Friday, April 28, 2017

MS STEAM starter pack pt. 1: Programming

This is the first in a 3-part (maybe 4) series on setting up a sweet STEAM classroom in your Middle School. I will link all three parts here when they're finished.

The Premise

I am a middle school computer science teacher. It's what I do. I LOVE my job. I also often speak at universities, blog, tweet, and just generally build as many relationships in the education world as I can. In my travels, I have heard the following scenario at least a dozen times (probably more, but I am prone to exaggeration, so I'll stop at a dozen). 

Hi, Clint. I'm a Librarian for Generic Area School District in Upper Generic County. My school is phasing out the Library curriculum and turning our Libraries into [ultimate action-packed / STEM / cafe-related / Multi-media adjectives] Centers. I'm being asked to teach a Middle School [Coding / Game Design / STEM / STEAM] Class, and I know nothing about this stuff. I think they're trying to get rid of me. 
(Random teacher)
I often point said teacher to my class website and give them my email and twitter handle, typically to never hear from them again. I get it. It's overwhelming. In this series, I hope to give all such teachers some very practical guides to rolling this out now. I'm only going to focus on tools and curriculum resources that are:

  • Free - Some will have Freemium features, but I don't use those. 
  • Are web-based or require minimal resources to install
  • Are appropriate for 6th-9th Graders (for Sr. High kids, go check out Kyle McAllister). 
  • Are easy to deploy tomorrow even if you have no idea what you're doing. 

Part 1: Programming (and BONUS: game design)

I'm going to include game design development with programming because I consider programming to be akin to learning Arithmetic (basic math facts) and game development similar to applying said concepts in Algebra or Calculus. Game design would then be using said applied concepts to make something beautiful and fun to use with said concepts, similar to how an engineer designs an automobile.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My first real foray into Classcraft...

I’ve been blogging here about gamification for years. I’ve read and watched just about everything Gabe Zichermann and Jane McGonigal have said about human motivation and how games motivate us*. I've spoken at conferences, workshops, and in-service events about gamification. Despite all of that, I have not tried Classcraft until this school year.

Classcraft bills itself as a game-based approach to teaching, but it is basically a gamification tool (see my Gamification / Game Based Learning / Game Design disambiguation here). It was designed to encourage participation, good behavior, and collaboration and at first, seemed like the secondary version of Class Dojo. In some ways it is, but it does a lot more. Basically, Classcraft’s goal / premise is to help me manage, motivate and engage my students by transforming my classroom into a role-playing game, which should be right up my alley. Anyone who has spent any time reading my blog knows that I love RPG’s. Heck, I even joined the OP Teacher Community at one point. So why haven’t I tried Classcraft before this year?

Why so late to this party then?

For one thing, I really didn’t think I needed a “tool” to bring gamification to my classroom. I already had an established system for using game-like precepts in my grading and projects. In my own cocky way, I saw Classcraft as a tool to help people who wanted to introduce gamification but had no idea how to really do it. Another reason I didn’t try Classcraft was my complete lack of clerical speed and accuracy. The idea of creating accounts for all of my students was daunting, even if I could upload a spreadsheet. Finally, I used to be a bit confused by the cost structure. When I first checked it out, Classcraft had a free, a premium and a “freemium” tier. The freemium option unlocked some more features that normally wouldn’t have been open to me (teaching is a zero-budget operation these days), but gave students the ability to pay to customize their avatar's appearance. This seemed like a worm-can that I would likely get into trouble for opening, if not from my administration, then certainly from parents.

This summer, when I was preparing to present on the topic of Gamification and Game-based-learning in the classroom for the “Technologies for Online and Blended Teaching Institute”, sponsored by Millersville University, I took another look at Classcraft while preparing my presentation. First, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Classcraft is now integrated with Google Classroom, allowing teachers to simply add their Google Classroom groups to Classcraft. This way students can just sign in with their Google apps accounts and set up their characters. Also, the aforementioned freemium account was removed, adding more features and flexibility to the free accounts.

I decided to roll out Classcraft in all of my Seventh Grade classes during the first week of school this year, and I have found it to be surprisingly effective. Not only do students take the health and experience of their characters very seriously, but they also strive to help their teams and classmates in general. One thing that surprised me was how popular the random events are! The class loves them.

Create a Positive Class Culture from Classcraft on Vimeo.

