ISTE2014: On systems tools and STEM

A couple weekends ago Greg and I went to the ISTE 2014 Conference where a whopping 16,000+ fellow educators gathered together to learn from each other about all things related to education and technology.  It was overwhelming to say the least.  Just check out the #ISTE2014 tweets to see the kinds of things people were learning!

I knew this was going to be a huge conference so I didn’t want to go in there without a plan.  These are the things I set out to look for to advance our (IT)^2 initiatives from a systems perspective:

  • Who else is going 1:1 with iPads and how are they managing their deployment?
  • What are school districts using to manage requests for help and keep track of technology and current configurations?
  • Which Learning Management Systems (LMS) would best meet our needs?
  • What tools and strategies are available for those who want to focus on STEM?

Even though crowds turned me away from half the sessions I attempted to attend, I still managed to get a good sense of what systems other districts are using, how they came to their decision, and whether they had any regrets.  

Almost every district I spoke with loved whatever tool they chose, which told me this: there are a lot of good options out there and if it has the features you want, you can make it work for you!  That’s never the answer you want to hear (C’mon, just tell me which one is the best!!!) but it’s the reality – every school district has different needs.  We are narrowing down on an LMS system now so stay tuned for more information as we start pilots so we can have an easier time tying together our student and teacher communities.

Now, for the fun stuff.  For the sake of brevity, I am going to just focus on one area in this post.

STEM in Elementary Classrooms

Tools are being created to do a better job of integrating STEM, a notable departure from just teaching traditional math and science and calling it STEM.  I went to a session led by Los Altos School District STEM teachers and was intrigued by the sequence they were using to teach programming and critical thinking skills throughout K-6 (I really didn’t have to travel far to learn about this one):  

  • Grades K-2: Programming Bee-Bot robots, use of computational thinking games and iPad apps.
  • Grades 3-5: Visual programming with MIT’s Scratch and robotics with Lego WeDo and Makey Makey
  • Grade 6: Introduce fundamentals of computer science. Programming (visual and text based) computing and robotics with Lego WeDo and Arduino micro controllers

I liked this well-defined articulation between grade levels and the tools that would be used.  There are a lot of iPad apps that can help with programming (Bee-Bot, Daisy the Dinosaur, Kodable, etc.) as well but I like that they used a very hands-on, tangible approach to teach computational thinking.  This also provides a lot of ways to embed programming into other curricular areas.  See Los Altos’ full presentation here.  

The best thing about all these great technologies is how much easier it is to learn to program.  Not only do we not need punch cards, we also do not have to deal with troublesome syntax and installing editors and compilers and all that other stuff just to teach programming!  

One of the other tools I learned about separate from this session was littleBits.  They make electronics that snap together with tiny magnets.  No soldering and no wiring?  Yes, please!  This should take out some of the safety issues that comes with having primary grades using electronics and frees students up to focus on what’s happening rather than on getting the wires soldered together just right (which they can learn how to do later).  

If you have some spare time and you really want to dive into some of the learnings, check out the public list of notes on Google Spreadsheets. 

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