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.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Three tools to step up design in your classroom...

Even if you know nothing about design!

Designed in Canva... in 1 minute.
Okay, graphic design is a classically snobbish topic in most of our minds, and historically most of our students really had little opportunity to experience it or interact with it. Today, we live in a visual landscape that is constantly getting more competitive. Everyone has a connected device, including most of our students. They see great design all day on web sites, apps, user interfaces, advertisements, and even E-cards from their middle school bae.

The visual elements of most of our classrooms, though, from educational / inspirational posters to handouts to our Power Point Presentations (do people still use Power Point to make presentations?) look like amateurish garbage made by a well meaning but under-skilled octogenarian trying to design a bake sale flier for the local Rotary club. We can get away with die cuts, glitter, and Karen's Kids clip art until about fourth grade. Soon, though, kids are going to start to notice that everything at school looks like an extremely dim cheap reflection of everything in the "real" world... or at least the real world that they inhabit.

In previous posts, I have shared
Today, I want to ignore theory and focus on three great tools that do the heavy lifting for you. I do not "endorse" these tools in any official capacity. I have no business relationship with any of them, and I have basic "free" accounts with all of them. Don't pay for this stuff. I don't.

Weebly - for a sweet class web site.

For starters, just look at this quick compare and contrast of websites your students are used to seeing vs. a typical teacher's web page. Try to see and enjoy the humor here and not feel attacked or offended. Remember, it is good to laugh at ourselves.


There are a lot of great services out there for free web design and hosting. I decided to focus on Weebly because it is really easy to use. If you're an advanced user, you may be able to get more out of Wordpress or even Wix, but Weebly is a pretty simple platform that makes a pretty sweet professional looking site.

Weebly's site builder offers some sweet themes that are fully customizeable.

Adding elements to the page is a pretty intuitive, drag and drop process. Anyone who has tried to use a service like Schoolwires to make their web page will understand the benefit of this.
Just drag elements from the left onto your page where you want them. They don't have strange names, like the ones you find in education CMS tools, like Schoolwires.

Haiku Deck - for sweet presentations. 

I've spoken before about how to design good looking slide decks, but assuming that is still a challenge for you, you can always let Haiku Deck do it for you. I'm a lot less in love with this app than I used to be. It still produces the best designed slides, period, but they've gotten greedy. In their quest to monetize their product, the developers have locked down most of the expected features (like being able to export your presentation) and have made the route to "signing up for free" convoluted and camouflaged. I'm also disappointed that you cannot sign into this with a Google account. Mine is connected to my twitter account, but not everyone is comfortable with that option.
Look for "Continue Free" on the right.
Once inside, though, the interface is pretty simple and intuitive. Themes are across the top, your slide sorter is at the bottom, and all of your layouts, keyword image search, and notes are on the left.

Okay, I have to add another small disappointment and a word of warning. They've added some old-school bad layouts in the section titled, "Slide Type" (probably by popular demand). Do your best to pretend these aren't here. Just use the default "Slide Type" and customize it in the layout section. Your students, colleagues, and anyone forced to sit through your presentations will thank you.
NO! Just no...
If you aren't into this tool, that's fine. Just go check out some of the presentations on their site and learn how to make yours look better.

Canva - for sweet everything else...

because yes... 

Okay, so Weebly and Haiku Deck have very specific applications. What about everything else you design for your classroom, like handouts, posters, banners, tickets, passes, signs, certificates, headers, and more? Canva is a super-simple web app that has a lot of free designs and options to create powerful visual content. This site is a winner, until they monetize it to death, like Haiku is trying to do.

One thing I really like about Canva right now is the ability to sign up / sign in with Google. This makes entry a lot easier for staff and students if you have institutional Google accounts.

The great thing about Canva is that it has pre-made templates, much like MS Publisher, for those who are completely design-impaired, but unlike Publisher, those templates are not ugly and ridiculous looking.

On the other hand, Canva also allows you to create a totally custom blank document, which you can edit with a host of custom elements, many of which are free:

I love all of these tools, but my favorite remains the Text layouts, which are beautifully designed and easy to use / customize.

Parting Shots:  WARNING!!!


These are tools. Just using them is not going to make you into a design genius. Resist the urge to get too creative... Seriously, these tools can only help you look better if you use them the way they were intended to be used. You must discipline yourself, at all costs, to:
  • Avoid changing Fonts
  • Leave the color scheme alone
  • Use the provided high resolution photos instead of uploading clipart or google images.
  • Stay away from distracting animated GIFs at all costs.


