Category Archives: Students

Girls Can!

3doodling“This was great. We should do more of these!”

Over a dozen MS and HS girls came to the ICS Makerspace/Robotics Lab on Saturday for a special girls-only technology session. They designed things, collaborated in teams, taught themselves new skills, faced problems and figured out how to overcome them, made things and had a great time! By the end of the day, every girl went home with something that they had designed and made using high-tech tools. If they had arrived with any doubts that they were capable of high-tech success, by the end of the day they knew that Girls Can!

Why a girls-only event? It’s easy to say that such functions should be open to everybody, but the world of technology is generally dominated by males and ICS is no different. Plenty of boys eagerly join the robotics team, sign up for programming classes, and spend time making and building with technology. Girls are under-represented and we recognize that they might need a little more encouragement to explore and learn with technology …and a girls-only session is a safe spot for them to learn and experiment.

measuringWe had a good mix of girls join us on Saturday, ranging from grade 6 to grade 12. (We even had a couple of elementary school visitors!) We started out with a general orientation to the tools available to the girls, and an explanation of some of the types of projects that they could take on. Some of the girls tried their hands at lots of tools – building robots, printing and cutting designs. Others had specific ideas for a project they wanted to do and stuck with it.

A special guest, Gillian Brewin, joined us and talked about her work with women and technology as well as the work her daughter, Danielle (who graduated from ICS in 2005), is doing: running a start-up workshop to encourage women to explore and use technology in their work.

ada-lovelace-day_indie-event_whiteThis event was also an independent event organized under the umbrella of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of Lady Ada Lovelace, who in the 1800’s was the first computer programmer. We explained her story to the girls and invited them to read a brief biography of her, as well as a charming (mostly accurate) cartoon about her by Sydney Padua. (Read her book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which is in the library.)

It was a great day of learning and exploring!

Here are some photos from the day:

roboticsbuilding robots changingfilamentchanging filament on the 3D printer
3d_designinglearning to build 3D designs computerfiguring out the software preferences
3doodling2doodling with 3D pens cuttingworking with the vinyl cutter
luncha welcome break! teamworkteamwork!
talkan inspiring talk by Gillian lasercuttingwatching the lasercutter cut with a laser (duh!)


Cross-posted from my school blog.


Open House in the Makerspace/Robotics Lab


It was universal: children and adults alike were impressed with the Open House we held on Saturday for our new Makerspace/Robotics Lab. The whole morning there was a buzz of laughter and enthusiastic calls of “look at this!” People were moving around the room, checking out what other people were doing and showing off their own work. Kids were building robots and other contraptions, parents were helping them out and taking photos, teachers were demonstrating how to make things with various pieces of equipment …and everybody was having a great time. Several parents and children expressed their hope that this would happen every weekend! Here are some of the things that were going on:

It was a terrific day! We’ll definitely be holding more Open House maker sessions!

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

DIY Learning Projects

gaming_JacobThis semester, we had a new High School course on offer for students: “Project X.” It was an experimental course of “DIY Learning,” where the students took control of their own learning. They chose a topic to learn about, planned their learning, and conducted their own research into the topic. The semester started with some teacher-led instruction of how to plan a learning experience, as well as how the brain works and how to study and learn new topics efficiently. The bulk of the semester had the students taking the lead, and so my role as “teacher” was to guide them and make sure they were on track, sticking to their plan, and making progress.

This week we had them present their learning to their classmates. It was a diverse range of subjects that they’d chosen to study. One studied astrophysics, while another studied graphic design and art using a graphics tablet. A few learned computer programming, and a few studied business plans and entrepreneurship. One learned computer game design, another studied how computers work and created a “visible computer” display showing the exposed components of a computer. The last presentation was by a student who studied international law, and she led the class in the enactment of a trial.

It was a fascinating experience, both for the teacher/facilitator, as well as for the students. We all learned a lot – not only about the subjects we studied but also about how we work and learn.

graphics_AbelAbel showing off art created on a graphic tablet. ExposedComputer_MoMohamed showing off his “visible computer.”
court_NubiaNubia presiding over a class trial. business_SebSeb making his elevator pitch.
Cross-posted from my school blog.

