Monday, December 2, 2013

Teaching and Learning with Mindstorm Robots

Sir Ken Robinson once said, "Students should be free to make mistakes and pursue creative interests."

As a middle school design teacher, I strive to incorporate this notion into all my units of inquiry.  One of my favorite units to facilitate the pursuit of creativity and learning from mistakes is our Lego Mindstorm Units.

Lego Mindstorm kits are amazing tools to enable students to discover, innovate and learn through trial and error.  However, just like any technology they are simply just that, a tool.  Putting Lego Mindstorms into the hands of students does not guarantee inquiry, problem solving, creativity and innovation.

Here are some suggestions to make the most of your units of inquiry when using Lego Mindstorm kits:

1. Before tackling a challenging problem ensure the students have been given sufficient time to upskill and learn the basics of Mindstorm programming.  Protip:  I have students spend one class building the 5-minute bot and then I usually spend 7-10 lessons scaffolding various challenges to ensure students who are new to Mindstorm programming have enough time to familiarize themselves with the basics like movement, sensors, and looping.  Here is a great book that offers progressively more difficult challenges, Mindstorms Made Easy, by Karl Peterson.

2. Anchor your Lego Mindstorm unit around real-life, open-ended challenges.  Students will learn to be more creative and innovative if you design Robotic challenges around real world problems.  Here is a sample video from a unit I do with my grade 8 students called "Fire-Fighting Robots":

You can access all my files for this unit here:

Another unit I do in a higher grade, which is an even more open-ended challenge, requires the students to design a Robot that would fullfill a need for the United Nations.  Pro-tip:  As your Lego Mindstorm program is experienced by students again in later grades, the challenges become more and more open-ended and therefore require more sophisticated problem solving. For example, Sumo Wrestling Robots (grade 7), Firefight Robots (Grade 8) and United Nations Robots (Grade 9).

3.  Over time, create a Mindstorm "Graveyard" of parts and pieces.  This may include spare sensors, motors, batteries and other parts that may get lost or broken from your original kits.   One way to start creating a graveyard is to put an article in the school newsletter as well as in the local paper asking people if they have Lego Mindstorm kits around the house that they might be willing to donate to the school.

4.  Have lots of foam board and packing tape available for students to use to enable students to create walls, mazes, and external parts (buckets, wagons, etc.) for their robot creations. Pro-tip: Foam board is usually sold at most dollar stores for $1.25/board.

5.  Have one class at a time work with the kits.  I usually cycle my design units so that one group is only working with the Mindstorm kits for their entire unit (approximately 20 lessons) before another group or class begins to use the kits.  Mindstorm creations tend to take on the personality of the group so to have them take apart a robot after each class is not feasible.

Sir Ken Robinson challenges educators to promote greater creativity and innovation in the minds of our students.  Using Lego Mindstorms in our classrooms can be one tool to meet this goal.  Are you using Mindstorms in your classroom?  What sorts of tips and tricks do you suggest to others?

Some Useful  Resources

1.  A great website with free lessons and mini-projects.

2. A Course for Beginners new to Lego Mindstorm Robots-

3.  An article about how one school is using Robots to engage students in problem solving,

4.  A video about how Robots are evolving and taking over our world (great for introducing the unit),  The Future of Robots, 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

RSA Style Videos Using a Green Screen

The great Aristotle once said, "There can be no words without pictures."
There is a growing trend online and in media regarding the use of images and pictures in resources.  According to research this is a positive trend.  There is much support for how we are "hard wired" for reading information that includes pictures to support text.  Did you know:

-we use more than 50% of our brain for image processing
-it only takes us 0.01 seconds to scan a room to determine what is going on
-people follow directions and instructions much better when pictures and text are used
-speeches that incorporate images are more persuasive than those that do not

Dan Roam, in his book titled Blah, Blah, Blah: What to do when words don't work,  writes  about how words alone are not sufficient to engage listeners.  He encourages presenters, business people, and educators to use images to deliver and reinforce ideas.  According to Dan, ideas will be more memorable and our information will be more engaging when we use images to support our information. 

