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.

3D Printing

In our new Makerspace/Robotics Lab, we’ve got a new Makerbot Replicator for 3D printing (and a Digitizer for scanning objects)! We’ve set it up and run a few test prints. I sent out a tweet last weekend of our first real print:

It’s quite impressive how things come out. I’d downloaded some files from museums and art galleries, and wound up printing out two really impressive objects:

firstprintoutsThe skull is of a Homo Erectus, and the original is over 1.5million years old! It’s a scan of a fossil skull found near Lake Turkana in Kenya (nicknamed “Turkana Boy”). This fossil – and many others – have been scanned and 3D models are available to be looked at and manipulated online at This is a terrific resource for any teachers or students interested in studying human origins. (There are also animal fossils as well as tools.) Furthermore, the 3D scans can be downloaded for printing out on a 3D printer. This means that for the price of some plastic filament and some electricity, our school can have a scale model of a real fossilized skull of one of our ancestors. Students can hold it in their hands, look at it from all sides, and see what our ancient relatives looked like (on the inside, at least!).

There are also many museums that have collections of sculptures and artifacts that can be downloaded and printed, such as Rodin’s “The Thinker.” This model was done by a hobbyist and published on Thingiverse, so it’s not as detailed as a scan from the original would be. However, many museums are allowing and encouraging the scanning of artifacts (see this article from The Metropolitan Museum of Art) so it will be increasingly possible for schools to have scale models of sculptures, carvings, or other physical artifacts available to their students.

It’s pretty exciting to have these types of resources available to our students and teachers and community. Come check it out in room S021!

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

The pleasures and challenges of online learning

The internet and world-wide-web have revolutionised so many aspects of society, it’s no wonder that they have changed how people learn. (It’s only surprising that it hasn’t changed more already.) Online learning has provided so many opportunities for people all over the world, that it has become extremely easy and often free to learn just about anything. This can happen in very informal ways, but also in more traditional formal classes delivered online.

Over the past years, I’ve taken a variety of formal classes. I’ve learned Portuguese (um pouco!), how the brain works, Java programming techniques, online assessment tools, how to teach the IB Diploma Computer Science course, and many more. I’ve taken courses accredited by universities and international organizations as well as courses taught by private tutors. Some I’ve paid for and many have been free.

For me, the advantage of taking online courses is that I can learn wherever I am and whenever I have time. It’s an obvious advantage to online learning, and one that’s touted by online course providers. It also can lead to some serious challenges when you have a traveling lifestyle!

A perfect case in point happened to me this summer. I signed up for an online course offered through Thinkport (I recommend their courses – very well organized and useful). I needed a few credits to renew my Maryland teaching certificate, so I signed up for the summer course on Blended Learning. I’m experienced in that, so I thought it wouldn’t be too challenging and I could easily complete it in the summer, but I also knew that I could benefit from new ideas, formal training and communication with other teachers.

I started the course while on holiday in the US, and it was easy to work in the readings, discussions and projects while relaxing in my parents’ house in El Paso, Texas. However, we’d booked an Alaska cruise to celebrate my 50th birthday (and that’s another blog post or two!) and the course required log-ins and activity every few days. So I needed to make sure I had connectivity while cruising so that I could do readings and post to the discussions. It made for some interesting early mornings, watching the mountains and whales glide by from the “Crow’s Nest” cafe while I read about keeping students engaged while online! We then left the US and headed home to Ethiopia, first spending a week in Kenya with family in our beach house. Again, I found myself watching the water while reading and posting – this time from our beach house’s roof deck looking out over the Indian Ocean. (I’m an earlybird, so I saw a lot of sunrises over the ocean while doing coursework!)

The biggest challenge came, ironically enough, when we returned home. Despite being stationary and having all my resources around me, it became even more difficult to meet deadlines. School was starting and I had to prepare my classes, as well as set up our new student information system and oversee the distribution of student laptops to all the Middle School and High School students! It was during this time that I actually missed deadlines and lost points. My instructor was kind enough to give me some leeway, but I almost took it as a badge of honour that I put my students’ learning before my own and allowed my work and learning to suffer to make sure theirs got off to a good start for the year.

With all the challenges I faced over that course, and with the slightly diminished grade due to the opening of the school year, I’m valuing the completion of this course more than many of the others I’ve done. I’m looking forward to keeping that course certificate and framing it. It’ll be a reminder of the process and what I’ve learned about blended learning – both from the content and from the process!

Here Come the Robots

IMG_3301The ICS Robotics team is off and running for SY1617! We’ve received a shipment of new kits and extra parts, and our high school and middle school after-school activities are off and running.

The official ASA season doesn’t start until next week, but we had a “soft opening” of the new Makerspace/Robotics Lab in S021 on Thursday and Friday. HS and MS students were joined by a few ES students in opening up and trying out new equipment. There was a lot of laughter and excitement as they worked together to build robots.

