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How Physical Computing Can Help Your Elementary and Middle School Students

by Rick Bush, Library & Instructional Technology Teacher, Stoller Middle School

A photo of a girl using a Go Direct Force and Acceleration Sensor to control a sprite in Scratch.
Students use the Go Direct Force and Acceleration Sensor to provide input and control their sprite.

Introducing new technology into your classroom can be a significant undertaking. Creating new lessons and incorporating new platforms can require you to learn new technology, figure out how to incorporate it, test it, and then implement it with your students.

We know all of these steps are worth it, because your students are worth it. Computer science is now included as part of STEM education1, and by 2020 one of every two jobs in the STEM fields will be in computing2.

As a Library & Instructional Technology Teacher and former third grade teacher, I understand the challenges teachers face when introducing new technology to students, especially coding and physical computing.

What is physical computing and why is it important?

Physical computing refers to making or using devices that interact with the physical world. Those devices take input from their environment. Processors, such as computers, then take the input and use that data to create some type of output. A physical computer creates an input-process-output cycle.

Consider applications of physical computing as simple as a TV and remote control. The TV receives an input from the remote control as a certain button is pressed, and in return, changes volume or channel as requested.

How can physical computing help your students?

Much like other hands-on learning programs, physical computing is meant to motivate students to collaborate, promote computational thinking, and encourage creative problem solving. These are all skills your students can apply when attempting to solve problems no matter the subject area.

Students who study coding and physical computing learn by doing. They have the opportunity to interact with data from the world around them in a truly constructivist way. As they gather data from a device or sensor, they can use problem-solving skills and trial and error to make sense of the data as they use it to create an interactive project with their peers. This tangibility and interactivity of physical computing helps students make natural connections between the digital and physical worlds in a holistic way, engaging the whole student, mind and body.

How can you get started?

There are many physical computing and coding platforms that can help you get started, but Scratch is my go-to platform of choice. Scratch, a browser-based programming language, is collaborative and encourages students to share and build on each other’s ideas. Scratch is supported by an active and growing community of millions of users, including Vernier Software & Technology who now has a Scratch extension for their Force & Acceleration Sensor.

Follow these easy steps to learn how to use your device’s built-in camera as a sensor in a Scratch program. We will use Scratch’s video sensing block to get input and then process that information and do something with it.

1. Figure Out the Input

One of the best practices for using any new data-collection sensor with Scratch is to determine what type of input data is produced from the device; this goes for the video sensing blocks, too.

  • The blocks for video sensing can be added to any project by clicking on the extensions button in the bottom-left corner of the editor window.
  • You will use the video-sensing reporter block (the block with rounded ends) to read the motion data from your built-in camera.
  • Make a variable and name it “video motion”.
  • Move a “set variable to ()” block to your project.
  • Modify the “set variable to ()” block so that it sets the “video motion” variable to the value of the “video sensing reporter” block.
  • Place that block into a “forever” loop under a “when green flag clicked” block.
  • Click the green flag to show the data input that the video motion is feeding into Scratch.

2. Use the Input Data to Move a Sprite

  • Move a “go to x: () y: ()” block to your project into the forever loop.
  • Modify the “go to x: () y: ()” block so that the x and y value is set to the value of the “video sensing reporter” block.
  • Click the green flag to run your program and watch your sprite move!

3. Add Motion with Math Operations

Adjust the sprite’s motion with math operations like addition, subtraction, and multiplication to dial in your creation.

  • Make it start in the third quadrant by subtracting 100 from each reporter block. (Click here for an example screenshot.)
  • Once you have an understanding of the data-collection sensor, use the data to make a cool game!
  • Check out this example of a balloon pop game—you might even try opening it on your phone or tablet! I can’t wait to see what your students make.

What’s next?

Chances are, you’re not the only teacher in your school who is curious about introducing physical computing to your students. Working together in small groups with your fellow teachers can help to spur new ideas and projects.

I’d love to hear more about your projects. You can Tweet me at @bushr1. You can also learn more about the physical computing options from Vernier Software & Technology on their Engineering, Coding, & Robotics page.

1 STEM Education Act of 2015
2 Rebooting the Pathway to Success, Association for Computing Machinery, 2014

Earth Day: Inspire Your Students’ Interest in a STEM-Related Career with Hands-On Activities and Experiments

Earth Day header graphic

Earth Day is a perfect opportunity to get your students engaged in a conversation about conservation and sustainability. By incorporating hands-on activities and experiments that take place beyond a book into your curriculum, you can help your students connect the dots between the lab and the real world. When your students visualize data through real-world applications, they are better able to understand the root causes behind issues and engage in critical thinking.

