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.