Category Archives: Problem Solving

Robot Olympics

Calling this activity “Robot Olympics” might have been a bit ambitious.  After all, there was really just one event and the only (and extremely tenuous) connection to the real-life Olympics was the fact that chariots were involved.

Nevertheless, “Robot Olympics” was the title of our program last Thursday.  Our after-school Maker Club had been exploring the world of robots for a couple of months – which mostly involved playing, not making.  So, we threw out the challenge for each group to build a chariot for their robot that would carry Dot, the tiny Wonder Workshop sidekick for Dash.

We have 4 different kinds of robots in B.O.S.S. HQ right now, and each one had its advantages and disadvantages for this challenge. To keep the playing field even, every robot was scored with the following criteria:

  • Ability to carry Dash to the Finish Line
  • Chariot Design
  • Making it from the Start to the Finish Line
  • Speed

Penalties were given for running into the bricks on the side and each time the “Robot Wrangler” had to put his or her hands on the robot to redirect it during the course.

The students working with Sphero built extremely elaborate chariots – only to find that Sphero would not budge with all of the extra weight.  The Cubelets teams were so excited about getting as many Cubelets together as possible that they barely had time to build their chariots.  Edison refused to behave predictably when detecting a black line, and Dash’s chariots kept falling off every time they were tested.

“This is good,” I told the students.  “You’re learning how to problem solve.  Remember, “Think, Make, Improve.”

In the end, every robot crossed the Finish Line.  Every student received a robot Spirit Stick.  Dash Team #1 walked away with “gold” medals.

What would I do differently?

Allot more time for the event, make sure the students test their robots on the course numerous times before the event, have 2 courses and 2 sets of judges so there isn’t so much wait time, ask more students to help run the event, and make the course out of something more durable than poster board so it can be reused.

Will we do it again next year?  Definitely – but it will be even better. Maybe we can add a discus throw or something so the “Robot Olympics” will seem less ostentatious…

 

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Rush Hour Shift

As regular readers may know, my students and I are big fans of ThinkFun games in our classroom.  The logic and problem-solving skills embedded into each one equal the entertainment value, which makes teachers and learners happy.

ThinkFun recently sent us one of their new games to review – Rush Hour Shift.  This name may sound familiar to you.  Rush Hour has been one of the most popular games in my classroom for years.  It’s meant to be a single-player game, though my students usually work in pairs or small groups to solve the increasingly difficult challenges of sliding a car through lanes of traffic to the exit.  The new version, Rush Hour Shift, is a 2-player game – and I predict it will be the new favorite in my classes.

Rush Hour Shift from ThinkFun
Rush Hour Shift from ThinkFun

In Rush Hour Shift, there are 3 interlocking plates that make up the traffic grid.  Each player is trying to slide their car to the opposite end.  Different challenges direct you on how to set up the “traffic” on the grid before starting.  Each player is dealt a set of cards, and can only make the moves that are on the cards.  These moves include sliding the other cars around or shifting one of the interlocking plates.

My daughter (12) and I tried the game first.  She beat me two out of three times.  (Spatial reasoning has always been one of my weaknesses.)  I was addicted – but I think my daughter was getting frustrated with playing against someone so obviously beneath her level.

Yesterday, three of my 5th grade girls tried the game out.  They had earned the privilege of  “testing” a game and went into the empty classroom next door to play.   The rest of us were trying to solve some wicked sudoku-like math puzzles, and were soon finding ourselves distracted by the uproarious laughter coming from the game-testers.

I peeked in on the girls, and they were having a great time.  They had easily figured out the instructions, and were taking turns playing each other.  When I asked them if they would recommend the game to others, they vigorously agreed.  Jokingly, one of them commented,  “But not if you want to keep your friends!”  Apparently Rush Hour Shift has the ability to spark some friendly competition.

One thing that we all agreed on was the potential for many hours of fun with this game.  For each of the 10 game set-ups given, there are endless ways the game can be played based on the cards that are dealt and the choices each player makes for using them.

We did receive Rush Hour Shift free to review, but I would definitely choose to purchase one for a birthday gift in the future.

If you find this game interesting and would like to see some other products that I have recommended in the past, check out this Pinterest Board.

Makerspace Essentials – Little Bits

I am frequently asked for advice on what materials to purchase for school maker spaces.  I am definitely not an expert on this topic, but I have gotten a couple of grants for B.O.S.S. HQ (Building of Super Stuff Headquarters) that have allowed me to try out different products.  I thought I would devote this week to sharing about a few items that I have judged to be well worth the money.

