Author Archives: Graham

If you want to be patted on the back for being a groovy, totally plugged in 21st Century educator, don't bother going to read Dean Groom's blog. But you value some authentic alternative views and some clever metaphorical language twisting like I do, then his latest post is well worth the read.

I've been harping on the concept of personalised learning and how the version being championed by US philanthropists sounded nothing like the version I know and then Stephen Downes pointed to an article that was very enlightening.

 

So Dean's post was ringing some of the same bells and in the spirit of old skool Web 2.0, I thought I would leave him a comment but not wanting to lose those delicate personal threads of consciousness, i thought I would re-post it here. Plus, I assume it is currently in "pending approval purgatory" and he might not deem it worthy to approve!

Dean,

You always give me food for thought and much of what you describe in this post rings true for me. It doesn’t mean that I’ve been brave (or smart) enough to not get caught up in the frenzy sometimes, but when you shine the light on an object in a certain way, suddenly aspects of that object can be more easily defined – or as the saying goes, seen in a new light.

Via Twitter you pointed to a post about educelebrities that also ties in closely with aspects addressed. We have a number of these down under – some have channelled into something with broad appeal to the teaching population, and others have gone all out to deliberately cultivate their educelebrity status. The latter can be found amongst the “founders” that you reference, and from my vantage point it appears like they are mining the Australian teaching landscape for their own betterment. They write articles for ACEL, they win awards and they cross-reference each other because circular self-amplification super-boosts their online presence. Maybe I am just jealous and maybe many teachers find their insights and ideas to be inspiring and useful. I just wonder what happened to just doing a good job at your own school and letting good practice speak for itself.

The personaliSed learning reference is extremely important and one to watch unfold this year for sure. There is the definition of personaliSed learning that sits inside my head and has been part of what I tried to enable for my students for at least twenty of the thirty years I have been teaching. (I have a DECD certificate acknowledging my loyalty for that period of time). But the new EdTech enhanced version possibly defined by its American Z is a new beast that promises so much but when you look closer, it is the opposite of what most progressive educators (which I like to think that I strive to be) want for their students. PersonaliSed learning for me involves student choice, students helping define the direction of the learning and students showcasing their learning in ways that are personal. Education technology’s role in this scenario is an enabler allowing the student access to information that they want, connection to resources and people that can help them in that learning and to create their own solution / product / showcase. PersonaliZed learning wants the technology to be in control, pushing or elevating the student through pre-determined content and concepts – Khan Academy without the choice is what springs into my head. Like you point out, the Z version promises what the s version has been shown to be capable of but reduces it all down to (in your words) “various modular ‘fun’ activities under the trending veneer of gamification.”

As for your description of the blockchain transcript, it sounds eerily like the e-portfolio concept of over a decade ago. I wasted time researching some that idea back in the day and we can see how it has really taken off in schools … or not. Like questionable fashion, even edtech ideas can be recycled in new packaging and touted as new and original. Of course, none of this means that I am any better than the average educator in sorting through the gift shop paraphernalia.

Beware the Z.

Ernie Smith on blogging:


Perhaps the world has moved past the idea of merely having a webpage that’s your own, and nobody else’s. Perhaps we’re expected to do everything, instead, on social media or in someone else’s walled garden.

But what if a lot of bloggers were never really in it just for the importance of being on top of the cultural pulse? What if the goal was to share a piece of ourselves through the mechanics of shoving new thoughts into a database every day?

Suzanne Cridge from SVA pointed to a 2015 post of Jennifer Orr's today on Twitter that awoke my brain from its holiday-induced inertia.

And as I felt uncomfortable with the wording of her blog post title (but not its content or message) I have decided to unpack it a bit here by starting by subbing out the word "Worst" for "Most Disadvantaged" to sit better in my Australian context.  Despite the difference in choice of words and we are comparing different education systems, we are talking about equivalent concepts here - a Title 1 school in the US shares similarities with "low category" schools here in South Australia - so using the phrase disadvantaged covers a lot of the same issues - trauma, migrant or refugee backgrounds, poverty, transience, disability in significant amounts.

I have heard many defensive comments from educators from private schools systems that sort of miss the point. "We have families here who are struggling financially." "We have students from different cultures." "We have students under the Guardianship of the Minister." Yes, you do but not to the same degree or in the same numbers. It doesn't impact on the way you teach or run the school to the same degree as schools that are officially designated as "disadvantaged".

Even in the SA public school system, the degrees of complexity are easy to identify. We use a system of Categories to define the least to most disadvantaged and complex. Category 1 to 3 are the low categories where the most disadvantage and complexity can be found while at the other end, Category 6 and 7 schools have the more affluent communities where things like Non-English speaking kids are a small minority, School Card percentage is low and where families in crisis are less noticeable. I've taught at both ends of the category spectrum and can testify that there is significant difference in what teachers encounter on a day to day basis, and practices that run smoothly for a more compliant student body can come undone in environments where the kids have a lot more to deal with outside of their school life.

In my first year at Woodville Gardens, I recall some of our teachers being highly offended that a visiting teacher from a Cat 7 school making a remark that she was glad that she managed to avoid teaching in "tough schools" like ours as she wasn't sure that she could handle it. Rightly so, our teachers resented the implication that our school was viewed as a less desirable place in which to carve out a career.

