Is obsession with STEM making kids unimaginative robots?

*cross-posted from MakerBridge*

Over on Quartz, Darlena Cunha writes about concerns that a solitary focus on STEM is denying students the kinds of open-ended, experiences that a balance with the humanities could offer, going so far as to say that it turns students into robots.

Our intense focus on science, engineering, technology and math may have forced these subjects into a vacuum rather than tying them together with the humanities, according to Jamie Gillooly, a biology professor at the University of Florida. That comes at a cost to students’ creativity and critical thinking—qualities that are just as important in the laboratory as they are in an art studio.

“This idea that STEM is the only way is backwards,” he tells Quartz. “We produce a bunch of droids that way. Students get very little chance to write or express themselves. Everything we do is now knowledge-based.”

 “Students get very little chance to write or express themselves.” Gillooly is one of hundreds of educators trying to reintroduce arts and humanities to students pursuing STEM-based fields at US colleges and universities. In addition to his research and biology courses, Gillooly also teaches a humanities-based course that focuses on cultures across the globe and connects disciplines like art, dance, literature and social studies to technology and science …

“They’re so used to order and structure, and life isn’t like that. We’ve taken this notion of objectivity to the extreme.” “They’re so used to order and structure, and life isn’t like that,” Gillooly tells Quartz. “We’ve taken this notion of objectivity to the extreme.”

First, a quick reality check: given that graduation requirements have hardly changed, has the nation really focused on STEM to the exclusion of humanities of other subjects?

Would K-12 educators agree that the time spent on subjects has changed, or it it something else? The neverending drumbeat that test scores must increase, even for students already high-achieving?

In fact, a 2011 study by a researcher at the College of William & Mary found that creativity scores—as measured by a 90-minute series of creativity tasks known as the Torrance test—are falling in the US, even as IQs continue to rise. Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, an associate professor of innovation and creativity at William & Mary, analyzed 300,000 creativity scores of children and adults, collected between 1968 and 2008. She found that creativity scores had been rising along with IQ scores until 1990. But they have been dropping steadily through 2008, particularly in the elementary-school years of education.

There is no conclusive evidence pointing to a particular cause for the decline. But some speculate that schools’ failure to develop children’s creativity could be to blame. Another potential culprit: hours of screen time, during which kids have adventures mapped out for them rather than come up with activities on their own …

The biggest decline has been seen in students’ knack for “creative elaboration,” according to Kim’s research. This measure assesses people’s ability to take an idea and find novel ways to expand upon and interpret it—a skill that’s badly needed for success in STEM.

Cunha’s article reminds us of several important goals for our work with makers of all ages:

  1. Informal education can be free of the metrics and goals of formal education, including the relentless focus on test scores as a measure of success.
  2. While learning the big ideas of STEM fields is important if informal education is to have a permanent role in students’ learning, so are other, less obvious goals, like learning to shift, build upon, and adapt original designs.
  3. STEM is important, but so are other skills.

What do you think?


Image: “Tinker Toys” by Steve Webel on Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0. 

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Finding State Gems in Michigan

Technically, the state of Michigan has had a state gem since 1973: the Isle Royale Greenstone, named after Michigan’s only national park: Isle Royale. (Some would argue that it’s Fordite, the faux stone created in mid-20th century automotive spray booths when layers of overspray were chipped away, but that’s a story for another day.)

But over the last week, I’ve realized that my state has many more treasures than I realized. I’m a Michigan native, a graduate of its public schools, and my degrees are Michigan universities. How is it that I’ve missed so much about my own state?

Right now, as part of the IMLS-funded Making in Michigan Libraries project, I’ve had the pleasure of making calls across the state to the eight libraries we’ll be visiting this summer for three days of maker professional development for educators, librarians, scout leaders, Boys and Girls Club leaders, 4H, robotics programs, and others interested in developing capacity in maker skills; community spirit; nurturing activities; stimulating extracurricular committees; etc. We’ll be announcing their dates soon — just a few more calls to go!

But what does this have to do with gems? It’s what I’ve been learning about the maker movement through the eyes of communities smaller and different from my own.

Two librarians have shared with excitement how they would like to involve farmers market vendors as cottage industry makers. Talk about an angle we don’t hear about from larger suburban and urban libraries! And what a valuable lens to consider. After all, many farmers market feature handmade making that is a real business over time. Whether it’s wreaths, jellies, jewelry, soap, or more, these folks have passions and perspectives to share.

