Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Twitter for Teachers: Part 1

Twitter, is not just for popular culture. Its not just for sharing what you had for lunch.  It is actually the best way to connect quickly with teachers of like-mindedness, as well as teachers who will boggle your mind with what they do in their classroom.

To encourage teachers to venture onto Twitter in order to engage with innovative thinkers, I have started a tutorial series titled "Twitter for Innovative Thinkers." Part 1 is called "Educator's Guide to Twitter: The Profile Page."  In this first tutorial I explain how Twitter is a great place for professional development for teachers. I then go through the elements of a Twitter profile page to prepare YOU to set up an account.

In Part 2 titled "Hashtags and other Twitter Terms I Don't Know" I will share the construction of a tweet along with the importance of a hashtag.  Coming soon.

I double-dog dare you to open a Twitter account today and begin experiencing learning (as a teacher) like never before! Have Fun!

~Darci the STEM mom

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Rokit Smart Review

Rokit, by Robolink, is a versatile and affordable robotics kit that is great for all ages, because it comes pre-programmed with 12 personalities and can be built without soldering. While the kit is used for classrooms, its also great for individual families, clubs, and summer fun! Rokit is advertised as "12 in 1 educational robot" which is what first piqued my interest. And while there are 12 programed "behaviors" in the smart board, you children can make WAY more than 12 robots.
 My boys (ages 8 and 4) did not know the kit was coming, and oh were they excited. Our first goal was orient ourselves to the pieces within the kit.  We were to excited, and forgot to take a photo of the kit when it first arrived, but here is a video that shows what all comes with it. The key components are the two DC motors (to move the wheels), the smart board, baseboards, battery holder, metal frames, remote control, screwdriver, torque wrench, and assorted nuts and bolts.  

Getting Started on our first robot EVER:
As a family with ZERO experience in robotics, and a son who has no patience for reading, the directions (that you can view here on Rokit's Curriculum page) was a mix between assembling a product from Ikea, and directions from a Lego kit. And so assembly began. 
Rokits directions are easy to follow:

We started with the Mouse Bot, or the Obstacle Avoidance Bot. This bot is able to sense when it is about to bump into something and then turn. The smart board has sensers in the center and in the left and right corners. You also use these to select which program you want to use for each particular robot.
Obstacle Avoidance Bot:
My boys had fun developing obstacle courses out of boxes for the robot to go through.
Obstacle course for our bot:

The smart board has 12 preset personalities. These settings allow you to build robots that can avoid obstacles, follow a line, sense light, grip, and sense motion. Here's the great news, you don't have to know a thing about robots for this to be fun. We kept things real low key, and I kept reminding my 8 year old, Caleb, that making mistakes was part of the engineering process. If he built a robot, and something didn't work, he just needed to evaluate what was wrong, and find possible solutions to the problem. I wanted to keep his first exposure to robotics a positive one, and to keep frustration low. It worked. Weeks later, he still enjoys time with the Rokit Smart. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Failure is Totally an Option!

Please, for the sake of our kids, take down your inspirational posters that read, "Failure is not an option" and replace them with posters that say:

Fail Early and Fail Often
Failure is Totally an Option
From Failure you Learn; from Success, Not so Much

We may have had it wrong. The infamous Apollo 13 quote "Failure is Not an Option" is a mantra that I believe, gives students the wrong impression about how problems are solved. In context of the movie, the engineers had a challenge unlike any that most ever have to face. They had limited supplies, limited time, and people's lives were at stake. Being wrong had devastating results.  So the quote in that context is inspiring. However, the real engineering design process, requires failure. And the sooner you fail, the quicker you learn. The more you fail, the faster you learn.

I'm nervous that the pervasive message that "failing is bad" had raised up a generation of kids who now won't take risks.  Our focus on standardized testing has exacerbated the problem. Look around you. Do you know kids who are scared to do try new things unless given explicit directions and guidance? Do you know any kids who love to tinker, taking things apart? What happened to try it and see what happens? 

I was inspired by this article titled, Genius Hour; What kids learn from failure. Modeled after Google's 20% idea, middle school kids were given 80 minutes a week to work on any project of their choosing. Students meet with teachers to brainstorm, and students present and share their ideas. The standards of writing, listening, and communicating all come into play. But more powerfully, students learn to accept failure, and learn from it.

