Iterative Instruction

Time flies when you are having fun! I launched the Technology, Engineering, and Design (TED) course 2 years ago. The curriculum, my teaching style, and the space(s) have changed significantly since then – largely in response to my students’ feedback. Because TED is a one semester elective, I have had a chance to test 4 prototypes. I’ve tried engineering themes (GIS, Environmental Engineering, Product design). I’ve tried different projects (architecture & construction, bike redesign, furniture design & fabrication). I’ve tried different assessment strategies (a magazine/portfolio, project deliverables, standards based). Learning from those prototypes and iterations I feel like I have finally gotten pretty close to a replicable semester experience. That is saying a lot considering I have really enjoyed changing up content and themes each semester.

You may have read my previous post where I shared this semester’s syllabus…full of hopes and dreams. Being 6 weeks in I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on how things are going. At this point the TED course is ⅔ of the way through assistive technology foundations. Foundations are 2 week project sprints meant to:

  1. use project type (wood working, electronics, 3D printing) to acquaint students with protocols, tools and materials available
  2. use specific deliverables to teach students my expectations for how we work
  3.  use a semester theme to enforce consistency and human centered design practice

The foundation projects were presented to students in the form of mini-design briefs (below).

This started out great! Each group of students was excited about the project they would start with (seemingly forgetting that each group will get a chance to do each of the projects regardless). Below are what some typical days looked like:

As the first round of projects wrapped up, it was fun to see the how the next group learned from the previous. One of the key hypotheses I continue to test is how projects evolve after students critique the builds from the previous group.  The “exit ticket” out of one foundation build and into the next is 1) a clear deliverable and 2) honest critique and feedback on each other’s work. In particular, students are getting more comfortable with sharing their pHails. In fact, just 20 minutes prior to me writing that last sentence a student exclaimed “Hey we forgot to share my pHail today AGAIN! Can we be sure to do it tomorrow?” The craving of feedback with an eye toward helping next project iterations is a key element of the maker community we want to build.

I think there are at least two reason why the pHailur (that just happened!!) culture has flourished this semester.

  1. A full class period is protected at the end of each foundation round with the intent of doing formal critique
  2. Students have generated empathy for users of assistive technology.

Regarding the latter, empathy for a variety of users has been generated largely through a partnership with Georgia Tools for Life – a non profit dedicated to testing and delivering assistive tech to people in need. GaTFL hosted myself and Trey Boden at their offices where we were able to ask if they would serve as both inspiration and outside evaluators for our students’ work. Following that visit, our students were able to visit….virtually…using a piece of assistive technology called a VGo telepresence robot. Driving the robot around from our own school was an empathy exercise in its own right, but the real “aHa” moment was a tour of the seemingly endless wall of assistive devices – each with it’s own story of how it made someone’s life easier – more independent – with restored dignity.

In reflection of how things are going, I’m pleased. That is not to say that things are perfect.  I will continue to iterate my instruction, but for the most part the culture of design and making that I hope to cultivate is taking shape. Students are coming in early and staying late, presumably because of their perceived shift from projects to purpose.


Maverick Maker

3-2-1-Launch. My syllabus for this semester’s edition of my T.E.D – Technology, Engineering, & Design – class is live. This year at Mount Vernon Presbyterian school our Head of School, Brett Jacobsen, provided a bold provocation to the entire faculty: Be a Maverick. In a vague, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous(VUCA) world an innovative mindset is necessary to navigate. One pathway to innovation is by being a maverick. That is, mavericks vary and change their routes. They challenge assumptions. They experiment and test. They think big.

The pioneer in me – recently validated via by the StandOut Assessment – took the maverick message to heart. As such, I’m varying my route in the T.E.D. course this year and testing at least 3 new ideas:

  1. HMW I redesign my syllabus to inspire and engage parents and learners?
    • Which is preferred? Static content that clearly delivers “just the facts” or dynamic content that engages and generates questions?
  2. What if the E in T.E.D. were changed to entrepreneurship?
    • While students have previously had opportunities to build and make projects that were meaningful to them, that element of choice will include and added dimension this year. In addition to submitting a build permit (standard procedure for our Maker|Design|Engineering program) students will create a business strategy for launching their product to the marketplace. The hypothesis is that this additional dimension will help learners more meaningfully consider usability, marketability, and feasibility.
  3. HMW practice PBL in an interdisciplinary that creates real meaning for each class involved?
    • You May have read about last year’s edition of this experiment. This year, T.E.D., AP Physics, and Pre-Calculus will partner to design assistive technologies for real users. The hope is to better embed the designing process > generate more empathy > fabricate more meaningful products.

I’ve worked each of these tests into a syllabus I created using LucidPress (a favorite tool, BTW). Because I’m testing new ideas….I’m craving feedback. Bring it on!