Some of our communities are excited about involving their school robotics teams (Michigan has more than any other state due, in part, to the financial support of our governor and local mentors). One wants to connect 3D printing to local industry. One site’s local industry is decidedly analog, which brings time-honored traditions that are sustainable without digital infrastructure.

What strikes me the most is the librarians themselves: how well they know their communities, how proud they are of community achievements, how eager they are to show off those points of pride. And it is a reminder to me of the powered network that libraries represent. Whether a town has 1800 or 1.8 million residents, there’s a library and someone who is rooting for their community.

In this political campaigning season, it’s easy to be swept up in the rhetoric of finger-pointing, blame, exclusion, and negative language. It’s reassuring to know that despite it all, our civic fabric is woven with librarians who continue to advocate and labor for the betterment of all.

We can’t wait to move the conversation from calendar to workshop content and to unveil our summer profesional development schedule in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Kristin Fontichiaro

Image: “File:Michigan_90.jpg” from the Perry-Castenada Library Map Collection,courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. Public Domain.

Cross-posted to the Active Learning blog

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Holiday Shopping for Maker Kids

LEGO art: Stormtrooper bringing gifts to the holiday tree. See blog post for citation info.

It’s been two years since we published our last list of recommended holiday purchases for kids, so we’re dusting off that post and updating it for 2015. Here are some of our favorites:


Coupon Books – create a set of coupons that kids can “redeem” for trips to the library’s how-to section, the recycling center for discarded building materials, or their local makerspace. Free.


Under $10

Dollar Tree’s LED collection – We’re big fans of LED lights at Michigan Makers; in fact, our Project Runway-inspired challenge asks students to refashion an item of upcycled clothing and toss in a $1 strand of battery-operated LED lights (currently out-of-stock online but seen recently in-store). For us, this is a cost-effective way of starting kids down the path of e-textiles. A simple strand of lights means no soldering, and we’ve learned they look great around a hoodie, along cuffs, in a hat, or on a skirt. At the same time, this low-cost approach also introduces some less-than-ideal constraints, like having one’s design constricted to ten bulbs and a bulky battery pack gives students the chance to think through alternatives and to be motivated to explore e-textile tools like EL wire, LilyPad Arduino, etc. So take a look at the light strands at Dollar Tree, as well as batteries, LED flashlights, night lights, and other toys you can mod for a quick holiday activity. Dollar Tree, $1 each.

Origami Paper - We often start our maker year with origami. It gets makers sitting around the table instead of staring at screens, and kids are always eager to hear about it. Dick Blick, $3.42.

Helping Hands with Magnifier - When kids are soldering or doing other intricate work, it can be hard (or even unsafe) for them to hold an object with one hand and a tool in the other. Helping Hands’ alligator clips hold the project for the kid, freeing up both hands to work safely. Adafruit, $6.

My Create stop-motion animation app - Explore time-lapse photography and stop-motion animation with the support of this iOS app. Includes “onion-skinning,” which lets you see a faint shadow of your previous photo so you can smoothly transition to your next shot. Take a look at some of our starter animations! iTunes, $4.99.

Craftsman Tool Bag - Because makers need to be organized when it comes to their tools! Sears, reg. $9.99, sale $4.99.

Chalkboard paint – Convert a wall into a maker’s invention board. Home Depot, $9.67.

Thrift Shop Gift Certificates – Some kids just like making stuff out of junk — or taking it apart. For $10 or so, your maker kid can pick up an old VCR to take apart, a lamp to rewire, a wooden box to ModPodge, or secondhand clothes to refashion. Merely browsing the aisles will fire up their imagination!

Other under-$10 items: Screwdrivers (all sizes, all kinds, including those with weird tips for taking apart dead electronics), pliers, measuring tapes, colored pencils, paint, paintbrushes, knitting/crochet needles, embroidery floss, LED bulbs, coin batteries and holders, hand-sewing needles, scrap fabric and felt, yarn, fleece scraps, ribbons, buttons, cardstock paper, scissors with specialty blades, sketch books or composition notebooks for drawing ideas and capturing learning, conductive thread to stich onto glove fingers

Under $20

IKEA DIGNITET curtain wire with hooks - Hang up your sketches and creations! IKEA, $12.99.

Cherry Lake Publishing’s Makers as Innovators series -  Short, 32-page, kid-friendly introductions to Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Game Design, Digital Badges, e-Textiles, Makerspaces, Maker Faire, Scratch, fashion hacking, 3D Printing, and more. (I’m biased, as I wrote for and edited this series, but we wrote it precisely because we had a hard time finding kid-friendly materials ourselves.) Click on a specific title and “read excerpt” to preview them. Cherry Lake Publishing, $9.95 paperback / $20.95 library binding. 

