New Project: Maker Learners

In this article I introduce my new pet project: Maker Learners. A drive for a community of teachers, parents and hobbyists focused on maker centered learning.

I’ve been somewhat absent from this blog for some time. I wanted to finally share a project that’s been taking up a lot of my free time for a while.. To understand it’s intention, purpose and logic I think I should cycle back a number of years.

For the majority of my teaching career, I’ve had some kind of educational blog. From mrcopeland.science to mracopeland.com, I never quite knew what to call my ‘digital soapbox’. I always struggled to create a clear identity for the space and I think that’s been the case until recently.

My first educational blog was a Frankenstein’s monster of poor digital art and terrible formatting. There was no clear purpose for the blog but I’m grateful for the lessons in writing and working with WordPress that came with creating it.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the problems and topics that I really want to give my free time towards. For the first time I feel that there’s a clear connection between my personal and my professional identity, and that connection is the ‘maker movement’.

Maker Ed

I first encountered the maker movement when my school put me on the Harvard Education course ‘Thinking and Learning in the Maker Centred Classroom’. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I’d also recently discovered the Shenzhen Electronics Market which was a short journey from my school. What ensued was a period of profound discovery of the breadth and depth of the maker community as both a hobbyist and an educator. 

I still identify as little more than a beginner but given the aforementioned breadth and depth, I wonder if it is possible to ever feel that you are an expert at all things ‘Maker’. I hope not, as this is a large part of the appeal to this serial hobbyist. 

I have been fortunate to spend the last three years working within one of Hong Kong’s exemplar school-based maker spaces. This has exposed me to a huge variety of technologies and tools but it has also made me privy to the mindsets and philosophies of brilliant colleagues and a wider learning network of some of the most talented ‘Maker Educators’ across Hong Kong and beyond. Makers like Ringo Dingrando who first introduced me to the Arduino ecosystem and Paul Marriott who’s constantly sharing new projects, Malc Summerton who walked me through building my first 3D Printer and Jason Prohaska who showed me that the maker mindset is a valuable attitude for teaching but such a great attitude to share with your own children too.

My first ever Arduino build was completed during a workshop held by Ringo Dingrando. The ‘Trump Bot’ was given an extended ‘splint arm’ so that he could ignite a bonfire to signal the end of the training.

In time I have grown convinced that every student should have access to a maker space or a ‘Maker Centered Classroom’. In trying to achieve this I have run into the perpetual problem that plagues all educators: Time (or better put, lack of it). Whilst unstructured tinker time is an ideal for many schools, for most it is seen as an unrealistic transaction of valuable contact time with our students. Now, I am not here to argue the merits of inquiry over directed learning, or structured vs unstructured time. Instead I want to propose a framework for meeting in the middle, the topic of this article, Maker Learners.

Introducing “Maker Learners”

I decided that I wanted to create ‘Maker Learners’ a long time ago, and its creation has been a slow process. From creating a WordPress website and attaching a personal domain to it, to creating custom fields and forms so that community posts are possible, to working with vector graphics to create a logo and an ‘identity’ for the space, I think it’s fair to say that the Maker Learners project has been my most ambitious ‘Maker project’ to date. 

I’m still learning something new every time I interact with this project. I finally have the website ‘community ready’ – you can create an account and this will allow you to create your own profile and to post projects as an author. Projects will need to be moderated by me and hopefully eventually, other moderators.

My hope is that Maker Learners will become a space of curated projects that are designed to connect ‘Maker projects’ to academic learning in a way that they can be easily picked up by teachers or parents wishing to encourage maker education in their students and children, or even beginner makers like myself to discover not only new maker technologies, but the underlying academic connections that can be discovered through their design and application. I feel that this might be a little confusing to someone that hasn’t obsessed over the idea for a couple of years, so I’m going to share a couple of my favorite examples of ‘Maker learning’…

Wave Science and Piezo Buzzers

When showing students one way for programming a piezo buzzer to sound at a particular pitch, we found ourselves writing code that would place a potential across the piezoelectric material at a frequency equal to that of the desired pitch. This lead to conversations about sound waves, pitch and frequency, and the time period of oscillation.

3D Printing and Measurement/Uncertainty

3D printers can make all sorts of things, but what about measuring instruments? What is the accuracy of a 3D printed ruler? Challenging students to create unique measuring instruments that measure lengths, area’s or volumes in graduations that become their own units is a brilliant way to lead students towards thinking conceptually about measurement and uncertainty and the requirement for standards.

Python Code and Probability

I believe that all students should have access to computational thinking and computer science in middle school. However, I also believe that all science high school students should have access to computational science for simulating and testing predicted models. One of the core understandings of using computation to test models is how to add randomness and run the model a couple of hundred or thousand times. (A project that began in Maker Learners but is growing legs of its own is Python Physics)

Of course, my examples are all drawn from my professional experience as a physics teacher. I am sure there are plenty of excellent connections between making and learning that teachers from other disciplines are able to create, and that’s why it will be so crucial that this space eventually becomes a community, not a soapbox. 

I began this article explaining that I never knew what the right ‘Identity’ for my blog should be. Well as you’ll have seen by now, I’ve identified what I want my energy to go towards and it isn’t something to be mine alone so ‘AnthonyCopeland.com’ is never going to work. I’ll still post the odd thing here – a reflection on something I’ve done, seen or read and maybe the odd resource or material that doesn’t really apply to Maker Learners. Primarily this page will act as a digital portfolio for me to share things like my experience, education and to share projects I’ve completed. The most useful of these I will probably share in long form via Medium.