ICS students participate in Africa Code Week

This year the first ever Africa Code Week was conducted across the continent, aiming to get children started with computational thinking, programming, and using computers as devices to build software, not just use it. Thousands of children in over a dozen countries had the opportunity to start programming. ICS joined in this activity to help encourage our students to do the same, and we reached out to other children here in Addis Ababa to get them working with code. One week or one session will not make a programmer out of a child, but it can start the process. We’re planning to keep this initiative going through the year, not just within classes, but in fun, engaging activities outside school hours.


Cross-posted from my school blog.

Robotics: making, programming, competing

You can see it in their faces: the broad grins, the light shining in their eyes. You can hear it in their voices:

“This is so cool!”

These are the signs of students who have successfully done something that they’ve never done before. They’ve made something themselves, and got it working by themselves. This is the joy of the “maker” movement, the appeal of robotics, the push to teach programming in all schools.

I see it regularly in computing and robotics classrooms at ICS, and here it is in our High School robotics after-school activity. This small group of students are learning to build and program robots. It’s a small start for them: they got the robot to move in a straight line and then spin around in a circle. But those small steps start the students on a long and exciting journey.

robotThis is the process of building and making things for themselves. Many of us are content to read other people’s content on the web, watch other people’s videos, play other people’s games, etc. Some – the movers and shakers of today – are driven to actually create these things. They make new websites, create new games, build new tools. Robotics is part of that: the process of assembling a robot is an act of making and tinkering, which helps not only to lead to work in engineering and other fields but also to success in problem-solving. Then, once the robot is built, the students have to write a program to get the robot to do what they want. It’s a precise task, and one that requires the students to think through a task in logical steps, write out the code and then check it for errors.

I’ve written about programming before, and its value in modern society. Perhaps Douglas Rushkoff sums it up best by saying that people who can program are the true literates of the modern age: the writers who create new things compared to the majority of us who are simply users. These students are on the journey to being the leaders of the world: the ones who can build the tools and systems that the rest of us use.

It’s exciting to see the students start down that road …and see the glee in their faces when they get the machine to do what they want. There’s an extra bonus incentive for them: competition. ICS is part of ISSEA (International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa), which primarily sponsors sports tournaments. (Our upcoming track & field event is an ISSEA tournament.) However, the group has branched out into Arts events and – starting last year – a STEM competition in which students are challenged to solve mathematical and scientific problems, including building and programming robots. Last year, our students traveled to Harare to compete, where the robotics team won the KISS award despite problems knocking them out of the competition. This coming April our students will head to Lusaka, and they hope to do better!

We’ve started on our journey. It’s exciting to think about where it might lead…

Cross-posted from my school blog.

A sweet start to the year

The first day of classes is a problem for a computer-based course such as Developing Computer Applications. The temptation is to try to dive into working with computers, but the students haven’t received their laptops yet. (I’ve yet to figure out a system where we could just hand them over on Day 1!)

But even if they had the laptops, it might not be the right thing to just dive right in to programming and creating apps. Even in High School, it’s important to try to build community in a class and establish relationships. For me the first thing that’s important in a class is letting the students know that computer programming is a challenge (and sometimes very frustrating), but also fun and rewarding.

So I thought I’d do a fun group-based “unplugged” lesson – teaching a computer science concept without using computers. One of the building blocks of programming is the idea of an algorithm: a step-by-step procedure for accomplishing something. In order to give instructions to the computer, you need to break a task down into tiny steps and give those commands in clear, precise language. I’ve done this before with making a sandwich, but I looked for more inspiration and found a great plan by Phil Bagge that I adapted.

After the concept of algorithm was introduced by having them explain the process of long division, the students were given the following instructions:


And I explained: they were to give the SandwichBot 3000 robot (me!) step-by-step instructions to make a jam sandwich. If they did it wrong, they’d have to fix it. If they did it right, they’d get a snack for a reward. (It helped having the class just before lunch – they were hungry!) They got into teams of 4 and started working.

