Makerspace: A Work In Progress

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As I have chronicled on our blog, our district’s Makerspace (called STEAMWORKS) has been in development for about five months. We have surveyed hundreds of staff and almost 1,000 students to identify interests, visited a number of makerspaces throughout New Jersey, developed a master plan, worked with the district’s maintenance department to make the necessary room changes, and researched and ordered the material needed to turn a room next to our library into our district’s first makerspace. This February, we started the fun part–building the space.

Step 1: Building the Tables and Stools

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RHS Teacher Dave Thatcher builds one of our Makerspace tables.

I worked with our media specialist, Steve Cullis, to find the perfect tables. We spent hours looking at samples, taking measurements, and trying to find tables that were sturdy enough to be able to hold serious weight. The problems was, we could not find tables that were sturdy and high enough for students to stand and work. We really wanted students to be able to stand in the makerspace to bring some kinesthetic learning to the maker environment. Ultimately, we selected a number of components and built the tables ourselves. This is, after all, a makerspace. We ordered two-inch thick butcher block table tops along with steel adjustable legs so the tables can be raised higher than traditional table heights. We also ordered thirty stools to accommodate classes that might want to use the makerspace.

Even the stools need to be put together!
Even the stools needed to be put together!

Step 2: Design

Building this makerspace has been a true team effort. The support of Superintendent Jennifer Fano, RHS Principal Debbie Iosso, and RHS STEM supervisor Mike Cascione has been instrumental in getting this project from conceptualization to implementation. RHS industrial design teachers–Duncan Crannell, Sandy Feld, and Dave Thatcher–have also been a huge help since we started mapping out this plan back in September. The RHS maintenance staff has gone above and beyond to help make this a reality. Leading the design initiative has been RHS senior Madison Jorge. Madison has been working in our makerspace as part of her Option II program and has mapped out an ambitious plan to paint and decorate the makerspace. Our Media Specialist, Steve Cullis, has been involved in the process from day one and has done everything from selecting the tables to making them. Everyone listed here has played a pivotal role in helping design this space. With the design phase done, we now move to the final stage–getting ready to open the doors to students.

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Step 3: Putting It All Together

Admittedly, this step is still a work in progress. We have tons of stuff for students to play with: littleBits, Ozobots, robotic Legos, a 3-D printer, take-apart-technology and more! The next stage will be working to make the space as attractive and user-friendly as possible. Hopefully soon we will be able to announce some makerspace camps that are in development with the generous support of the Randolph Education Foundation. Over the next few weeks we will be busy painting and putting together stations for students. With luck, the next makerspace post on this blog will be titled “Opening Day”!

Our new 3-D printer.
Our new 3-D printer.

#Techspo16 Presentation Materials

Today a small team from our school district presented on blended learning at the 2016 Techspo conference in Atlantic City, NJ. Techspo is an annual conference devoted to educational technology. I presented with our Superintendent, Jennifer Fano, and our Director of Technology, Peter Emmel. The presentation was really a conversation with session attendees on blended learning and the future of schools. We decided to take a risk and forgo a formal lecture-style presentation in favor of a group conversation in hopes of learning as much from others in the room as we possibly could. Our style was a bit unusual for this conference, but we wanted to engage with the audience and felt a less formal  format would work to achieve this.

Our focus throughout the presentation is best explained through a famous research project conducted by Benjamin Bloom in the early 1980s. Bloom (yes, the Bloom’s Taxonomy Bloom) spent many years researching a problem he called the “2 sigma problem.” Bloom and his graduate students conducted a series of experiments that showed that students who receive one-to-one instruction via a tutor significantly outperform students who do not. In fact, students in Bloom’s study that received individual attention from a tutor outperformed those receiving traditional instruction by two standard deviations (sigmas). “Put in another way,” Bloom wrote in 1984, “the average tutored student outperformed 98 percent of the students in the control class.” Bloom then devoted many years of study to try and determine ways schools could close this gap between traditional instructional methods and one-to-one instruction, hence the 2 sigma problem.

However, the most striking of the findings is that under the best learning conditions we can devise–tutoring– the average student is 2 sigmas above the average control student taught under conventional group methods of instruction. –Benjamin Bloom

The reality in education is that it is inherently difficult to offer all students one-to-one instruction. Bloom, however, set out to find ways to accomplish this that were cost-effective for school districts. “An important task of research and instruction,” Bloom writes in explaining his work, “is to seek ways of accomplishing this under more practical and realistic conditions than one-to-one tutoring, which is too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.” Bloom, of course, conducted his research before widespread adoption of computers in schools so we can only imagine the solutions he might have found if he had the Internet and computers at his disposal as we do today. Our presentation set forth a series of five questions to identify ways in which technology can be used to help solve the 2 sigma problem. Ultimately, we believe that a blended learning approach to instruction along with other student-centered practices can help free up instructional time normally devoted to lecture to allow for increased one-to-one interaction between teachers and students.