When students can gain XP on any given day by talking like a pirate and referring to me as “Captain” or by Dancing the PPAP dance, that is some first rate community building right there. Honestly, due to schedule constraints, I often don’t get to do a random event every day, but the students definitely miss it and ask me to do them when it has been more than a day.

Successful Gamification = Stay Positive

I’m not going to say that this tool was effortless to integrate into my classroom or that I’m using it perfectly, largely, though, I would say that the overall effects have been positive.

On that note, I think the key to this whole thing is staying more positive than negative. This may seem like a no-brainer, but let me explain. If I were to give every student a Classcraft character and then spend the entire period taking hit points away, then the whole game wouldn't be very fun. It would just be another way for me to punish students. What causes the students to care about their characters and their hit points are all of the times where they gain experience, unlock new powers, and feel a sense of success and pride in what they are doing. Should there be challenge and opposition? Definitely! Be prepared, though, to recognize successes and reward them.

Parting thoughts / Disappointments

  1. I would love to try out some of the premium features like giving students gold to customize their character's appearance as they level up, but trying to convince the school district to spend money on this makes me feel like a poor steward of our resources. I'm still working that one out. 
  2. We live in a glorious time when School Districts around the US are finally unblocking / whitelisting YouTube! We can now bring most official tutorial content straight to our students. Classcraft has a lot more content on Vimeo, which is still pretty much universally blocked by all districts due to its prolific and very accessible adult content.
UPDATE: Classcraft hit me up on Twitter and let me know that they're still uploading videos to to YouTube and we can hit them up to request ones that aren't there yet.

Thanks, @classcraftgame for being so responsive on Twitter!

* I don’t want to throw Zichermann and McGonigal in the same basket. Mcgonigal told the New York Times in 2012, "I don't do 'gamification,' and I'm not prepared to stand up and say I think it works. I don't think anybody should make games to try to motivate somebody to do something they don't want to do. If the game is not about a goal you're intrinsically motivated by, it won't work." That’s a valid point, but Zichermann also points out that, “If an extrinsic motivator is found to be meaningful, pleasurable and consistent with a person’s worldview, he/she can adopt it as though it were intrinsic.” That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t want to manipulate my students. I want to motivate them.

Friday, December 2, 2016

New Post on the GSM Teacher Blog: Game of Sprites

Hey, all. Go check out my latest post on the Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog

The Holidays are upon us! The students are restless… It’s time for a new challenge! Starting November 18th, the awesome team at Gamestar Mechanic began releasing a series of brand-new Challenges for your students to play through. These challenges will not only allow your students to unlock new sprites and gear but also provide them with a great lead up to a new Contest that will task them with creating their own... More

Monday, April 11, 2016

3d Printing IRL

So, I wanted to share my reflections on my first month with a 3d printer. I recently wrote about our experiences choosing, ordering, and setting up a 3d printer here at Spring Grove Middle School. I'd like to share some thoughts with you for the good of the cause on what having a 3d printer is like "in real life" (IRL). If you're considering adding a 3d Printer, these are some ideas, experiences, thoughts, and issues you might want to consider.

Know you will have issues 

3d Printing is not ready for prime time. No matter what mainstream manufacturers would want you to believe, 3d printing is for makers and enthusiasts. It is not a seamless, out-of-the-box plug-and-play casual consumer experience. You can buy the "Fisher Price" of 3d printers and still end up tearing stuff apart and fixing it on a regular basis. Have tools, and be prepared to use them.

Unfortunately, the fantasy & the reality of owning a plug-and-play 3d printer didn't line up.

Honestly, we ordered the Cube 3 with the thought that paying a little extra for filament cartridges and giving up the ability to use open-source software, we were being rewarded with an Apple-like simplified end-user experience that was deigned to "just work". Thank God for the following videos, which helped me tear down and fix numerous problems that came up with our cartridges over the last month:
I have probably torn down each of my included PLA cartridges five times. I have a lot of broken filament pieces laying about the 3d printing room. That's filament that is not being used in prints. The bigger issue I see, though, is what if I wasn't handy with tearing this stuff down? We purposely avoided buying a "kit printer" to avoid this regular tinkering. Now, I am wondering if a kit wouldn't have been a great idea. Then, at least, the students and myself would have a more intimate knowledge of what we were tearing apart and how to fix it. I'm not saying the Cube 3 is a bad machine. I'm saying that I can't find a machine reviewed anywhere on the web that doesn't say you're going to have to tear down, fix, or replace something.