Do keep stopping here if you’re interested in hearing about what I’m up to but more importantly if you or anyone you know might be a Maker Learner at heart – please do reach out to me and we’ll see what we can make together!

You can contact me directly at makerlearners@gmail.com

Thanks for taking the time to read this update. If you want to reach out to me about any of the topics I write about, please don’t hesitate to use the ‘Contact Me’ form or if that’s not working (I just deleted a plugin thinking “Why the heck is this installed” and well… it turns out it was powering the “Contact Me” page – D’oh!) email me directly at acopeland.ed@gmail.com


Festive Turtle Art

A Christmas tree drawn with Python Turtle

This month I have been working with one of our technology superstars in the mathematics department to see if we could enhance a preexisting unit on angles by introducing the students to the Turtle library in Python. Each lesson would begin with a structured introduction to the math, followed by either an introduction to new Turtle commands or a deconstruction of an existing Turtle program and finally a challenge that required students to draw a word, shape or pattern.  For building the challenges we are using Repl.It

The students took to the code a lot faster than we expected, which I think is a credit to the work being done in our primary school. The students already have three years of block based coding experience under their belt and my general impression from time spent within classes was that the students were very well prepared for transitioning to typed code.

To celebrate our students successes and the approach of the winter holidays, we challenged students to create some festive art using the knowledge and skills they have learned throughout the unit so far. The code for the christmas tree drawing shown above was shared with the students and deconstructed to introduce the functions in Python Turtle and to revisit the idea of a loop. 

The tree could be broken down into the following four parts, each of which allowed us to discuss a little math, and a little syntax in Python Turtle:

  • The tree trunk – This was a simple square drawn once; it allowed us to remind students of the use of loops in Python Turtle.
  • The green triangle – This was defined as a function and called three times. It was the most complex block of code as it involved writing a function that called a loop and used the correct exterior angles for an equilateral triangle (See code below)
  • The star – This was an interesting block of code because it involved looping five times and again turning the value of an exterior angle for a five point star. I was happy to be teaching alongside a mathematics teacher when introducing this shape!
  • The baubles – These were a single function to draw and fill a circle, that was called at random locations around the tree.

Using Arduino and Prototype Electronics in MYP Science

Figure 1: A recent workshop I delivered on using Arduino and prototype electronics for within a Year 8 science unit on electricity

Last week I ran a workshop for our Year 8 science teachers to prepare them for a Year 8  unit on electricity which has undergone significant rewriting to incorporate the use of Arduino microcontrollers and prototype electronics. By the end of the unit, students complete a Criteria D assessment which challenges students to;

  • Prototype a circuit designed to solve a problem and journal this process (Formative assessment and skill building)
  • Write a report that;
    • Describe how they have applied their scientific knowledge and understanding to address a specific problem or issue
    • Discuss and analyse the the various implications of using this technology and its application in solving a specific problem or issue
    • Apply scientific language effectively
    • Document the work of others and sources of information used.

The idea here is to create a Criteria D assessment that is more project focused and creative. By teaching students the skills necessary to use raw electronic components as a medium for creative problem solving we are opening up a traditionally theoretical and prescriptive unit into one that has space for student agency and inquiry. What I like even more about the unit, is that is goes a long way to demystify technology. Students come to like when they realize that many of the functions of the toys and machines around them rely on neither magic or overly complicated technology.

One thing that has proven to be invaluable in extending the unit this year has been the introduction of electronics block based coding and simulation to TinkerCad studio. This has allowed me to easily create a ‘Cheat Sheet’ so that teachers can reference both the correct physical wiring and the correct sequence of block based code for challenges that are set for students during the unit.  

Figure 2: A copy of the challenge cards given to teachers to show the code process flow diagram, the expected block code and a diagram of a setup that will work.

To achieve the necessary frontloading for this unit, we required just under a full day for teachers to become familiar with the many components that students will have access to and the platforms they will be using to prototype and to code their machines. I have copied a rough overview of the agenda I set for teachers below for anyone with the know-how to replicate. For those that don’t, feel free to contact me for advice on where to start.

Electronics Training Agenda

  • An introduction to the Arduino, LED’s, hookup wire and breadboards
  • Using resistors to protect components.
  • Constructing series and parallel connections on a breadboard
  • An introduction to TincerCad studio
  • Running the Blink program
  • An overview of common errors that students encounter
  • An overview of switches and controls (Buttons, potentiometers and tilt switches)
    • An introduction to using the serial monitor to print data received by the arduino
  • An introduction to servo motors and the programming
  • An introduction to sensors (Thermistors, LDR’s and sound sensors)
  • A final reflection and discussion on the teaching and learning process for this unit and the level of support that will be required (See my coaching framework)

This is definitely too much content for mastery to be achieved in a day, but I encourage teachers to embrace the unit as inquirers themselves; there are a wealth of websites and blogs for electronics projects online and in my experience almost every coding error that can happen has happened, and it’s solution has been found and discussed at length online. In fact, some of my favorite moments in supporting this unit have come when classroom teachers and student groups have been working through a genuine puzzle together and have had to move together through a logical and methodical approach to identifying and solving the problem. It is at these moments that teachers are able to authentically model perseverance and critical thinking because they are forced to work within the learning process instead of outside of it.