Honorable Mentions.

Here are some tools I did not cover specifically that are awesome.
  • Easelly - Design your own infographics
  • Piktochart - again infographics... 
  • - interactive infographics
  • Mailchimp - For awesome email newsletters. 
  • Wix - Again, this one makes sweet websites.
  • Lucidpress - Slightly more advanced desktop publishing... if you're not advanced, stick with Canva.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Paradox of Choice in 3d

I recently found myself in the very lucky situation of needing to select a 3d Printer to purchase for my students. I know right? I was pretty stoked, too. Then things went quickly from giddy anticipation to confusion and eventually to paralysis. You see, there are a lot of choices out there, and I mean, a lot. Go ahead, Google "3d Printer".

Asking around

MakerBot Replicator Mini-Essentials
I spoke to folks in my IT department, at the high school, and some neighboring districts. Back when everyone was getting on the initial bandwagon, they were getting MakerBot brand printers. I decided to check out their web site, and I was pleased to find that they had apps for iOS (we are a 1 to 1 iPad building), and a package for their entry level printer, called Replicator Mini Essentials, which included the MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer, a Smart Extruder (I had no idea what this is or what it was for), and a 10 Pack of MakerBot PLA Filaments.

This seemed like the obvious choice, and I was ready to go with it. Then, everything blew up.

The Current Situation

The much maligned "smart" extruder
So, I had pretty much landed on MakerBot's Replicator Mini Essentials package. I would have ordered it too, but I was asked to see if it was available from Amazon. This is when I discovered that what has been historically good in the past is not necessarily the best choice in the present.

Unfortunately, the Makerbot brand has suffered a bit in 2015, and I only discovered that by looking at Amazon's famous Customer Reviews section. This lead me to begin a bit of an investigative search of recent reviews across the internet (Yay for Google Advanced Search). What I found is that the current generation of Makerbot printers are, for lack of a better word, complete crap... and poorly supported crap at that. I also found out what the deal with the extra "Smart Extruder" in the essentials package was. It turns out that this part frequently fails, needs frequent replacement, and costs 175.00 a pop. I also realized that this is one of the few entry level printers on the market that is only compatible with PLA filament and not ABS. Further, I found that the current generation of MakerBot PLA is crap (or packaged incorrectly) and causes frequent print fails.
the Zortrax M200

So, I found myself at square one. What do I do? I began reading reviews again, and I got completely overwhelmed. Given unlimited an unlimited budget and absolute autonomy, I would probably have purchased an Ultimaker 2 and a Zortrax M200. Both of these units have great reviews but are far from cheap and "entry level". If we ever "move up" to a more advanced model, I'm totally going to ask for the Zortrax M200.

Cutting through the confusion

Finally, I ended up kicking it old-school. I made a chart with all the criteria my principal and I discussed for a 3d Printer. We wanted it to by iOS compatible in a simple and straightforward way. We wanted it to be "plug and play" (no assembly and constant part swapping required). We wanted it to be able to print in ABS and PLA. Finally, the more affordable the better. 
Cubify Cube

With all that in place, the obvious choice that was left was the Cubify Cube. The Cube has a Dual extruder, which means it prints in two colors. You can print designs wirelessly from a PC or iOS device using the free Cubify app.
It is compatible with multiple materials, including PLA, ABS, and Infinity Rinse-Away support material (not sure what that is yet). Finally, the Cube is certified-safe for children 8-years-old and up. I am not a fan of injuring students or causing lawsuits, so this was a plus.

Set up

Behold the test print...
Dave, one of our awesome IT peeps, and I got together this afternoon to set this sucker up. Unboxing the printer was pretty straightforward, as outlined here and here. I was surprised at how light weight and compact this printer was. If Apple made a 3d Printer, it would look a lot like this.

While downloading and installing the Cubify software, we hit our first snag. Apparently, all of the graphics cards in my building are just old enough that they will not run Open GL 3.0. The tech department ended up getting a Surface from the tech center and installing Cubify on that.

Set up proceeded along nicely after that minor snag and activating the warranty was a breeze. 

I hope to make some future posts on actual prints my students have done. For now, here's the wiki for the associated project. 

Now I'm left with the tough question, what 3d printer do I get for my house?