Day 104: Buggy Crashes

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

We started kinematics yesterday. I gave students a tumble buggy, a meter stick, and told them to take their phones with them. I asked them to describe the buggy’s motion in words, in a data table, on a graph, and with an equation.

Today, I asked if they were confident in yesterday’s work. “Yes!” they said. So I asked them to go head to head, predicting the collision point. Here’s one group’s collison:

Most solved by figuring out the position of each buggy at 1s, then 2s, then 3s, then realized buggies would crash between 3 and 4 seconds, so they guessed the rest of the way.


One group decided to solve in the more elegant way — by solving a system of equations. Finally, we all discussed why our predictions weren’t perfect.


We had a great two days back and I’m eager to introduce them to accelerated motion.

Day 102: Lamps & Last Day of JanTerm

Friday, 20 January 2017

The project was to build a lamp from a lamp kit and bulb provided and no more than $10 in materials from a thrift store. The goal is to repurpose the materials in an interesting and possibly unintended way. Here are some of my favorite lamps from the 2017 Makers:

And with that, #JanTerm17 is a wrap. Three weeks, 20 students, three teachers, and eight projects that span many Maker competencies.

Day 101: Photo Booths

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Today is the day we finished building our photo booths and shared them with the school community. I worked with some students to build the Raspberry Pi with a touch screen and camera attached and my colleagues worked with the rest of the class to build actual booths, backdrops, and props.


My first Raspberry Pi project. With a well-documented set of directions, students completely unfamiliar with the Linux command line can do this work.


This group of Makers was amazing. They were willing to be silly with me in the photo booth.


A photo booth in its natural surroundings.

A major part of this project was to engage our school community in a project we created. Last year, the students chose to build a game called snookball. Feedback from those kids this year was that our photo booths were a better choice.

Day 96: Frustration in Reflection

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Is frustration a good thing? How can I set my students up to learn from rather than be stressed by frustration? JanTerm is a great time to work on this problem.

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This WeevilEye led to growth for one Maker student.

One student, a freshman, wrote the following in her post-project report:

During our visit at Decatur Makers, we learned how to solder while building our WeevilEye project. During the process, I made a mistake and applied the solder on the wrong side, resulting in the need to remove the solder so I could start over. Even though I was very frustrated, one of the people at Decatur Makers introduced me to a solder vacuum. After the solder melted into a liquid, the solder vacuum sucked up some of the solder making it so that I could slip out the wires and start over.

I’m struck by her use of frustrated. This kid definitely learned from the experience. She got to use a solder vacuum and certainly saw that it’s a cool tool. Looking back, I’m sure she’d say the frustration was worth it. But in the moment, in the moment my heart aches for her frustration.

I know well enough to let the kids work through their frustrations — that learning happens in those moments. But dang, I wish I had a better way to set kids up for these moments.

Side note: JanTerm is a whirlwind of a course — 13 days of class with 20 students and three teachers. Grading student work is the hardest part for me. Days are exhausting and I don’t stop from 8am to 3pm. Now that I’ve finally started reading some student work, I’m impressed by kids who turn in work like I quoted above. This kid did a little searching to learn about other types of soldering iron tips (conical tips are better for smaller components but a chisel is better at delivering even heat) as well as surface-mount vs through-hole soldering.

Today in class we began making the 8×8 LED Matrix project. The finished project should look like this:


Most of us have very little soldering experience, so it’s a stretch. In the first half hour, I was pretty sure it was too much for them. But then things started to fall together. Students figured out their own techniques and several pairs managed to solder and test all 64 LEDs.


Soldering 64 LEDs to a perf board is a huge task when all you’ve previously soldered is the WeevilEye from a week ago.

Day 95: PVC Trebuchets

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

For Tuesday this week, we built trebuchets from PVC. Two motivations led us to choose this project: 1) throwing things is fun and 2) PVC is a great material for makers to build with.


This picture is absolutely candid. Nothing staged about it.

To build, we used the instructions for the PVC Trebuchet Instructable. What I liked about this plan was the variety of PVC fittings the kids would get to use. Students worked in groups of four to assemble per instructions.