For more information on Bloom’s findings consider reading this 1984 article from ASCD: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring or this more technical 1984 paper from Educational Researcher on the same topic: The 2 Sigma Problem.

Our presentation:

We would like to thank all the session attendees that stuck around on a Friday afternoon to join our presentation. We were thrilled to have about forty people attend and hope they thought it was worthwhile. And of course, we are grateful to our board of education and the entire Randolph community as they offer our students, teachers, and administrators tremendous support and encouragement.




Some Thoughts On Informational Text

Did that title get your attention? Just kidding! As school districts throughout the PARCC consortium, like us, pore over their test results, it will likely become clear that students didn’t perform as well as they could have on an assessment category called reading informational text. It will be important for school districts and parents to look to improve this area of assessment moving forward. The shift towards informational text becoming an important part of standardized assessment–in this case PARCC–became apparent when the Common Core standards were released a fewScreen Shot 2016-01-26 at 8.15.12 PM years ago. Controversial at the time (okay, still controversial to some), the Common Core called for a greater emphasis on the reading of informational text across the curriculum in schools. Ultimately, the Common Core recommends a split in what high school students read: 70% informational text and 30% literary works. For many teachers, this split was a drastic change from what was traditionally done in classrooms. This blog isn’t the place to debate the merits of this decision. All I will say is that I am in favor of students reading as much as possible regardless of its kind. I love both fiction and non-fiction and hope students feel the same. I also realize students will frequently encounter informational text when they enter college and join the work force; therefore, it is certainly important that we teach students how to read this genre. One way to improve students’ comprehension when reading informational text is through the website Newsela.

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An article from Newsela

I have become a huge fan of Newsela (pronounced NEWS-ELLA) because of its design, the selection of informational articles available for readers, and the assessments that come with each article. I had heard of Newsela over the past few years but was initially skeptical. I am decidedly old school when it comes to reading. For many years when I taught I got hard copies of the newspaper delivered every day for my students to read. Even so, I realized a few months ago that my second-grade son needed some help with his reading. My son loves to read, but I noticed he was reading way too fast and not really comprehending what he had read. I realized something was up when he claimed to have finished a book in about fifteen minutes. Before you think I am some sort of an “intense reading dad,” I’m not. My son can read whatever he wants from Captain Underpants to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. As long as he is reading, I am happy. But, my son still needs to understand HOW to read. So, I started using Newsela with him, and I think it is wonderful.

Newsela is a free site (subscription model available) that edits news articles from organizations like the Washington Post, Associated Press, and Scientific American into different levels of complexity using the Lexile framework. This enables readers of different levels to all be reasonably challenged. Classes with different levels of Unknownreaders can be differentiated as students are able to read the same article but at different Lexile levels. Each article comes with a few assessment questions that reinforce important content or vocabulary from a related article. Parents and teachers can track a child’s or student’s progress as they read, giving them insight into strengths and weaknesses. Newsela just released an app for Apple devices and it is most impressive. I think this app can be an important addition to a class set of iPads and any reading program. I honestly never thought I would like a site like Newsela. However, I think its ease of use, the quality of its informational text, and the fact that it gives real-time data on reading progress makes it something English and elementary teachers should consider using in their classes. Parents, like me, should also consider using it with their children. Overall, it is a great product and something I think will help students tremendously as they learn to read informational text.

Taking Flight

I have worked in public education for well over a decade. During this time, I have come to feel strongly that providing students with a variety of opportunities is the backbone of the public education system. It is imperative that we as educators continue to introduce students to different and new ideas and activities in hopes that they will positively impact their future. The problem is, the world is changing faster than it ever has, making it all the more imperative that we continue to provide students with opportunities that are relevant  in this technology-rich world. New technology is quickly altering how we live and the types of careers our students will likely venture into once they graduate. While traditional careers like dental hygienist and occupational therapist are still included in top ten jobs lists, newer occupations like data scientist, software engineer, and biomedical engineer are now included as well. In fact, eight of the top ten jobs included in CareerCast’s Top 200 Jobs of 2015 are in STEM-related fields. Many of these jobs require that employees be able to work collaboratively on teams and use critical thinking skills to analyze large amounts of information quickly. Besides these STEM-related occupations, new software and devices seem to appear daily, making it difficult for schools to keep up with the rapid changes that are occurring. It is important that schools give students opportunities to explore cutting-edge technology without waiting for that technology to become a part of a curriculum’s unit of study. The reality is that things can move so fast that by the time new technology becomes part of a traditional course, it can very quickly become old technology. A makerspace can help bridge this divide by quickly bringing students into contact with new technology and ideas in a low-risk, collaborative environment.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.58.39 PMAs I’ve chronicled on this blog, we have worked since September to create a makerspace–called STEAMWORKS–here at our high school. The name “STEAMWORKS” incorporates the acronym STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) with the word “works” to symbolize that students will work and explore new technologies as they relate to STEAM. Once the STEAMWORKS Makerspace is completed, it will be filled with things like programmable legos, droids, a 3-D printer, electronic circuits, and just about anything else you can build with. We’ll even have a station where students can take apart IMG_0399technology like old computers to learn how those machines work. Today, the newest addition to our developing makerspace was delivered: a DJI Phantom 3 drone. So, of course a few of us had to brave the cold and go outside to play with it. Here is a video from our first flight (please watch!). The Phantom 3 is incredible. Watching the video footage really makes you feel like you’re flying.