Thanks to the successful launch of the ICS Annual Giving campaign last year, we have equipment for all grade levels. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for ICS students to learn to build and program robots no matter their age. For now this means in after-school activities, but we’re working on plans for scheduling the space during the school day and making the equipment available to different classes around the school.

There’ll be plenty more to report during the school year. Meanwhile, here are a few photos from our opening sessions:

IMG_3289 IMG_3332


Cross-posted from my school blog.

First Attempt In Learning

We got a bunch of new equipment to set up the new Makerspace/Robotics Lab, including a vinyl cutter. This is a fairly simple piece of equipment: you design something, then send it to the cutter which cuts your design in paper or vinyl. With this, you can make stencils, wall decals, laptop stickers, etc.

So I tried out some designs to put up on the walls. I had some ideas in my head, so I designed them in Inkscape and worked them into cut lines to run through the cutter. (You can’t just print a solid image: you need the lines that the cutter will follow.)

And I came up with this:


It was a great idea: the action word “Think” to go with the ICS Learner Profile trait of being a Thinker, a brain to lend a visual to the word. But… The brain cut out nicely, but it was extremely difficult to apply to the wall. It stuck to itself, then parts adhered to the wall in the wrong spots. It’s wrinkly and the gap between the lobes is too big.

And I realized: it’s not a FAIL, it’s a First Attempt In Learning. I learned a lot about what makes a good design for a vinyl cut, and I realized I should leave it up there to show the students. They can learn from my F.A.I.L. and try their own designs. And if theirs don’t come out beautifully, it’ll be their First Attempt In Learning.

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

No, Apple computers do not “just work”

Apple touts its products as being for the everyday user and being designed to be simple to use. The many fans of Apple computers, tablets and phones, argue that its products “just work” as opposed to other software, systems and equipment.

That’s not at all true. I use Apple’s OSX on a Macbook Pro. I also use Windows and Ubuntu. I have an iPhone, and an Android tablet. They all have their quirks and oddities and things that just DON’T work. Apple is no exception. Sometimes their stuff just does not work.

Note to Apple Fanbois: I’ve been using Macs for decades. I’m not dim and I’m a fairly competent computer user. I like some of what Apple makes, but not everything!

An example:

I got some photos from my brother-in-law of his new baby daughter. I wanted to print them. So I downloaded them from the email and then imported them into Apple’s Photos application. I went to print them. Here’s what I saw:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 7.21.01 AMFor some reason, Photos decided to print my photos on a landscape page, even when the preview showed the paper as portrait. An there’s no way to change that. I looked. No “page setup” and no orientation settings in the print dialogue. No way to change the photos’ orientation on the page. I tried all kinds of menus, various options, different settings. Nothing changed the way it came out or let me print a whole photo on a page.

Not being a person to let an application defeat me, I went searching for a solution. I found others had discovered the same problem and posted their problems online. All agreed that there was no way to change the orientation of the print job. There were a few workarounds suggested, so I tried them …with no luck. I posted my question on Apple’s online community forum and got some more workarounds from a helpful member of the community …which didn’t solve my problem.

I am used to working with many applications on many operating systems. This is an application created by Apple and bundled with its operating system. It’s made to be a simple photo management program – and is THE system that Apple promotes and supports. But it lacks a basic feature, which interferes with users’ ability to get things done.

I’ve advocated for free and open source software, including the Ubuntu operating system, for years. People have complained that the software isn’t “intuitive” and that installing software or setting things up on Linux is complicated and requires looking things up, finding workarounds, etc. I’ve said that sometimes easy isn’t better and that if things are hard it may be worthwhile. I’ve been shouted down when I’ve advocated for alternatives and told that our school needs to use Apple and other commercial software because it “just works” and doesn’t interfere with teaching and learning. I’ve given in and our school is now a Macintosh and Windows school, a Google school, a Microsoft Office school.

I fixed my problem: I took the photos out of Apple’s Photos, put them into a draw document in the free and open source LibreOffice and printed them.

The joy of a small bright dot of light

There it is!

The anticipation is part of the excitement: who will see it first? where? when? We stand up on our beach house’s roof deck, scanning the night sky, enjoying the breeze and the sound of the surf and the fading light of the setting sun illuminating the palm trees around us. Waiting for the predicted time, looking around, anticipating.

Then someone spots it: a small dot near the horizon. Everyone looks, points, calls “I see it!” We watch as it travels across the sky, getting brighter as it moves. We talk about what it means, and we recall previous times we’ve seen it. It fades as it moves towards the far horizon and we move off to enjoy the rest of the evening. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

For years, we’ve been spotting the ISS (the International Space Station) from our holiday home on the Kenyan coast. Whenever we’re there, I check to see if it will be visible and get the family to take some time to watch it fly overhead. I’ll usually look up who’s on the station crew at the time and any tidbits of information about experiments, spacewalks, etc.

There’s a great feeling of being connected. We’re on the edge of water and land, spending our days walking along that edge and going back and forth from the sea to the land. We’re standing on Earth and looking up at the stars, seeing other human beings traveling in a massive achievement of human engineering and technology. The fact that we can see it from where we stand is just terrific – no binoculars or telescope needed. It has also become something of a tradition: every holiday we make a plan for a space station viewing on our roof deck.