While leading a workshop recently, technology teacher Jarrod Rackauskas said he's learned that when facilitating project based learning, it is best if students fail early, rather than later. If teachers encourage students to tinker, think, develop prototypes, but wait too long to try them out, students are overly discouraged by their failure. But if they fail early, they are better able to see that failure helps them learn what's wrong, and how to fix it.  

Avoiding failure is a mindset that is so engrained in students, it will take time to undo this type of thinking. I suggest we take baby steps. Watch the words you use when students are working on projects. For example, replace, "Better luck next time" with "Great, now what can you learn from this to make your next one better?"

Encourage students when they make a wrong prediction or when their prototypes don't work. In fact celebrate it! Give them kudos, give them a crown of failure.  Let them know failure is how you begin to do something great!  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Calendar-Weather-Geography Morning Activity

 Traditional Morning Routine 


Often the school day for young kids starts with calendar time. There are lots of options for teachers and homeschooling parents. I've use a smattering of ideas from 1+1=1 and a mixture of some of my own materials. However, if you're on the road and trying to homeschool (whether full-time or just on vacation) I found my traditional morning calendar routine wasn't all it could be. 

I have a small 1/2" binder where I hole punch a cheap Dollar Store calendar so my son gets a sense of months and days and where he can practice writing his numbers. We also kept a graph of weather and temperature. However, when on the road, I felt like this needed to be modified. 

Roadschooling Activity to focus on geography, comparative weather, and activities  


Weather changes as we move around the country, and having my kids identify the current geography  increased in importance. I also found we often were comparing weather where we are, with what people back home are experiencing. So including comparative weather seemed like a good idea. And most importantly, I wanted my kids to have a record of things we were doing, from their own perspective. I didn't find anything that matched my needs, so I made this supplement handout to add to our morning routine. 

I designed the handout for a first grade student, but I'm sure it could be leveled up or down just fine. It includes:
  • What is today? A place for child to write the month, day of the week, and day and year. 
  • Today's number: This is where the child takes the number date and makes 4 number sentences. Two that add up to that number, and two that subtract to that number.  For example on March 12; the student might choose (10 + 2 = 12),  (6 + 6 = 12),  (15 - 3 = 12), and (20 - 8 = 12).
  • Where am I? Here the child writes the name of the city/town, state, and country. He also marks the location on the US map.
  • What's the Weather Like Today? Here the child writes a weather descriptor word, includes a current, and predicted high/low temperature for your current location, and one for "back home." 
  • Picture of what I did yesterday: The child can either draw a picture or make a collage that will help him keep a record of all the cool places your family goes.  My kids like cutting from tourist brochures and pasting ticket stubs in this space. Even photos of the latest fish catch have made it into this spot.   
  • Journal: Today.... prompt allows space for the child to write a sentence of something cool that is going on. 


Tips for Using the Calendar-Weather-Geography Activity 


 You might choose to print out multiple copies (back-to-back maybe) one page per day still adds up to be a lot. Maybe you might choose to print it on card stock, laminate it, or put it in Learning Resources Write And Wipe Pockets or the Crayola Dry Erase Boardso that you don't have all the paper to keep track of.  


 Handwriting Without Tears


In case you're wondering, I choose to use the 2 lines promoted by Handwriting Without Tears.  I have found that it is less confusing as my son knows that some letters are tall, some are small, some are descending, and others are capitals. His handwriting has much improved since using the two lines instead of three.

Free Download Printable

Here is a free download on the Roadschooling Calendar Journal. This link will take you to a Google Doc where you will be able to download the pdf. I would love your feedback. 

(Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links. Thanks for your support.) 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Engineering Cell Division - a NGSS lesson

My passion right now is inquiry and really trying to develop labs that emphasize THINKING processes, getting kids to ask good questions and finding ways to answer them.

I am also using the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) to reframe how I teach. For example; for years, I have used the traditional "hands-on lab" of pipe cleaners to teach mitosis and cell division. With the new standards the focus is not on rote memorization of the phase names. Check out HS standard HS-LS1-4.