Purpose Based Learning (a #FailUp moment)

I don’t want to say I planned to fail, but I also don’t deny that I didn’t see this coming. This year’s major project for my technology, engineering, and design class (T.E.D.) is a prototype in more ways than one. The Bike Project was born out of a generous grant from MVIFI’s XLR8 summer grant that was awarded to teachers proposing interdisciplinary PBL projects for the 2015-16 school year. The Bike Project is a collaboration between my T.E.D. class, AP Physics, and Algebra II. You can read my amazing colleagues’ – Robin and Zach – summary of the project on their blogs.

Project Purpose:

From the beginning, the project was focused on testing the hypothesis that we could pull off meaningful interdisciplinary PBL despite challenges with class schedule, student age gap, etc. In other words, the focus of the project was on executing the PBL process and facilitating meaningful student experiences. We purposeful in our planning by using the Understanding by Design (UbD) model to ensure that the project would meet learning outcomes for our respective courses. [Here are the respective templates for T.J., Robin, and Zach that guided the project in our classes.] Who is going to argue with that logic?

Learning the parts and purposes for each designed part of the bike

Learning the parts and purposes for each designed part of the bike

For the T.E.D. class, in particular, my goals for students were to 1) perform a functional decomposition (left) of a bicycle, 2) formulate design ideas based off of insights gained from interviews with bike enthusiasts, and 3) create a design brief that will guide future work on the project while demonstrating student teams’ ability to assess trade-offs and decision making. So what is the big #failup moment? Well…perhaps product is more important than teachers tend to let on?

Purpose based Project

Reflecting back, I am more and more convinced that product and process are equally important. p[-[ I don’t mean to devalue the process by any means. That is where the learning happens. But the product – the thing – the solution – is why the learning happens. This project (for my class anyway) suffered from the age old adolescent question “Why are we doing this?” Point taken. There was excitement for the project and high levels of engagement early on, but the T.E.D students noted that too much time had passed between their initial “take apart” and conceptual stage and the time where new prototyping could happen. In the end, though, there never was a planned intent to actually fabricate the new bike component designs (focus on process, remember?).

Hero's Bike Journey (3)

Purposeful Products

Last semester I had quite a different “engagement curve” with my T.E.D. class major project. In meeting Alex and 3D printing a prosthetic hand, my class and I made noticeable shift from working on a project to working for a purpose. You can read about that project in the MVPS Magazine on page 14 or watch the action here. On a global scale you might look toward Cesar Harada’s TED talk about the power of purpose based learning that is driven by a the creation of an innovation products.

The fact is that innovative products are sexy. Thinking made tangible is worth a 1000 words. Products demonstrate results, and, through making, the product lets you know if you got it right. Purposeful products – ones that are human centered and make an impact – are an awfully convincing demonstration that you got the process right.

K12 Design Thinking Competition

I got accepted into the Georgia Tech K12 inventure prize challenge! I’m so excited to be able to bring this experience to my students.  The inventure prize is televised on GA public TV every year, and I’ve watched the finalist the last couple of years. I’m really impressed by the creativity of the Georgia Tech students that compete for the $20,000 grand prize. Some of my favorite designed projects were a biometrics app that only allows you to unlock a cell phone; a universal phone charger that folds into the sized of a credit card; a redesigned crutch; robotic dog toys; and this year’s winner the Safi Choo Toilet. This year’s winner was particularly cool because 1) it was social entrepreneurial in nature, 2) was designed by an all female group of engineers, 3) tackled an issue that may otherwise have been swept under the rug (toilet and water sanitation in refugee camps).

Here are the cool benefits of the K12 challenge (narrative still reflects last school year’s pilot):

During the 2012-2013 school year, the pilot program was tested at Peachtree Ridge High School and Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology. Seven lessons that guide teachers and students through completing an engineering design and entrepreneurship project were implemented. Students received feedback on ideas from professors during a Pitch Day at their schools. They also witnessed undergraduate innovation and voted for a K-12 prize at Georgia Tech’s Fall Capstone Expo. Students then made and tested their own prototypes. The top 3 student teams from each school were invited to present their work at a VIP reception prior to the InVenture Prize. An additional 100 InVenture Challenge participants were audience members during the InVenture Prize. For the second year, the goal is to expand the program to an additional six to eight schools.  (

The materials and training provided by Georgia Tech are fantastic and I’m most excited about students pitching their ideas to GT professors. We piloted something similar at our school last year and the high stakes environment surrounding the “pitch party” was really eye opening and beneficial for students. The suggested lesson plans provided by GT are an adaptation of Stanford d.School’s design thinking process. I feel good about that as I know that myself and my students are familiar with the process and have done several design challenges.