I have already written about how teachers might incorporate image usage into their lessons to motivate and engage learners using RSA Animate videos.  If you have not read this blog, you can access it here.

RSA Animate videos could be taken to a more advanced level with your students using green screen technology.  Here is a sample of one I quickly created with the help of my daughter.

How is this done?  Instead of having students draw out their RSA Animate on a white board or paper, students could write and video record the drawing or their images on green or blue paper as seen in the picture on the left.  When finished, the video file can be imported into a program that has green screen or chroma key functionality like I-movie or Adobe Premier Elements 11.  You can find two tutorials on how to do this here:

a) Green Screening using Adobe Premier Elements 11-
b) Green Screening using I-movie-

As you can see in the tutorials, you can swap out the green/blue background for any image or video you want.  This allows students to come up with a variety of options.  Drawing RSA Animate on a green/blue background and then using green screen software enables students to enhance their videos and create original and professional RSA Animate video.

Give it a try and let me know how it turned out!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Implications of Using Formative vs Summative Assessment Labels

My goal in writing this article is to underpin potential changes in assessment and marking practices as they pertain to using the language and semantics surrounding the terms formative and summative assessment.  In today's classrooms students will often ask this question when an assignment is being assigned and explained, "Is this going to be a formative or summative assessment?"  Which for some students really means, "Is this going to count for marks or is it just practice?"  Should we be transparent with our students in regards to our assessment intentions?  What impact does pre-determining our assessment intentions have on student attitude, engagement and achievement?

As an avid runner, I was intrigued by the debate over the semantics used my many when it comes to the terms "jogging" and “running”.    To some they mean the same thing.  When one looks up definitions of these two words most use speed as a way to differentiate a jog from a run.  According to Wikipedia, “Jogging is a form of trotting or running at a slow or leisurely pace.”  Since most of the definitions are subjective, I believe it is up to each individual to decide if their pace warrants the title of a "run" or a "jog".  As long as your pace keeps you motivated, the term you choose is just a minor detail.  Should this hold true for assessing student work?

Since the landmark study by Black and Wiliam (1998) about the benefits of formative assessment, there has been a plethora of schools that have adopted assessment policies and practices that differentiate between formative and summative assessment in the classroom.  Is this new assessment language necessary at the onset of giving an assignment?  Why pre-determine what our assessment intentions? 

Research has shown that many schools struggle with establishing clear operational definitions, guidelines and procedures for implementing formative and summative assessments anyways.  According to Dunn and Mulvenon (2009), “Definitions of formative and summative assessment are plentiful, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting understandings.  And in part because of these varying definitions and views, practices labeled as formative assessment in schools today vary widely.” Although any assessment may be designed, packaged and labeled as a formative or summative assessment, it is the actual methodology, data analysis, and use of the results that determine whether an assessment is formative or summative.  It is what a teacher does with the data afterward that helps delineate which type of assessment you are using.  Summative data is used to make a judgment about a student and is often finite and counts toward a report card mark.  However, formative data is only used to help inform students, teachers and parents about their recent performance level.  It is my belief that good teachers will provide feedback and information to students regardless of whether it is formative or summative.  
In my school formative assessment is thought to guide students and teachers by providing valuable and timely feedback regarding where the student is at, on a given set of standards, and where they need to go.  Formative assessment is thought of as “practice” and summative assessment is more like “the game” situation because the score has more impact on the student's grade.   My question is, do teachers need to predetermine their intention to students regarding what type of assessment (formative vs summative) will be used? On page 3 of my school’s assessment policy handbook it is clear that we should divulge this information,  "Students need to be told how assessment tasks are to be evaluated."  