Super Scratch Programming Adventure!  - Scratch, MIT’s puzzle-piece oriented game and animation software, is a great way to introduce kids to object-oriented programming. Some kids just like to delve in and putter; for those kids, you don’t need a Scratch manual. But some kids prefer to work systematically through exercises. For those kids, Super Scratch is great. With a library of pre-made graphics, kids can focus on what they’re doing, not how they’re making it. This new version focuses on the web-based version of the tool. Amazon, $2017.

Digital Photo Frame – Document what your family is making and show it off with a digital photo frame. Best Buy, regularly $32.99.

Builder’s Paper / Butcher PaperCover work tables, make big brainstorming posters, do oversized origami, or paint a mural with large rolls of paper. It is often cheaper to buy this at a hardware store ( where it may be known as “builder’s paper”) than at an office supply store (where it is more likely to be called butcher or Kraft paper). Home Depot, $10.97.

Other under-$20 items: a bunch of PVC pipe and a PVC pipe cutter for quick assembly, a box of bottle caps, leftover playing cards, plastic animals, etc., for designing board games or other toys, surge protectors, a white board for sketching inventions, batteries in bulk, photo paper


Under $50

MintyBoost USB Cell Phone Charger - A beginner’s introduction to the Arduino microcontroller, this device will recharge your cell phone., $24.99

ELENCO Snap Circuits Snaptricity – Our makers (grades 4 – 8) like to experiment with electricty, and these are a safe way to get them started. Snap Circuits components snap together with no exposed wires or risk. And for students who like structure, their kits come with books of ideas for configuring them. (Those kids who like free-form play can just ignore the manual, but we see both types of kids in our maker sites.) Prices vary widely depending on the size and complexity of kits, but this one is budget-friendly. Target, $23.99.

Python for Kids: A Playful Approach to Programming  – one of our maker mentors raves about this book’s approachable introduction to the Python programming language. Nicola’s Books, $34.95.

Tech Box Tricks – Seeed Studio in Shenzhen is continually setting the bar high for new and novel projects. This gives kids a valuable conceptual introduction to microcontrollers without code. Plug components together for quick and satisfying opportunities for kids to prototype over and over. Choose an input (like a push button or a light sensor) and an output (like a fan, buzzer, or light). Connect them to the microcontroller, and voila — instant invention! The microcontroller’s case can snap together with LEGO, making it easy for kids to create inventions that integrate the microcontroller (we also delve into our junk box to help with prototypes). Amazon, $25.

Makey Makey - Ever wanted to turn play dough into a game controller? A banana into a piano? Makey Makey gives kids the interface to turn household objects into controllers. While this tool can wear thin over time, it is an exciting introduction to kids being able to contribute their thinking to how systmes work. Amazon, $49.95

Other under-$50 items: extension cords, a coupon that can be exchanged for admission to an upcoming Maker Faire, multimeter, LEGO kits 


Splurge Purchases

Ozobot 2.0 – A simple 1″ robot that has sensors built into its underbody to sense color, line, and symbol to direct its next move. For classes and maker groups, we lean more toward Dash and Dot, but we just keep hearing how much teachers like this. Amazon, $59.99.

Dash and Dot - Our favorite robots because of their amazingly smooth wheels, abundant sensors, and personality. These robots coo, talk, spin, and adapt to their world. Control via a remote app or, when you’re ready to scale kids up into programming, via the Google Blockly language, which uses puzzle piece-shaped commands to make it easy for kids to shift into their first coding projects. You may need to upgrade your Android or iOS device to get compatible Bluetooth, making this potentially more expensive than it appears up front! Amazon, $249.99.

Little Bits/Korg Synthesizer Kit - This lets your kids assemble their own electronic instruments to record their own music, import into Garage Band, and more. A hit in our maker programming for two years running! Check out the video!, $159.

Brother Sewing Machine – Not just for girls! Whether your maker kid uses it to create Minecraft finger puppets, bean bags, pillow cases, or to hack their fashion, you’ll be surprised how mesmerized your kids will be when given access to a sewing machine. Amazion, $149.99.

Silhouette Portrait digital cutting tool – On the surface, this looks like a tool to cut scrapbooking paper, so I bet you’re thinking this doesn’t sound very makery. But we have used this to create anything from custom stickers to stencils for custom t-shirts (a cheaper version of screenprinting) to cutting stencils to etch original designs onto glass. Consider this a low-cost vinyl cutter with many options., $179.99.

