Sunday, January 28, 2018

3 Word Design Challenges

Ignite maker learning in just 3 words.

If you are like most teachers, you are always looking for ways to new engage your students.  Active engagement leads to student learning.  So, how can spark engagement in just 3 words?

The inclusion of engineering design challenges is becoming a part of many classrooms.  Those who embrace the Maker Mindset carefully craft hands-on tasks that will get learners thinking, collaborating, and creating. Developing effective prompts for design challenges can take time and imagination.  I've boiled it down to some 3-word challenges that you can take, adapt, and use in your classroom tomorrow!

Some are specific to engineering certain structures or adding components to an existing design.  Other are more general and could be used for open-ended tasks of any kind.

  • Hack a Toy
  • Build a Bridge
  • Drop an Egg
  • Create a Game
  • Re-purpose a Box
  • Can it Float? 

While these examples are pretty straight-forward, some prompts may require a little more explanation.

Team design challenges have become pretty popular for getting learner thinking critically and solving problems.  These challenges can be done with students or adults with everyday materials.
  • Two Concurrent Towers
    • Give each team a bag of random materials.  Something that can serve as a surface (Styrofoam cup, cardboard scrap), a structure (plastic fork, Popsicle stick) and a connector (pipe cleaners, straws)  Given the materials provided, build two concurrent towers.  You can create additional challenges within the challenge by informing teams that the towers can't use the same exact materials for each tower.  Or at one point in the challenge, you could stop the groups and allow one member from each team to go and steal one item from another table, causing teams to rethink their plan.
  • Ship a Chip
    • As an alternative to the egg drop challenge, teams will need to carefully pack and ship one potato chip to another location with the goal of keeping the chip perfectly intact.  Choose clean recyclable materials including bubble wrap, duct tape, tissue paper, plastic wrap, etc.  If you need a partner school to ship you chip to--please contact me.  We'd be happy to exchange in this challenge with you!
  • Make it Move
    • Again, using some general materials, challenge teams to create a vehicle that can roll across the floor.  Possible materials include index cards, straws, paper clips, Lifesaver candy (or other wheel-like option).  For those who need more explicit directions, check out PBS Kids .
If you are looking for a techy-themed challenge, try these 3-word challenges that require a few more materials.  

  • Create Wiggle Art
    • Using a 3 volt motor, some AAA batteries and a battery pack with wires, teams can create a vibrating bot that, when markers are attached, can create some wiggle art.  You'll also need a plastic cup or other plastic recyclables and some tape.  Here's one version from Lemon Lime Adventures.
  • Shed Some Light
    • Using the bot you created in the prior challenge, add a feature using LED lights.  How can you get your bot to shed some light adding a coin cell battery and pack? 
If you are more of a bookworm, there are design challenges for you and your students too.  
  • A New Setting
    • Reading a good book with your students?  Have them consider how the story would be different if it was in a different setting?  The wild, wild, west.  Undersea.  In a galaxy far, far away.  In the jungle.  Can your students write about it?  SURE, but let's have them create it instead.  Maker challenges can support creativity and collaboration while developing literacy skills, too!
  • Design a Solution 
    • Every great story has a character with a problem that needs solved.  Students can design a solution to help your favorite children's literature character.  Clifford can't get to Emily Elizabeth fast enough, create a vehicle for him.  Charlotte's Web is too sticky, design a new home for her.  Ramona can't take another minute with Beezus, build her a secret clubhouse.  The possibilities for story connections are endless!  Check out my website STEAM Makers for more great ideas.  
I'm sure there are tons of other 3-word challenges out there.  Please share yours! 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

No More Sitting in Auditoriums: 3 Ideas for Remaking Professional Learning

Raise your hand if you are tired of sitting in auditoriums listening to someone lecture for your school district in-service.  OK, now that everyone's hand is up, ask yourself--why, in 2018, is this still happening?  With all that we know about engaging learners (students and teachers) why aren't we infusing more meaningful work into our professional learning?

