Tuesday, January 17, 2017


As part of an entry to the US Department of Education's EdSimChallenge contest, a few students and I wrote a 2000+ essay describing our vision.  Since the course title Grand Challenge Design no longer communicated the meaning of the simulation itself, I rebranded GCD as the MiniCity Simulation.  I thought it was worth sharing our contest video and application.

Submission Description:
A classroom of student business owners cooperate and compete in connected industries to keep a 3D-printed miniature city full of digital citizens healthy and happy.

ENGAGEMENT: Describe your simulation concept, including an overview of the content and a brief walk-through of the planned user experience. Identify which types of learners your simulation will initially target. Describe how your simulation will engage users at a level on par with commercially available entertainment games.

MiniCity plays like a multiplayer game of SimCity on a physical game table built up by the class.

Students control physical land, digital money, and a Raspberry Pi computer and use these to build up a business empire. Students have a choice in where they make their investments: game industries include food production, transportation, energy, and housing. Each of these includes key components such as farms, grain mills, and grocery stores. Since all parts are interdependent, players need to monitor the decisions of their peers to decide where they can add the most value. As they engage in their role, students become emotionally invested in the outcomes of their companies.

Despite the individual autonomy over land and businesses, MiniCity is a cooperative game: the class collectively wins by maintaining an 80% happy population of virtual citizens (determined by income, housing, environment, and other factors). All players are punished by unhappy citizens through vacant properties and understaffed businesses.

Players also control governments at the county and town levels. They have the freedom to experiment with the system of government of their choice. They can also pass laws that levy taxes, ban industrial pollution, or regulate housing prices, with every action directly impacting gameplay. The social dynamics in our simplified prototype have already proven how engaged an entire class becomes when individual agendas and strategies collide with a class-controlled government.

The most important game mechanic that engages students is where the technical learning occurs: building new businesses. While basic farming simply requires the purchase of seeds and water, optimal farming requires a digitally-controlled irrigation system and grow lights. To implement this, a student has to program a Raspberry Pi computer to trigger lights to turn on and a pump to move actual water from the central river. In the housing industry, players build upgraded apartments by modeling it in CAD software and 3D-printing it. The teacher’s role is to support students as they physically build their empire.

The bare structure of the game empowers players to fill the gaps with their imaginations. Students stumble upon issues as they progress throughout the game rather than being presented a topic for the day by a teacher. In our alpha prototype, students have already formed intercity corporations, farming businesses, law firms, and banks. Others decided to work independently, becoming career politicians, freelance farmers, and electricians. In an infamous hostile takeover of the county government, engagement went through the roof as the class collectively shut down a student exploiting loopholes and redesigned the entire government to prevent future dictators. Most significantly, students come to class with better and deeper questions every day as we progress through the game: “How do stocks work?” “What is ROI?” “Why are 18 volts running through my pump on a 5-volt circuit?” “How does the government control land use?” “Who pays for roads?”

Most simulations teach the HOW of key skills. MiniCity, despite being much simpler to implement, engages students by making them ask WHY.

LEARNING OUTCOMES: Explain the desired change or transformation in the user’s knowledge and skills. What academic, technical, and employability skill-learning objectives will your simulation seek to transfer? Detail the subject area(s) and/or curricular area(s) that your simulation addresses. Briefly review how your simulation will communicate feedback to the user and instructor with respect to progress toward achievement of the learning outcomes.

Students develop skills in technology, social sciences, communication, and collaboration during gameplay. For a student to progress, they need to develop some sort of enterprise or employable skill. Students will learn to direct their own learning as needed by the game, resulting in one mastering software, another learning to build group consensus, and yet another becoming an expert on water pollution. In all paths, students need to understand the complex system of the interconnected industries and how one action affects other parts.

Along with business, students must learn about government to bring order and consistency to the game. The game begins with a bare-bones constitution, leaving students in charge of government structure, enforcement and interpretation of laws, and passing new regulations. Once laws are put in place, students read them closely to find loopholes, thus providing the authors with valuable feedback on legal writing.

On the game table, most buildings get upgraded by designing a CAD model and producing it with a 3D printer. Every in-game building has basic specifications that players need to meet in their model, thus demonstrating an understanding of this skill while completing a game task. To encourage every player to try a game action like this (rather than relying on specialists), discounts can be offered for the first building. If a teacher has specific content outcomes, she can create in-game objectives with financial bonuses. Students include pictures, screenshots, and short reflections to retain a record of their learning. All of this can be viewed in aggregate by the teacher, better enabling her to notice and intervene with students who are not progressing.

Most game systems require an electrical control system with lights, servos, and sensors connected to a Raspberry Pi computer. The systems communicate data to and from the game server or individual data-monitoring tools. This is the same technology that forms the heart of the Internet of Things. APIs and technical documentation simply become part of students’ daily experience in-game.

Most of the game server comes with no visual interface by design. Students use a Chrome add-on to post API requests to the game server to list products on the market, transfer money, or take any digital action. The inefficiency for people using the API offers an opportunity for players to start their own mobile app companies, selling subscriptions to use a simple, time-saving interface.