Talk to teachers at these schools and you will hear sentiments about making a real difference, and about adjusting and making learning relevant for students who haven't had the advantages of being born into a family where the dominant language matches the language of our institutions of learning, where coming to school hungry is not through choice, where the impact of social issues like racism and being left to fend for yourself at a young age is a reality. The stories that are shared of students we have known sound far fetched to educators who have never experienced this complexity on a regular basis. Engagement is not just a fancy word to bandy around - it is the real key to getting our kids to buy in and own their learning.

Jennifer sums things very well in this paragraph:

Our students often speak two or more languages, help their families navigate bureaucracies, care for younger siblings, and support the family in a variety of ways. Our students are skilled and smart in many different ways. Unfortunately, those ways aren’t always reflected in school-related skills or on standardized assessments.

To bring this post full circle, that is why it is cool for my school, Prospect North which serves a complex, disadvantaged community to be connected to people like Suzanne who works for Social Ventures Australia (SVA), an organisation that helped to connect up schools from the disadvantaged sector all around Australia who are doing innovative things into a community that shares and develops its practice. These schools are working hard to ensure that these students not only have the best teachers but their educational experience matches or surpasses what high category and the private sector schools can offer their kids. It's a reason I was so proud of my First Lego League teams - they deserve the opportunity as much as any kid in Australia and given that opportunity will step up and shine. And this only happens, as Jennifer points out, if the best teaching is happening in those schools. Not just because it is a good idea but as Jen points out, it is imperative:

Every minute will be accounted for and a part of meaningful learning. It has to be.

 

My last three posts have been focussed on my first foray into First Lego League and the students involved. But together with my fellow AP, Nicola, we also decided to get started with First Lego League Junior this year to broaden STEM enrichment offerings at Prospect North, and to cater for younger students. Nicola had heard about the program before so I decided to do some research. First Lego League has been operating in Australia since 2006 (worldwide since 1999) but its younger cousin is much newer (worldwide since 2007) and seems to have been available in Australia for a few years. And while there were three regional tournaments for FLL available here in South Australia, there were no official Expos planned for this state.

What is involved in First Lego League Junior? An short excerpt from the website sums it up best:

Focused on building an interest in science and engineering in children ages 6-9, FIRST® LEGO® League Junior is a hands-on program designed to capture young children's curiosity and direct it toward discovering how science and technology impact the world around them. This program features a real-world challenge, to be explored through research, critical thinking and imagination. Guided by adult coaches and the Core Values, team members work with LEGO® elements (LEGO WeDo Kit) and motorized parts to build ideas and concepts and present them for review.

Each yearly Challenge is based on a different theme and has two main parts, the LEGO® Model and the Show Me Poster.

Teams consist of two to six children and are guided by at least two adult coaches. During the season they will:

  • Conduct research about the current Challenge theme.
  • Build a LEGO® Model based on the Challenge instructions that contains both a simple machine and a motorized part.
  • Display their findings on a Show Me poster.

The culmination of the hard work for many teams is the participation in an expo event ... Volunteer Reviewers at the event interview the teams to learn about their LEGO® Model and Show Me poster. All the teams are celebrated and leave with an award.

I had bought Lego WeDo 2.0 kits for the school as one of my first investments from the STEM budget and worked across the Year 2 - 4 classrooms to give students the opportunity to use this very hands on technology. FLL Jr is tied to the use of WeDo - and so together, Nicola and I decided to offer this opportunity to four teams of students from ages 6 - 10. We started by asking the Digital Leaders who might be interested, and then asked the Year 1 teachers to nominate a student who would benefit from the experience.

I ordered four team Inspiration Model kits which are part of the year's program. This year's theme was Aqua Adventure, which ties in with the FLL's HydroDynamics theme. The kits were ordered from Macquarie University and cost $20 each. When I looked online to find out a bit more about the kit, I was very pleased to see that each kit had over 700 pieces! Lego are a bit like Apple in that they don't really do discount on their products so these kits represented phenomenal value. When I told my principal, her first reaction was to ask, "How many of these kits can we order?" Schools can always use more Lego.

This much Lego for $20!

There is also an Engineering Notebook that is given out to students in the US but it raises the costs of registration significantly. Here in Australia, participating coaches could access the Notebook via a download link which I cannot share here. The Notebook was a great scaffolded learning journey that Nicola and I used as a blueprint with the students, covering ideas like the PlayPump™ and getting kids to use Lego to engineer concepts along the way on the them of human water use.

The four teams gave themselves theme based names and we nominated Year 4 students as leaders to keep the mixed gender and year level teams on track. These leaders helped to design the team t-shirts which also helped build the excitement as we worked our way through the ten week program. We decided to hold our own local Expo with the goal of expansion in 2018 once we felt like we knew what we were doing. With a few weeks to go and while balancing the responsibilities for the Hydrodynamics teams and a school commitment to hosting a Kids Teach STEM conference for our local partnership schools, we nailed down an Expo date. The teams worked towards this by typing up what they had learned and displaying it on large ShowMe posters. The working models were constructed - even though they did not approach the scale and complexity of what we could see online. Nicola and I worried about our standards not being as high and the students' work needing more depth but in the end, the students did a commendable job considering how much time they were given and that this was a brand new process for everyone and no one really knew how it would all turn out.

The models had to demonstrate a solution to a water based problem for humans. One team looked at how to decontaminate water, one looked at recycling water for showers and other non-drinking purposes, another two showed how to filter household water out to a garden or other purposes.