When two teams had finished, they came to give the “robot” their instructions. The whole class watched to see how quickly their friends would get a yummy snack.

They quickly found out that their hard work was often a failure. The brainless robot did what they told him to do, even if it didn’t make sense. He also would stop if they didn’t give instructions in clear language. “Put it down” was met with “I don’t know what ‘it’ is.” If they told the robot to pick something up and forgot to tell it to put it down, his hands got full and he couldn’t do a step. Sometimes their instructions resulted in surprising results: “press the bread down onto the plate” got a squished slice!

The best laugh was when one team instructed the robot to “scoop out jam with right hand.” Without a knife, the robot dug into the jar and held up a handful of jam! (The robot had washed his hands well with soap before the lesson!)

Each time their algorithm “crashed,” they had to go back and try it again. Eventually, their instructions were covered in cross-outs, additions, etc. The great thing about it was that eventually, every team got a plate of jam sandwiches. They all laughed, both at the robot and at their own mistakes. They gave each other encouragement and suggestions. From a social point of view, a success.

Also successful academically in a great way: they didn’t give up. They didn’t get a low score on their algorithm. They “failed” but went back to fix their work and improve it. (A buzzphrase in education: “FAIL = First Attempt In Learning.”) Eventually, they all succeeded.

When I asked the students afterwards what they’d learned, one of them said, “algorithms are hard!!” But, I asked, did they succeed? Yes, they agreed. And that’s the frustrating and wonderful part about programming. Computers are dumb machines. It’s hard to figure out the right sequence of instructions and the right language to get them to do what you want, but eventually you can and do. I’ve never had a student not be successful in building an application. Some build huge, fancy programs, while others create more simple ones …but they all succeed.

And that’s a sweet lesson to start the year!

credit: photo of bread & jam by Yemisi Ogbe from Wikimedia Commons licensed CC-BY-SA

Finding the Technology Balance during Holidays


Many parents (and teachers) fear the “summer slump.” Classes are over, kids are at home, and parents still need to work. It’s easy for children to spend their days glued to the TV or playing games on a tablet or just goofing off on a computer. They worry about children keeping their learning going during the summer, so they assign books to read, find educational apps, have their children do keyboarding practice, do lessons on educational websites, etc.

children-playing-329234_1280This can exacerbate the sedentary life of children during the holidays. Kids might wind up sitting and doing screen-based activities …when they also need to get outside and run around, dig in the dirt or a sandbox, play games with other children, etc.

What’s a parent to do? How can we keep our children learning and creating, while also being active and enjoying themselves?

For me, the key word is balance. It’s OK for kids (or adults!) to slob out in front of the TV for a while. It’s OK for kids (or adults!) to spend hours playing games on a tablet or game machine. It’s OK for kids to do any activity that doesn’t actually hurt them. It really only becomes problematical when that’s all that they do.

So let me add my comments to the numerous articles (here’s a very good one) about how to manage your children’s use of technology during the summer time, and offer two basic rules:

Use limits to keep a balance

Talk with your child(ren) about the need for balance. (It’s part of the ICS Learner Profile!) Don’t judge activities, but emphasize that everything needs to be balanced out. Broccoli is good for you, but if that’s all you eat then you won’t get complete nutrition. Reading books is a good activity, but if your children spend their entire summer doing nothing but read books, they would lack physical exercise, social interactions, etc.

Don’t set arbitrary limits, but let your child(ren) help establish how they will keep a balance. Maybe you can set some times as “videogame time.” Maybe they will vary activities by day (Monday=Minecraft. Tuesday=table tennis. Wednesday=water play…). Maybe they can balance hours (“I’ll spend three hours playing on my iPad and then go outside for three hours.”) Let your child(ren) establish the rules and they’ll be more willing to follow them!

Note that if you are traveling, setting such limits when you’re out of your normal routines can be more difficult. Take a look at this article for some tips on how to keep some balance on technology use while traveling. Again, the main idea is balance.

the-young-713333_640Embrace technology

Technology is not evil. Videogames are not bad for children. Playing on iPads is not a waste of time. Smartphones are not causing people to become stupid. In and of themselves, any technology tool is neither good nor bad. (The history of technology-bashing has a long history. Socrates railed against the horrible new technology of writing, saying it would ruin people’s memories!)