Other splurge items: tool chest, storage cabinet, makerspace membership, classes, summer maker camp fees, easel, sewing machine, digital camera


What’s on your makers’ list?


- Kristin

(cross-posted to the MakerBridge blog)


Image Credit: “4 days to go!” by Flickr user Kenny Louie 


Posted in 3D Printing, Arduino, Creativity, Delight, Free Goodies, Makerspaces/Hackerspaces, Michigan Makers | Comments Off

The New York Times’ Virtual Reality Experiment

Screenshot of two hands holding Google Cardboard at the website

Is the future of mainstream journalism to immerse the viewer into the action via virtual reality? The New York Times thinks so. Sunday print subscribers already received a complimentary Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer, which partners with your smartphone to create what appears to the novice to be a futuristic ViewMaster, and digital subscribers like me just got an email letting us know how we could have one sent to us today gratis.

In a story written a few weeks agoNYT editor in chief Jake Silverstein wrote:

Until now, V.R. has been seen mostly as a revolutionary new platform for video games, but it has the potential to transform journalism as well. At the magazine, we first began experimenting with the technology in April, when we shot a short film with the V.R. production studio Vrse about the making of our ‘‘Walking New York’’ cover. We didn’t promote this project at the time, but we were happy enough with the results to begin making plans …

Watching your first V.R. film takes a little bit of effort, but the payoff is well worth it. First, you’ll have to get our new NYT VR app, available free in the App Store and Google Play. Then you’ll have to download the film itself, which may take a few minutes, depending on your connection speed. If you’re a print subscriber, you will receive a Google Cardboard V.R. viewer with your paper this weekend, which you can use to watch the film. If you don’t have a viewer, you can simply watch the film on your smartphone alone …

Filming in V.R. also requires some effort. Rather than using one camera, a V.R. rig uses many, clustered together and pointing in all directions. The footage from this contraption is reconciled in postproduction to create a wraparound environment, with the viewer positioned at the center, like a sun within a solar system. To stay out of the shot, the filmmaker has to set up his camera rig, begin recording and then run and hide, peering from behind a haystack or a trash bin and hoping that the action unfolds the way he imagined. For this reason, V.R. usually involves more coordination between filmmaker and subject than in traditional video journalism. A subject may be asked to repeat an action, or wait until the filmmaker is out of sight to complete a task …

It is hard to know whether readers of the magazine’s issue on Sept. 6, 1896, were as transported by the newspaper’s first photographs as I hope the readers of today will be by ‘‘The Displaced.’’ But we are proud to carry on a tradition — one as old as journalism itself — of pressing new technologies into the service of storytelling.

Is this a step forward for journalism or will we look back at this moment as one of journalism’s many fads (including, for example, thin records slipped into newspaper pages)? What do you think?

You can learn more about the project at .




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AASL Data Visualization Presentation

Visualization comparing number of war deaths to desks by gunshot

Debbie Abilock and I are pleased to be talking about literacy in terms of “reading” and “writing” data visualizations at the American Association of School Librarians today.

Come by at 4:30 to hear more about what this visualization is all about!

You can find the slide deck here.

Visualization source

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Some interesting findings from Pew’s Spring 2015 data collection and recent report “Libraries at the Crossroads.”

Take a look at the least popular ideas in the visual below (Thanks to Pew for providing these embeddable graphics):3D printers and shifting books to make more collaborative spaces.

How do we reconcile this with the priorities we identify in our conferences, blogs, and publications?

Public Wants Libraries to Advance Education, Improve Digital Literacy and Serve Key Groups   Are we going in the wrong direction by pursuing libraries as creative spaces? The answer isn’t so easy … look at the change from 2012 – 2015: Growing Public Support for Libraries Moving Some Books and Stacks to Create Space for Community and Tech Spaces   What do you make of this data?

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“We’re a pretty personal library … When the toilet is clogged, people come here.”

Delighted to see my local library (Ann Arbor) and a few of our alums (Larry Neal, Josie Parker) featured in yesterday’s New York Times! Excerpts below.

Libraries aren’t just for books, or even e-books, anymore. They are for checking out cake pans (North Haven, Conn.), snowshoes (Biddeford, Me.), telescopes and microscopes (Ann Arbor, Mich.), American Girl dolls (Lewiston, Me.), fishing rods (Grand Rapids, Minn.), Frisbees and Wiffle balls (Mesa, Ariz.) and mobile hot spot devices (New York and Chicago).