This level of transparency may have motivational and achievement implications for students.  This open and transparent approach to assessment intentions has benefits and drawbacks. Some believe that when assignment are labeled formative or “practice” students are more relaxed and less stressed about the pressure associated with doing well because it does not count as much towards report card marks.  Furthermore, this high level of openness and transparency promotes an environment of trust and mutual respect amongst students and teachers.   Yet, an obvious drawback to pre-determining which type of assessment you will use is that students may put in less effort and therefore underachieve on formative tasks because they do not count for marks.  

When a runner heads out for exercise, I wonder if they decide in their mind whether they will "jog" or "run" that day?  As educators is it really necessary to consider ahead of time what our intentions may be for students?  We could divulge ahead of time whether we will formatively or summative assess student work or we could wait until after the assignment has been handed in before determining the nature of the feedback we will be providing.  Maybe there is a third choice?  According to Perkins (2008), "when learners feel that they have a choice about just where they focus their attention and just how they proceed, they are more likely to show intrinsic motivation."  Thus, what if we let students decide ahead of time what type of assessment they would like to use for a particular assignment: formative or summative?  It would be an interesting action research study to see if there is a difference in student attitude, engagement and/or achievement on assignments when posed with these three assessment scenarios: students are told ahead of time, students are not told until they hand in an assignment, and students are given a choice as to the type of assessment used. 

What are your experiences when it comes to pre-determining whether an assignment is formative or summative?


Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80 (2): 139-148. (Available online:

Dunn, Karee E and Mulvenon, Sean W. (2009). A Critical Review of Research on Formative
Assessments:  The Limited Scientific Evidence of the Impact of Formative Assessments in Education. Practical Assessment Research & Evaluation, 14(7).  Available online:

"Jogging." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 May 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Perkins, David.  (2008).  Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.   San Francisco, CA.  Jossey-Bass

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Creating RSA Animate Style Videos

Over the last few years, I have been entertained and informed by RSAnimate videos.  You can view one here, 

Recently, I noticed a blog post  on twitter by @paulblogush titled, "How to Create RSA Animate Style Videos in your Class".  Paul's post was very informative and detailed.  His description is grounded in pedagogy and his step-by-step process makes it easy for teachers to replicate this teaching strategy.  You can view his entire blog post here,

After reading Paul's post, I was excited to try this myself before I implement it with my students.  I am currently taking a course/training by the International Baccalaureate Organization to become a workshop leader and consultant.  One of my assignments was to describe in brief the process a school might go through to be Authorized by the IBO.  I decided to create an RSA Animate video for this assignment.  Here is the process I went through:

1.  I read over all the documents to make sure I had a clear understanding of the information.
2.  I synthesized the information into a series of draft drawings, separating the drawings into only a few pages.
3.  I set up a handheld video camera on a tripod and focused it onto a white board.  Then, I drew a box on the white board so I knew what area I could draw on and still be in the camera's view.
4.  With my draft drawings close by, I pushed record on the video camera and began drawing out the pictures and words I needed to help tell my story.  This took a few attempts/trials.
5. I downloaded the video to my computer and imported it into Imovie.  In Imovie, I sped up the video by 400%.  The original video was 14 min and when sped up it was down to approximately 3 min.
6.  Then, I created a script and added audio narration to the sped up video.  This took a few attempts.
7.  Finally, I uploaded my creation to youtube so I could easily share it.

Here is my final product,

Some schools may not have access to a class set of white boards.  So, I also tried the same process with paper.  If you are using paper instead of white boards, you will have a bit more prep work.  I measured out and drew a rectangle on a large poster paper that was within the field of view of the video camera (sitting on a tripod).  Then, I pre-cut several rectangles that were the same size as this rectangle.  So, instead of erasing the area like I would on a white board, I just replaced the area with a new piece of paper that was the same size.  Here is an example of what it looked like when I used paper,

Now that I have explored this teaching/learning strategy myself, I am excited to implement it with my students.  RSA animate style videos are a creative and engaging way to allow students to synthesize and present information.  This strategy could be applicable to any subject, project or assignment.

Have you used RSA animate videos in your class?  What was your experience like?