My teaching colleagues and I had to show kids a few details, including using epoxy for the first time, how to use PVC primer & cement, as well as how to bend a nail using channel lock pliers.

There’s quite a bit of fine tuning that happens with the angle of the nail used in the release mechanism. I wish we’d had another hour to mess around with it. Since most of y’all don’t have a JanTerm, I hope y’all physics teachers are eyeing the project for projectile motion. Do it! These things could probably be built more efficiently by making the cuts in advance. I bet you could do it in about 2 hours.



Day 94: Glass Etching

Monday, 9 January 2017

Two agenda items in JanTerm today: glass etching and a tour of Home Depot. We spent the morning practicing glass etching on any of about 100 wine bottles graciously donated to our class. Below are two examples.


This student put his last initial on two bottles — perhaps to use for serving water at the dinner table.


Catch ’em all! The Poké Ball on this brown bottle came out great.


  • something glass to etch on
  • Armour Etch cream
  • popsicle sticks or paint brushes for spreading the cream
  • painter’s tape for masking off the glass
  • xacto knife for cutting out your design

Time: about an hour to design and hand-cut your stencil plus 5 minutes to etch.

One of our biggest lessons here was that students need to develop an understanding of positive and negative space for etching. For instance, let’s say you want to etch a turtle on a bottle, so you start with this Creative Commons-licensed image:


So, you’re gonna have to hand-cut this out of painter’s tape applied to the bottle. What are you going to cut and what will you leave behind? We had to get the kids to understand they needed to reduce the image down to something like this:


Then we had to have a chat about which you want to etch (and therefore cut out of painter’s tape) and which you want to leave untouched.

Ok, so etching was done and it was time to visit Home Depot. We have a store very close to school and wanted to show the students how makers can find materials there. Von, the lumber department supervisor, gave us an excellent tour. Students were amazed to learn about MDF, which is basically sawdust and industrial strength glue.

After the lumber tour, we gave the students a scavenger hunt list of materials to purchase for tomorrow’s build — a trebuchet made of PVC! This was a fun and engaging part of the day. (best questions: “What’s epoxy?” and “What’s a wingnut?”)


Day 93: Plush Monsters

Friday, 6 January 2017

It’s JanTerm day 4. Three weeks, one class, hands-on all day every day. I teach this with two math teachers just as curious as me and learn with 20 students in grades 9 and 10. Today was a half day because of an impending snow storm. Any jokes about Southerners not handling snow well will be met with my squinty-eyed death stare.

Wow, these kids did a great job! Plush Monsters are based on the Lily Tiny circuit components and this project from SparkFun. Several kids pulled fur off of yesterday’s toy take apart dissections and others made excellent color selections among our felt collection. Everyone learned to backstitch (which is useful with the conductive thread), how to troubleshoot a short circuit (easy to have happen with conductive thread), and how to blanket stitch around the outside of their monsters.

The soldering project earlier this week was a nice lead-in, even though Monsters are solder-free. Why? Well, I think my favorite is that all the kids understood polarity already. Testing the circuits was fun for me and mostly satisfying for the students. Here’s one:

We did this project last year and I’d say we made many improvements:

  • we allotted more time to sewing (about 5 hours this year)
  • ordered more needles with large eyes
  • ordered way more coin cell batteries this year (and managed the ones we did give out so kids weren’t draining them quickly with shorted circuits)
  • sewed the LilyTiny components on the outside of the monster (when you sew everything up inside a monster, it makes replacing batteries pretty much impossible!)
  • intentionally encouraged kids to keep parts of their toy take apart
  • purchased a ton of felt colors

Here’s what it looked like last year:

Day 92: Toy Take Apart

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Phew! We’ve barely paused to breathe, let alone reflect on our work these last two days. That’s why, this morning, we started the class off with a reflection. It went great and I think parts are generalizable so worth sharing: we gave every kid a marker and asked them to write three things they observed yesterday at Decatur Makers directly on the butcher paper covering their table. Then, they were to discuss with their table group and come up with a single image to represent the trip. Finally, everyone moved to each table in the room to see what their classmates wrote about. I’m convinced of one thing — butcher paper should cover every desk in every room ALL THE TIME. I love that students can sketch, explain to each other, and make notes right where they sit.

