Getting started with First Lego League

I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about the amazing world of Lego Robotics and it has opened up an amazing new world for me and my students. It started out roughly a year ago today where a colleague and I heard about First Lego League (FLL). I glanced through the website and felt completely overwhelmed. However, I had been dabbling with Ev3 Mindstorms for a couple of years and had done some integrated projects with Grade 5 Math (measurement and geometry) and led a few after school activities with them with some minor success. So I figured, why not? Let’s try something new so we jumped in with very little experience or knowledge about how FLL works, let alone how to coach a team to a competition.

What is FLL? Watch this video for more info

I spent the next few months over the summer reading forums and watching youtube videos ready to start coaching a couple of teams in August once school resumed. In South Africa, I learned that we had very limited time until the first regional competition started in mid-October. We ordered the Lego challenge sets and built a couple of tables. My colleague and I had 11 students sign up for our club from Gr4-8 and most of them had little to no experience programming or building robots. We read through the challenge booklet with all the rules but we had no idea where to start. We divided into 2 teams and split up roles and fumbled our way through the challenges focussing most of our time on the robot game. We created very simple robots with very simple attachments inspired by the work of Mr. Hino

Here’s the video our team made about our experience.

In the end, we showed up to the regional tournament with a basic robot and a project presentation but it took a lot of work to get to that point. One of our teams got 91 points and placed 7th out of 25 teams in the robot game and our team won the best Research Presentation award and got around 55 points. We failed to qualify for the nationals as we probably didn’t spend enough time on the CORE values. Anyway, lots of learning and reflecting and here are my own takeaways:

  • Spend time each week doing team building activities related to CORE values. It is probably THE most important part of FLL and we didn’t realize it until we went through the whole process
  • Allow kids more time to design their robot base and think critically about why they want their robot to be designed that way
  • Have more robots available (tester robots) for kids to practice programming. We made the mistake of just having 1 available per team so only a couple of kids really got into the programming
  • Come up with goals for each session and assign kids those goals to keep accountability
  • Buy lots of extra parts (Brick owl), especially technic panels and other technic sets for extra parts.
  • Get lots of support videos for kids to watch. We bought several subscriptions later to FLLcasts and Robot Academy. This helped me understand the basic principles. Ev3lessons is a great resource as well
  • Allow kids to work through problems and know when to step back. If we are more heavily invested in winning than the kids, then we have overstepped the line.
  • Find opportunities for kids to share their learning during the process. We didn’t do this enough and will do a better job next season.
  • Have fun! The whole process is made to be a fun and exciting experience for all ūüôā

Since then, we have started a Lego Robotics after school activity as part of WRO as an “offseason training” session. I’m also planning on hosting a FLL Jr. competition next year as well.

ES Makerspace-Update #2

Awhile back, I wrote a post here about our Makerspace program. Since we are nearing the end of the year, I thought I would write an update of where we are at and a little about what I’ve learned along the way.

First of all, our ES Makerspace has passed budget approval and we are doing some major renovation of the space which I am currently in (formally an ES Tech lab). During the summer months here, we will give the room a facelift. This took an enormous amount of research and work. Since I’m not an architect or a builder, I found it challenging to make decisions on so many little details about the room. I had lots of input and support from my admin and teachers who gave me feedback along the way. I also had meetings with our Operations Director, IT Manger and Builders. After thinking carefully about the functionality of the room, I think we have a near final plan. I used a 3D modelling program to create this and you can see it here¬†(click the 3D tab on the right to move around the space).


The idea is that it will have different spaces set up (electrical, woodworking and crafting areas) that are flexible for both storage and workspaces. The side benches on the left are fixed to the wall as well as the shelving above. Along the wall will be peg board and linbin flexible shelving to store tools and materials for kids like below:

The benches and other side tables will be on wheels so they can be moved around when needed. The side storage room is a bigger storage room for all school science and engineering kits and materials.

Now that the space is done, we need to start finding effective ways to utilize it as a school. The idea is that it is a shared space where classes can come and go as they please but also open before school and during lunchtimes where kids can “drop in” to work on Maker projects. I certainly do NOT want it to become a newer age computer lab where formal classes are being held. In addition, we are thinking of ways to have mini mobile maker spaces (on trolleys) that can come into classes as needed. Sort of like this:

makerspace trolley

Other than that, lots of really cool projects have been happening in classrooms. We launched a new Energy maker project in Grade 4 where students used the design cycle to solve an energy problem. They held an Energy Expo for parents and teachers to showcase their work. I really loved how students referred to the design cycle and all the little problems they had to solve. Here’s a few photos of their projects:

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Other than that, we held our first Family Maker Day which was a big hit (but a ton of work!). We had 100 students come with their parents and had 14 different stations that they could freely engage in (I think I’ll do a separate post for this).

Here’s a few photos from the day as well:

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Chromebooks-a new paradigm shift in schools?


Next year, we have decided to buy chromebooks as the new 1:1 computing device for Grades 3-5. It was a difficult decision but I feel it was the right one now for a few reasons.

