8 Ways to Create Engaging Engineering Activities at Home

Engineering Projects for Children at Home

I continue to be amazed at the natural engineering instincts of young children.  Ironically, with all the technology available to kids today (television, computers, tablets, video games), overuse takes time away from building and creating, both of which can lead our next generation of ethical scientists and engineers to solving some of the problems overuse of technology causes.

Giving kids a hands-on opportunity to explore the engineering aspects of technology has many benefits that can lead to this development of problem solving. When I taught third grade, I always had a take-apart learning center in my classroom, drawing in many young students.  Frequently, I would see kids with great mechanical and engineering skills participating who otherwise might have trouble with more traditional schoolwork.  It was a place they could excel using their natural talents.

Check out the energy and excitement of these kids taking apart old computers at a recent Williamsburg Schools science fair:

How can you create engaging engineering activities at home?  Here are eight recommendations:

  1. Get old computers, printers, radios, toasters, typewriters, etc. at your local transfer station.  Cut the cord off, give your kids some old tools and let them have at it.  (I don’t let kids take apart anything with glass, such as monitors, or open up the barrel shaped capacitors found in electronics.)
  2. Give kids paper, cardboard, cardboard tubes, scissors, tapes, and makers and see what happens.
  3. With similar materials as above, have your kids construct marble runs, courses that go from a table to the floor made out of found materials.
  4. Traditional activities such as LEGO blocks, Trios, and Lincoln Logs are still great engineering activities.  While it’s fine to build by the book, kids should also have a chance to build whatever they want.
  5. Appliance boxes are great for building larger structures.
  6. Outside, help kids get materials to build forts and fairy houses.
  7. Paper airplane are a time honored engineering activity for kids.  Make up your own or try some of these designs to start.   Add some math by measuring which design flies the farthest.
  8. Consider purchasing WeDo (grades 1 to 4) or NXT (grades 5 and up) LEGO robotics kits for home.

Share your own engineering activities in the comments section below.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.

Three Programs Kids Can Use to Learn How to Create Video Games

Kids Creating Video Games

Many kids today are great at playing (consuming) video games but who will create the video games of tomorrow?  I think it’s fine for kids to play appropriate video games in moderation.  See Common Sense Media for reviews and ratings for video games.  However, many kids today only consume content.  What we really need in the future is for the next generation to create interesting, appropriate, and constructive content.  That’s goes for television, movies, websites, apps, and games and other media we can’t even envision now.  This activity is great for encouraging interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects, as well as art.

Here’s three different ways kids can create video games at home or at school:

STAGECAST CREATOR

The first program I use with kids in grade three and up at the Williamsburg Schools is called Stagecast Creator ($$, with a 120-day free trial version).  Stagecast Creator uses programming by example to help students design games and simulations.  Kids design different characters and define the rules for interactions between the mouse or the keyboard.  Rules are programming graphically and not with traditional text based programming.

I start the kids with a maze game.  They design blocks that form the maze.  They next create a main character and program it to move with the arrow keys into empty spaces.  They add trap doors, power-ups or food to make the game more interesting.  Here’s an example (need Java plug-in).

Students have also used this to create predator-prey simulations, similar to what wildlife biologists do.  For example, students create grass, rabbit, and coyote characters.  The grass is programmed to multiple randomly.  Rabbits eat grass and create more rabbits.  Coyotes are programming to wander around and eat rabbits.  Students can see what happens if there are too many rabbits (the ecosystem crashes because there is no grass) or too many coyotes (no rabbits but lots of grass).  We have also recreated the Asteroid game in previous years.  This game is hard to do in Scratch (below) because you can’t replicate an instance of a character in Scratch.  But in Stagecast Creator, you can create one block that shoots out asteroids and that can be copied to different places.