So, the day after the Kids Teach STEM Conference, we gathered in the library for our initial FLL Junior Expo. The four teams were dressed in their various coloured t-shirts and stood proudly by their displays. I had some small Lego based trophies for Awards out on display - the rules state that each team must win an Award if awards are given. I had the team names on lego blocks that were to be added as the Awards were determined. More parents than expected came along for the introduction and I even made contact with a grandparent who was a retired engineer who was full of praise for the event and offered to be of service to our school with possibilities of STEM mentoring in 2018. After parents and classmates had a good look, it was time for the teams to be reviewed. Marg, our principal and Phil, our retired Scientist in Residence did the reviewing and some senior FLL students ran a Core Values activity and a Guess The Famous Lego Minifigure quiz for teams while they waited. We then held our Closing Ceremony with certificates for all participants via the traditional High Five Line, and the trophies were awarded to each team.

Check out my custom Lego trophy in the student's hand!

The whole program was quite successful and I hope to promote this out to the wider education community here in South Australia, with the goal of becoming the official host of the First Lego League Junior here at Prospect North. So, if you are from a South Australian school with a 6 to 10 year old demographic and you are reading this, it is a great opportunity. For the cost of $20 for the Inspiration kit, it is a cheap STEM enrichment option. Feel free to email me - graham.wegner499@schools.sa.edu.au

 

On the Monday after the Regional, I proudly put our trophy up on the front office counter along with the certificate. Whether we decided next, our first FLL outing had a tangible memento of that team's success.But we had decisions to make - would we take the team to the Sydney National Championship? First of all, I have to find out if the families would commit to the idea first. I drafted a letter to send home, setting the minimum response at six students to make the trip viable and asking for a commitment (if funding was available) by Wednesday. Immediately, two students informed that they would not be able to be part of it as their families had already committed to overseas trips to visit family in Korea and India respectively that departed prior to the Championship dates of December 2 and 3. I wasn't that hopeful.

Then an email lobbed in my inbox on Tuesday morning that set a deadline by the end of the week to either confirm our place or release it for a wildcard entrant. A few team members visited me in my office with pleas to "make it happen" - they were still flushed with success and even with the whole venture totally unconfirmed continued to practice and perfect robot coding missions. A couple of Splice Cube members offered moral support and advice as well which was really appreciated. On Wednesday, six forms came back to me meaning that families were supportive of seizing the opportunity. By Thursday we had secured funding for the trip and so I excitedly sent off the confirmation that we would indeed be heading to Macquarie University! After securing tickets and accommodation, the team ran through all of the crucial things that needed to be organised and fine tuned before the next weekend.

The coding missions were refined and the script for the presentation modified for fewer participants. They decided to stick with "simplicity is the key" robot design and we packed some attachments and spare parts into a ziploc bag, padded the robot for the trip and added some spare batteries. Notes were sent home and permission forms gathered in readiness for the early flight out of Adelaide the next morning.

We flew out of Adelaide at 6.00 am and got into Sydney at around 8.30 am local time. We secured a Maxicab for the trip out to Macquarie and the driver took us over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were quite early so headed over to the local food court to eat some "brunch". We then joined the massing teams near the registration area - there were teams from state schools, quite a few private schools and some homeschooled teams. There were teams wearing their school uniforms and others like us in their customised team t-shirts. There were teams who were carting in large black plastic crates filled with robots and attachments. By comparison, when it rained later on, our robot fitted in a plastic shopping bag!

Once registered, we found our pit area which was a lot smaller than the spacious room we had shared at Novar Gardens. There was certainly no room to spread out so I was glad that I didn't bring our game mat. We looked at our schedule and just like the Regional, we were super fortunate to have a great run. Everything was well spaced out - the first thing was the Research Project which the kids agreed would be great to get out of the way and minimise the length of time battling nerves. This was followed by Robot design and then Core Values which the team was really, really confident about. Then we would have our three Robot games, one mid afternoon, one early evening and then the final mid-morning on Sunday. It was time to head over to the opening ceremony.

There were 68 teams at the Nationals, plus volunteers adding up to around 1200 people at this event which meant that the Opening Ceremony was held in two theatres at the same time, with any spectators watching a live stream in a third theatre. Each team were allocated coloured wristbands that sent you to a specific theatre - we were off the the Lotus Theatre which would house about a third of the participants while the Macquarie held the majority. The hosts took it turns while being broadcast on the screens behind them. As seems to be the case with Lego events, it was high energy and dynamic, building up the excitement for everyone. The ceremony took longer than we expected and we nervously watched the time tick up closer to our 1.00 pm start time for our Research Project. We raced out of the theatre with ten minutes to spare, grabbed the props and pounded up two flights of stairs to get to the right venue .... but the judges weren't there yet! They were still on their way back from the theatre so the team calmed themselves. This was held in a lecture theatre and at the coaches' meeting we were told to be respectful of how many visitors and family members we were bringing to watch as to not interfere with the judges' job. That wasn't a problem for us - our audience was a total of one person, Casey, an upper primary teacher from PNPS who was generously giving up her weekend to be our female staff member on duty. A judge arrived and the students got started with their presentation on water contamination only to have the second judge join his offsider a few minutes in. The team took it all in stride and were done in around three minutes, possibly indicating that the research project needed more depth.