Not to worry--there are lots of leaders out there who are hacking the traditional professional development model in favor of hands-on learning opportunities that are collaborative and fun!  As I think about planning for some upcoming PD days in the new year I remember what it was like to sit in those auditorium seats as a teacher. I think about how easy it was to disengage, catch up on some reading, or play on my phone. We've all been there.  Instead of draining our educators, let's take advantage of our time together and re-energize our teams during this cold and dreary time of year.

These three ideas might be the shift you need to plan professional learning that fuels your team.

Make it Hands-On
Over the course of the last year, our district has provided opportunities for teachers to learn skills in Maker Education that can be used to enhance instruction in their classrooms.  Through our work with the Beaver County Innovation & Learning Consortium we have shared professional learning with two other area school districts.  Our teams spent time learning about creating LED Wearables, using Virtual Reality in the classroom, and programming with robots through Bird Brain Technology . Hands-on learning engages teachers and creates practical applications to new learning.

Bring Teams Together
Try a team design challenge.  With all that schools districts are doing to promote critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity with our students, we can't forget about developing this within our teachers.  Going out of your comfort zones may be easier with friends and colleagues to support you.  So build those spaghetti towers and tin foil boats! Work as a team to solve problems and learn together.

Connect it to Curriculum
Last spring, we opened our first elementary makerspace.  YAY!  In order to build capacity within our teachers, we offered workshops over the summer where teachers could come into the space and learn a new skill.  While the skills in isolation were valuable, we also took time to connect this new learning to children's literature.  Elementary teachers learned how to solder and weave.  They became cardboard connoisseurs.  Some collaborated on maker activities that connected to the Global Read Aloud.  Others considered how their makerspace learning would enhance a story in their reading series or their favorite children's book.  They explored ways that this hands-on learning fit into the existing curriculum.

So, whether you shake things up with a rock, paper, scissors tournament or a scavenger hunt, let's get our teams active and engaged during in-service.  And while we are at it---can we call in-service something else? (I've never been a fan of that term.)

Consider how you might build camaraderie and bring teams together for some fun in the new year.  Be sure that the professional learning aligns with the curriculum so that teachers can see exactly where the new learning fits in and equip them with some new skills to revitalize their lessons.

No more sitting and listening to lectures.  Let's flip the traditional model of in-service (blah) training and remake our professional learning!

Need help with planning some upcoming professional learning?  Is your team looking to engage teachers in hands-on workshops that build creativity and collaboration?  Check out my workshops at   I'm booking now for summer workshops and keynotes.

Monday, January 1, 2018


OK, so it killed the cat--but curiosity is where great ideas start!

New ideas fuel me.  I get excited to share ideas and talk with other educators about what fuels them.

Sometimes its contagious the way ideas can flow when you surround yourself with curious, innovative people.  So, I've decided that my #oneword for 2018 is CURIOSITY.

In my role as a school district leader, I hope to cultivate curiosity within the schools that I work in--with our teachers, our leaders, and most definitely with our students. 

I wonder:  How might I support passions and new learning?  How might I share new opportunities for growth with teachers?  How might I provide resources for innovative projects for students?

I will say YES to ideas that empower teachers and learners.  I will work to push my own thinking and the thinking of others. 

I hope to cultivate curiosity in myself.  I want to take the time to pursue the things I'm curious about (and not feel guilty about it).  I want to read more, travel more.  I want to spend time talking with people who I can learn from and grow with.  If there is something I was to learn more about--I'm gonna do it!

I hope to cultivate curiosity within my own children.  Active boys, almost 4 and 6 years old, my kids are interested in everything.  They love reading books, building with cardboard, trying out "science experiments", and have already learned some basics of coding.  (You think their mom is into STEAM maybe?? 😊)  My hope is that they never lose that spark!  I hope that new ideas are ignited from their wonderings and that they stay ever-curious.

As I move into this new year.  I will pursue the spark of new ideas.  I will chase my curiosities and encourage you to do the same.

Happy New Year!