SCRATCH

Scratch  is another great video game creation program, which was created at MIT.  This is a free download.  Like Stagecast Creator, Scratch is also icon based but has an extensive collection of more traditional programming functions, which are put together to make games and animations.  I use this with six graders to recreate the first video game, Pong.  I have step-by-step directions (pdf) available to create a Pong game.  Kids follow the directions but decorate and modify the model in different ways as they learn the software.  Kids then move on to create a Pac-Man game, again with detailed directions they modify before they create their own game from Scratch (pun intended).   I have a collection of Pong games created by sixth graders this year. — Scratch also has an online component where games may be freely shared and discussed. (Free Download)

GAMESTAR MECHANIC

Gamestar Mechanic is a website and online gaming community for creating video games totally online.  Students play a video game that teaches video principles and earn points that “buy” tools to create their own games.  I have not used this one as much but I know it is also is in use with sixth grades at the Norris School in Southampton.  I found it a bit tedious, as a teacher, to earn the points just to learn the system but I’m sure students will find it less so.  There are free and premium versions but you can do everything you need to with the free version.

This summer iD Tech Camps will be offered in Amherst, giving students ages 7-17yo opportunities to learn how to create not only video games, but also iPhone apps, 3D models, movies and website.  Check out this summer camp (and a variety of other summer camp options) on the Hilltown Families post, Summer Camps and Programs in Western MA.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Patrick Hoesly]

Seven Values & Goals to Setting Technology Limits: A Personal Story

Technology Limits – A Personal Story

In January I shared a general article on setting technology limits titled, My Top Ten Tips for Setting Technology Limits. Setting technology limits for your family is a personal decision based on the values that you have, so there is no one policy that will fit every family.  So this month, I will share an intimate look at how my family works with setting tech limits….

After the holidays this past year, we had a Nintendo Wii, an iPad, an iPod, an iPhone, 2 Macintosh computers, and 2 kid computers from grandparents, and plus television. It was a constant process to decide what was enough for the day and how to keep things in balance. My wife and I believe that children should get a balance of daily activities: physical, musical, mathematical, technological, language/literacy, spiritual, interpersonal, and nature/natural. We needed to balance things since my 5yo son, Aidan, was very drawn to electronics and not getting enough of the other activities we value. The constant negotiations were very taxing with the accompanying problems when Aidan did not get his way. So I came up with the idea of setting a daily schedule to: balance the types of activities; eliminate negotiations on what the limits were; and to provide structure for our son.

Parents do need to set limits. As an elementary school teacher, I see lots of problems at home and at school when children do not have appropriate limit setting. It’s my belief that children need limits to feel safe and loved despite their protests to the contrary at times. Of course, you can be too strict as well, which has its own issues. In terms of technology, the devices can become over important if kids can barely or never use them. They can also miss valuable technology experiences.

In setting up a schedule, I looked at these seven values and goals and apply:

  1. A daily family dinner together is very important to us.
  2. I did not want any non-educational technology before school.
  3. Daily reading was important.
  4. A balance of types of activities was important.
  5. We wanted face-to-face time when my son came home from school or afterschool.
  6. Weekends could be more relaxed but would still have limits.
  7. We factored in things that go well before other activities. For example, one educational show before bedtime makes a good transition to sleep.

Read the rest of this entry »

12 Great Educational Web Sites for Kids

Educational Web Sites for Kids

Today, I’ll point out some great educational web sites for kids. At our home, we attempt to balance educational and “just for fun” web sites with our five year old son.  For younger kids, simple things like printing out coloring pages (use Google Images with Safe Search set to Strict) or simply printing out posters of favorite characters or animals are some easy and fun ways to use the Internet.   We also look up answers to questions that we can’t answer ourselves at on Factmonster or using Google.   We also try to model appropriate use of the Internet.  Kids seem to ultimately follow what we do more than the limits we set for them.

Categories in the cognitive domain of Bloom's Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

I refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy to try and balance the type of cognitive activities kids should be engaging in.  We want to make sure kids activities are not just at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy.  On the other hand, kids do need some facts and some fluency with basic skills.

In the early days of educational technology, many applications worked on the very low levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  These were referred to as “drill and kill” applications.  While we want to provide educational technology experiences for students at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I believe some basic skills practice can be good at times and the computer can be a one good way to make that more fun.

