Reflecting on A Summer of Making and Hacking the Classroom with Students

“One of these days, when we are older and doing this same work but as mentors to other kids, they’ll ask us how long we’ve been engineering things and because of this week, we’ll be able to say to them…I’ve been doing this since childhood. Do you have any idea what you’ve done for us and how powerful this is?” – Student

 Back in January, when I “optimistically wrote” on my PiCademy USA application that I wanted to do PiCamps for kids, giving them all their own raspberry pi device with accessories, I honestly had no clue if it could be done. I had limited knowledge about the device and no idea how we would financially make it happen without charging each kid. As a matter of fact, my initial plans included a fee of about $50 each…which doesn’t sound bad until you consider that such a cost would have been absolutely prohibitive for many families.

Regardless, I started planning a camp, hoping to work with about 50 kids but something in my heart and spirit said that we needed to do more and in what I can only call an act of God and a chance encounter with an SVP at Microsoft, we were able to reach 162 students this summer ranging from grades 1-12 through a 2-day “maker” camp focusing on circuitry, a 4 day camp of 8 sessions on coding and a 4-day hackathon focused on engineering “change making” ideas for the classroom/school.

Even though Microsoft provided the Raspberry Pi kits, there still needed to be materials purchased and through a small grant awarded from my hosting digital learning day along with my own dollars, we made it happen which was amazing since I had zero dollars available in my school budget.

Mini Maker Camp

andrewOur grade 1-2 students, who learned about circuitry through play dough, clay, button cell batteries, 9v battery packs and copper tape…were able to learn, create and take materials home for further exploration. This event ran for two days, two hours per day and proved to be even more powerful when teachers joined to create on day 2. This model of teachers and students creating together will be one of many ways that we will continue to explore moving forward.

Our district science specialist also attended which opened the door for further collaboration between our departments, which we needed. Below is a video created by one of our students of her circuit story. (Made with Adobe Spark)

Coding Camp

For our 3-8 students, we planned 4 days of learning and developing. We started with Scratch and our 3-5 kids specifically began with Google’s CS-First which provided a more guided atmosphere and exciting leap into not just coding but making something. In addition to Raspberry Pi, our students were also provided Microbits, where they learned to code using a beta site but also learned to change someone else’s code to create their own programs. My only regret here is that we didn’t get to take advantage of the full capabilities of the microbit but I was deeply encouraged by how much students found on their own. Luckily, we had alligator clips from our makey makey kits so when students wanted to create more complicated builds, they could.

My favorite moment of this camp was when one of our young ladies got so bored that she started playing minecraft on the raspberry pi, which meant that I got to create a new rule where kids could play minecraft as long as they were coding it. This sent her down a bit of a python rabbit hole so much so that not only did she ask her mother if she could attend both morning and afternoon sessions but she became the go to person of all things python and minecraft. Of course, then I took out the pi Camera and sense hat…it was as if an entirely new world opened up for her.

Another win was that many of these kids signed up to attend our July Hackathon too, which was major!

Hack the Classroom

Our winning team with their arduino powered pencil dispenser

Our winning team with their arduino powered pencil dispenser

I’ve written about our hackathon, here and here. Like our previous camps, there were definitely added costs along with the kits themselves like additional arduinos, sensors, motors, chassis, legos, picameras, duct tape and honestly just about anything else that kids wanted to use for their creations that we did not have on site. Amazon prime 1 day delivery definitely came in handy except for that delivery that didn’t happen but our local radio shack sufficed just fine. Now, we didn’t have to allow additional parts but when you are asking kids to develop programs in 4 days that normally take developers a bit longer…I decided that we would do what we needed to do in order to support their creativity…so we did.

What happened over the course of those 4 days were experiences that will last a lifetime for not just the students but also our adult mentors, support staff and even our friends from Microsoft who came down to capture it all…in person.

During presentations, one of our middle schoolers said,

“I started coding when we had hour of code but I feel like I learned more about computer science this week because of this project.”

Feedback from our students eliminated any and all doubts or financial regret.

Btw, our winning team was a team of 4 who had zero previous programming experience other than on a calculator which by their admission, was definitely not the same.

Moving Forward…Access, Access, Access

If I had to point out an area of growth, it would be our reach of black students. I’ve been in Lufkin for 1 year and in a program such as this, there needs to be greater attention to outreach, meaning utilizing tools that I know work…like letters to church for announcements, engaging with active community organizations and even showing up…being visible. People needed to know firsthand what we were doing and why. This will be my focus moving forward because an open door doesn’t mean that people will enter. They enter upon belief that what is inside is indeed for them and understanding this is half the battle. It is also on those that run programming in or out of school to do this outreach with intention and recognize when it doesn’t happen. Then and only then will we change the dynamic of who gets to learn.

…because who gets to learn these skills will be the creators and innovators of our future. This is one area that deeply forms the intersection of social justice and technology.

In case you are wondering, yes we will do this again next year. More than that though, we will provide these experiences for all students who want them throughout the year…but with a bit more attention and intention for ALL.

One more thing…

We didn’t have any outside people come in and teach. Our hackathon had engineering professionals on hand but my staff of two, including myself had to learn foundations of circuitry and some coding in order to teach our students. For that, I am exceptionally proud because this integration of computer, invention and design literacy is absolutely where “instructional technology” is headed and we are more than ready for this shift!

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