HS-LS1-4.Use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms. [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include specific gene control mechanisms or rote memorization of the steps of mitosis.]
At first I was broken hearted..I love teaching the phases of the cell cycle. But in reality, does every kid need to know the WORDS, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase etc... to be successful in life? No. So I rewrote the lab to focus more on problem-solving...and took an engineering slant to it. I just had a group of middle and high school boys complete the lab, it went extremely well. And the bonus? The following weeks, they still had retained all the "big picture" ideas from the lab.

[Free download available at the end of this post.] 

Setting up the Engineering Cell Division Lab

I set out a variety of materials including: (But really, just gather up as much junk as you want, the kids will be creative in how they use them.)

  • twine
  • pipe cleaners 
  • playdough
  • craft pom-poms
  • clothes pins
  • beads, pennies
  • other stuff

The way the NGSS has made me rethink the way I teach is to use models more, and to really drive home the Cross-Cutting concepts. Before developing a model, I have students brainstorm both structural and functional barriers that a cell has to overcome.  Here is how I word it in the lab: 

1.     What are the major structural and functional barriers a cell must overcome? Then brainstorm some ways the cell might overcome the barrier.
a.     Structural barriers refer to the cell parts
b.     Functional barriers refer to the ability of the cell to work and do its job

I have them work on this chart as they brainstorm barriers and then solutions. Don't be too hung up on the solutions column just yet. Sometimes the students need to "play" with the materials to determine what has to happen in order for a cell to divide.  I've included a few students may come up with. 

Description of Barrier
(Design problem)
Possible Solutions


 There must be enough genetic material for 2 cells

 At some point the DNA must double...Can cell be "working" when this is going on? 

 The genetic material is protected inside the nuclear membrane. How does it get out? 

 Nuclear membrane must pinch off (or dissolve). 

 Size issue: If a cell divides; cutting itself into 2; and the next generation does the same, the cells will get smaller and smaller.

 At some point, the cell must grow before it divides. 


 Organelles must also be divided. (Does it matter how many mitochondria each cell gets?) 

Then, once students have addressed the engineering challenges a cell faces in order to replicate, I have a section in the lab called....

Play Time

I wished I would have learned earlier about the power of play, even with middle and high school students. Unfortunately, school has squeezed out much of the natural curiosity that students have, but if you allow (sometimes force) them to be creative, they will...and they'll enjoy it!   

Friday, October 11, 2013

Spirit of Innovation Challenge: Abstracts Due October 24

For me, it is hard to not be passionate about the mission of the Conrad Foundation. We host the Spirit of Innovation Challenge - a legacy program honoring Apollo Astronaut and third man to walk on the moon, Pete Conrad. Not a lot of people know, that while Pete experienced great success as an adult, he had a really difficult time in school because he had dyslexia at a time when learning disorders were not widely understood. Luckily, Pete had a  teacher who saw something special in him and helped get him focused on engineering and math, which at the time did not require a lot of reading. This teacher gave Pete his moon shot – and that’s what we try to do for students worldwide through the Spirit of Innovation Challenge.

One of my favorite parts of the program is that we strive to create relevance for what students are learning in the classroom. We believe it is vital that students understand that the application of what they learn can equate to products and services that can benefit humanity. 

As part of the Spirit of Innovation Challenge, we ask parents and teachers, just like Darci, the STEM Mom, to give their students the chance to make a difference by combining STEM and with innovation and entrepreneurship.  We want them to think beyond the classroom and put their ideas in motion. It is amazing the amount of ingenuity students have when someone gives them an opportunity to “Get Their Genius On”.

At the Conrad Foundation, we try to foster education as diplomacy. We have expanded the program to reach all 50 states and 72 countries. As part of the Spirit of Innovation Challenge, students learn how to work collaboratively, think like an innovator and develop skills that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

Our theme this year is “You are the solution. Design things that matter.”  I believe, when given the opportunity, young people prove time and again they are capable of so much compassion, creativity and the ability to solve problems. One of my favorite examples is from a team in Florida that developed a water filtration system that is now in place in a clinic in Nigeria. A team of five created a product that is helping a population of 500,000. Every day in our online community, I see the ideas presented by these young adults and I am amazed by their thoughtful and unique approach to problem solving. I hope you will be, too.