The most significant learning comes from exposure to the key themes of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges. These are huge, interdisciplinary problems such as providing clean water, restoring urban infrastructure, and securing cyberspace. The problems are embedded as tradeoffs during gameplay that require both diplomatic and technical solutions.

Again, MiniCity doesn’t teach the HOW of any of these skills, and yet in our prototype game, we found that it produced the motivation to learn all of these. Peers, online resources, and the teacher can all offer direction as students learn these skills -- the game simply gives them an immediate reason to care.

COMMITMENT: Describe your team and characterize its strengths and commitment. How is your team best suited to bring this concept to fruition? Describe how your team plans to develop your simulation over the course of the Challenge.

Unlike most teams, our simulation is teacher, student, and mentor-built. We play and develop the game as a class for 80 minutes daily during the school year. With an active role in the development of the very game they are playing, students develop a sense of ownership and are eager to contribute to the evolution of the course.

As the lead developer and teacher, my background spans engineering, entrepreneurship, and education. I graduated from Olin College of Engineering, a school built 15 years ago with the explicit goal of reinventing engineering education through hands-on, integrated coursework. I majored in computing, but outside of the classroom I was learning about and designing tools for innovative schools. Now, as a licensed teacher, I have been working to innovate school curriculum to engage students more holistically.

Development and continuous feedback are supported by the pilot class of 23 students. Half of our class days are spent designing and building the game with the remaining days focused on playing the prototype.

As a group, we work in fast two-week sprints to iterate the rules and introduce new game components. In November, we had a generic idea and rough set of rules. Now, we have a functional NodeJS game server, a home-brew CNC router operational and cutting out the hexagon-tiled surface of the 6’x13’ game table, our Raspberry Pis are successfully running a mentor-developed control system, and the game economy is relatively balanced.

Over the coming weeks, we are expanding the prototype to include virtual citizens, housing, and employees. Once implemented, we will rebalance the economy and continue adding new industry verticals one-at-a-time. The game board frame and river are ready and the surface will continue to be machined. Our subteams have clearly defined roles on build days. We are highly confident in our design and implementation processes and see the game developing significantly throughout the rest of the year.

After our initial success, our school district committed to the second year of our course, but this time I will be joined by two co-teachers licensed in social studies and language arts. In this integrated course, we will re-theme the game so that players experience the challenges of ancient city life throughout key periods of world history before advancing to the present. The three-teacher team is critical for clarifying and deepening the learning objectives embedded within the MiniCity simulation so that students can earn a variety of required credits in a single course block.

Moving beyond the small town of Byron, MN, I will leverage a broad base of teacher contacts locally and nationally through my blog, Twitter, and the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. I also have engineering contacts through Olin College with deep ties to progressive high schools. This network can be greatly expanded to many interested teachers with the help of the Department of Education and the EdSimChallenge contest.

IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGY: What tools, software, and/or hardware will be required to run your simulation in the classroom environment? Identify any anticipated logistical, technological, or economic barriers to deploying your simulation. Briefly preview your initial thoughts around distribution, implementation, and integration with existing and future technology. How do you plan to control the costs associated with purchase and maintenance of the simulation and associated technology?

MiniCity has a fully open and modular design. The only limitation from bringing it into another classroom is the teacher’s confidence jumping into a host of new technologies. Its dissemination will rely on a core group of innovative risk-takers to adapt and try the simulation at their school. This group can then mentor and encourage the next wave of teachers as they make it work for their students.

In order to ease the transition for new teachers to adopt MiniCity, a top priority over the next semester is compiling and creating tutorial videos that demonstrate the setup of the core technology. This will also help my own students as they try to efficiently share their different knowledge domains with one another.

Thankfully, cost is not one of the major barriers to implementation. By starting with almost no money ourselves, we designed with low-budget schools in mind. Through the physical game table, MiniCity immerses users without expensive VR sets or advanced PCs. We built and operate the digital game server at no cost. All electronics were sourced for incredibly low prices from China. All startup supplies for a class of 30, including 1:1 Raspberry Pi computers, can be purchased for under $3000, well within the range of a grant or many schools’ technology budgets. Adding 3D printers to this adds $400-$900 per unit. Ongoing costs for additional plastic filament and replacement electronics are under $1000/year.

By the end of the school year, the full game rules, technical documentation, parts lists, and software will be organized into a single website. The site will also include any learning resources we create or compile. Our goal is to make everything we do transparent and available for innovative teachers to jump right in. I am directly invested in this process of organizing as I prepare to bring two new teachers on-board at my school before next fall.

Ongoing maintenance will be a task for the open source community around the game. I intend to continually use MiniCity in my classroom for years to come and thus remain a core leader in its maintenance. Beyond free online support, I would run a summer workshop at our school to prepare groups of interested teachers and professors to launch their own MiniCities by the fall. My students or I could be contracted to provide further on-site or 1:1 support.