The K12 challenge does not compete with the college level entrants (pheeew), but I’m still really anxious about getting started. The main source of my anxiety is trying to determine which group of students to invite to participate. My plan was to do it as part of my new Technology, Engineering, and Design course, but I’m nervous about adding one more thing on top of what I already like as a course design. I also could do it with my makers club, but because we only meet briefly after school once a week. I’m nervous this may not be enough time to “make a dent”. My essential question, then, is “Which best enhances student centered learning and creativity: work inside of class or outside of class (via clubs)? Are CTSOs like the TSA and FIRST Robotics an indication that the best student centered learning innovation happens outside of the classroom?

Technology, Engineering, & Design Magazine Project

I’ve been thinking alot about the previous entry (activity playlist)  and how I can do a similar thing in my new TED course. I have to say….I’m REALLY excited about an idea I have. I want to offer students a menu or playlist or activities like what was suggested above. I also have at least two other goals that I feel are important: 1) I want students to collaborate – not merely work on their own chosen activities and 2) I need students to consider different areas of engineering that I had already outlined in my course description (Biotechnology, communications, energy, entertainment and recreation).


Here is the plan….students will create and publish 4 issues – one for each unit – of an e-magazine. The look and feel should be something of a mashup between Wired, Fast Company, and Popular Mechanics. Because the course is called Technology, Engineering, and Design, I need to be intentional about incorporating each of those disciplines. In a broad sense the magazine itself will contribute to the majority of the design element. My vision of the mag is to be highly designed using LucidPress and have the styling of glossy magazine like Wired. Within the magazine will be a variety of entries that will cover both the engineering and technology components. An unit specific infographic might be an additional demonstration of design learning.  Specific to engineering, I will expect students to submit DIY articles like you would find in Popular Mechanics or Instructables. I imagine students designing a communication devices using arduino in the communications unit. A step by step tutorial of how to build the device could appear in the magazine as a demonstration of the student’s engineering learning. In the realm of technology, I really want to focus on human issues with technology (ie. ethics, socio-political influences, product lifecycle commentary, technological privacy issues). Here I imagine student editorial pieces about GMO’s in the biotechnology unit for instance. All together students will be bounded by the magazine issue topic (goal #2) and will have to collaborate to put an cohesive magazine together (goal #1). In essence, the magazine project itself is PBL-esque that can take care of the design component of the class and will also serve as a sort of portfolio of student work.


I still need to wrap my head around how I facilitate the right amount of articles of each type in each issue while also maximizing student choice of assignments (like the playlist idea). If I assigned a group of students to the “written editorial” section on this unit and then the “diy tutorial” section in the next unit, would that preserve enough student choice and create the differentiated experience that got me excited in the first place?


Would love some feedback…is this an idea worth pursuing?  OR scrap it?


Assignment “playlist” and hacking a curriculum

This tweet came across my feed that really got me thinking about delivery of Technology Education.


Via@Learn21Tech: HMW create an assignment bank similar to this one used in an online cc@boadams1#playlist


The link takes you to an online course, ds106 (digital storytelling), where you will find a list of assignment categories.  The categories are not necessarily anything new.  There are writing assignments, video assignments, web assignments, etc.  There are some, however, that piqued my interest a little more….audio assignments, 3D printing assignments, and design assignments. As I dug deeper, I found that the suggestions for these different types of activities are really cool! You find things like create an infographic for your favorite movie, mash two different 3D models together before printing, create a self reflection podcast, and create a poster worthy image from schematics found on patent searches. I would love to take this class!


What is super intriguing is that the course seems to be totally student driven and differentiated according to students’ interests. I wonder how a teacher might require that each student completes each type of assignment? I suspect that only doing writing assignments for example would not qualify as a pass for the course. This particular teacher rates each assignment “suggestion” on a difficulty scale from 1-5. The teacher might suggest then that students earn X amount of stars in each category. Brilliant! I really want to use this idea for my new Technology, Engineering, and Design course next year.


Differentiated learning or just different learning?

Following up on my previous post, I’m left wondering about the degree to which students actually learned during the artificial organ project.  For instance:

One group discovered that the ACL actually runs through the middle of the knee and was a  key addition for their prosthetic to rest at a neutral position,

Another learned how a toilet worked and modeled their artificial stomach after it (with much trial and error over the flapper device),

Another used a variety of tools for the first time.  Seriously, this was an instance of Shopclass as Soulcraft  to borrow a phrase from  Matthew Crawford

Another  was dumbfounded by the intricacy of esophagus movement despite thinking they had pick the easiest organ to replicate,

Yet, no groups learned all of those things.  Was the project a success?

I do feel comfortable that each group could relate their project to the idea of structure and function.  This was partly facilitated by the use of a functional decomposition exercise.  The foot group for example determined that three toes was all that was necessary to balance and walk effectively.  Overall, though, the groups learned by doing which was the goal.  What it is that they learns was just a little unpredictable.  Below are a few 1 min presentations of some different projects.  What do you think…..Did they learn biology?