Time seemed to move very quickly and it was soon approaching time for Robot Design judging. With our key coder in India, his compatriots had to step up and explain the coding choices while the others talked through their design choices, their mission strategy and demonstrated some of the missions with the robot. This was good because they were relieved to see that the missions that worked so well back in the STEM room at school looked like they would yield similar results here in Sydney. A couple of missions were a bit awry so immediately after the session concluded, a couple of times were booked for later on the practice tables. Shortly afterwards, we moved over to another building for the Core Values activity. All weekend long, all of the team members talked about this area being their strength, how they got on so well together, how they complemented each other and communicated to others. They were certain that with this chemistry that I could really feel, that they would do well.

And they did. The challenge was a simple one - a scenario of a flooded neighbourhood and six items that could be of use in such a disaster. Unanimously decide and justify which item would be kept within two minutes. They astounded the judges when they came to consensus in under forty seconds! They justified their choice clearly, and spoke like a team, finishing each other's sentences without interrupting - it just showed through that they were all on the same page. They answered some questions about decision making and choices within the context of the team and they were finished. "I think we nailed it", said Anna, our youngest member.

The Robot Game setup was pretty much the same as the Regional but in a much larger theatre with more hype and overhead cameras boradcast on the screens behind. The first game scored 50 points which was no disgrace but we could see some of the more advanced teams scoring in the 200 - 300 point range. A lot of these teams were using box robots that could handle various types of attachments, and could sweep down the game table covering numerous missions before returning to base. Not really knowing much about robot design prior to becoming a coach, I could see how teams with multiple years of experience can build on their prior robot and can continue to work on the design even during the "off season". After all, even if the theme and missions are different every year, what the robot is being asked to do can be predicted and designed in advance. The missions dictate that a robot can push, lift, pick up, move objects, flip, rotate, push down, release and so on. Even with a couple of year's experience, a team could build a robot that can be readily adapted to the requirements of a new theme. YouTube is full of videos shared by FLL teams from all over the world so there is no shortage of inspiration and concepts to try out.

The rain came down mid afternoon and we dodged showers to head back to the food court for a late lunch/early dinner. The team was in great spirits and I had managed to livestream the first round to the school FaceBook page. As we ate our food, I checked some of the comments and found Vedant, the team member who had gone to India just a few days prior had watched the footage, and offered strategy and words of advice to the team. This was fantastic and again, spoke to how bonded together the team was. He offered tips on how to improve the next round through improved positioning of attachments and so on.

... remember one slight movement in the position will change the whole missions success rate.

The second round was at 6.30 pm and things went well for a new high score of 70. Remembering that the original goal was any score above zero and that H2Flo were really using a "booklet robot" with precise coding based on wheel rotations and exact starting spots, this was a good effort. It didn't matter that we were ranking in the 50's because we knew our strength wasn't robots - but that still was the fun part. We put the robot back in its plastic bag, tidied up our pit area and then caught a maxicab to our accommodation at Mantra Chatswood.

The rain from Saturday's afternoon and evening were gone by Sunday morning which was cloudless and sunny. After fuelling everyone on toast, we packed up and headed back to Macquarie University for the second day. Everyone was relaxed and that might have been why no one checked the robot very closely prior to our final Robot Game, which turned out to be a sticking point when the pressure of the "1, 2, 3, Lego" start commenced. The final round stalled when the robot wouldn't move - the culprit was loose cables but after a bit of freaking out and getting one mission complete, things fell apart rapidly for a 10 point final score. Luckily only the best round counts, and lots of teams have at least one bad round.

We stayed to watch some of the other teams including the amazing Project Bucephalus whose robot scored a mind boggling 390 points. And the cool thing was that my team weren't intimidated by this - they were inspired! We then packed up the pit area fully and then headed back over to the food court again for an early lunch with plenty of time for the Closing Ceremony. Again, this was back in the Lotus Theatre with live crossing back and forth from the Macquarie Theatre. There was dancing and a high five line and plenty of celebrating when they announced that all teams would be getting FLL medals for making it to Nationals. When over 680 teams who participated in First Lego League from all over Australia, being in the top 10% was quite an achievement for all National Championship teams.

They then listed out the trophy categories and the winners, second and third place getters. With 36 trophies being given out, we were optimistic that maybe, just maybe our good fortune might continue. And it did ... with a Third Place trophy in the Inspiration category, a sub branch of the Core Values part of the competition. Turns out H2Flo's instincts about the team chemistry were very accurate. Then it was all over very quickly, and it was time to get back to the airport, catch the plane and greet some very amazed and justifiably proud families back at Adelaide Airport.

So, last night I tried to document my preparation for my two First Lego League teams. As I wrote in the previous post, I was a rookie coach with two rookie teams so I had spent a lot of time checking through documents from the First website but still really felt like the teams weren't really getting the guidance they needed. Part of it was that I was also very busy with other responsibilities both at work and at home. Anyway, I had registered both teams for the Novar Gardens Regional, which was to be held a week after the PAC Regional as a result of more teams entering FLL for the first time. There were about 40 teams lined up for the PAC event, and there were 18 teams in the Novar Gardens one. I recall thinking that this was good as that meant my kids wouldn't be overwhelmed and overrun by experienced teams who really knew their robotics. Even so, I told both teams that our main goal was to have fun and enjoy the experience - by now, everyone was pretty confident that their Robot Game score wouldn't be zero!