Once adopted, MiniCity can be significantly adapted to meet a variety of educational outcomes, including the world history theme that we will launch with our own students next fall. Re-theming the simulation is highly feasible for a variety of classroom content areas thanks to the modular application design.

LONG-TERM VISION: How might your simulation fit into a future ecosystem of simulations for career and technical education (CTE)? Briefly describe preliminary thinking around how your simulation could connect with other simulations through approaches to data handling, use of APIs, integration of open source tools, and/or implementation of Experience API (xAPI). Describe your vision for how the simulation could expand or scale. How could your simulation be built upon by other developers?

Within the world of simulations, MiniCity offers a break from VR sets and TV screens to put students face-to-face around a complex challenge. The broad nature of the experience gives students a chance to try out many roles -- business leader, congressperson, farmer, engineer, electrician -- without committing to a narrow track early in high school. My students and I believe that this simulation will be the catalyst that encourages students to go deeper with more focused, single-career simulations in future coursework.

The simulation software will generate key financial, health, and happiness metrics each day as it analyzes the decisions of the virtual citizens. From this data, it could export useful stats to xAPI or similar systems that universally track student actions. The open source tools would allow new teachers to see how an established system works and thus make their first course flow more smoothly.

The simulation will grow in multiple respects. New industries will be added as new microservices in the application. Political structures will evolve. Beyond gameplay, the simulation as a course can expand to formalize the education students receive in language arts and history. Over time, additional coursework including entrepreneurship, statistics, political science, and agriculture can all be integrated.

The most exciting possibility for MiniCity is the chance to directly connect with additional sites around the nation and world. Rather than simply selling goods at the ports “overseas”, students would now be able to actually sell their goods through a peer-to-peer market to another classroom. Prices for virtual materials and services would be shared via API requests between MiniCity simulations. A new layer of government, the state, could be composed of student representatives from dozens of classrooms who are working to pass fair laws across the entire system. This opens a whole new world for trade, business, entrepreneurship, and politics. The learning experience gains value as you incorporate more and more students, and even community mentors, outside of a single classroom.

These classrooms could also connect outside of the game to present their learning at conferences and organize social meetups. In particular, the social network of the teachers would stay tightly connected online as we support each other in the implementation of our shared virtual society. The social integration and buy-in of a worldwide group of teachers may be the most powerful opportunity for MiniCity to advance engaging student learning.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Why --> My What

As our Innovative Instructional Leadership cohort continues through Kouzes and Posner's The Truth About Leadership, I was asked to reflect on what brought me into education, what roadblocks are in the way, and what new opportunities lay ahead.

I fell in love with education in my first year of college.  Olin College was my top choice school because of its hands-on and student-driven approach to engineering from the very first day of class.  As I was heading into my second semester, I was part of a group of six students who decided to create our own class, MetaOlin, and find six professors to each teach us a two-week segment.  As a group, we studied our own school through the lenses of systems engineering, diversity and privilege, digital communications, pedagogy, history, and information literacy.  Many of the units focused on the learning environment of the college analyzed in different ways, but the specific pedagogy unit opened me up to a totally new field of study.  I followed this up the next semester with a course at nearby Wellesley College, Improving Schools, that studied a variety of models of standard, private, and public charter schools that significantly improved student results.  By the end of this course, I was so addicted that I needed to take a year off of college just to study our nation's schools.

My leave of absence year was spent living with five other classmates doing the same thing.  We found the overlap of our interests -- a startup tech business focused on improving collaborative learning in schools -- and pursued this head-on.  During that year, my free time was invested in books about learning (lots of John Holt and similarly old classics).  My side job was planning curriculum and teaching at a weekend STEM program for high school students.

In my junior year after the leave, I committed myself to a temporary year-long focus on software skills in order to build some technical competence.  By my senior year, I decided that I wanted to create and lead a charter school modeled after the awesome school systems I had been studying and visiting over the past few years.  In order to get licensed, I needed three years of management or three years of teaching experience.  If I wanted to have a clue about what I was doing, I needed the teaching, so I found Winona State University-Rochester near my new post-marriage home and started the fastest, most hands-on licensure program I could find.  That brought me to Byron.

Since I started, my WHY has remained focused on redesigning the system to make learning relevant and meaningful to students so that we would be able, as a society, to solve the complex problems in our world and so that students would be excited to engage in this journey of lifelong learning.

This translated into many of the projects I poured myself into since I started teaching (see my last post).  All of this is preparing me to design the best learning environments possible.  Moving forward, I am finally coming head to head with the largest challenge that I feared when I started: the credit hour, also known as the Carnegie Unit.  Almost nobody believes that learning occurs just because time passes in a scheduled space, and yet the complexities of organizing people into places with enough adults per student has made this piece of our system indispensable.  If you add to that the need for whole groups to move through material together in time, the schedule becomes nearly impossible to take on.

I think the long-term vision for this breaks away from a schedule and tracks objective-connected learning for each student.  Students still need individual attention and monitoring, making advisors and special education teachers all the more important.  Rather than classes, shorter projects and learning modules could chip away required micro-credits for students over time.  This would afford the flexibility for new learning experiences that integrate subjects, work off-site, or allow students more choice in their work.  I want to be a part of making this possible in Byron and beyond.