(If you intend to apply for a grant for a school maker space, be sure to research your district’s policies on spending grant money.  If you need to use approved vendors, then you should verify that you will be able to purchase the items you propose and that the vendor will accept your district’s preferred method of payment.)

Maker Space Essentials

Little Bits are modules that snap together magnetically to make circuits.  The colors help to distinguish between output and input modules, and there are endless combinations to be made with over 60 modules in their library.  You can see an introduction to the product here.

image from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LittleBits2.jpg
image from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LittleBits2.jpg

Little Bits offers a variety of kits, and gives discounts to educators.  If you are unable to purchase directly through Little Bits due to vendor approval complications, you can also often find their kits on Amazon.com.

If you browse through the lessons page on the site, you will get an idea of the unlimited creativity and learning that these pieces potentially provide.  Math, science, and storytelling are all included in this curriculum gallery.

When we first got our Little Bits set, I found these Task Cards that help to introduce some of the basic pieces.  They were great for me to learn how the modules worked.  However, most of my students preferred to figure it out on their own.  You might want to try these Challenge Cards instead.  If you like those, here are some more.  Of course, you need to make sure the challenges match the supplies you are providing as different kits offer different modules.

Organizing your Little Bits can be a challenge.  I’ve seen some librarians mention that they have a “Little Bits Bar” with plastic drawer organizers that sit on the table.  I was thrilled when Little Bits offered this Tackle Box on their site – perfect for separating hundreds of tiny pieces.  One maker space presenter at TCEA advised us not to get “hung up” on labeling all of the Little Bits containers.  As long as the students organize them by type so the next users can easily find them, that should suffice.

Ayah Bdeir, an engineer and founder of Little Bits, gave a TED Talk about her product in 2012.  She speaks about how her product helps students to make sense of the world.  “The nicest thing is how they start to understand the electronics around them from every day that they don’t learn at schools. For example, how a nightlight works, or why an elevator door stays open,or how an iPod responds to touch.”

If you are given the opportunity to purchase Little Bits for your classroom, library, and/or maker space, I definitely recommend them!

For more maker space resources, check out my Pinterest Board, “Make.”

Free the Zoombinis!

Games have their place in education, but my students know that I tend to emphasize creation rather than consumption – especially when it comes to technology.  Few “education” apps pass muster for me, but I have a feeling this particular one will be on my “Gifts for the Gifted” apps list this December.

I first discovered the magic of the Zoombinis decades ago in my 5th grade classroom.  My students were enamored with the cute little creatures who needed to be guided to their new home through various levels in the TERC/Broderbund game, “The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis.”  Not only was the game fun, but the logic and problem-solving that it demanded were scaffolded extremely well, allowing students of different levels to feel successful when they played.

To be completely honest, I bought a personal copy of the game, and spent many nights with my young daughter (and without her) trying to advance through the different challenges.

Unfortunately, as technology advanced, the Zoombinis disappeared from my classroom.  We can no longer install our own software in our district, and I’m not sure the few games still available through online retailers would work on our newer operating systems.

I was thrilled, therefore, to see a Tweet yesterday that the Zoombinis have launched a Kickstarter!  TERC is teaming up with Fablevision and Learning Games Network to release an app for tablets as well as newly designed desktop software later this year. The Pizza Trolls, the Allergic Cliffs, the Fleens, the Lion’s Lair – they are all coming back with graphics optimized for today’s devices.

To learn more about the Zoombinis Kickstarter project, click on the image below.

zoombini

Love Doesn’t Always Defy Logic

I was going to title this post, “VD is Making me ADD.” Fortunately I realized that was a bad idea – for so many reasons.

Well, I kind of lied.  I have been saying for two days that all of my posts this week would be about the TCEA conference I attended last week.  But then one Valentine resource popped up.  And then another.   And I thought that some of you might actually want to learn about them before Valentine’s Day which, of course, for those of us in the U.S. who follow the Hallmark Holiday Calendar, is this coming Saturday.