We then moved on to the toy take apart project. We provide the students with a mechanical toy and the tools to disassemble them. The goal is to understand what makes these toys work as well as harvest parts useful for future maker projects. For us, we’re most concerned about fur (check out tomorrow’s post) and motors.


We were fortunate to get two of the same happy elephants and students were excited to put them next to each other to compare external vs internal views:

One of the hardest things to balance teaching a short course like this is grading. We assign homework nightly, which the students submit on Schoology. Most are short reflections. Reading reflections always falls lower on my priority list than making the inevitable last-minute trip to Home Depot for parts we need tomorrow. So much piles up and I hate that I can’t keep up.

But enough complaining about the grading. Here’s a wooden box one of the students made from pallet wood:


Let us remember

  • the 3 times we’ve recovered the tables: students keep writing, gluing, or staining on their tables, so we keep changing out the paper. I love it!
  • the 4 electrical components we have soldered: LED, resistor, transistor, photocell
  • the 6 power tools we’re confident with: mitre saw, drill, palm sander, rotary tool, jig saw, circular saw
  • the 15 pallets we’ve wrecked: they live on as wooden boxes
  • the 20 mechanical toys we’ve destroyed: a zoo’s worth of animals, ranging in size from the giant tiger to the tiny turtle; all with internal mechanisms

Day 91: Decatur Makers Field Trip

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How many of you are makers?


Today, we visited Decatur Makers, an educationally-focused makerspace. The volunteers at DM taught us how to solder, helping us assemble our Weevil Eyes:

The Weevil Eye is the perfect learn-to-solder kit! For $15, you get a chance to solder resistors, a transistor, LEDs, a photocell, and a battery holder. It takes about an hour to learn the basics of circuit board soldering and build the bug.

While the soldering was wonderful (100% success rate, btw!), my favorite part of the trip was seeing the kids’ eyes go wide when we walked into the makerspace. They didn’t even bother to play it cool, I heard “oohs” and “aahs” when they laid eyes on Power Racing Series cars, a giant steampunk-themed sculpture, lantern parade lanterns, and floor-to-ceiling material storage. Makerspaces, we told the kids, are a great place to continue your making career after the class ends and you need access to tools you don’t have at home.

Day 90: JanTerm Begins

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

This class is called Making & DIY Culture and I co-teach it with two math colleagues. There are 20 students in this course which meets all day every day for the first three weeks in January.

We’re teaching the students what it means to be makers, so we started off with a basic introduction to woodworking. The first task was disassembling pallets, followed by using that wood to make boxes. Most students haven’t ever used these tools — pry bars, hammers, and saws — so it was up to the teachers to instruct on their safe operation.

As with last year, the hardest part of any woodworking project with these kids is nailing boards together. Everywhere I looked were crooked nails and split wood!

Side note: a maker class that runs for three weeks requires a temporary makerspace. This is no small feat that my colleagues and I spend a semester planning and two days setting up:

  • While my school is well outfitted with tools, my colleagues and I supplement with our personal tools. For this course, we’ve assembled five drills, two mitre saws, two palm sanders, and so many hammers, for example.
  • All the student tables get covered in butcher paper — I’d hate to mess up another teacher’s furniture.
  • Tools also go on butcher paper on the counters around the room. I outline every tool so that we know where everything goes at cleanup time.
  • We brought in loads of extra trash containers to go next to each power tool. Scrap wood (“trash”) is smaller than your hand and keeper wood (“treasure”) is bigger and goes in a community pile.
  • There’s a classroom and a power tool room, which are actually two science classrooms located next door to each other. Students are trained on power tools and we only allow their operation if a teacher is in the room. The power tool room gets hella messy because I don’t have anything in there for dust collection. I need to fix this.

The day was a whirlwind. It’s the exhausting high point of my teaching year.