I invite you to participate in this year’s challenge. There is still time for students to get their abstracts completed before the Oct. 24 deadline. I recommend you start with a creative brainstorm, then have the students answer the four abstract questions about the team’s product or service and submit. It may be the best experience they will have as a high school student and it’s free!

Learn more at


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Flanagan Pipeline; Engineering Activity

Last Year Wind Turbines...This Year Oil Pipeline:

Last year we had wind turbines being constructed near us (rural Illinois) and this year we have an oil pipeline going in! So, as you can only imagine.... I view this as a wonderful learning activity! Its lab time! Last year we did a several labs; including Building Wind Turbines, and Power testing Wind Turbines.  And now we have the Flanagan South Pipeline going in a mile from our home. 

Before I share the multi-day engineering challenge I am doing with my middle school/high school students, I wanted to first share a few photos showing what's going on around here. 

We first noticed the survey equipment marking the path of the pipeline. (No photos of this.) It wasn't long before the crops were coming out making way for the oil pipeline construction crews.  

Flanagan South Pipeline Surface Preparation in Illinois:

Then we noticed the construction to provide access from the road to the right of way sections. Here in Illinois is it cutting through corn and bean fields and an angle. Which may not seem like a strange thing to you, but here in the midwest, our roads all go North/South and East/West! 

Road access to pipeline right of way

Map of Flanagan South Pipeline through IL, MO, KS, and OK:

The construction crews worked carefully to separate the top soil from the subsoil. See the difference in color? 

Separation of Top and Sub Soil for Oil Pipeline:

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pipecleaner Numbers to Teach Number Bonds

Numbers, math, adding, subtracting to solve....but what's the purpose? I have bad childhood memories learning my addition facts...using flashcards...ugh. So when thinking about my own kids, I wondered what other methods of teaching early math were out there. And what I found was Singapore Math. And the reason I like it so much is that it focuses on conceptual concepts and making sure students attach meaning to numbers. 

In addition to our Singapore textbook and workbook, I also bought "Building Number Sense: Games & Activities to Practice Combinations to 10" by Catherine Jones Kuhns.  And this resource has really helped me understand the importance of my son understanding how the numbers up to 10 combine together. It is this basis that all math is based on. At first glance it all seemed so simple, and overkill to focus on these skills so long. But what I'm finding is the more ways we talk about these numbers the less my son has to think about the numbers, and he just "knows." That's what I want! 

Pipe Cleaner and Beads to practice number bonds to 10  from

While there are TONS of great activities in this book, my favorite by far is called Number Bracelets. The idea is to focus on a single number and have students explore all the number combinations that can add up to that number. 

How to Make Pipe Cleaner Numbers

So for example, if eight is your focus number, you make a pipe cleaner circle with 8 beads on it, and then label it with the number. Then you can have conversations with kids about all the possible combinations the beads can make. The simplicity is that the total (eight) doesn't change; yet several number combinations can be used to add up to the number.  It takes kids a while to get it, and this manipulative is a great way to SEE it. 

I made two, one for me and one for my son. If you are working with a full class, I suggest making one for each child. And to make life easier, construct all the "eights" with the same color pipe cleaner and beads. That way at a glance you can be sure everyone has the right number! 

See How it Works with an Example of "Eight"   

Below is my green and purple "eight" pipe cleaner. You can see that by pulling the beads apart you can show:

0 + 8 = 8
1 + 7 =  8
2 + 6 = 8
3 + 5 = 8

Flip the pipe cleaner to face the other direction, and it also shows:

5 + 3 = 8
6 + 2 = 8
7 + 1 = 8
8 + 0 = 8

And if you want to get more advanced, you can see what three numbers to add up to your focus numbers.  Or what four numbers...such as;

2 + 2 + 3 + 1 = 8

PipeCleaner and Beads to teach addition; Sample number eight from

The first few times I used the pipe cleaner numbers with my son, we just talked about them, manipulating the beads to the right and left, and getting the concept down, that the total number doesn't change. 

Now I use number bond graphics and equations so the sounds of the numbers are also being seen as symbols. 

Bubble Number Bonds graphic:

Here is the cover of Kuhns' book! I highly recommend it. I'll share more activities from it in the future.  

Building Number Sense: learning combinations to 10