Even though it’s not my favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day does lend itself to some fun classroom activities.   I’ve already posted a bunch of resources.  It’s kind of sad, actually, that I have more links to Valentine’s Day resources than Presidents’ Day.  I think it’s a silent rebellion against working  on a day that the students get a holiday…

Anyway, here are a couple more to add to the list of ways to have fun  teach critical thinking and problem solving skills that are vital for standardized testing ;)

Valentine’s Day Sudoku – I have some other links to online and printable sudoku puzzles here, but these free printables are particularly well-suited for Kinder and 1st graders.

Hopscotch Hearts – I thought it would be fun for my students to use Hopscotch (the iPad coding app) to make something Valentine-y, and they have been working on their own ideas on and off for a couple of weeks.  (You can see what a few of my 2nd graders have done so far here – most of them haven’t finished, yet.)  Then I saw a tweet from Hopscotch about a new tutorial they just posted to make a “Pixel Art Heart.”  My 3rd graders tried it out yesterday and really liked it.  A few of them finished the code and then started modifying it to make the heart bigger or smaller as well as different colors.  A couple of other students messed up on the code and I loved watching their peers working with them to try to figure out where they went wrong. (Because I had absolutely no idea!)

So those are my two off-task suggestions for today.  I would promise that I’ll be back to the plan tomorrow, but who knows what will capture my attention between now and then?

Pixel Art Heart

 

Maybe I Should Have Asked If You Would Rather Make Valentines or Eat Chocolate-Covered Ants

Around this time last year, I wrote about using the “Would You Rather?” format for math problems.  This idea was brought to my attention when Richard Byrne posted about John Stevens’ awesome site where he regularly publishes these challenges.  If you have middle-high school age students, I highly recommend that you check out John’s blog.

Because my students are younger, I made a series of my own “Would You Rather” questions last year.  A few of them tied into Valentine’s Day.  You can access the problems and download the slides for your own use here.

Click here for more "Would You Rather" problems!
Click here for more “Would You Rather” problems!

I rolled out the set a couple of weeks ago for new groups of students to try.  I decided this year to give them a format for their answers.  I wanted to make sure they not only answer the question, but show their math and cite any resources they used (we haven’t worked on formal citations yet, as you might notice).  As you can see from some of the examples below, the sheet the students fill in has evolved a bit to make it a little more visually pleasing.

The students are allowed to choose any of the problems they like to work on.  It can be interesting to see their preferences.  What’s fun is that even the students who choose the same exact questions can have completely different correct answers.

I’ve been meaning to make some more of these because I like the multiple steps necessary, what the students learn about searching the web for information (they are working on finding reliable sources right now), and the writing needed to describe their thoughts.  However, I haven’t had the chance to add to the collection.  In the meantime, feel free to use the ones from last year and let me know if you have any suggestions!  And here is a link to the PDF for my latest iteration of journal sheets for these challenges.

Sphero

To continue our Gifts for the Gifted series of 2014, I would like to recommend a little robot that looks like a toy but has a lot of educational potential.

I purchased a Sphero for my classroom late last May, and my students barely had time to unbox it before the school year ended.  As soon as they returned in August, they asked me when it would make its reappearance.  Some of you may remember that it was used by a group during our Cardboard Box Challenge this year.  Three groups of 5th graders worked together to make a huge Sphero maze that was several sections.  It was a big hit at our Cardboard Arcade!

The Sphero isn’t the easiest object to control.  That’s part of the fun. Using one of the “Nubby” covers can sometimes help, but it can also be a hindrance depending on the surface.

But the Sphero isn’t just about guiding a plastic ball around with your iPad.  Sam Patteson (@SamPatue) recently did a guest post on Cool Cat Teacher about how Sphero can be used in the classroom. Orbotix, the company who produces the Sphero, has a page of free lesson plans that you can use to teach math, programming, and other STEM subjects.  Courtney Pepe has used Sphero with augmented reality to inspire creative writing in her class.

If you’re a parent and not a teacher, you may be wondering why I am bringing up all of these educational options.  Don’t get me wrong; there are several apps that make the Sphero pure fun without necessarily being educational, and it can inspire creativity in those kids who like to “make.”  However, you may also want to consider buying one for your child and offering to loan it to his or her teacher for a week or two once your child starts running out of ideas at home.

image from: http://toybook.com
image from: http://toybook.com

You can purchase the Sphero at many retail stores, including Amazon. There is a newer product from Orbotix (Ollie) that may interest you as well.  However, I don’t have experience with it yet so I can’t tell you if it’s worth it.

If you are interested in seeing the other gifts I’ve recommended this year, as well as from years past, check out this Pinterest Board.