To follow are some of my favorite educational web sites.  Please note that when using games on web sites, you many need to upgrade your Abobe Flash Player or other components.  Some older computers may not be able to run all games.  Families will see different amounts of advertising on these sites too, affording families the opportunity to teach your child about online marketing to children:

  1. Starfall — Phonics and phonemic awareness are one part of a balancing reading program.  This phonics-based site contains some good, free pre-reading and reading activities.  (Grades PK-1)
  2. PBSKids Go — tons of activities and games tied to PBS children’s programming.  Some favorites for kids are Martha Speaks, Wild Kratts, Between the Lions, Sesame Street, and Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman.  (Grades PK – 2)
  3. Internet4Classrooms —  this is a huge metasite that lists games and activities by grade level and skill/standard/subject.  (Grades PK-8)
  4. FunBrain —  a large selection of games. We like to use the Classic games at school and stay away from the arcade type games.  (Grades K-6)
  5. Oswego Math Games —  good selection of math games kids like and that reinforces different skills.  (Grades 1 – 4)
  6. Quia Math Games — a very large selection of math games sorted by grade level.  Even though there is a premium option, kids can play all the games for free.  (Grades 1 – 6)
  7. Edheads —  This site contains lots of fun online activities that explore things like simple machines and the human body (there are a few interesting online operations kids can try.)  (Grades 2-12 depending on the activity)
  8. Hubble Space Telescope  — great source of amazing space images:  stars, planets, moons, galaxies, and every type of space object imaginable.   (Grades 3 and up)
  9. PBS Nova —  Each PBS Nova show has a rich web site with activities and resources associated with each show.  We especially like the Ancient Egypt sites for grade 6 students.  (Grades 4 and up)
  10. USA Games  —  A good source for information about the 50 States.  There are many levels of games to teach kids the names of states, state capitals, and other geography.  (Grades 4 and up)
  11. PBS Don’t Buy It —  Self-paced PBS site teaches students about the pitfalls of advertising and how marketing works. (Grades 5 and up)
  12. Lemonade Stand — This online simulation of a lemonade stand teaches student economic principles.  (Grades 5 and up)

Local Resource: If you have cable access, Comcast has introduced a low cost internet service of about $10 a month, a low cost computer, and free training for low income families.  See www.internetessentials.com for more information.

More Online Resources: For more educational web sites, check out the Williamsburg Schools Links Page and Hilltown Families bank of nearly 3,500 Recommended Links, including subjects like history, math, social studies, language arts, geography, science, virtual field trips and many others! — Share your own favorite site in the comments section below.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.

10 Tips on Setting Technology Limits for Your Family

My Top 10 Tips on Setting Technology Limit

One of the best things you can do is to ensure the technology is being used for educating and creating, not just consumption.

Many parents are unsure of how and when to set limits on technology use for their children (and themselves).  I believe this is something we all need to think about, adults as well as kids. Setting technology limits is a personal decision based on the values that you have, so there is not one policy that will fit every family.  As a parent and educator who encourages students to use technology in a positive and creative way, but is also aware of some of the downsides to certain types of technology use, I have compiled the following guidelines. With technology more and more ubiquitous in our lives, it’s a good time to think through this issue for our children and ourselves:

  1. RATINGS — Use the ratings provided on video games, TV shows, and movies.  It may seem obvious but many don’t check them.  They are a good place to start to see what is appropriate and what isn’t.  Also, they can save a lot of arguing.  You can deflect to the rating when arguments start.  Before I did realized this myself, I told my son basically that we could watch/play just about everything when he got to third grade… so I will be in for a problem in third grade.  You can check for movie ratings at FilmRatings.com.  Ratings for TV shows should appear on your cable or satellite guide and games  have rating on the boxes or you can check them online too.
  2. PREVIEWING  — Try to preview games, shows, and movies if you can.  Online reviews can also be helpful.  Common Sense Media has in-depth reviews with rating categories specific to families.
  3. CONTROLS — Look into parent controls and monitoring software. Imagine my surprise when I heard the “f word” coming out of our iPad!  My 5 year old had learned to preview songs on his own.  Luckily, he did not realize what he was hearing but I quickly found the parental controls setting and turned it on.  Google Search also has a safe search setting.  None of these are perfect but they are a big help.  We teach kids at the Williamsburg Schools what do you if they do come across something inappropriate, which is move away from that screen and notify staff so it can be either filtered or reported as inappropriate… because they will run into inappropriate material.  But take advantage of the controls and monitoring tools that are available.  Apple product built-in controls can be found in settings under Parent Controls.  Here’s a link to a review of control tools for PCs on www.pcmag.com.
  4. LOCATION — Limiting the location of your media devices is much harder now with tablets, laptops and smartphones, but try to keep devices in public places in your house and out of bedrooms.
  5. CREATE & EDUCATE — One of the best things you can do is to ensure the technology is being used for creation and not just consumption.  Suggest ways for kids to be creative.  For instance, don’t just read comic books on the media device, create them, create art, and create video games.  Related to this is making a distinction between “just for fun” and educational technology.  We set that strict limit at school, but at home we strive for a balance of educational and “just for fun” technology use.  The web site iear.org is a good review site and source for finding good educational apps for the tablets and smart phones.
  6. SELF-REGULATION — After a certain age, we have to trust that we have done our jobs and that our kids will self-regulate.  I believe this to be true if we have provided a balance of activities for our kids and taught them constructive and creative uses of technology (as well as the “just for fun” stuff).
  7. FLEXIBILITY  — Some parents try to have consistent daily limits on screen time, which can work for some families.  But we try to look at the whole day and provide a balance of activities and not have strict daily limits.  Things can relax  if folks are sick, tired, or in bad weather… at least for us.  The opposite is also true for us when we have lots of energy and have good weather.
  8. BALANCE — A balanced life is the best.  So we look to see on a daily or weekly basis if we have provided a balance of activities:  music, art, reading books, technology, outdoors, spiritual, exercise/sports, creative play, and social activities.
  9. TALK — We have found it important and rewarding to do technology with our son.  When my son reached 4, I realized that the time had come to stop trying to prohibit certain things and to simply state how I felt about things and make a choice for myself whether I wanted to play that game with him.  For us, that centers around fighting games and content.  This is how kids learn values from their parents.
  10. MODEL — The best way to ensure a healthy use of technology for kids is to be a good role model ourselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Paul Mayne]

Art Technology and Software: A Review of 5 Programs for Students

Technology, Art and Kids

Students use KidPix to create diagrams of their studies of volcanos.

Students use KidPix to create diagrams for their study unit on volcanoes.

I sometimes hear concerns from parents about technology and their children.  Are they too young to use computers?  Are they using technology too much?  What I have found, in my experience using technology with students for over 20 years, is that it is not so much “how much” and “when” but “what.”  In our work at the Williamsburg Schools, we aim to enable kids to use technology constructively and creatively while also helping teachers meet state standards.  Today, I’ll go over some commercial and free programs and give some ideas of how they can be used at home and in educational settings.   We will look at animation and comic book software in a future column.

First, doing art on the computer can never replace the tactile experience of working with physical materials.  However, art of the computer is a useful adjunct to using physical materials and can also provide some added possibilities.  Depending on the hardware and software used, students use the mouse, fingers (on tablet computer), or a drawing tablet for more sophisticated artists.

KIDPIX

Our first program is KidPix from Software MacKiev ($$) which runs on Windows and Macintosh.

Winner of a Parent’s Choice Silver Award, we use KidPix starting at the end of preschool and heavily in Kindergarten and first grade, though elementary students all the way up to sixth grade also use it.  The program is primarily good for one-page projects. and has standard tools for drawing, such as pen, paint, fill bucket, stamps, stickers, erasers, and more.  We usually require students to draw everything themselves for content related projects rather than use KidPix supplied backgrounds, stamps, and stickers.

Some ideas for using KidPix include:  alphabet or number books; daily illustrated journals; self and family portraits; and free drawing.  I recommend letting kids explore all the different tools first.

If you’d like to try this program at home for two weeks, they offer a free 15-day trial you can download from their web site.

HYPERSTUDIO

For multiple page projects, I like use HyperStudio 5 ($$$), also from Software MacKiev.  The drawing tools are similar to KidPix but HyperStudio allows multiple pages and kids create buttons (either visible or invisible) to allow hyperlinking between pages of their project.  Both KidPix and Hyperstudio allow kids to record their voices to go with buttons or pages.  Both also have built in integration with iLife.  For example, you can easily access your iPhoto Library to pull into photos into projects.