The new English/History-integrated Grand Challenge Design course for next year will be a useful first step forward in exploring integrated teaching and learning in Byron.  If we can successfully create deep experiences that engage students in multidisciplinary learning, I think we can keep pushing against the traditional schedule and all of its weaknesses, barriers, and cost overhead.  I can imagine all 11th graders trading in traditional coursework for a year-long, themed, integrated experience that is heavily defined by their own dreams and needs.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Reflecting on five years of learning

I was asked to reflect on my professional growth since I started teaching, considering risks I took and the leaders that mentored me in the journey.  I see a few key actions that pushed me to where I am now:

  • building and refining project-based (PBL) Stats
  • coaching our FIRST robotics team
  • connecting to the MTBoS (online community of math teachers with an annual F2F conference)
  • co-teaching and co-designing an effective remediation Algebra course
  • pushing for Grand Challenge Design and its co-taught second round

All of these actions became growth opportunities because of the combination of challenge and incredible mentorship that came from the people around me in each.

As an intern teacher back in 2011-12, my formal mentors (and now co-workers), Rob and Troy, gave me an incredible degree of freedom to try new things.  They modeled a process of trying something and carefully analyzing the data to assess its effectiveness.  Their lack of experience with project-based learning didn't keep them from letting me try to implement it, but they stayed engaged with me as coaches by asking tough questions and pushing me to reflect on what was working.  After developing a first iteration of a PBL Stats class as an intern, Rob handed off the course that he had been teaching for years to let me continue to iterate the curriculum once I was hired on.  A few years later, when my schedule crowded out Stats, both he and Troy continued to develop and refine from what I built, despite it being outside of their comfort zones.

During my first "real" year teaching, a student pushed me to start a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team.  Thanks to good timing with funding becoming available, we started our team a year early -- two days after the new season's kickoff.  This nearly killed me, as it requires spending every second of January-March focused on learning a game, buying up parts, keeping a bunch of kids and families organized and engaged, and...building a robot.  We didn't fare so well in our first two seasons, but our team learned a ton and built up a base of students, mentors, and sponsors.  Four years after starting the team, we now have two of our own rooms in the Community Education (now district admin) building with 3D printers, a CNC router, tons of tools, and a warehouse of electronics and mechanical parts.  We expanded the program down to kindergarten and helped to grow the district to having ~7% of enrolled students on a robotics team.  The key to all of this was the network of mentors that we built up: they officially mentor the students, but unofficially have been my teachers and supporters.  Many are parents with years of industry and life experience who speak their truth, though even our younger mentors continue to teach me tech and amaze me with their commitment.

One of the easiest, but highest-reward actions as a teacher has been plugging into a community of other math teachers.  At my school, I have my PLC team that is amazing.  Part of our team always attends and presents at the Minnesota Council of Math Teachers (MCTM) conference each spring, plugging me into the larger community.  The most powerful connection has been plugging into the national/global community known as the Math-Twitter-BlogoSphere (MTBoS) -- if you tweet at other math teachers, write a blog, and/or comment on other blogs, you are plugging in.  The self-organized community developed a ton of resources that I now pull from and has many of the best teacher-leaders I have ever met providing free professional development and direct support for other math teachers.  I am not a frequent blogger or tweeter, but when I hit a wall or am in a new development push, I always turn here first.  Though I respected the ideas and resources of the community, I really bought in after attending my first Twitter Math Camp 3 years ago.  My first one required a 10-hour drive to Oklahoma to spend 4 days in non-stop conversation with some incredibly kind, supportive, and innovative people who happened to also teach math.  After going to dinner or having long chats with so many of these teachers, I am that much more interested in what they have to say in their reflections.

Hands-down, my most challenging experience as a teacher is my Algebra class.  It is a co-taught special education inclusion class that is designed to move all students up to grade-level math by the end of 9th grade.  The behaviors of any 9th grade class were enough to crush me my first year teaching, but this group and some of the uniquely challenging behaviors were insanely hard for me and my co-teacher, another young teacher, to manage.  We had frequent chats with our principal, Steve, as well as our math and SpEd PLC, as they all did their best to coach us through a variety of situations.  In order to make things work, we tried everything and found a few approaches that worked well, at least for a while, and built up strong relationships with our class.  This year, though I am with a different team, I feel MUCH more confident in my ability to co-teach, to keep order in a classroom, and to teach conceptual thinking about math to a group that has had nothing but procedure thrown at them for a long time.

