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!



National Cryptologic Museum

I decided to put my spring break to good use this year with a visit to DC’s museums. At the top of my list was the National Cryptologic Museum, just outside of NSA headquarters. I have to admit that my expectations were low – how many people would be interested in the subject, and how much support could be behind such a project? Well, I was very pleasantly surprised! The museum was definitely my favorite in DC, and that’s stiff competition! This very unassuming building holds a treasure trove of great exhibits, and was presented in a very well considered fashion. I managed to jump onto a tour with a very knowledgeable docent, who was able to present the stories in such a way to interest the four or five young teens in the audience, as well as the adults. Highlights for me were getting hands-on with an actual Enigma, and seeing the Bombe up close. The museum is a bit of a trek if you’re coming from the Mall, but well worth the journey!

Why I teach cryptography

I teach a unit in cryptography in my 6th grade computer science course. It’s not an obvious addition to my curriculum, and it’s not one I’ve seen listed in many other CS classes at this level. Here’s why I think it’s important.

Cryptography requires students to practice complex problem solving. Students try different approaches until they find one that works. What works with one problem might not work for another. This is the opposite from problems students usually receive, in which they apply the same methods they’ve learned. It also requires students to research, and to stay with a problem even when it’s frustrating. These are skills that are necessary for higher math and for computer science, but they are very difficult to get to in a classroom. Cryptography presents a way to practice these skills in a game-like format.

Cryptography also encourages students to think about privacy and security in very practical ways. It can lead to really great discussions, particularly since issues around cryptography are very much in the news.

Cryptography allows me to sneak in some other topics the kids may not have been exposed to. Prime numbers, probability, and frequency analysis are easy to talk about in this context. There are also numerous examples of failed cryptography that allow me to delve into history and technology.

The big reason for teaching cryptography, though, is that I really enjoy the topic myself. This gives me the energy to make a lot of practical challenges for class. The kids pick up on my enthusiasm, and really focus on the class. And they love the challenges.

Here’s my latest challenge:

Breakout Winter 2018


Open-ended Programming

Inspired by a conference I attended this summer, I decided to try something different with coding for my 6th graders this year. Rather than teach a traditional lesson with exercises, I gave the students an open-ended challenge. Each student or team had to create an original game in Scratch. I gave no further guidance, although I was available to help with specific coding questions. The games would be presented to the class at the end of the unit, and students were encouraged to comment (constructively) on others’ efforts.

I was more than a little nervous about this approach. I had much less time with this unit – only 30 minutes once a week, over the course of about eight weeks. The students had already been introduced to Scratch and seen some demos, but only a few had actually programmed anything themselves. This had the potential to be a colossal waste of time!

Last week was the presentation. Not everyone in the class had produced a game ready to show, and of those games that were ready, only a handful were finished. That said, there were a couple really good games. More importantly, everyone in the class had produced some good code, and had struggled and learned along the way.

I had the students complete a reflection at the end, to see what they thought of the experience and what they had learned. The comments were much more positive than I expected (in fact, I’d hoped for some more criticisms, to help shape changes in the future). Here are some of the more insightful comments:

I got a lot more experience learning how to program. I think it would be fun to make something more in the future and this practice will be very helpful for that. I also learned that there are a lot of challenges making a game- you cant just make it in one day with no problems.
Troubleshooting! When I tried to add things to my scratch game or change some coding, I could make the entire this spiral out of control. this was pretty tricky, and it was sometimes hard to get the sprites or the backdrops to do what I wanted them to do.
I learned about troubleshooting when a code wasn’t working and about how to think out what you wanted your sprite to do.
 I will definitely make some changes with this approach in the future. First, the time I had to work with this year was not terribly conducive to success. The students could have used a longer block of time, without the Winter break right in the middle. I’d also like more collaboration and feedback early in the process. Some of the students really knew what they were doing, and could have helped the others along. A couple more demos of some basic mechanics (like motion using the keyboard or mouse) might help many of the students progress faster to other aspects of the game. And I would like to structure the reflection questions to get more useful feedback. I got a lot of very short answers with the current questions.
Overall I think the open-ended approach produced a much better result than lecture and practice. The students really seemed to enjoy the freedom, and I saw a lot of creative thinking and troubleshooting. While I’ll certainly do some tweaking, this approach is going to become my standard for a while.