“The move toward electronic content has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate our physical spaces and enhance our role as a community hub,” said Larry Neal, the president of the Public Library Association … “The web is swell,” he added, “but it can feel impersonal.”

Libraries, arguably the original sharing economy, have long circulated art prints, music and movies, and more recently have added tools. But services like the Library of Things and the “Stuff-brary” in Mesa, outside Phoenix, are part of a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology like 3-D printers …

The economic downturn forced many public libraries, especially in urban areas, to close branches, curtail hours and cut staff even as demand for their services by job seekers increased … at the same time, “the crunch pushed libraries to look locally to prove their value,” said R. David Lankes, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University …

Last year, the Free Library of Philadelphia pulled together city, state and private funds to open a teaching kitchen, which is meant to teach math and literacy through recipes and to address childhood obesity. It has a 36-seat classroom and a flat-screen TV for close-ups of chefs preparing healthy dishes …

The Ann Arbor District Library has been adding to its voluminous collection of circulating science equipment. It offers telescopes, portable digital microscopes and backyard bird cameras, among other things — items that many patrons cannot afford to buy. Dave Menzo, a 28-year-old musician, created a whole album by borrowing electronic music equipment, including a photocell-controlled synthesizer called a Thingamagoop.

Online experiences only go so far, said Josie Parker, Ann Arbor’s library director. “You can’t download a telescope to take on a family picnic in the country and watch the stars come up,” she said …

For Shereema Ibrahim … the discovery that sewing machines were suddenly available at her branch library meant returning to a favorite hobby… “It’s not so much the dollar amount,” she said of the borrowed sewing machine. “It’s about the value of opportunity” …

In Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota, … where fishing rods and tackle can be borrowed and used at the library’s own fishing dock on the Mississippi River, emergency assistance is provided during the summer months by a Rotary Club volunteer adept at untangling wind knots.

In Berkeley, Calif., the Tool Lending Library, a forerunner of the maker movement that was established in 1979, now houses some 3,000 tools, including weed whackers, drain snakes, demolition hammers and saws….

“We’re a pretty personal library,” said Adam Broner, a librarian who is also a carpenter. “When the toilet is clogged, people come here.”

I really love libraries.

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Obama on Teachers

From The New York Times:

“If you hear a candidate say that the big problem with education is teachers, you should not vote for that person,” Mr. Obama said. “It is a hard job, and it is the most important job we’ve got, and folks who go into teaching don’t go into it for the money. They go into it because they’re passionate about kids.”


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Prepping for maker class with the “American Maker” video from 1960

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4TDW Slides … and new ideas from today’s participants about boosting peer interaction

Decorative: Logo for 4T Digital Writing Conference

Do you know about the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing that Delia DeCourcey and the 4T team are bringing to your laptop for free October 11-14? This is a great chance for you to rethink — a la Alan Liu’s Transliteracies Project — about what reading and writing look like in the multimedia digital world.

You can register for the conference now. There’s no charge, and you can get Michigan continuing education credits (SCECHs) at no cost, too! There are many excellent speakers in the conference line-up, including nationally-recognized names like Andrea Zellner, Troy Hicks, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl.

But there are also many fresh perspectives presenting webinars for the first time. This carries on the pledge we made a few years ago for 4TDW’s parent conference, the 4T Virtual Conference to develop instate talent and give great teachers a supportive, ongoing community in which to develop a great webinar. This year’s featured presenters for 4TDW gave up a morning of their vacation for virtual professional development, and I got to share some of my strategies and listen in on their thinking.

My big takeaways:

  • I’m not the only one who thinks webinaring can be anxiety-provoking!
  • From Liz Kolb and others, I learned how to use the whiteboard and its “magic wand” (or, as Blackboard calls it, pointer) to capture information about participants (e.g., click on your grade level; mark where you are on this continuum) and also as a place to consolidate input from participants’ text. Today, watching people put comments about high impact webinar strategies onto the whiteboard using Blackboard’s text tool, I noticed something I had never seen before in webinars: people writing things like, “YES!” next to someone else’s comment. I also saw someone use the magic wand tool to place an icon next to content they valued. What if we gathered comments (as has been done before), then asked people to go back and:
    • vote for the most important ideas we should continue talking about (or prioritize in our ongoing work); and/or
    • respond to someone else’s content?

Thanks to today’s participants for giving me a new way to think about participant interaction with peer content. Now I’m looking forward to my next webinar so I can put those new ideas into play!

Slide deck for today’s talk available here.




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