The Novar Gardens event was held at Immanuel College where a long, long time ago I was a student. In FLL, each team gets allocated an area to call their home for the day, commonly known as "the pits". These were all in the Margaret Ames Centre, on the site of the old boys boarding house. An interesting sidenote is that Margaret Ames was my Year 12 English teacher - I have said in the past that no teacher in my education inspired me to become a teacher but in her case, she was definitely one of the better ones. It helped that I liked English.

We put all of our gear in the pits area and I went over to the Coaches Meeting to get the lowdown on latest rulings in the Robot Game, how the practice table areas could be booked and where to find every part of the day's schedule. We were reminded to remind our students that judges were always on the lookout for examples of Gracious Professionalism ™ so teamwork, helping out others and being thoughtful were aspects outside of the actual robotics that would determine how teams fared on the day. Marg, my principal, came along for the day and luckily so as I soon found that trying to juggle two teams was an extreme challenge for one coach as two different schedules meant some clashes where I could not be in two places at once. After an opening ceremony, both teams got to have a practice Robot Game on the competition tables in the Century Theatre. Then the day was up and running.

I attended with both teams at various times to go to their three judging sessions. These sessions are held with the team and coach only in the room - no external spectators. Even though both teams had these in differing orders, I will recount them as if it was sequential. Both teams had to present their Research Project to a couple of judges. Splice Cubes tackled their human based water problem on the issue of the lack of fresh water in the world. Their research told them that about 3% of the world's water is fresh and two thirds of that is frozen. Their proposal was to mine icebergs and melt that water and transport it to countries where water is in short supply. The judges asked some probing questions about their concept - what would be the effect on the world's climate if this were to happen? H2Flo tackled water contamination as their issue and had created a 3D printed filter prototype. Again, some probing questions from the judges kept them wondering if they needed more depth in their research as their presentation was quite entertaining. From my perspective, both teams did a reasonable job but I felt that their research needed more depth and their solution needed further development.

Another session was the Robot Design Judging session. Both teams had developed relatively simple robots that were devoid of sensors. H2Flo went with the mantra that their design embraced the "simple is better" philosophy with less to go wrong. Our coding experts were able to talk to the judges about their strategy for tackling the various missions. Splice Cubes had build a squared off structure using Lego beams on the back on the robot to assist with more accurate mission launches. For this session, I felt that Splice Cubes had the edge. After all, in the week leading up to the Regional, their robot was regularly scoring between 50 and 90 points in practice sessions. They also had more mission runs up their sleeve; the result of the time that the girls in their team had invested during their break times. However, at one lunch time the H2Flo robot went on a spree where everything clicked and the robot scored a hypothetical 95 points. I still thought that the Splice Cubes robot and coding was superior and that would show out in the Robot Games still to come.

The final judges session was the Core Values session. The task was for the team to build a tower as tall as possible from Lego in two minutes, have it measured by a judge and then break up it all up and return it to the box in pieces ready for the next team. The judges also asked questions of the team - how did you come up with your name? What is the best part of FLL? What is the most important thing that you have learnt? It was in this session that H2Flo really clicked especially when Jimmy (remember him from the past post?) responded to the last question by saying that he felt that the most important thing he had learned was teamwork as prior to this, he didn't really know any of his team mates all that well and they were all very different people but through teamwork they had come together to share the common goal of being committed to the team and doing their collective best. This was really cool and when I look back at their team, of the nine kids who came on that day, there were four different religious backgrounds represented and five different cultural backgrounds as well as being balanced gender wise.

Then there were the three Robot Game matches. This is the spectator friendly component of FLL and is probably the hook that gets kids interested in the first place. Marg streamed all of the matches to our school FaceBook page which was great as I missed three of the matches due to the judging sessions. This was pretty close - in these matches only the best of the three scores counts towards the final outcome. Splice Cubes managed a credible 55 points as their best and H2Flo slid just past them with a 60 point best effort. This had the two teams at fifth and sixth place at the end of the matches - which we thought was pretty good for first timers. The best score posted was 130 by a team of high school students but the smaller field at this Regional meant that the big scores we had seen on YouTube weren't happening here. Once again, the teamwork of H2Flo showed through after a disastrous second robot game where nearly every mission failed. The student who had designed most of the coding was beside himself and was very upset, feeling that he had completely let the team down. Sitting down in misery, he was quickly surrounded by his teammates who all did their best to assure him that he had done his best, they were all right behind him, these things happen so don't worry and maybe the robot just needed a fresh battery. I don't know if any judges saw this but the team surrounding and supporting their colleague was super genuine and could well have been the biggest learning moment of the day for these guys.

Mid-afternoon was the time for the closing ceremony. After a demonstration from a FRC robot, and some obligatory YMCA dancing, the hosts and judges had results ready to announce. My two teams were sitting back, relaxed as they had met their goal of enjoying the day. Sitting next to Marg, I said to her, "You know, even though it doesn't matter, it would be pretty cool if one of the teams won a trophy. It would really raise the profile of Lego League in the school and help with STEM hype."

The next thing I know, they were announcing that H2Flo had won the Judges Trophy as the most consistent performers throughout the day. The kids were so excited as it was so unexpected! I felt for their Splice Cube colleagues as they too had given the day their best shot but they were sporting in congratulations for their jubilant team. I was very pleased - the rookie team had worked like a team all day and had been recognised and the Lego trophy was very cool.