My most exciting professional adventure came with the start of Grand Challenge Design.  The course sparked from an email thread about the idea of a STEM-focused school in Byron, and within a couple weeks, was turned into a course proposal that the awesome leaders in our district and school supported.  Conveniently, I was just starting Jen Hegna's Innovative Instructional Leadership Certificate program, and I latched the new course plan to the majority of my coursework.  This reading, discussion, and general structure pushed me to plan much further ahead than I usually did, so much so that the idea of the class simulation was born out of work.  Jen's feedback, as well as the conversations with other cohort members, pushed GCD far beyond what it ever would have been, and I continue to learn from the students, and class mentors that push me and teach me new technology skills every day.  The simulation, in turn, opened the door to multi-disciplinary coursework to purposefully take place within the GCD structure.  Again, supportive leadership shaped and approved next year's offering, a 3.0 credit block of technology (elective), social studies, and English credit, co-taught by a three-teacher team.  That experience, assuming enough students register for it, will bring full circle the full course development, robotics program, and co-teaching that led me to this point.  I can't wait to take what I am doing and learning this year and get pushed by two more teachers that are with me daily.

Looking back, my rate of learning has been crazy-fast, and yet it is amazing how much I still do not have figured out.  Being a good teacher is incredibly hard, but I love the journey.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Grand Challenge Design: Q1 is in the Books

The first quarter of Grand Challenge Design flew by.  Though it didn't go like I planned, it was a very positive start to this year-long adventure.  The key relational, cultural, procedural, and skills groundwork are in place, our game is going to launch tomorrow, and we have a productive space for learning.

To start the year, every student wrote a letter about themselves, their future, and the course.  This letter was based on Ben Zander's concept of transforming relationships and giving every student an A.  In the letter, each student gave me the insight I needed to start a successful working and mentoring relationship with them.  As first drafts, nearly every letter came in looking awful.  To address this, I started with comments and suggestions over Google Docs.  For some students, this was all that was needed to lead to a more productive draft.  For others, I found myself having one or two 1:1 meetings at lunch, during advisory time, or after school to verbally probe into some of the questions I wanted them to explore.  I also reached out to my English teacher colleagues who were amazing in helping me and my students through the writing process.

Once a letter was accepted as complete, I used it to match the student with the best-fitting mentor I could think of.  Every student is paired with their own mentor, a professional engineer or designer chosen from my college and local friends who were willing to jump in.  I don't know if my students realize how top-notch these people are yet, but they will in time.  One mentor, after receiving his mentee's introductory letter, even wrote back with his own letter, written as if he was in high school but then continuing to the present day.  As I see some of the email exchanges that I am CC'd on and poke my head into some of the Skype chats during class, I can't help but get excited for all the things students will learn from NOT me this year.  As I get texts and emails from mentors seeking additional advice and counsel on how best to help their student, I am amazed at how much these people care about a group of random kids in Byron, MN.

Our Grand Challenge for the first quarter was not the individual work, but the team effort that was required to build up the course.  After getting a sense of what students were interested in doing, I divided the class into teams of 2-4 with different areas of focus.  From there, I presented the core of the vision to the class: this quarter, we were going to get our game built and ready to play and improve our classroom to be a fun and effective learning space.  I structured this into "OKRs", or "Objectives and Key Results", a goal-setting and measuring format created by employees at Google so that everyone could have autonomy while moving in the same direction, have clarity of what they and others were focusing on, and have a system to measure their own progress.  I asked each student team to do the same.  Here are a few example OKR docs from the teams in class: CNC team, NodeJS team, Rules team.

At this stage, my role involved checking in with each team each day to offer ideas, direction, feedback, or whatever was needed.  I also made sure that the different groups were communicating with each other.  At first, this process seemed relatively successful.  After a month, I found that teams were splitting two different directions: the teams that had long-term projects did okay managing their day-to-day work productively, but the teams with many small tasks had a hard time figuring out where to go next without heavy support.  To address this, I introduced three elements of the scrum framework: a product owner, a Kan Ban board, and a daily stand-up

Scrum is used heavily in the software world as a way to help teams self-organize and complete tasks around user needs.  The role of a product owner is to decide which tasks need to get done, and what "done" looks like, to achieve the objectives of the company.  As the lead person pulling everything together, I was a product owner.  However, I also invited one student from each team to take on that role and work with me to generate and refine their team's task list.  From here, each team put the tasks on a large kanban board divided into four sections: backlog, in-progress, ready-to-check, and done.  The backlog includes all of the tasks that need to be done but had not been started.  In-progress is what you would expect.  Ready-to-check includes all tasks that the doer thinks is done but needs a product owner to review to make sure it truly meets the definition of done.  "Done" is truly done.

We used the board as part of the daily stand-up meeting.  Within the first five minutes of class, the entire class crowded around the board and said (1) what they accomplished yesterday, (2) what they were planning to do today, and (3) if anything was blocking them.  (1) was for public accountability -- I only realized after we stopped doing these daily meetings how well that was actually working (a few students slipped into multiple unproductive days without this).  (2) was for me -- if they said they were doing something, but it didn't sound very useful or sound like they knew what they were talking about, I would either correct on the spot or follow-up with that person after the meeting.  (3) was for everyone else to listen to -- if two teams were going to be doing something in the same space or with the same resource, they would have a heads up and be able to work it out ahead of time.  This didn't come up a lot during the time where I used the daily stand-up with the entire class, but now that we are closer to fully integrating everything, it seems more likely to happen.  I plan to return to using this whole-class meeting daily in Q2 on team days.