Let’s face it, chromebooks are not that new anymore. However, they have been quickly overtaking iPad 1:1 programs and other laptop programs, especially in the US as reported here¬†and here. As an educator (and Apple Distinguished Educator), I believe its the right device for schools in the future. I’ve worked in 1:1 programs with iPads, Macbooks, Samsung tablet computers, Samsung tablets and soon, Chromebooks. While I’ve enjoyed some of the creativity Apple has given us, I’ve had to deal with the nightmare of managing these devices through iTunes (not friendly outside North America). I’ve also had to deal with the hardware and syncing issues of Windows 8 on Samsung devices…also a nightmare. Both of these options seem to require an enormous amount of technical support and infrastructure.

I honestly feel the software model in schools will be behind us. Most schools are now cloud-based in storage (ala Google Apps or O365) and there are a plethora of online tools that you really don’t need most software. The software model requires¬†an enormous amount of time and money to support (imaging, updates, etc) and it can really detract from student learning. If a teacher finds an amazing software tool to use in the classroom, it needs to get budget approval then requires a technician (or if you are blessed with a proper MDM) installation, updates, etc. By the time this tool makes its way into the hands of kids, the just-in-time learning moment has passed. Mobile apps were supposed to be an answer for this problem but ipads and other tablets also present their own unique set of problems. Navigating through Apple’s legalities with volume purchasing programs and being forced into updating iOS is not easy. I’ve been there and it seems to be even more difficult lately. How often are you forced to update iTunes so it’s compatible with your OS and that in turn is compatible with the iOS you have installed? Times this by hundreds when dealing with student devices. Don’t even get me started with Windows…

So now I’m forced to look into another solution. Chromebooks. Take away the need for software, updates, expensive MDMs, tech support and imaging, and this is what you are left with. The other nice bonus is your get Google Apps for Education (which I’ll admit, I’m a fan) as well as Chrome apps (there are some great ones out there). Throw in the fact that they are 1/4 of the price of any decent laptop on the market and you have me sold. Let’s face it, most software companies have online versions now or you can pretty much find an online tool that does what traditional software does (PicMonkey for online editing, Prezi, WeVideo for video editing, etc). I’ll admit, it was a budgetary decision initially but the more I research and think about this, it really is the right tool for the job.

I’m in no way saying this is no way a golden ticket and not without its share of challenges (yes I know there is no real equivalent of Adobe Photoshop, Minecraft Edu, Final Cut pro or Lego Robotics software…yet). I honestly feel that the pros far outweigh any cons. I also feel its the right tool for kids in Elementary school. In my experience, 95% of what kids do with technology, can be done online. Let’s cut the tether on the educational software model collectively forcing companies to innovate and come up with creative cloud solutions if they haven’t already done so.

Time will tell and ask me in a year how I like them. For now, onwards and upwards!




Minecraft and Grade 2 Farm to Table Integration

Finally a tech-rich unit integration with Minecraft! I’ve been using Minecraft Edu for years but only have been able to use them for mini-projects and activities. Our Grade 2 students just finished their “Farm to Table” unit where Minecraft was essentially the main¬†learning tool for 4 weeks!

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I wish I could take credit for this but in fact the catalyst came from a teacher who was passionate about trying this. Also, full credit for the ideas comes from Mike Hoffman who did this unit with Grade 2s at TAISM and he graciously shared his plans with me.

It was amazing to see the learning that came out of this unit. Students were actively engaged  and learned concepts of producers, consumers, goods, services, taxation which would have been difficult to teach without a concrete experience. Students learned the basics of Minecraft but also more important skills such as collaboration, reflection, creativity and problem-solving skills.

Tips and Challenges: 

  • Initial setup took a bit of time as we needed to install Minecraft Edu, mods, servers, etc
  • There was a learning curve for some students who had never used a laptop before so right clicking/left-clicking and general Minecraft navigation
  • Partnering up students helped a lot as we had 2 students on each laptop
  • Server-you need a designated computer (where the IP is static) where all the computers connect to
  • Reflection booklets-these were designed by teachers and were great
  • Having specific goals for each session was really important to keep students focussed (build a house, build a farm, etc)
  • You need at least 1 teacher who has a good working knowledge of Minecraft (or willing to learn) as students needed help teleporting to locations or gifting items

Overall, it was great and something that we can really build on. It’s also overflowed to other grades (all great ideas do this and a good way to judge success of new ideas). We are ¬†now using it with Grade 3 in their Math units on Perimeter/Area and Fractions. We are also exploring the amazing coding mod you can add with a Turtle bot.

Let the good times roll!







QR Codes-Linking two worlds

I recently attended a conference in Singapore called Learning Roundtable which was essentially how to effectively use iPads in classrooms and schools. One of the most interesting workshops was by John Wolfe and using QR codes as learning tools.¬†¬†I really liked it as I could immediately see the educational value of QR codes as it helps link the real world to the digital world and also takes advantage of mobile devices. I had seen QR codes around but really didn’t understand what they were or how they were being used.

So what are QR codes? 

QR codes are a lot like bar codes that on food products. The difference is that they use both horizontal and vertical lines of axis so can hold much more information. By using a QR reader on your phone, you can scan it and it takes you to a digital link.