We are hoping for a late winter or early spring opening of the STEAMWORKS Makerspace here at the high school. Continue reading for a snapshot of what the makerspace will have.

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We worked hard over the past few months trying to determine the best way to implement this makerspace. We surveyed almost 1,000 students and hundreds of teachers to determine interests and current trends, took site visits to other makerspaces in New Jersey, and conducted research to determine everything from the types of technology to offer students to what kinds of tables should be used. Throughout the planning phase, a number of themes were identified as being marks of successful makerspaces and will be included in STEAMWORKS:

  • Openness
  • Hands-on activities
  • Faculty-student interaction
  • Community involvement
  • Collaborative work stations
  • Unique technology
  • Effective signage (sounds silly but turns out is actually important)

As material and technology start to get delivered, we can see our hard work paying off as our makerspace begins to take flight. The best part about opening a makerspace is that sometimes you get to play with the toys. That’s how a few of us found ourselves braving twenty-degree weather to fly our makerspace’s amazing new drone.






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Something was wrong this morning. I couldn’t get my tie right. On my first try, the knot was too small. One the second try the tie was too short. I just couldn’t get it right. I’ve never understood why they haven’t standardized ties. Some are too long while some are too skinny. So many things in our life are standardized. Why not ties? They should all be the same size.

The problem with my tie was that I couldn’t get the knot right. I’ve always tied my ties like my father showed me about thirty years ago. In tie parlance the knot he taught me is called “the four in hand” and is likely the most popular knot out there–slender and simple. However, this morning it just wasn’t cutting it. The problem with the four in hand is that the tie loosens and slips down throughout the day. I always have to adjust it. On my drive this morning, I decided that it was time to try something new. So, I got to school a little early and was determined to give a new knot–the Windsor–a try. Like most days when I want to learn something new, I checked out YouTube and found this video:

Since the video was shot from the point of view of the person tying the tie, it was easy to follow the video instructions. In less than three minutes I was sporting a new Windsor knot. The thing is, if I didn’t understand it, I could have replayed the video as many times as I needed to. I could learn at my own pace. Here’s what I can’t get over: I had always wanted to know how to tie a Windsor but never tried. For thirty years I’ve used the four in hand my father taught me. Not any more! Thanks to YouTube, I nailed the Windsor in only a few minutes. Best of all, my tie didn’t need to be adjusted the entire day.

For anyone interested in blended learning, this book is the place to start.

So, what’s the point? As adults we learn using the Internet as it suits our needs. The same holds true for our students. They no longer learn only sitting in a classroom; the Internet has changed that. The model that marries the traditional with the virtual is called blended learning. Whether it’s a video on YouTube or, online tutorials and classes are part of how we learn now. Whenever I want to learn something new, I watch a video. If we are all learning online now, why are the classes we teach not?

I’ve become more focused on this dichotomy as I realize that we should be supporting traditional instruction with online instruction. A powerful learning management system like Blackboard, Canvas, or Schoology makes doing it rather simple. At the least, instructional videos can be posted to YouTube with ease. We just have to commit to move in the online direction. No more waiting. The book on the right is pretty much the gold standard in terms of laying out a philosophy about blended instruction. My copy was just delivered today. Over the next few weeks I’ll read and reflect here about blended learning. The term might be new to some but the concept is not. Personalizing learning by adopting an online component so students can learn at their own pace needs to happen. Why not start today?


What Does The Future Hold for Schools?

The New Media Consortium (NMC), a community of hundreds of leading universities, colleges, museums, and research centers, has issued an important report called the Horizon Report: 2015. The report examines emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in teaching, learning, and creative inquiry in schools (access the report here). The driving question for the report is “What is on the five-year horizon for K-12 schools worldwide?” A team of experts engaged with the report agreed on two long-term trends: “rethinking how schools work in order to bolster student engagement and drive more innovation, as well as shifting to deeper learning approaches, such as project- and challenge-based learning.” The report is a must read for any school district personnel looking to map out the next five years in terms of where they see technology and instruction heading.