Back in August, I pictured the game starting up in a couple weeks after school started.  It was only after a couple weeks passed that I realized that my sense of reality was heavily warped.  The most obvious challenge we faced was finished the game board surface.  Doing so required the use of a machine that we bought in isolated components and assembled ourselves.  A former student and older brother of a GCDer led the design, assembly, and software setup for the machine.  Unfortunately, the challenges involved in making everything work were more than even this mentor could quickly master.  The two students working on the machine, with some weekend help from their mentor, found faulty limit switches, a bad stepper motor, wiring issues, and software configuration problems.  Then they went through a time-consuming process of calibrating the machine so that a software inch would be a true inch.  To actually cut material, they first needed to design a part in CAD (something they knew well), but then needed to run it through CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software to tell the machine how to make the part.  They needed to figure out which bits to use and how fast to spin them.  They needed to find a consistent way to mount the stock wood in the machine so it would remain steady.  They needed to find a way to mount a shop vac hose to the machine with a dust-trapper so that the excessive amounts of sawdust would stay contained.  And this is not a complete list!  Though this team dealt with the most extreme set of challenges for what sounded like a very simple task, nearly all teams found themselves experiencing dozens of complex problems nested within something that sounded straightforward at the beginning.

I love watching students work through this kind of challenge.  Given that I am used to students giving up on tasks with lots of direction, resources, and a knowledgeable guide, seeing students persevere with none of these is refreshing.  Here are a few action shots from the semester as students persevere through this (thank you, Kris Nelson!):


Finally, I asked students to end the quarter with a video summary that they would share with me and their mentor.  This video had to be at least two minutes long and discuss what they did and what they learned.  Watching these has been a ton of fun for me since I sometimes forget where students started the quarter.  Thank you, Jen Hegna, for recommending that I do this!  A few examples are below:

Despite the number of tasks that are not completed yet, I am really excited about launching the game tomorrow and building the airplane at 10,000 feet.  We will alternate game days and team days so there is time to continue getting key tasks completed while allowing us to experience what things are actually needed for game play.  And hopefully, this time, I will blog more than once per quarter and keep each post under 1500 words.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reflecting on Design Thinking

As part of my Winona State University cohort, we all engaged in a condensed experience in Design Thinking, a process that facilitates user-centered design.  Back at Olin, Design Thinking was the heart of the engineering curriculum, pulling together our technical work with entrepreneurship and the humanities in a process that puts people at the core, so this was not a new experience.  However, it was the first time I used Stanford-based materials, the first time I did a design project alone, and the first time I went through a formal application of design since I started teaching.

To focus my design work, I decided not to look at all of my students.  Instead, the problem I wanted to better understand was why my Grand Challenge Design course was so male-dominated (20 young men, 3 young women), so I studied current 10th and 11th-grade female students, the ones who could register for GC Design starting in January.  I did not enter with an expected outcome, but rather let the process reveal insights as they came up.  The point was to truly understand and empathize with this group that I was clearly having a hard time appealing to.  Starting with this understanding, I could improve the design of the course and more effectively communicate what was already good to these students.

Students are only one of many stakeholders in public education.  The federal, state, and local governments all have an important stake, as to community members, parents, administrators, teachers, and support staff.  However, given that students are the end customers, it is amazing how little we seek to understand them.  An empathy-centered process stops asking what students want (more time to do their existing work, better resources, etc.) and observes what students do, say, and think.  From there, I made inferences and connected the commonalities to create a picture of who these students are.  One of the more powerful insights I gained from this process is that the students I interviewed were open to creating and the engineering process.  Food and art were common places to make and invent.  However, content and peer groups mattered.  Nearly all of the young women I talked to had clear passions and career interests that developed in middle school, directing their decisions on courses and extra-curricular activities.  They were also aware of which courses were likely to be mostly guys, and most of them avoided these.  A surprising theme was the belief that they would fall behind in a technical course.  This is especially curious because the majority of them said that they did well in their 8th grade STEM course and never fell behind (where is this belief coming from?!).

After this research, I designed my first prototype solution: a two-hour course called "LED Art" on our school's exploratory lesson day (twice per year).  I described it as a chance to design your own art project on foam board and bring it to life with custom-programmed LED lights.  The description worked!  I recruited a class of 13 gals and 12 guys.  Though I was working with a lighter supply of materials than I was hoping for, I had enough to run the class.  On game day, it was a total disaster.  Students managed to mostly have fun and learn a thing or two, but the logistics of helping everyone get a basic circuit running proved just a hair too much for only two hours with my planning.  After running the course, I have a few dozen specific changes that I plan to make that will allow everyone to be up and running significantly faster, allowing more time for explorations, programming, and actual art design.