What possible educational value do they hold?

I think there are so many. Students love codes and there is a certain amount of mystery surrounding codes. Here are some ideas:

Literacy-There are ton of possibilities. John Wolfe mentioned a few ideas on his site but one effective way that he had used them was he had students create 60 second book talks using Photobooth, created a QR code for it and then printed out the code and put it on the inside of the cover of books. What a fantastic way to link print to digital media!

PE-I thought there would be lots of possibilities if you already have iPod touches in your school as you can download a free QR reader and you could use it in PE for orienteering. Have students find the codes around a field which give you clues and directions to the next location.

Social Studies/Humanities- For field trips, students could go to actual locations and using mobile devices, they could record a video or text about what they learned about particular works of art. Then, create QR codes to link this information for other students.

Math- John mentioned that he has seen teachers create QR codes which link to online videos for Math textbooks. What a fantastic way of making textbooks more engaging!



If you would like to start creating your own QR codes, you can set up a free account on Snap Vu¬†which allows you to edit the content but maintain the same code (so you don’t have to keep printing out new codes). It also tracks how many people have actually used your code. The one little glitch is that when you put in your URL sites, make sure they are already shortened by a site like¬†as I tried to copy and paste a long URL from my google site (see above) and it didn’t work.

Are you using QR codes? Leave a comment with your idea!


Head Fakes and Learning

I recently watched Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture on TED and really got me thinking about learning. First of all, if you haven’t watched it, sit down and grab a coffee and get comfortable on your couch for a really interesting presentation. It is very heart-warming from beginning to end as he talks about his life lessons knowing that he has terminal pancreatic cancer and has 3-6 months to live. It isn’t depressing at all however.

One of his ideas is “Head Fake Learning” ¬†and how vital it is to learning and teaching. He calls head fake learning the deeper and big learning that you learn (sometimes disguised) while learning something else. For example, learning teamwork skills and cooperation from playing saturday morning soccer. I guess I have always been a big proponent of this type of learning as I got into teaching by studying Outdoor and Experiential learning and working at summer camps and Outward Bound. I truly believe that we all should have a head fake learning that should be part of everything that we do. These can be big attitude skills such as perseverance and caring or thinking skills like problem-solving skills or reasoning skills. They don’t always have to be big skills but they should be important. This is the type of learning that happens and slips through the cracks of curriculum but stays with students for life.

How to Create an Effective Technology Lesson

All too often I see teachers who struggle to teach effective technology lessons. Really, an effective technology lesson should mirror an effective teaching lesson but with a few changes.

The Pre-Lesson:
Just like any lesson, you should start with the end in mind. What is the big ideas and smaller outcomes? Keep it specific and too the point. Make sure that it connects with the rest of the curriculum. Long gone are the days of teaching specific skills out of context such as how to format a paragraph (unless you are teaching it in a writing context). In other words, don’t teach technology skills in isolation. I usually think about a project that I want students to work on and then break it up into smaller mini-lessons that will key on some specific skills. For example, one project I did last year with the Grade 3s was designing a Favorite Author poster using Comic Life. I knew that most students hadn’t used this program before. So first I created a sample product on my own. I can’t stress how important this step is. By creating a project of your own, it allows you to see all the steps involved, work out any bugs or potential issues, and see it from a kid’s point of view. If you have already done this before, then no need to do it again unless there have been some significant updates to the program. This step is also important because you want to give a sample that students can work towards. This obviously motivates them and gives them a clear end in mind.

Here is the sample project I gave the kids:

Screen shot 2010-08-12 at 11.38.23 AM

The Lesson (10 minutes max):

You need to hook students in somehow. Start with a story like, “I was reading this book the other day by Lemony Snicket and I realized how much I enjoyed all his books. I decided that I wanted to create a poster to show other people why I like him and promote his books”. Make sure you have a good visual on your SMART board or projector at this point. Then give the challenge to students. Explain the goal and why they are doing the project. Do a “walk-through” of how to create a new one, breaking them down into no more than 5 steps. Review the steps (or have students tell the steps back to you). Sometimes if it isn’t the first time, I let the students who can tell me or show me the steps back go first to the computer as a bit of a reward (just make sure they still listen to the remaining steps). I also like to show a couple of advanced tools and say, “Hmmm…I wonder what this tool does. That would be really cool if someone could discover what it does” This allows for a bit of differentiation and motivates students for extension. I usually go over a checklist or assessment rubric just before they go as well.
Here is an example one I did for a podcast:

Podcast Assessment

Post Lesson:

I like to spend 3-5 minutes at the end of the lesson to wrap it up. This actually is an often overlooked step but essential for meta-cognition processing. Allowing a few minutes to share what they made (show their work if possible) or explain some discoveries of some new features is very important. Always try and make time for this.

So that’s it in a nut-shell. It really just comes down to good teaching practices. It really is a special blend of art and science. The art is in the delivery and the science is the formula and preparation. But if you are unfamiliar with a program or project, you really need to explore it yourself first. Test all electronics out before the kids are there (projectors, cables, etc) so that you don’t have any technical problems along the way. Good Luck!