Parents who embrace technology help their children use tech well, share in the excitement and enjoyment, and participate in the various activities. Some parents embrace it wholeheartedly, while others merely allow it and enable it.

What can you do? You can use technology to extend your child(ren)’s learning. There are various good guides to apps and learning tools – CommonSenseMedia is a great site for parents that has a lot of great information, including a summer learning guide. (My advice: go for the tools that allow for creativity, not “drill & kill” skill-building apps that function like electronic worksheets.)

You can creatively use the technology itself. I’ve given my daughter the challenge of building an electronic book about our summer travels. She’ll use our iPad to take photos and videos, write descriptions, etc. and put them together into an e-book she can share with family. (It’ll also give her something to do and focus on while visiting castles & museums and help her get focused on what’s around her.)

And you can participate in the technology. Kids on Facebook? Ask them what they’re posting. Show interest and excitement. If they’ve found a funny video, laugh and enjoy the joke. Being part of their lives is a big part of parenting …it also helps when the inevitable conflicts come up. They’ll know that you’re not just about telling them what not to do, but you also appreciate things they do.

blow-bubbles-668950_640Remember: part of the reason that children need a break from school is so that they can play. Play is important for children’s healthy development – whether they are 3 years old or 13 years old!

Playing outside by kicking a ball or digging in the dirt or playing tag with friends is healthy, fun and a valuable learning experience. So is building structures in Minecraft, making movies on a tablet, or even organizing armies in World of Warcraft.

Enjoy your summer break!

Global Codeathon

JpegClick. Click. Click.

“Look what I made!” “Oh, that’s COOL!”

Click. Click. Click.

“Hey, how did you do that??” “Here, let me show you!”

The buzz in the room was tremendous. Students were excitedly working on projects individually, working together to solve problems and enthusiastically checking out each other’s work. For us adults in the room, it was a busy and fun time: helping students, giving out praise and suggestions, asking questions, pointing out other students’ success.

This past Saturday, ICS participated in the Global Codeathon, an international competition/collaborative project. Students in grades 3-6 from international schools all around the world assembled in their respective schools to build games, simulations and other programs using Scratch, a free online coding platform built by MIT to help children learn computer programming.

JpegICS students came to the ES computer lab and dove right in. They got help from Middle Schooler, Abheek, as well as from Ms Alex and Ms Heran (and myself!) but the ideas, as well as the execution, was all theirs. They added “sprites” to their programs, gave them commands to move, make noises, change their appearance, and more. They had to act in one way when clicked on by the mouse, another way when keys were pressed on the keyboard. They had to think through how they could get the computer to move and animate things the way they wanted. It was hard, but it was fun!

Meanwhile, students in schools all around the world were doing the same. We had some technical difficulties, including a complete internet outage for the first 45 minutes, which stopped us from video chatting with them, but our students chatted with them on the “backchannel” chat line, and also got to share their work in two Scratch “galleries.” They enjoyed getting comments on their games from students in other countries, and had fun trying out other students’ projects.

At the end, Ms Alex and Ms Heran brought out pizzas and juice boxes for the tired but still enthusiastic programmers. You can’t code without fuel! All agreed it was a fun day …and we’re looking forward to an even better time (with a better connection!) next year!


Hour of Code


“This is awesome!

Any time a teacher hears that from a student, it makes the teacher’s day week year. That phrase has been heard quite a few times this week as we’ve had students participate in the annual Hour of Code.

The Hour of Code was started last year as an initiative within the annual Computer Science Education Week, which is held every December (coinciding with the birthday of the amazing programmer and computer scientist, Admiral Grace Hopper). The Hour of Code was intended to get every student spending one hour doing some programming to get them started with programming, Computer Science and computational thinking. This year, the project has been expanded worldwide, with the goal of reaching 50 million students.