Plan on it.

Plan the Work and Work the Plan


So, 3d Printing is cool. I'm not going to lie. It's a guaranteed way to capture students' attention. It is definitely the "best" way I have found to get students interested in technical drawing and drawing in 3d.

Unfortunately, 3d Printing is still a new technology with a lot of hype surrounding it. Chances are, at some point, you've seen something like the video below that has you feeling all squishy about 3d Printing:

A lot of this information is accurate even though it is grossly over-simplified. The big issue with adding a 3d Printer to the mix of any classroom is the need for a plan.
  1. What are students going to do with this? 
  2. What constitutes an acceptable and unacceptable use of the printer?
  3. How do we avoid putting the school in debt buying filament?


Out-sourcing, student choice, and PBL

Students should first think of a product that fills a need or has a niche.

So, I'm pretty big on Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, and student choice. I can get a way with it too, because I don't teach a tested content area. In my class, a student simply needs to display technology fluency. Whether she does this by developing games, designing a fashion brand, or drafting a LEED certified home makes little difference to me. My first key to success, therefore, is to...
Make sure that 3d Printing is a choice.
The next step is to make sure that students know what they are choosing. If a student is 3d Printing in my class, it isn't a stand-alone "3d printing project". It is most likely in the context of something like a Product Design, Game Design, or Video project. The printing, therefore, exists to solve a problem, prototype a product, or create something entirely unique. This prevents students from trying to print key chains for their friends, little rectangles with their name on it, and other random items connected to nothing.This brings me to my next key to success:
Put the context before the printer.
Finally, it is important to understand that not every student is good at or will even like every part of a project. I don't encourage "group projects" in my room, per se, because they're rarely successful and everything is really a group project. My students freely outsource the work they need done. If a budding videographer needs a new shooting rig, she can ask another student to make and print it for her. If an inspiring inventor needs a logo and package design for the cool prototype he just printed, he can have a student who is doing a graphic design project make that for him. In the end, everyone has cool stuff to add to their portfolio of awesomeness, and no one is bogged down in miserable monotony. This goes back to making sure that 3d Printing is a choice. 


Reward Awesomeness


When a student does something awesome, invite the Principal over. Post it to Tumblr. Tweet it. Make sure that other students are seeing the possibilities. Make sure that the community is seeing the possibilities.


The Software Landscape

Ugh. Okay, so the software landscape is a bit challenging. Many companies have their own proprietary design apps, which should work seamlessly with their printer, but most are at least $40.00 + per license.

Here are the apps that we use in my class.


Tinkercad is a browser-based 3D design and modeling tool. It has the most gentle learning curve, and it's built in tutorials are very intuitive for students. It doesn't require an install, so you don't have to bug your IT department. It renders very basic models, but they're made for 3d printing. In other words, solid parts of your parts are automatically rendered with an internal lattice to provide strength while using less filament.

Sketchup Make 

Sketchup Make has a gradual learning curve but is still very powerful, allowing students to build very detailed parts with very accurate measurements. Unfortunately, the company wants you to fork over 695.00 USD for Sketchup Pro if you want to 3d Print natively. Luckily, there are plugins. I have had a lot of students be very successful with printing from Sketchup Make with the plugins. Unfortunately the model is not constructed as efficiently and you have to manipulate its structure slightly in whatever slicing application comes with your printer.



From what I understand, Solidworks is the best program for building quality 3d parts. I just can't figure out how to use it efficiently. I've done the tutorials, but I don't get the logic of the application enough at this point to create something from scratch. I have students that figure this program out, but most of them don't try. We pay for this thing. Yeah, this is the one with the steep learning curve. Good luck. The tutorials on the Solidworks web site were definitely made by developers. They are convoluted, difficult to follow, and, worst of all for may students, are vey uninteresting. No eighth grader gets excited about making this, whatever it is... If anyone has a good tutorial series (that's free... no Lynda paywall junk) for this, please post it in comments.

Parting Shots... er Thoughts

If I have any other suggestion, it would be to find a community of folks to help you. It will be a lot easier if you can talk to others who have done / are doing this. Also, watch as much user-generated content on "making" and 3d printing that you can find on YouTube. Geek out on it. Then pick a low-end printer and figure out what the issues are before expanding your operation.

Good luck.