The excitement is tangible as 14 sixth-grade students stream into the state-of-the-art Middle School Science Laboratory in the Campo Science Center on a Friday afternoon. Several students are so eager to begin that they must be told not to crack into their Raspberry Pi kits until their teacher, Amy Bloodworth, can explain the day’s lesson.
“It’s not always like this,” laughed Bloodworth, who has taught Sixth-Grade Science and International Baccalaureate Biology at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) since 2010 and last spring received the school’s highest professional honor: the Khan-Page Master Teacher Award. “Engineering and Invention is the unit they get most excited about.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Created by both Bloodworth and Middle School Science Department Chair Dr. Brett Merritt in 2013, the Engineering and Invention unit combines inquiry-based and problem-based learning to provide every student with the ability to achieve invention literacy, a concept defined by JoyLabz/Makey Makey founder and CEO Jay Silver as “the ability to read and write human made stuff, from toasters to apps.”
Back in September 2013, Bloodworth and Merritt, who taught at TASIS from 1998–2000 and then returned in 2010 after earning his doctorate in Curriculum Instruction and Teacher Education with a specialty in Science Education at Michigan State University, took steps to obtain funding for the devices necessary to kick off the Engineering and Invention unit. After applying for and receiving a TASIS Foundation grant, they were able to outfit sixth-grade students with both the Makey Makey, an ingenious invention kit used to turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet, and the Drawdio, a pencil that allows students to draw music.
“We had an idea, we had a goal, and we found a way to fund it—and the goal was to try to get these devices in the hands of every single one of our sixth-grade kids so that we could start to realize what we thought was its potential learning capacity,” said Merritt, who was honored with the Khan-Page Master Teacher Award in 2014.
The devices have been put to use for the past three school years by Bloodworth and Merritt and have generated much enthusiasm and interest, inspiring Bloodworth to apply last summer for a Lighthouse Project grant for the amazing Raspberry Pi, an inexpensive, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a monitor and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. The innovative device, which was developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the aim of promoting the teaching of basic computer science in schools and developing countries, enables people of all ages to explore computing and learn how to program in languages such as Scratch and Python.
Bloodworth’s grant proposal was accepted, and she was able to acquire seven full sets—a Raspberry Pi, small monitor, keyboard, and SD card—and a variety of accessory kits for particular experiments. Eager to take the next step, she obtained a grant to travel to the University of York for a three-day “Raspberry Pi in Middle School Science” workshop, completed a Python course on Codecademy, went to Raspberry Picademy to become a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator, and along with High School Science teacher Claire Thomas attended a workshop in England to learn more about computer programming with the Python language.
In support of the Hour of Code global movement, Bloodworth and Thomas then spent class time before the Christmas Holiday using a website called Trinket to teach all sixth grade and ninth grade students how to code in Python. Many other teachers in all three divisions at TASIS—Elementary, Middle, and High School—also provided their students an introduction to coding during that week.
Bloodworth’s students were enthusiastic about their introduction to coding, and many went on to fulfill her “choice homework” requirement by completing sections of Codecademy’s Python course. Her classes began working with electrical circuit trays upon their return from the Christmas Holiday and then created their own physical circuits on a smaller scale that they could manipulate and control using programming. They moved on to the Raspberry Pis in April and didn’t look back.
Science can and should be fun
In a model similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s merit badge system, students in Bloodworth’s class work their way through a set of increasingly difficult challenges in order to acquire Raspberry Pi badges. The approach has proven to be a powerful motivator.
“We’re used to seeing kids get awards for athletics and the arts, and we wanted to find a way to recognize their achievements in science,” said Bloodworth. “They really love getting the badges.”
Students’ confidence soared through the roof as the unit progressed.
“The kids thought they could never do this when we started, and I didn’t think they could hold their concentration long enough to see it though,” said Bloodworth. “But now they’re amazing me with their patience. They’re getting really good at identifying their errors and correcting them. They love the creativity of imagining something and being able to see it through as a project. Whatever they come up with (even if it’s completely insane!), I try to help them make it happen. I am learning with them along the way.”
“It’s something very new,” said James Haunso, a sixth grader from Denmark. “You can experiment with new things that you didn’t have the option to before. You can put your creativity into your work, so it’s fun to come to class every day.”
On this particular afternoon, students have piled up outside the laboratory door well before class time. After Bloodworth admits them, calms them down, and prevents them from diving right into their work stations, she shows a short YouTube video that illustrates how to use a Raspberry Pi Sense Hat to work with pixels. The students pay close attention and fire off thoughtful questions. They then break into pairs and, without assistance from Bloodworth, build their Astro Pi setup for the day. Students are remarkably engaged, and the only chatter is related to their goal of creating an animation that will be activated when an accelerometer detects movement.
Bloodworth bounces around the room and helps answer the many questions that arise. (Students are already speaking a language no layperson would understand.) There are too many questions for one teacher to field, so many students are relying on assistance from their peers.
“They’re learning and borrowing from each other,” said Bloodworth. “They’re not always writing code from scratch—they’re often borrowing and manipulating to create the outcome they want.”
Once students have mastered the basics of coding, Bloodworth wants to push them to use their newfound knowledge in novel ways, such as taking apart stuffed animals and working with different Raspberry Pi kits to create animatronics. “I want to see that they can apply the lessons we’ve learned in a more creative and open-ended way,” she said.