ICS students participated in the Hour of Code this year in a number of ways:

Elementary School

JpegDSCI0180In ES, students from grade 4 and 5 signed up for a special lunchtime Art Studio. Normally, Helen Iglar runs Art Studio for students to do any kind of artwork they are interested in – this week, she focused the students on art through programming. Using iPads, the students completed a tutorial from and then moved on to use the Hopscotch app. In Hopscotch, students program cartoon “sprites” to draw shapes. With some critical thinking and creativity, students can use Hopscotch to program artwork.

An excited group of students signed up and committed to the week, coming to Art Studio every day. They finished up on Friday with a celebration and photographs with their certificates. One student said, “This isn’t the Hour of Code, it’s the Power of Code!”

Middle School

JpegIn MS, all students participated last week, because their schedule this week was already full. So students had their Wednesday “Community Time” to explore the tutorials on the website to solve programming tasks. The students were excited about it and conveyed their enthusiasm to their teachers and advisors. Several of them were spotted continuing their programming after school!

This week, we opened up a lunchtime challenge for all Middle School students to use the Scratch programming environment (installed on their laptops and free to download for home computers) to build a clone of the Flappy Birds game. A number of Middle School students took up the challenge and spent their lunchtime happily programming away!

ms_hour_of_code ms_hour_of_code2

High School

JpegIn High School, a group of students decided that an hour wasn’t enough and are organizing a Month of Programming, with tutorials, challenges, contests and prizes. This will come after the holiday and more information will be published here and in the Yezare Samint.

Meanwhile, last week’s Grade 10 Week Within Walls STEAM week included a programming component in which a group of students used the LiveCode application development program to code their own computer games. And also a lunchtime Hour of Code was held during CS Ed Week in which students looked at and analyzed the Scratch Flappy Bird game.


On Saturday, our weekly CoderDojo will focus on the Hour of Code to have students build games, take tutorials and have fun! All are welcome – parents, come along and learn some programming along with your children!


Projects of Passion

 “I wish school was like this every day.”

When a teacher hears this kind of comment from a student, you know you’re doing something right. There were a number of comments like this last week from Grade 10 students. They had a week off timetable and we decided to give them a week of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) projects, plus some time to do a “passion project” on a topic/area of interest of their choosing. The students rose to the occasion and did some amazing work.

There are a few elements of the week that are worth focusing on:


JpegStudents were able to choose which area they wanted to work in. It was first-come first-served (so some got their second choice), but the students appreciated being able to pick for themselves what type of work they wanted to do.

One group of students built air-pressured bottle rockets designed to launch into the air and travel safely (with a parachute for gentle landings) a specified distance. They learned about aeronautics, hydrolics and air pressure, drag, and other important Science and Engineering concepts. Another group used SketchUp to build digital 3D scale models of campus buildings. They measured, calculated and used Trigonometry and other Mathematics concepts to make sure their models were to scale. A third group of students built and programmed robots to perform set tasks. Another group of students used LiveCode to program their own computer game. Finally, another group of students created a 3D mural to adorn the mini-amphitheatre reflecting Ethiopia, Lucy and human bones.

Students really appreciated being able to choose different projects and being more in control of their work.


Students were given an opportunity to pursue a “passion project” – to pick an area that they (individually or in small groups) were very interested in and to do a project related to that. They were given time and some guidance to the project, but otherwise allowed to work at their own speed & level.

Some students explored photography, others focused on a sport. Some continued their STEAM project, while others

created something artistic. One student created a model of an invention by Leonardo da Vinci. Another researched a medical issue and produced a poster giving information about it. A few wrote poems, while others wrote and performed songs. Several made videos about their passion, whether it was skateboarding, football, forestry or other topics.

Many students commented on how they appreciated being able to pursue their own particular interest.


JpegStudents were given a fair bit of latitude in doing their own individual passion project, and given a fair bit of leeway in the other projects regarding what they would contribute or produce. Students appreciated being given time and space to do their work at their own pace. Teachers were monitoring them and keeping them on task, but they weren’t constantly directing the students. As one student said:

“I liked getting the opportunity of exploring what interests us. I also loved the liberty that we were bestowed with. We didn’t have teachers telling us what to do for once. “