A bigger surprise was still to come as the announcements wound to a conclusion. "Before we announce the day's Champion who will be invited to compete at the National Championship in Sydney, we will announce the second place getter who will also be invited to go to Sydney. That team is .... H2Flo!"

As the kids screamed and leapt to head to the front of the theatre, Marg and I looked at each other and thought, how are we going to pull this off? The rookies from the disadvantaged state school had exceeded all expectations and now an enormous opportunity sat in front of us. Could we get organised in time? Would parents support it? So, as we headed back to the pits to pack up for the day, my head was swirling with what might be possible. I had seen the email reminder a few weeks earlier that alerted all teams to the National Championship but I had binned it, never thinking that either team were going to gain anything but experience from their first FLL foray. Once the excitement subsided on Monday, we had some serious decisions to make before any promises could be made.

 

 

In the past I think I have mentioned that I haven't always been that interested in robots, or even coding for that matter. On a personal level I just struggled to be interested in learning about then, even though on a professional level I knew it was important. In the previous few years at Woodville Gardens I was spoiled to have a talented teacher, Mel, on board who was super keen in this area and single-handedly got the school's Lego Robotics program off the ground. My contribution was limited to signing off on the purchases from the budget and coming along to a RoboCup event in 2015. I checked in from time to time to see how she was going with the students and thought that entering teams in the First Lego League was a great idea but I didn't really step up and really find out exactly what was involved. Which was to my detriment - one of my few professional regrets of the last few years. But it was a testament to Mel's talent and drive that she didn't come looking for my support or help. Her efforts were rewarded at the 2016 Regional day where her team won the Research Project trophy.

Fast forward to this year and I stepped into a new role as Assistant Principal - STEM at Prospect North Primary. My principal, Marg (who in her own words is a "fellow techhead") described my role as getting a lot of technology programs up and running to really widen opportunities for the students, and hinted that I might want to get a First Lego League program up and running. And so away I went on a whirlwind journey that would progress way beyond my own expectations.

Not content with just learning how to be a rookie coach in a new-for-me venture, my fellow AP Nicola and I also decided to get involved in First Lego League Junior, a first for the school and indeed as it turned out a first for any school in this state. But that's another story for another post because as successful as FLL Jr was for our first go, it was still contained within our own expectations. And unlike how I left Mel by herself at WGS, Nicola was an equal driver of this program.

But on the FLL front, it was just me to get it all up and running. I called a meeting of interested students from Year 5 to 7, and had just over twenty keen potential participants come along. Trying to be inclusive and democratic, we decided to form two teams of ten with a couple of reserves should anyone find it wasn't for them. At that stage, I wasn't even sure it was for me either! I gave them the option of forming their own teams and one group quickly formed around two friendship groups and a connection between twins. This team became Splice Cubes. The other team was a mixed bag of students who didn't really know each other that well - the only common factor was that they were interested in pursuing this whole venture further. And interestingly, when teams meant that one person had to be a reserve, a Year 7 boy called Jimmy volunteered to be that person because he "didn't want anyone else to miss out." This is retrospectively interesting so remember the name as this post rambles along. This team decided to name themselves H2Flo.

I had ran lessons with the upper primary classes using our newly purchased Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot kits but felt like I was only just a step or two ahead of the students. A quite a few of the talented and keen kids who had signed up for FLL grasped the concepts of Mindstorms coding quickly and moved quickly past my expertise to figure a lot of stuff for themselves. Again, it is important for teachers to realise that they don't have to expert in everything but affording the students the opportunity to learn for themselves and not be constrained by their teacher's limitations. I tried to operate with that mindset throughout this whole journey, trying to relay information as required for them to get to their goals efficiently.

For any readers not familiar with Lego League, the deal is something like this. You can have a team of up to ten students aged 9-16 and they have several tasks that they must prepare for in order to compete at a Regional Championship. Every year, Lego have a new theme based around a social human issue - previous years have looked at rubbish, senior citizens and human interaction with animals. This year's theme was HydroDynamics and was focussed on human use of water and associated problems. The Robot Game is a large mat with Lego constructed missions that an EV3 based robot must undertake in order to score points within a two and half minute Game. The team must also prepare a Research Project presentation that must take no more than five minutes in front of judges, and it must offer a unique solution to a problem identified that ties in with the season's theme. At the Championships, there is also a Robot Design section and a Core Values activity that the team does not get to see until the day.

The August launch date for the new season loomed quickly and we ordered a custom built practice table from the carpenter partner of Jasmin, one of our Reception teachers who had worked with Mel in 2016 with the Woodville Gardens team in their successful Animal Allies foray. This table is a thing of beauty - so nice we have resisted the urge to paint it and left in its natural unvarnished state. After a quick online application I registered both teams and scored some sponsorship from Google who paid for our registration, the cost of the game kit and a new EV3 kit. This is part of Google and Lego's commitment to try and encourage schools from a disadvantaged background to get involved - for us, it was much appreciated.