Here’s some ideas for using HyperStudio:  butterfly life cycle and other cycles in nature; kids create their own “house” where each page is a room connected by invisible buttons on door knob; kids research states and use HyperStudio to document a trip through a region of the United States.  It’s great for kids who want to present on any topic they know a lot about.  Kids can create presentations to show to family and friends.

Roger Wagner, the creator of HyperStudio, sent me this link, which shows many different ways HyperStudio is being used.  If you’d like to try HyperStudio 5 at home, a free 30-day trial is available for HyperStudio here.

FREE PROGRAMS

Sketchbook Express (free), available on the Macintosh App Store and also for Windows, is a really nice tool that is simple enough for kids but also sophisticated.

We use Glow Draw (free from Indigo Penguin Limited, there are a number of apps with the same or a similar name) and Doodle Buddy (free, $.99 to hide ads)  on our iPad at home for fun sketching.  Using the iPad and other tablets can be good for young children since they use their fingers and not the mouse, which requires more sophisticated visual and motor skills.  It’s good to provide a range of apps on your tablet computer so your children have variety of modes of expression (music, art, math, reading, science and social studies) to balance their natural attraction to games.

For more examples of creative student technology work, see burgykids.tumblr.com.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.

[Photo credit: (ccl) ssedro]

2 Ways to Get Creative with Robotics

Creative Play With Lego Robots

On Saturday, December 10 in Agawam, MA from 9am-3pm, there’s a regional qualifier for the First Lego League, which is an afterschool program where kids from all over the world compete to build the best design for a yearly challenge.

Toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners are natural engineers. They love sand castles, blocks, fairy houses, and other projects that support their creative, fantasy play.  We support this natural engineering instinct in schools with building bricks, Legos, and sand and water tables.  Yet, as students reach first grade and beyond, we remove all these activities from school and we expect them still be interested in engineering when they get to high school and college.

In the Williamsburg Schools, we have developed a preschool to grade 6 elementary engineering curriculum based on robotics:

  • Preschool and kindergarten students use BeeBots from Terrapin Logo  to teach math and literacy.
  • Students in grades 1 to 4 use Lego WeDo robots integrating literacy, math, and science topics.
  • Students in grade 5 to 6 use Lego Mindstorm NXT robots to explore engineering, velocity, and math.

Besides teacher directed activities, every other year, students receive an open ended engineering challenge:

  • Kindergarten students plan and execute a path for their BeeBot to get from the “hive” to a “flower” getting around an obstacle.
  • Grade 2 students design, build, test and market their own amusement park ride.
  • Grade 4 students design, build, test and market their own burglar alarm.
  • Grade 6 students design, test, and build their own robot car to go as fast as possible.

Students work in teams for all these projects, which teaches the cooperative learning skills needed in today’s world.

TWO UPCOMING ROBOTIC EVENTS

There are two upcoming events that focus on Lego and Lego robotics in the region:

  1. On December 3 and 4, there is a LEGO KidsFest in Hartford, CT with tons of hands on Lego activities.
  2. On Saturday, December 10 in Agawam, MA from 9am-3pm, there’s a regional qualifier for the First Lego League, which is an afterschool program where kids from all over the world compete to build the best design for a yearly challenge.

If you are interested in exploring the use of Lego and Lego robotics to support your children’s natural building and engineering instincts, check out one of these events.

There are also ongoing weekly Lego events that happen in the area, including:

  • Mondays at 3pm – LEGOS: Does your kid love LEGOS? Try out LEGO BrikWars, a wargaming system that takes ordinary building blocks and turns them into a game of strategy and destruction. Takes place at Forbes Library. 413-587-1011. 20 West Street. Northampton, MA. (FREE)
  • Mondays from 5:30-6:30pm – LEGOS: The Central Library hosts LEGO Club tonight! Kids in grades 1-5 are invited to experiment with architecture and create a masterpiece. 413-263-6828. 220 State Street. Springfield, MA. (FREE)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Karen Blumberg]

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