The most fascinating observation of the whole course was what happened when I asked students if they wanted to buy a $10 kit of parts to take home: 8/12 guys signed up, 1/13 of the ladies did.  While working, there were only a few people that appeared to know what they were doing, and yet the guys were the ones who seemed either confident enough or interested enough to want to take it home and keep learning.  I'm curious is this is an inherent fact about this group, or if there would be different results on taking a kit home if I provided more structured handouts and guides from the start.  I wonder if the outcome would have changed if I took the time to learn more names during the session and encouraged each person as they worked.

In the end, the whole experience was incredibly worthwhile.  More than any specific insights, of which there were many, I am fully re-convinced that the Design Thinking process needs to guide any important decisions that I am making.  I can guess what students want or need based on my past experience, and I can read a lot of relevant research that gives me insight, but direct, targeted observation and iterative design with student feedback leads to solutions that really nail the important details.  Beyond my role as a teacher, if I want to be an innovative instructional leader in my school, I need to be able to facilitate a team working through this process together.  With a partner or team, the process involves a lot of discussion and skimming of insights at every stage of engaging with users.  By leading the design process, I can expand the number of people who are empathizing effectively with students at our school and be directly supported in improving the design work I do for my own classroom.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Giving every student an A on the first day

I spent a large chunk of last spring and the summer designing my new Grand Challenge Design course, and one of the sizable thought-sinks was figuring out grading.  I had zillions of rubrics I could design from, but after watching this video by Benjamin Zander, I just couldn't get it out of my head.  Skip the first 30 seconds of fluff.  If you don't have time for the whole thing, watch at least the first 5 minutes.

My college partner-in-crime, Marco, recommended it to me along with other course feedback.  Zander is a well-known conductor and music teacher out in Boston who speaks about possibilities.  His TED talk looks at the change in worldview between the approaches of:

  • "Only 3% of people like classical music.  If only we can increase that to 4%."  vs.
  • "Everybody likes classical music!  They just don't know it yet!"

The energy with that kind of thinking is contagious.  That's why his idea to give every student an A, then teach the student to become an A student, had a fascinating logic to it.  By getting the grade out of the way immediately, students could stop operating in the extrinsic / comparator mode and have nothing left but learning to seek.  The expectations do not go down in this environment -- they actually go up for everyone.  They have to if everyone is actually an A student.

As I kept thinking about it, this approach is not that uncommon.  I am given a paycheck every two weeks with the same amount regardless of the quality of my work.  When I do good work, I am encouraged to keep doing it.  When I do bad work, my peers and admin help me clean things up and make it good.  The expectation is that I do great work, and so when things falter, I get help, not a pay decrease.  If things are working correctly, except for occasional bumps in the road, I will be earning the money I have already been promised.  Even 2000 years ago Jesus started grading with this kind of system, handing out unquestioned grace first and then fixing people up from that point forward, so the idea has been around for a long time.  Despite this, it is just SO different than school has ever operated.

I have never been afraid of change or trying out crazy things, and I went into this plan feeling pretty good.  When I told the students, they were a bit skeptical, but I convinced them that all they had to do was write me a letter (that I would of course have to consider acceptable), and they would have an A for the quarter that I would absolutely not revert.  I did make it clear that, if needed, I would ask for extra time, call parents, etc. as extrinsic tools to support learning, and that if a student completely gave up I would ask him or her to drop the course.  Despite these minor caveats, after laying out the plan for them, I was feeling pretty vulnerable.

It wasn't until the second night after school started that I had a hard time falling asleep.  WHAT HAD I DONE?!?  What would other teachers and administrators say?  What would parents say?  What if students took advantage and didn't push themselves to learn and grow?  Is this the kind of thing that gets people banished to the no-friends corner for being too far out there?  I value my peers and work with an amazing group of teachers, and yet I never felt confident enough to discuss my plan with them before I just publically committed to it in front of my students.  What was I thinking?  Was I thinking?

Since the plan is now in motion, and there isn't much I can do to stop it for the next 2 months until the quarter ends, I'm going to do my best to capture the ups and down on the blog.  Today, I introduced the letter-writing assignment, the one where students date the letter at the end of the year and start with "Mr. Pethan, I deserve an A because...".  I asked them to write as much as they needed to in order to help me understand who they are and who they want to become.  I will use the letters to figure out how to best teach each person so they grow and learn and develop into that amazing person they write about.  I will also use the letters right away to find every student their own mentor for the year, a mix of awesome people that I know locally and around the country (possibly world) from college and other experiences.  Even though students are self-selecting into teams that will develop different parts of the course right now, I will use the letters to redirect and shuffle those groups to better help them reach their long-term goals.

My plan is to make sure that every student in my class DESERVES the A they received.  The fact that they knew they got it on day 1 is irrelevant.  If students all learn many meaningful skills and can tell that powerful story of transformation, nobody will question their grade.  Deep down, I know I went forward with this plan because it aligns with everything I know about human motivation, creativity, autonomy, and mentorship.  I really believe that grading in this class would have killed passion and brave new ideas in favor of checking the boxes that get an A.  This plan is the best thing I know how to do right now, and as a one-quarter pilot, I have a long-term out if the concept is truly flawed.  I'm excited, optimistic, and above-all, terrified.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Real World Learning

I am now entering the 4th of 5 courses in my Winona State Innovative Instructional Leadership Certificate program: "Real World Learning Design".  It comes at a good time for me as I am up to my eyeballs in the creation of Grand Challenge Design, a course intended to create a very meaningful and real-world learning experience for students.  Prof Jen's first task is to answer, and defend, the five questions below about the meaning and purpose of real-world learning.

