job is a lot like hunting: hence “job hunting” I suppose. You research, get the right equipment, make a plan then do the work and capture your prize.

At least ideally.

On the other hand, my sister pointed out it may be more like fishing. It requires a lot of paraphernalia: portfolios, coat and tie, computer and printer, FedEx envelopes, etc. There is a lot of preparation: organizing resume, soliciting references, researching alternatives and potential locations.

Eventually you need to cast. Whether you are fishing with a worm and bobber, trolling behind a boat or casting flies, you need to get your hook in the water. This point reminds of Red (from the Red Green show), “Remember to keep your stick on the ice!”

Depending on your fishing style, true to job searching, you need to work your hook. If bobbing, keep it in the water and keep an eye on it. Check occasionally to make sure bait is still attached. Pay attention; watch for movement.

If casting flies you need to find your rhythm, watch your footing and cover the target area. This is one thing that makes fly fishing so much fun; there is always something to do.

The movement itself can be its own reward. Even if there are no trout rising, you can still cast and practice. Work on getting more distance; work on a softer landing. Try different casts to avoid the brush behind while getting maximum distance up the water.

It also matters what the trout are eating. If you are casting the wrong fly you will get a lot of exercise and practice but no fish.

I think I am treating the process a bit like fly fishing; hopefully; with some artistry. But if not, at least I am getting better at casting. Cast, drift, reel in line; cast, drift, reel in line, cast again …

So far the hypnotic aspect eludes me. Lot’s of sweat; the only bites are insects biting me instead of fish on the line. I might have timed it wrong. Or it might be the timing is right. Maybe the insect hatch indicates trout are on the rise. Maybe I can expect a beautiful trout to be watching carefully under the surface for a big fat fly to touch down. “Be patient,” I remind myself.

“Do the work.”

Cast; drift; pull in the line.

Cast; drift; pull in the line.

No fish rising, but the pole is flexing beautifully; the line and tippet are collaborating into perfect arcs. The light is falling amber through the alders. It’s beautiful and one fragment of this scene is my volitional creation, born of many casts. Probably made better for doing more casting than reeling in. I’m just going to enjoy it.