Kids writing scams

As a part of teaching digital citizenship to my 6th graders, I spend a considerable amount of time telling them about scams, frauds, and malware. I do this because I think they are a a substantial risk down the road if they are not informed and skeptical. And I do it because we inevitably have a great discussion, filled with anecdotes by the kids of people they know who have been taken in (or not) by these same scams.

This year, I had an extra bit of time with one class, so I tried an experiment that has been brewing in my head for over a year. I had the kids all write their own scam! It worked so well in the first class that I could only repeat it in the second. The students could make their scam as ridiculous or as real as they wanted, and use whatever tools they wanted. They only had ten minutes to work (which I expanded to fifteen, when the students demanded it). 

What they produced far outweighed my expectations! Their responses ran the gamut from the most outrageous examples of poor writing and layout to emails that just might work in the real world. Many used pictures, links, interesting layouts, and alternate software tools to make their work convincing. Both classes were absorbed in their work to an extent I have seldom seen in 6th grade, and when we shared the works as a class they were entirely focused on the projector. 

When I first envisioned the project, I had some fears about it. What would it sound like to parents (not to mention the administration) to hear their kids were writing scam email in class? I did take the step of making the kids swear a solemn oath before hand (I, STATE YOUR NAME, solemnly swear to use my powers only for good, and not for evil.), but would that be enough. I think I needn’t have worried. The gains from this experiment far outweigh the possible friction. I think I have inoculated these kids, as far as is possible at this stage, against online frauds and scams. I hope to be able to give them a booster shot in 7th and 8th grades, but even if not, I feel confident these kids are prepared for the future in this regard, at least. I will definitely try this again!

3D Printed Guns

Less than an hour into the new school, and I’ve already had my first question on 3D printed guns! So much hype over this story. Essentially, files that were already out there were briefly made legal. I’m sure they were spread around even further, and probably some new guns will be printed. I think you’d have to be insane to actually fire one of those, though. The materials used are not made for those kind of forces to begin with. There may be some resin printers out there with materials that could handle it, but the price would be insanely high. Also, the rarity of the printers would mean the print would be fairly easy to trace. There are metal printers, but that defeats the main purpose of having it 3D printed. Also, those printers are super expensive, and probably easy to track. 

The biggest issue with the story, though, is that in the US guns are unbelievably cheap and easy to get. Why would anyone bother printing one and risking losing a hand firing it, when you can get a safe one cheaper? I can only hope that MORE people try to print these guns, so that these idiots lose their trigger fingers.


Strands of Technology in Education

I’ve struggled for some time with the objectives of technology education in schools. There are a variety of activities lumped under this banner, which do not seem to have a lot in common conceptually. For example, many schools may teach the use of different programs (e.g. presentation, video editing, or animation) under the label of educational technology. Many schools cover aspects of digital technology’s effect on society or digital citizenship. Or how computers and networks work. And most schools now offer at least some amount of programming. These different subjects have little overlap, other than the potential involvement of a computer. This was a strong common theme when computers and expertise were scarce and often concentrated in labs. They seem to have little reason to be treated together as a category now, when computers are ubiquitous and the expertise required is more diverse.

In an attempt to deal with these disparities, I’ve started breaking educational technology into three buckets. This gives me a conceptual framework for dealing with the different areas, though I still don’t find this entirely satisfactory. The categories are computer science, information technology, and digital literacy.

Computer science

While computer science necessarily includes programming, I prefer to emphasize computational thinking. By this, I mean the process of problem solving, particularly as it applies to the digital environment. Computational thinking includes fundamental concepts such as abstraction and decomposition, iteration and conditionals, and general problem solving techniques. A great advantage in thinking of computational thinking over programming is that it becomes applicable in a number of other subjects as well, lending itself to reinforcement in other areas of the curriculum. Programming becomes a practical application of computational thinking.

Information technology

Information technology is the category for all of the technical aspects of computing. This includes how computers and networks work (which I feel is generally neglected, considering the extent of their integration in all aspects of contemporary life). This also includes some amount of history of computing, and some concepts such as logic and binary number systems.

Digital literacy

This category consists of that information needed to deal with technology on a day-to-day basis. That includes how to use different types of applications, such as word-processing or spreadsheets. Most importantly, it should impart and ability to learn new applications, as any specific applications are likely to be rendered obsolete in short order. This category also includes, perhaps most importantly, how to behave in a digital world. This is where digital citizenship resides, with a particular emphasis on safety.

One advantage I’ve found in breaking up the subjects generally found in “technology” in schools is that it makes it easier for me to also reconsider how they are approached. While all three are necessary at each level of education, they need not all be handled in a technology-focused class. Aspects of digital literacy would make just as much sense in context with classroom behavior discussions. Parts of information technology fit well within math or science units. Spreading these units to other areas of the curriculum helps connect student thinking outside of their traditional realms, and makes more overall time for the traditional technology subjects in the schedule.

More “What I Did on Summer Vacation”

I had the opportunity to spend another week up in Michigan, so of course I took the opportunity to play with my drone some more. I’ve also started playing with tilt-shift techniques, so I’ve posted some of those in addition to my tiny planet pics. Also, I’ve posted pictures from one of the highlights of the trip – flying my drone on a boat!

New Studio!

Some time ago, a parent approached us with an interest to help build a recording studio. Recording is a hobby of his, and his children are musicians. Having our kids recording their music is right up our alley philosophically, so we were very excited about the possibilities! It took us nearly a year to plan, design, build, and train. Late last school year, the studio was completed! The studio is all professional-grade equipment. We’re a little limited with our space, but we were able to add reasonable soundproofing and windows into the main music room and control room. All this was just in time, too, as our very talented music teacher Stephen Roberts was able to have our graduating 8th grade class record a song for their graduation video. The goal, as Stephen put it, was to have the parents “cry out of both eyes.” And it was completely successful. I can’t wait to see how this integrates into our program next year. I had a small part of the planning, and was able to add some artwork to the finished room – a friend had just given me a vintage Fender catalog as a gift. Here is what the studio looks like.

Control room
Recording room
Wall art from a vintage Fender catalog

Fun with Drones

I have a Mavic Pro drone I’ve been playing with for a while now. It’s been great fun, and has also proved useful on occasion. For example, my school expanded it’s parking lot last year, and I was able to take updated aerial photos of the new layout. This also allowed me to make some neat new campus maps by tracing designs over the photo in Illustrator. I had my drone out again recently because I wanted some new shots of the parking area with the landscaping grown in a bit. While I was flying anyway, I decided to try some new techniques. I took some 360 panoramas (I used Litchi software to automate this, but it’s perfectly doable in the DJI software). I then took the pictures into Microsoft’s free Image Composite Editor software.  I think the results are pretty cool! I’ll definitely be doing more of this.

Another Breakout Challenge

I could have sworn that I published this already! I gave this to my 6th graders a while ago. One group out of four finished it, with two others hot on the trail at the end of our time (one hour). I was really impressed with the teamwork!

Breakout Winter 2018

Another painted print

I decided it was time to paint another 3D print. I have a print of a T-Rex skull that had been sitting on my shelf for years, not getting much attention. A bit of paint later, the kids loved it. None of them realized they had all seen it before! Also, my workbench with the pre-painted piece.

Happy Poetry Month (a bit late)

I made a thing for poetry month. It’s finally mounted in our library, just a bit late for National Poetry Month. With some luck, though, it will just be early for next year! Special thanks to Mag-net on Thingiverse for sharing such a great design!