by Trisha Gilbreath
It was recently pointed out to me that I have been TERRIBLE at adding student submissions to this blog. After being featured in PLTW’s blog, over 28 people are now aware of this epic failure! Obviously, being the middle of the summer, how do I address this issue? How do I solve this problem? Well, I’ve decided on two solutions. 1) I will write something myself. 2) I will add some of my students’ work from our first year together.
Obviously, this post represents problem solution #1.
First off, let me explain the picture. This summer I attended Digital Electronics Core Training (CT) at Auburn University. For those of you who have attended CT, that might be enough explanation. If not, CT is sort of like learning an entire year’s worth of unfamiliar curriculum in two weeks in the middle of your summer. And by “sort of,” I mean “exactly”. And for some reason it’s fun! And it can definitely get a little silly. You are stuck with the same people for 8-12 hours a day. If these people have any personality, and they usually do because no school wants to send the boring teachers off to learn how to teach fun stuff, you develop quirky little jokes. Bananas became a running gag in my class, and one of my classmates decided to try breadboarding with a banana. Like I said, it gets a little silly.
Near the end of the training, we got to have a some fun with Arduinos. I was unfamiliar with the little gadgets, but my partner, Chris Benshoof, had used them in his computer science classes. He mentioned that one of his students had used LEDs to create a game of Rock Paper Scissors. Of course, big old sci-fi nerd that I am, I wanted to create Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock. I was familiar with coding, but not this particular language, so Chris set up the board while I wrote the code. He, of course, helped me work through the kinks in the code, but by doing to bulk of the work, I became much more comfortable with the language. In the end, we used our game as part of our final project. The goal of the project was to create a tollbooth that opens based on sensor input. We decided that in order to open the gate, you must win a game of Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock. You use the joystick to pick your preference (I usually chose Spock), and then the computer randomly picks. The computer determines the winner, then flashes the winning color. If green wins, the gate opens, and the next imaginary car through the gate can play the next round. Here’s a very bad video of the tollbooth in action.
As I think back to that partnership, and many of the other learning activities from CT, I wonder how my students will approach these tasks compared to how I approached them. In class, I knew that every task was a learning opportunity, so I always tried the most difficult problems to make sure that I took advantage of that opportunity while I had the resources available to help me if I needed assistance. Do my students take advantage of learning opportunities like that? Or do they do just enough to get by? On my team, and in other teams throughout the class, if there was an aspect of the activity with which we were unfamiliar, that was the aspect we tackled. We, as teachers, knew that ignoring our weaknesses would just bite us in the rear end when we returned to class in the fall. But do our students try to tackle the more difficult task? When our students work with partners or teams, do they divvy up the work so that each team member works TO his or her strengths or works ON his or her weaknesses? And is working to your strengths necessarily a bad thing?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they will help me (or frustrate me) when I start to plan my teams for next year. When I look at an activity, I need to ask myself if I want the students to work TO their strengths or ON their weaknesses. I need to make sure students are approaching activities as learning opportunities so that they don’t do just enough to get by. And, of course, I need to make sure the kids are having at least a little silly fun.