Makerspace education also has the potential to empower young people to become agents of change in their communities. (The Horizon Report)

I’m still working my way through the study, but one part that caught my eye was the analysis of the future role makerspaces will play in schools. A makerspace is a place where anyone interested in learning something new can come together to design, create, and build projects of their choosing. In short, makerspaces are where learners can explore their curiosity in a low-risk environment. “Makerspaces are places where anyone, regardless of age or experience, can exercise their ingenuity to construct tangible products,” write the authors in their report. “Schools are turning to makerspaces to facilitate activities that inspire confidence in young learners, and help them acquire entrepreneurial skills that are immediately applicable in the real world.” The report shares a number of makerspace success stories from around the world that are particularly inspiring and also provides a host of links to examples of makerspaces currently in use in K-12 education.

The growing global makerspace movement has influenced our district to begin the creation of makerspace areas in our schools. We have spent a fair amount of time visiting other makerspaces in the area, researching best practices, and creating implementation plans. It’s clear that makerspaces are going to be a vital component of a modern learning environment. “The turn of the 21st century has signaled a shift in the types of skillsets that have real, applicable value in a rapidly advancing world,” asserts the authors of the Horizon Report. “In this landscape, creativity, design, and engineering are making their way to the forefront of educational considerations, as tools such as robotics, 3D printers, and web-based 3D modeling applications become accessible to more people.” A makerspace can bring these tools to students while encouraging the use of skills they will need to compete in the 21st century. The Horizon Report is packed with anecdotes from case studies and external links to additional resources. It’s a must read for any educator wondering what the future holds for their students.

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A graphic representing the challenges and developments facing K-12 education. Source: The Horizon Report


Fail Fast

The engineers and venture capitalists of Silicon Valley have embraced the mantra “fail fast” in their relentless pursuit of the next big thing. Failure, which for so long has been something schools did not advocate, is becoming more and more popular in the tech world. To fail fast means that people should fail early and often on their way to a great idea. Failure is now something cool. And it should be. The reality is, we all learn from failure as it’s an essential component in trial and error.

But while the Web has made it easier and cheaper to start up and succeed, it has also made it easier and cheaper to fail.

–Eric Markowitz in “Why Silicon Valley Loves Failures”

Dave McClure is a venture capitalist in a startup incubator in Silicon Valley called 500 Startups. It’s more commonly known by its alternate name: the fail factory. “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,'” explains McClure in Fast Company. “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn. Getting used to that, bouncing back from that, being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love…if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” The reality is, failure has not traditionally been embraced, but this is starting to change. Eric Markowitz of hypothesizes that many factors have led people to embrace failure today. “The first, and most obvious answer, is that failure has become inexpensive,” Markowitz writes. “Decades ago, starting a business typically entailed borrowing capital from a bank, friends, or family. Opening a physical storefront required lots of capital. Today, the Web has democratized the process for starting up–building a website and hosting its data, even for e-commerce, are relatively inexpensive.” For these reasons–at least in the the technology world–failure is embraced as it is a necessary part of the learning process. In fact, there is now a global conference series dedicated to studying and celebrating failure called FailCon.

For a long stretch in the twentieth century, learning theory was dominated by the work of Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner–a man many consider to be the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. Skinner advocated a theory called “errorless
learning.” In Skinner’s model, learners were spoonfed new material in small bites and immediately quizzed on it while it remained in short-term memory. As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning point out, students in Skinner’s model had virtually no chance of making an error. As the two renowned psychologist-authors of Make It Stick reinforce throughout the book, errors are an integral part of the learning process–especially with new material. “Yet in our Western culture, where achievement is seen as anlogo indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them,” the authors write. “The aversion to failure may be reinforced by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors it’s the errors that they will learn.” We know today that this belief is misguided. Freedom from “errorless learning” has so empowered people that a group from Finland has created the Day for Failure taking place next week. It’s a chance for people to lose their fear of messing up. People can participate by tweeting their failures to #dayforfailure.

Fail fast, manufacturing fail, fail factory, FailCon are terms that help capture the mood of the technology and venture capital world today. However, the idea of celebrating failure is not likely something you see embraced in daily life. One way schools can embrace failure and teach perseverance is by encouraging self-directed learning (and yes, failure) by giving students a place to invent and learn from their experiences. This is why we are beginning the process of putting makerspaces in our schools. A makerspace is a place where students come together with expert faculty to design, create, and build projects using material and technology they might not come in contact with during the regular school day. Exploration in a makerspace is student driven. Makers are limited only by their imagination.

A makerspace is a place to tinker and explore. It’s a place where you can build with legos, print in 3-D, or even learn how to fly a drone. In a makerspace, failure is expected as is learning from mistakes. The reality is, as you explore new ideas and technology, you will always make mistakes. On this blog, I’ll chronicle our makerspace journey as we move from concept to reality. Besides, don’t you want to learn how to fly one of these?