MACUL 2019: Student Created Smart Assistants Using Raspberry Pis and Python

Education, Technology

Thanks for checking out information related to my 2019 MACUL Conference workshop.

If you’re just here for the giveaway, leave your name, school, and grade taught (for my curiosity) at the bottom of this post to enter.

Presentation Slides
Resource Sheet

Student Resources

Google Earth, Expeditions and More in Social Studies

Education, Technology

I recently attended a excellent workshop from Alyssa Marcangelo on integrating Google Expeditions and Google Earth within the classroom. These were tools I was familiar with but thought that they never really found their place within K-12 education, as many of Google Earth’s features are now baked into Google Maps, and low-resolution, static pictures were just not that compelling within Google Expeditions. Yet I took this opportunity to take the time to really consider curricular connections where they might fit in. In a first attempt to provide a context to homeroom teachers for using these tools, I turned to a Fourth Grade Social Studies unit that has students using the Design Thinking process to tackle U.S. regional issues. I thought it might be a good fit to give students a birds-eye view of some of these problems during the Empathize/Understand phase.

MIT Solve Workshop

Design, Education, STEM

Tech Town hosted a workshop from MIT’s Solve team yesterday evening. I attended only due to a chance meeting with Paul Riser, Jr. when I was accompanying teachers looking at Tech Town as a potential field trip site. It turned out to be a snowy evening to trundle downtown, but I’m glad I went as I think Solve presents an interesting approach to tackling social issues.

Creative Computing Lesson

Coding, Computational Thinking, Education, MSU MAET

Grade level: K-12 Teachers



Common Core Math (for students – not standards for the workshop)

7.G.2 Draw (freehand, with ruler and protractor, and with technology) geometric shapes with given conditions. Focus on constructing triangles from three measures of angles or sides, noticing when the conditions determine a unique triangle, more than one triangle, or no triangle.

National Core Art Standards (for teachers/students)

CR.1.1.8 Generate ideas, goals, and solutions for original media artworks through application of focused creative processes, such as divergent thinking and experimenting.

CSTA Computer Science Standards (for teachers/students)

L1:6.CT.1 Understand and use the basic steps in algorithmic problem-solving (e.g., problem statement and exploration, examination of sample instances, design, implementation, and testing).

L1:6.CT.6 Understand connections between computer science and other fields.

Misconceptions about Computer Science

Computational Thinking, Education, MSU MAET

I recently interviewed fellow educators and software developers about what they thought computer science was. The results were rather interesting, as responses ranged from not being sure at all to focusing on programming and use of computers. The interviewees included:

  • A second grade teacher
  • An art educator
  • A software developer

As you might expect, their responses varied quite widely. This demonstrates a challenge to the computer science field in communicating the nature of the discipline, although debate with the field exists on that very question.

DC 3000 by Thievery Corporation used under the Sampling Plus license.


Zweben, S. (2011). Computing degree and enrollment trends. Computing Research Association.


Thorny Issue Memo: STEM vs. STEAM

Education, MSU MAET, STEM


Since the 1990’s, the National Science Foundation has emphasized the need to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and retain students within the STEM pipeline to propel them to related careers. This call to action is a result of an innovation-driven economy where an increasing number of careers will require STEM skills, but where the majority of students in the United States are not proficient in these fields and have fallen behind their peers on international assessments, resulting in employers who lack qualified applicants to fill STEM positions (National Research Council, 2011). Even after decades of efforts with billions of federal funds allocated to STEM programs each year, there still exists ambiguity over how to best teach STEM, including how closely to integrate the fields within instruction (Sanders, 2009).

The Art of Algorithms

Computational Thinking, Creativity, Education, MSU MAET, Museums

The Tweet

The Pitch

The Paper


Forty years ago, Donald Knuth argued that computer programming is both an art and a science, with the two aspects not at odds but complementary to each other. Writing a program “can be like composing poetry or music…programming can give us both intellectual and emotional satisfaction” (Knuth, 1974, p. 670). He perceived that it is not only the result of an algorithm that can demonstrate creativity, but the act of creating the algorithm as well. This is akin to recognizing that the techniques of a painter can be as creative as the painting itself, as the process and product are intrinsically linked. Creativity in programming has long been accepted in the computer science community, but not necessarily with the general public. One contributing factor is that the algorithms and code that implements them have often been obscured from the end user, or to borrow an art term, viewer.

A new museum exhibit, The Art of Algorithms, will pull back the curtain to reveal the spectrum of creativity used in creating and implementing algorithms and demonstrate applications of computational thinking in the arts. By participating in this interactive museum exhibit, visitors will not only be able to experience examples of digital art, but also create works to be displayed within the gallery. Museums play an important role in communities by not only elucidating difficult concepts but nurturing passions in different fields of study and showing connections across disciplines.

Reflecting on Playing

Creativity, Education, MSU MAET

Playing is finding joy in open-ended exploration, without being concerned with a specific outcome. Play allows ideas to be reimagined through new representations, avoids following conventional ways of thought, and uses rules and limitations as means to creativity. Used in conjunction with other imaginative skills, it leads to the transformation of ideas, by altering modes of representation or finding connections across (and above) disciplines (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999).

While I initially considered play as an underutilized skill in creating algorithms, I found that it can be one of the most useful ways to be creative in problem solving, such as with my proposed activity that uses playing with a simple programming tool to introduce algorithms to elementary and middle school students. While it uses open inquiry to allow the students to freely explore how instructions are constructed, I kept some constraints and broad goals in place to promote deep or hard play. The only way to construct the algorithm was through the blocks available in Scratch, and with each of the challenges, students were given the freedom to explore but needed to apply what they learned towards increasingly complex goals.

Playing and Drawing in Scratch

Computational Thinking, Creativity, Education, MSU MAET

Scratch provides an easy to use entry point for young students to create programs using natural language and drag-and-drop blocks of code. The interface uses natural language instructions that allows projects to straddle the line between algorithm and program: once the blocks have been snapped together, they describe a method to solve a problem, but Scratch encourages students to play with the algorithm through easily modification, and the results are instantaneous – the blocks can even be changed while the program is running. In my experience with Scratch, allowing young students to start with a drawing algorithm provides an introduction to the value of play when coding.

The idea of drawing through algorithms is at least half a century old. In Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas, Seymour Papert (1980) promoted using the LOGO language to create patterns with students of all ages, and Scratch is the spiritual successor to LOGO. Papert also adapted constructivism, the idea that learners construct knowledge through experiences, into his own theory of constructionism, where learners create a meaningful product to develop new knowledge. Scratch is a great tool for use in constructionism, which is innately linked to the idea of hard play.