It didn't take long for the game kit to arrive and I got both team to unpack and build the Lego models for the game mat that fitted into our practice table. There was a model toilet that triggered a water treatment plant when flushed, there were water pipes that needed replacing, a well to push into place, a fountain and flower that needed "big waters" and other models that required the robot to lift, push, move or carry to complete successfully. These models were placed or locked into place with velcro like tabs and the students could start planning for their robot games. Both teams decided to build robots based on the EV3 booklets and decided not to include infrared or colour sensors as our fast tracked learning curve had not allowed time to get particularly competent in their use. Each team met and allocated roles so that the Research Project would not get neglected but as they had not participated before or seen this before, they were unsure of how the whole thing should look and be structured. And because I had neglected to take a close look at Mel had done it with her teams, I was only guessing with my own advice.

After a while, a small group of girls from the Splice Cubes team started asking me if I could supervise them during their breaks as they felt they were getting somewhere with their coding. They designed attachments and modified their robot in an effort to get consistency when they "launched" it out to tackle a mission. They analysed the game mat and planned which missions were within their reach as rookies, and worked towards those goals. The other team were more sporadic in their break time visits and seemed to have a rotating roster of students who were looking at their coding. Their robot was less sophisticated and they were in awe of how far in front the Splice Cube students were in comparison. Once the whole gamut of expectations were unveiled and regular meetings at break times, we had a couple of kids decide that it wasn't for them and this opened up the opportunity for a reserve to join in. This was fortunate for H2Flo as Jimmy was able to participate fully and share his coding and strategic skills with the team.

It was about that time that I went to FLL training run by Concept2Creation who run the FLL events here in Adelaide. They had referees and volunteers from the community team RoboRoos there and I learned a lot of key information that was invaluable. One comment that stuck in my mind was that is not unusual for a rookie team to have a Robot Game where nothing goes right and scores a 0. So, don't be concerned - if your team can get your robot to score anything then that counts as a success! That was a great message to take back to the students.

At the end of Term 3, I realised that there were only 4 weeks to go before our Regional at Novar Gardens in mid November. We met with the teams and checked on their projects and Game progress. Splice Cubes were looking promising with their robots but had still to get going on their Research Project and were still even to identify a problem to solve. Meanwhile to my surprise, H2Flo were quietly well advanced in their research showing me a draft script and a prototype 3D design, but their robot game efforts were a batch of individually developed mission coding strings sitting on four to five different laptops. We resolved to have every break time available to either team to work on their priorities, and I negotiated an extended release time from regular lessons for the students. One of the guidelines of FLL is that teachers/coaches are there to help but the students do all of the work - I made sure that was the case resisting the adult urge to meddle and give them "better ideas". We had team t-shirts designed and ordered so that we would look just like those teams we could see on YouTube videos of American FLL events. At $20 a student, they were a great investment in team spirit.

The November 19 Regional was rushing up at us. There was panic, apprehension and excitement in equal measures. Media release forms were signed and returned and the two teams were as ready as any team who doesn't really know what they have signed up for looks like. Would the whole experience live up the expectations we had in our own minds? We were about to find out.

 

 

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Over the past year, my 2009 model 15 inch Macbook Pro had been gradually getting slower and slower. I had upgraded it to El Capitan which is the most modern OS that a laptop of this vintage can successfully run. But it was struggling to load things, the coloured spinning wheel of death was becoming a more frequent occurence. Then it got really serious.

A restart would take ten minutes, and the display would just hang until one night it just refused to start up. I had been thinking that maybe this year I would have to bite the bullet and buy a new laptop but the prices were looking very pricy to replace this one with something of similar ilk - something like A$3500 unless I was prepared to look at a Macbook Air or a 13 inch model to drop a $1000 off the RRP. But I really like this laptop - I have looked after it and the big beautiful screen and the clean minimally scratched aluminum body was still in good shape. If it could be rescued in some way....

The other thing was that I hadn't done a backup since February. I am not a technical person at all and hadn't actually used Time Machine for over 12 months when I decided to do a backup onto an external drive because well, it was overdue, and just like servicing a car, it is what a sensible computer user should do ... just in case.

I sought out the technician at school for some advice - someone who knows the inside of computers really well and he said he'd have a look during his lunch break. He confirmed what I was suspecting - the hard drive was dead. But he suggested that I could give my MacBook new life because as I mentioned earlier, the whole laptop was still in good physical condition and apart from an ailing battery and a noisy fan (cured by blowing out 8 years of accumulated lint and dust), everything else still looked in good shape. He recommended that I buy a larger capacity SSD hard drive which he would help me to swap over. I went to a computer parts retailer MSY and got a Crucial 525G SSD for A$195 which doubled my storage and would be superior to old drive by being better than new. The technician got it swapped over and described the process I would need to do to recover and restore the laptop.

I used my old DVD of Snow Leopard to install a fresh OS and then tried to download a fresh install of El Capitan from the Mac App Store. For some reason, I could not get this to work, as the Download button was greyed out but a search through some Mac forums uncovered the issue (which I can't recall right now!) and got me back on the right track. I learned how to boot the Mac into Safe mode, how to format the new SSD drive ready for the new OS, and then finally I managed to bring back all of my files and content from my February Time Machine backup. Any files or changes I had made between February and June were lost but 95% of what I had feared gone (including things as trivial as auto-fill passwords for e-banking) were back! Even my son's YouTube video originals which were dumped when the old 250G hard drive was nearly capacity were there although Josh had no desire to see embarrassing creations from 18 months ago when he thought being a YouTuber was the coolest thing on earth.

