Sunday, March 25, 2012

Students with Lasers? Yes Please!

Tuesday last week as a great day. I had a 3 hours of impromptu PD thanks to Mother Nature. A freak dump of snow caused our busses to be cancelled. We only had 1 student in our whole school. A colleague of mine Brent Stasiuk gave me a ring and asked if I wanted to take a trip to the French Separate school down the road to see some amazing technology in action.

When I arrived I was in awe of what they had set up. Light tables, vinyl cutter, a Dewalt filled shop, and the highlight for me- a laser cutter! I've been pining over the idea of a laser cutter for a while now, ever since I toured school in Sherwood Park with David Hay.

At Ecole Voyageur the Phys Ed and CTS teacher is Marc Hamel. He is actually a former colleague from my school division but he has a great teaching position at this school now! We talked about CTS instruction and evaluation, how CTS is largely performance/skills based. It is difficult to give a student a 73% on their wood shop project. We also talked about how CTS is unique in this area because a student often gets to see right away if they have done something 'wrong' in a physical way and feedback is immediate. I think true learning happens from this type of project based environment.

Without a doubt, the coolest technology I saw there was a Epilog 35W laser/engraver. The machine has an 18x24" bed which can do a lot of work in a school or business. Marc showed me how etching a design into a material is as easy as printing a piece of paper. The laser can do vector cutting, which is cutting through a material to make a shape, and raster cutting/etching, which is taking away parts of the material to leave a design behind, which can be at different depths and can be different shades. The name plate seen above was made with the machine! Marc uses Corel Draw to import graphics from a library, adds text and then literally clicks 'print'. A printer driver pops up with speed and power options to select. Once these are selected the job is sent to the laser and stored in the internal memory. Marc showed me how to focus the laser just above the wood we were using, then he sent the laser 'home' and clicked 'Go'. Here is my design being cut out.

The image is a shrimp bowl with my name. It turned out awesome! I'm impressed with the detail and precision that the laser gives to the final product. The machine can cut and engrave dozens of materials. While there we also cut ovals through 1/4" cedar which were so sharp and smelled great! I love the smell of burning wood!

My mind has been racing with ideas for projects after this visit. Marc shared the work his students are doing and how he makes products for people in the community, like puzzles for elderly in the lodge who are working on dexterity and memory, and custom cheese boards.

Some ideas that I have for projects would require digital work to produce physical things:
- chess board in the laser cutter, and chess pieces in Google Sketchup to our Makerbot.
- dinosaur bones puzzles
- puzzles
- signage around the school
- game design and re-design (another post of this to come).
- coasters
- engraving iPods, iPads, iPhones and other electronics
- custom boxes
- trophies and plaques for school awards and sports teams
- acrylic signage
- glassware for parent thank you's
- design projects that require multiple prototypes

What a great find in my own community! Thanks to Marc for all his time and valuable discussions. I'm drooling over what an addition like this to our school could do for a multimedia program. It would bring my vision of "maker spaces" one step closer. Giving students more choice and control of the products they produce, and allowing them to rapidly turn ideas into physical prototypes for changing and evaluating. This machine would open up so many opportunities for our students!

Creating Connections Between Digital and Physical Worlds

This morning my son Jack was trying to use a mouse to open a web link we have on our iMac desktop. He's 5 and is fully capable of working any iPhone, iPod touch and iPad in our home. I saw him struggle a bit to move the mouse around. It wasn't easy for him, but eventually he was able to navigate to where he needed to click.

What struck me about this event was that with touch interfaces coming to so many devices, the connections between physical and digital things are become very seamless in our daily lives. This is not a new revelation by any means, but I'm concerned about the chance that people will lose the understanding of how things are made. I fully admit that I've spent most of my life existing and haven't given a second thought to how the milk jug is created, how coffee is made or how furniture is crafted. I've just reached a point now where I do want to know. I'm enjoying the show "How It's Made" even more now.

People who know me would say that I use technology. A lot. But one thing that they wouldn't say about me is that I work well with my hands to make physical things. People don't refer to me as a 'handyman' or seek me out when they want to do drywall or crown moulding.

On a personal question to improve my skills I've been looking for way to change that by using technology to create physical things. To take things out of virtual spaces into the physical realm. The purchase last semester of Makerbots was my first foray into this area. These machines are amazing. I built them with my hands, which was extremely satisfying. Last week I even made a cup from a design at Thingiverse to hold pushpins on my desk.

What I love about the Makerbots are that they give the designer that satisfaction of taking something that is abstract and virtual and turn it into a tangible, touchable product. School deals with so many theoretical and hypotheticals to encourage students to think at a higher level, but I think that critical thinking and problem solving can be achieved just as well through the iterative process. I've pushed myself out of my comfort zone and have spent a few days in the shop this semester learning from students. Last week a student and I created a hamster rig in about 30 minutes to film a movie with our life skills class. It was primitive but worked perfectly!

As a teacher have you seen a disconnect among your students between the physical and digital worlds? How can we best utilize these two different spaces in combination to benefit student learning? A big question, I know.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Creating Learning from Crappy Situations

Last Friday I was away working with some of my awesome broadcasting students and had a substitute teacher take my class. While I was away our director ran the newscast as we always do each day at Cold Lake High School, and everything seemed to go off without a hitch. The news had some audio issues with a mic and our weather man had to pinch hit as an anchor, but nothing out of the ordinary. 

On Friday night at the other school where we were broadcasting basketball games a staff member and a couple students asked me if I had seen the news and what 'that team had done'. I hadn't. Turns out that my technical director (switcher operator), chose to post an subtle, but not so subtle message on our 2 minute countdown to the news promoting a party that weekend. My first reaction was anger, but it quickly turned to disappointment. So much so that I lost serious sleep over it Sunday night before I dealt with it at school. 

This morning we had a team meeting for a newscast post-mortem and I asked the team how things went on Friday. The rest of the team talked about how they weren't very serious and things barely got done, but the news was complete in the end. No one mentioned the elephant in the room about the party announcement. 

When I asked about the announcement the technical director took full responsibility for the words that were put on the screen and he apologized to the team. I asked the team what they thought should happen (knowing exactly what I was going to do) and they said that our tech director should be taken off the switcher. The decision to put the party location on the screen was that of the individual, but it was important to remind them of the fact that it reflects poorly on the all those at RTV. 

Some felt the individual should go on air to apologize, other felt that losing the position of technical director was enough. In the end I offered something in between. I brought up how Global Edmonton's Mike Sobel made some disparaging comments towards a woman on air last year. He was immediately taken off air by Global, but then after his public apology was able to go back on air.  

In our case the student was removed from the job, given a new job as a script writer/communications person for our news crew, and has been told that they will work up to their position again in the future. 

The lesson here, give kids a chance to make it right. I suggested we send out a press release which is what that student did this morning. We researched press released together and I had my student director approve the message before it was sent out. Soon after I received a thank you note from our principal as well as a comment from a staff member who said that it was a very professional way to deal with the situation. 

Overall it turned a crappy situation into a positive learning experience. I'm proud of my news team for how they handled our morning meeting about the incident and how well the student handled it and has made steps to make it right publicly for our team.