What is your definition of “real world learning”?  

I liked the definitions from EdGlossary and the Schools We Need Project as starting points:

"Connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications...learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school" -- EdGlossary

It includes the following key attributes:
"Having a real audience for work.
Contextualizing locally, but connecting globally.
Projects and problems are based on themes of social significance and personal interest"
 -- Schools We Need Project

I would extend these by saying that it is the kind of learning we would encourage others to pursue in a world without schools.  In many cases, the work would tie to industry, but it would also involve going deep into areas of passion that may not be especially useful in a profession.  Students should get out of the classroom to interact with people who are likely more passionate and experienced than the teacher in the given area.  The teacher's role in this environment is to act as the central hub of many relationships that students engage in, not the content expert in each area.

What are the specific elements that can make learning  “real world”?

The Real World Learning Network's five-finger model (https://www.rwlnetwork.org/rwl-model.aspx) offers a helpful starting point of key elements: understanding, transferability, experience, empowerment, and values.

  • Understanding -- identify the concepts key to understanding a topic.
  • Transferability -- ensure that the topic fits in to many areas of life (this enables connections across the brain and increased relevance).
  • Experience -- touch, see, hear, smell, taste, and emotionally feel the situation (simply reading or watching is not enough).
  • Empowerment -- ability to take action around topic for positive change (understand problems AND work on solutions).
  • Values -- show empathy and care for other people, future generations, and the Earth.

What does the “real world” look like specifically (for Grand Challenge Design students in 2016)?

The Grand Challenges for Engineering include problems like "provide universal access to clean water", "advance health informatics", and "restore urban infrastructure".  They are the problems that a wide variety of future engineers will need to work on in order to maintain and improve life on Earth.  These real-world engineers come are all problem-solvers, but they may have received their training from very diverse fields.  The social sciences offer a power lens for understanding people and their experiences.  The physical sciences give humanity a deeper understanding of our environment and how it works.  Engineers are experienced in setting design constraints and designing and testing solutions to a problem.  Entrepreneurs use a value-centric mindset to identify which aspects of an idea matter to people and find a way to sustain the idea through production.

The "real world" in the GCD topic areas is not about a single field, but a team-based approach to try to better understand key challenges and work together to develop and spread effective solutions.  They need to develop the common skills that employers already value (percentages based on NACE):

  • Leadership 80.1% 
  • Ability to work in a team 78.9% 
  • Communication skills (written) 70.2% 
  • Problem-solving skills 70.2% 
  • Communication skills (verbal) 68.9% 
  • Strong work ethic 68.9%

What are the opportunities and challenges when providing K-12 students real world learning experiences?   Do all students benefit?

Often, real-world learning leaves students in charge of many aspects of their learning.  The problem with this?  A lack of control.  As a teacher, I like to keep 30 spreadsheets that track every micro-detail of where students are at in a known progression of learning, making it easier for me to provide feedback and next steps.  Planned progressions with detailed feedback have their place as efficient and effective ways to pick up a new set of wanted skills.  When I want to learn something new, nothing beats a well designed course, especially if it is self-paced and available from home on-demand.  However, in many cases students are not interested in the skills that school schedules drop in front of them, so they disengage.

When letting go, students have the opportunity to do fascinating things that you could have never planned for them, especially when they engage with expert mentors who offer guidance in their learning.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, students have more opportunities to get lost, give up, or coast without pushing themselves.  Unlike a good factory, there is a ton of variation and fewer tools to address the low-end of the achievement spectrum.

Another challenge in developing real-world learning experiences is the time required for teachers to set it up.  There is no textbook that you can purchase for meaningful opportunities in your subject area in your local community.  There is not a yellow pages for supportive mentors in every topic.  Teachers need to create and modify projects, meet many people in their community, and establish a lot of goodwill with others as they start asking for constant favors on behalf of their students.  I could not create the class I'm building right now without a minimum of 3-5 years of relationship-building in my district and community -- there are simply too many pieces that need to come together that rely on the incredible support of a village, not just a willing individual.

The upside, as a teacher, is that my work is incredibly fulfilling when I connect with experts in the community and form my own set of meaningful relationships.  At conferences, I get to talk to parents about the cool things their child is doing, not the deficiencies in their skills based on my last unit test.  I spend time with former students and local volunteers having fun while making new things on the weekend.  If I was spending all of my time focused on making sure students achieve in only a close-ended set of tasks without outside connections or creativity, I would fallen away from the profession in my first 5 years.  I've never been as excited to teach as I am this year, despite the very real possibility that it will be my hardest year as a teacher.