The tech at school also suggested that a new battery would be a relatively simple upgrade for me to have a go at. He pointed me to eBay and advised me not to go too high in costs as there might not be much difference in quality when getting a non-genuine but compatible replacement. So for $40, I had a replacement battery sent to me from Sydney (via China probably) and I checked out a couple of how-to YouTube videos before unscrewing the base and disconnecting the old battery and putting the new one. I got a bit confused about how to successfully calibrate the battery - the YouTube videos had one method geared towards the battery they were promoting and the one I had bought had its slightly different process. I was meant to let the battery drain down initially to 2% before charging it back to full as letting it completely drain first up would cause battery life damage according to the enclosed pamphlet. I was watching it carefully but it discharged a bit more rapidly than I anticipated and basically went from 7% to flat without warning! Anyway, I am now just using it as normal now and the battery does not seem to have a particularly long life - maybe around 90 minutes but considering the old battery would barely last 20 minutes off the charger, it is a marginal improvement and certainly I am no worse off for a laptop that I mostly use when kicking back on the couch with easy access to the power cord as required.

I am pretty pleased - for an outlay of less than $240 I have given my MBP a new lease of life and hopefully helped to dodge planned obsolescence for a few more years. I am a bit more confident about backups and re-installs and know that for anything device based there is a solution on the web somewhere that will most probably solve the problem. If I could do this, then it means that almost anyone else could.

In my new role here at Prospect North I have to provide some non-contact lessons for the classes here but the good thing is that it can be delivered flexibly and all teachers want it to be of a STEM or Digital Technologies flavour. This is good because it is an area I am pretty comfortable in and quite frankly, an expected part of my role. The school is still building up its STEM resources (another reason my role exists) and is a focus school in a partnership with Social Ventures Australia.

So, I have spent today planning for the upper primary classes as I will deliver 4 x 90 minute sessions spread over the next six weeks and I thought I would start with using Sphero as an introduction to coding. I have used Spheros quite a bit over the past two years and so thought I was working in familiar territory. The school had bought 24 new Sphero SPRK+ robots prior to my arrival and so on Friday I thought I had better charge them up ready for the coming week and check the iPads in the area to ensure that the apps I wanted to use were all there.

Looking at the new SPRK+ my initial thought was that they were very attractive with the clear exterior of the standard SPRK model with a blue equatorial stripe. They also appeared to be the same size as the standard white Sphero as the SPRK models I had bought at WGS were slightly smaller, meaning that covers were a little loose and it spun inside the plastic chariots without moving. I hooked everything up and left them all to charge in the library for a few hours.

After lunch, I checked by with my iPad to start the labelling process that I had established before and picked up the first fully charged robot I could see and went tap tap on the bench to wake it up. But ..... nothing happened. I tapped a bit harder but still no response. I assumed that maybe it hadn't charged properly so I dropped it back on the charger and tried the next one. Same result even when I dropped it directly onto the carpet. I thought that maybe the Spheros were in deep sleep mode and went through the process I thought would bring them out of that mode. No deal and nothing was being detected when I looked at Bluetooth on my iPad - something was not right here so I headed for the internet.

On the Sphero FAQ page I found the following:

Does SPRK+ work with other Sphero apps?

Modified on: Fri, Nov 18, 2016 at 3:12 PM


Currently, SPRK+ is only compatible with SPRK Lightning Lab application which you can download at https://sprk.sphero.com/d, and the main Sphero app.

I could feel my plans and accumulated knowledge of relevant apps crumbling into dust in my mind. I couldn't use Drive, or Draw'n'Drive, or even Tickle if I was to believe this post. I quickly rushed over to see the school technician before he wasted his time trying to find the now-outdated apps for the iPads!

So I went over to my previously ignored Lightning Lab app to see how it would all work. Straight away I could see a new feature for connection that was a big improvement from the past. Simply you open up Lightning Lab and choose SPRK+ from the Tap a Robot to connect menu and I was away. No more opening up Bluetooth and looking for the three letter colour code to connect. No more accidentally bumping a Sphero and waking it up in transit and wasting valuable battery. Even better, there is now a battery life indicator on the main page.

Through this app, the user can progress through a Learning to Code series of mini-lessons and activities although you need an account to access this feature. This worked fine at home but there were some issues on Friday on the school network. A workaround might be to get the kids to sign up on their own laptops and follow the lessons in a self paced self managed style that would suit quite a number of learners, as long as the website isn't filtered on there as well. Something to negotiate with the IT department but unlikely to be resolved in the short amount of time before I want to use these with my first class.

Within Lightning Lab you can use joystick style controls which essentially makes the old Drive app redundant. That was good and even better was the option to code by Draw which meant I still have access to the same capability that the Draw'n'Drive app provided. I then went onto the Tickle app site and found out that they do support the SPRK+ on the latest version which sent me hurrying back to our IT support to change my order to include that as a required update. Finally to make my day, two staff members came through the library where I was starting to pack up the charged Spheros and asked if they could borrow one for the weekend. They downloaded Lightning Lab on their phones and were already buzzing with the possibilities as they had to give the Spheros a run around before heading off for the weekend.

So, this is a greatly improved Sphero. After getting over the fact that its improvements had made some familiar apps and processes irrelevant, I can see that this is a more focussed_on_learning_that_is_fun product with less connection to pure entertainment which can cloud the learning potential for some students. I am looking forward to see how the students engage with these robots and perhaps show me some new possibilities with their learning.