In one sense, it’s an unexciting non-event: a dot of light crossing the sky. In another, however, it’s a connection between us and one of the greatest achievements of the human species. What an event to enjoy on a beach holiday!

image credit: Stephen Rahn – Flickr, licensed CC-BY-NC

The problem is NOT the computer

We were checking in to board the plane, and the woman at the check-in desk told me our seat assignments. “That’s not right!” I said. “We’re a family of three, traveling with a child. You cannot give us three separate seats.” The woman apologized, but said that the plane was full and she could not give us three seats – or even two seats – together. I argued and became insistent that we be given seats together, and she brought in her manager. The manager was able to do some rearranging and gave us two seats together for one parent and the child, and another seat nearby. I thanked her for accommodating us and said that the airline policy should be that families – especially with children – should always be seated together. That’s when she said it:

“The computer assigns the seats. That’s the problem.”

Before steam started coming out of my ears, I swallowed hard, counted to 10 (in binary) and then calmly and patiently explained to the woman that the problem was not the computer.

Perhaps nothing reveals the great need for Computer Science to be taught to every student in school than this very common misunderstanding. People in every job and every walk of life use computers every day. And many of them fail to understand fundamentally how computers work.

Computers do not do things magically, and they don’t operate on their own (yet). Computers do exactly what they are told by human beings, and how they accomplish those tasks is also controlled by human beings. That is called programming.

In this case, the airline (or their programmers) instructed the computer (their servers) to assign seats to passengers once they book a ticket (or when they check in or whenever). Seemingly, those instructions (program) prioritized business travelers, frequent flyers, people who checked-in early, etc. There seemed to be no provisions within the program for families or children.

The solution to the problem is very simple: adjust the program to ensure that children traveling with families are always given seats next to their parents (or at least one parent). Sure, this might interfere with frequent flyers choosing their ideal seats, but the program can be written to maximize the choices for prioritized customers without sacrificing at least two adjacent seats for every child traveling with family.

The problem does not come from the computer. The computer is only doing what it has been told to do by the airline’s programmers. The problem comes from the programmers not being told to prioritize children by the airline.

Too often people blame “the computer” when things do not go well. It’s more than just “blaming the messenger” – it shows that people really do not properly understand how computers work. It’s a mystery to them, so they can blame computers for mistakes .(And also presumably to praise computers for serendipitous good fortune – “Congratulations! The computer has selected you to be upgraded!”) If people truly understood that computers were programmed by human beings to produce the results they come up with, then they would not only be better able to explain problems but also feel empowered to fix those problems. Imagine the manager’s response if she had really understood the way computers work: “I’m sorry for the trouble. The computer system has obviously been programmed poorly to not take into account children traveling with their families. I will make a recommendation to my superiors that the program be revised so this problem doesn’t happen again.”

Aside: I know I’m whining a bit about my own situation. However, I’ve been on airplanes where air hostesses were scrambling to rearrange passengers after boarding to try to unite families who had been separated by “the computer.” It’s a problem that affects many airline customers as well as many airline employees. I could write about the dismissive treatment of passengers by airlines, but I’ll have to wait until I can do so calmly!


photo credit: andreas160578 from Pixabay (CC0/public domain)

Blending in

One of the most amusing experiences of our trip to Croatia and Slovenia was how often we’d get mistaken for a local. The typical experience went something like this:

Me/Helen: “Dobar dan!”

Waiter/Ticket Agent/Person on the street/etc: “Moj lebdeći brod je pun jegulja.”

Me/Helen: “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Hrvatska!”

This happened time and time again. All we learned was how to say hello and thank you, but every time we started out with “dobar dan” people assumed we were Croatian. Then when we said “hvala” they laughed and said we really were Croatian!

It was a fascinating experience. We haven’t encountered this in other countries, despite learning some local vocabulary. Most likely there’s a fair bit of tourism in Croatia but from people who make no effort to learn any Croatian. It just reinforces the fact that taking some time to learn some of the local language, culture, etc. makes traveling not only easier but also more rewarding!

Not like at home

Words can’t really do justice to the experience. Deep, blood-red color. Thick, plump, juicy. They were the most arresting tomatoes I’ve ever seen in my life. And they smelled strong, fragrant, earthy. And the taste

Our hostess, Pelmina, explained that she’d bought the tomatoes at a local market on the island of Krk, at the market in Baška. That’s just how they grow there. She served them with a little olive oil (made from her own olives) and some herbs from her garden. Simple. Delicious.

DSCN9918We bought some more on the island of Cres at a local market. These were also amazing, although not quite as deep a red or as amazing a taste. There must be something in the Krk soil…

That’s one of the beauties of traveling: of tasting (and seeing, smelling, hearing…) things that are so different from what you’re used to. It reminds you that other people’s experiences are quite different from your own. And that yours can be different, too, if you take the time and go.