In the future, Bloodworth—who also teaches a course that is a mix of science, robotics, and food chemistry for the TASIS Summer Programs—plans to conduct Raspberry Pi units centered around the Wildlife Cam Kit, which produces a massive amount of data and allows students to learn how birds choose their food, and the Oracle Raspberry Pi Weather Station experiment, in which students build and commission a weather station.
“The applications of this device are limitless,” she said.
Why Engineering and Invention?
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has been a rising movement in educational policy and curriculum choice in recent years, as schools strive to improve competitiveness in both scientific and technological development. TASIS teachers have worked very hard for years to continue crafting the science and mathematics parts of the equation, but Merritt and Bloodworth recognized that there was much work to be done on the technology and engineering side.
“We needed to update our program and enact a curriculum for a world that does not yet exist,” said Bloodworth, who earned both a degree in Biology and a degree in Teaching from the University of Southampton and a Master’s in Education from Open University. “We had to look beyond TASIS to see where we are heading and then try to filter that down into what we do.”
“Every UK university and most US college science courses now include at least one compulsory module on coding,” she continued. “New technologies lead to the production of huge amounts of data in all the disciplines, which needs to be organized and mined. We are now seeing this filter down into the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum with the introduction of database mining and bioinformatics. In order to properly prepare our students for this, we can’t wait for high school. We need to introduce coding and an introduction to these new technologies in middle school and even elementary school.”
Merritt believes it is critical to design a curriculum that strikes the right balance of being challenging, engaging, and exciting while also driving home the core concepts and skills necessary to prepare students for success at the high school level.
“I think that’s where this Engineering and Invention unit seemed like a really good marriage,” he said. “We have found these inventions and gadgets to be a wonderful way to be able to teach a lot of our core content in a way that was new for kids, was challenging, involved the learning of a lot of different kinds of skills they didn’t necessarily have, and allowed for a lot of different levels to work at different paces.”
Measures of success
At the end of each school year, a large number of students ask Merritt and Bloodworth if they can borrow a Makey-Makey or a Raspberry Pi over the summer, where they might be able to buy their own, and if they can recommend any other devices that are similar.
“These questions aren’t coming from the parents,” said Merritt. “They’re coming from the students themselves, and we take this as evidence that kids are willfully wanting to do science on their own time outside of school when they are not responsible for doing it at all.”
“I have my own Raspberry Pi at home,” said Leo Panella, a rising seventh-grader from Germany. “You can do anything that has to do with computers. You can program. You can use the program. You can even attach different things to make it do what you want it to do.”
High School Science Department Chair Alec Ogilvie, who has led the department since he arrived at TASIS in 2008 after a 10-year stint at the European School in Varese, often drops in on middle school lessons and has been struck by the level of student interest and enthusiasm.
“I think that’s what matters more than anything because you are switching science on to be this cool thing,” he said. “You’re switching them on to science in middle school and that has massive repercussions later on. If they believe that science is fun, science is cool, and science is interesting, we’re on our way.”
While Merritt views the uptick in enthusiasm as a major success, he also understands how important it is that this renewed excitement for science also leads to improved classroom performance. So far it has.
“All our internal assessments we’ve done in class have shown us that through these fun devices we are seeing our kids start to become more comfortable and more fluent with the language of electricity and energy and circuits,” he said. “And that of course is really good for us because if they were failing all our quizzes and tests, we would be a little bit discouraged and would think, we know they are having fun, but they are not learning the things that we want them to. But in reality we are seeing the opposite. Their performances on assessments have demonstrated that this approach is really helping them develop an intuitive sense of circuits, how to fix them, how to build them, and how to talk about them.”
“I see it spilling over into other areas of science,” added Bloodworth. “They’ve become really good at articulating every single step. They’re much more detailed at explaining the steps of an experiment because of what they’ve learned from writing algorithms.”
Ogilvie is excited to see how this new set of skills translates to science at the High School level, as the first group of students to complete the Engineering and Invention Unit as sixth graders will be ninth graders this fall.
“I think this is the year where we will start to see a big difference,” he said. “And I expect to gain even more momentum as we move forward, especially with more and more students staying at TASIS all the way through Middle School and High School.”
The final piece of the puzzle
Bloodworth believes TASIS has only just begun to scratch the surface of what is possible, and she envisions a future in which all students begin learning basic coding skills as early as age four.
“I’m really interested in making coding something that kids do from Pre-K to grade 12,” she said. “They wouldn’t need to use a computer at all until second grade because so many aspects of coding can be taught without one.”
That future may not be far away. TASIS Instructional Technology Coordinator Tim Venchus has been teaching Scratch, a free visual programming language, to middle school students, and in turn these students have taught the language to elementary school students. Students who receive this training are very well-prepared when they begin the Engineering and Invention unit in grade six.
“The key, whether it’s middle school or higher up, is getting them interested in it,” said Ogilvie. “It’s even better if you can start younger because they have a natural fascination with it.”
The benefits of learning to code at a young age are enormous. Students develop a fluency with technology, learn valuable problem-solving skills, become more creative, and establish a lifelong curiosity for understanding the “how and why” of their surroundings.
“Most kids today are just end-product users, and I want them to understand how things really work and to create things that are meaningful to them,” said Bloodworth. “There’s something very creative about coding, inventing, and robotics, and even just working with LEDS on tiny motor boards is great for a child’s fine motor skills. As kids move up grades with these skills, we’ll be able to do so much more with them.”