When students make these connections and develop a genuine concern about the issues, they will be more likely to engage in STEM-related fields and careers to find the solutions. Nearly all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in STEM1, which includes environmental science and chemistry. Get students ready for their next step by creating opportunities for students to investigate real-world situations that provide a platform to develop further into a STEM career.

Here are two helpful activities, suggested by a couple of our scientists, that you can do with your students this Earth Day.

Use the Power of Cookies to Demonstrate the Impacts of Coal Mining

by Colleen McDaniel

For six years, Colleen McDaniel taught biology and AP environmental science in Spring Branch ISD, located in Houston, Texas. Colleen earned her Master’s degree in Science Education from Montana State University, and her thesis concentrated on project-based learning in an AP2 classroom.

One activity I enjoyed when I was teaching biology was Cookie Mining. In this common and easily adaptable activity, students simulate a mining activity using store-bought chocolate chip cookies and common household items such as toothpicks and paper clips. This experiment not only helps raise student awareness of environmental issues but also touches on a variety of subjects, including environmental science, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

This experiment is perfect for non-science majors because it provides a simple and tactile way to demonstrate the concept of mining while giving students visual evidence about the impacts of mining operations. Here’s a basic outline of the activity:

  1. Students are first asked to buy “equipment” (typically flat and sharp-edged toothpicks as well as paper clips) for their projects with either fake or imaginary money. Here, you have an opportunity to demonstrate to students the economics of mining.
  2. Using only the tools they buy, students then “mine” the cookie for chocolate chips, extracting the chips and returning any cookie fragments to the original site in an attempt to return the land to its pre-mined state.
  3. Once the mining and reclamation is done, students then calculate whether or not they were able to make a profit. To do this, they consider variables such as chocolate chip worth as well as the costs of tools, reclamation, and mining.

To add even more depth to this experiment, you can have students consider the more complex elements of mining. For instance, you can introduce the concept of ore quality by having students compare cookie brands for the number of chocolate chips per cookie or the crumbliness of the cookie. Students can also measure and compare the production of “tailings,” which are unusable ore gained in mining that need to be separated from the valuable ore. Comparing different cookie brands also helps students understand that mines differ, both in terms of how much coal they can produce, as well as how much environmental damage they can cause.

This activity blends environmental science with engineering while demonstrating economic lessons and the overhead of how mining works. Because it can be adapted to your needs, this experiment is beneficial regardless of whether you’re utilizing it for non-science majors or for AP2 students.

Reveal the True Colors of Spinach with Paper Chromatography

by Elaine Nam, Ph.D.

Elaine earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Washington. As the Director of Chemistry at Vernier, she is involved in writing lab experiments, training teachers, and developing new products for chemistry.

Each year, the American Chemical Society (ACS) promotes a community-based program called Chemists Celebrate Earth Week (CCEW). This celebration takes place during the week of Earth Day with different themes for each year. The theme for this year’s celebration is “Take Note: The Chemistry of Paper.”

One of the goals of CCEW is to help build awareness of chemistry at the local level with your community. One practical activity for this year’s theme is paper chromatography, which can be used with all ages. In this simple activity, pigments are extracted from plants to show the different molecules that contribute to the color of the plant. Spinach is a great example.

The pigments extracted from spinach contain a variety of molecules, such as chlorophylls, xanthophyll, and β-carotene, which can be separated using paper chromatography with a suitable solvent. Here’s an example of how these molecules separate:

  • β-carotene is generally carried the farthest because it is highly soluble in the solvent and forms no hydrogen bonds with the chromatography paper fibers.
  • Xanthophyll, which contains oxygen, does not travel quite as far with the solvent because it is less soluble than β-carotene and forms some hydrogen bonds with the paper.
  • Chlorophylls bind more tightly to the paper than the other two molecules, so chlorophylls travel the shortest distance.

Paper chromatography is a good way to introduce students to the molecular properties of plants. With this method, they will be able to observe how the pigments of a plant will physically separate on paper due to intermolecular forces. Essentially, you can use this experiment to demonstrate to students the relationship between paper and chemistry.

Prepare the Scientists of Tomorrow

Employing hands-on activities and experiments to foster critical thinking and non-routine problem solving skills is increasingly important. Students develop the capability to construct and evaluate evidence-based arguments as they collect and analyze data—an ability that is applicable to any STEM-related field. Over the next 10 years, the demand for scientists and engineers is expected to increase 4x the rate as other occupations3, and these occupations require a working knowledge and practice in research and investigation.

Want to take these experiment ideas even further? Vernier offers student-ready experiments in a wide variety of subjects, and our data-collection technology is so versatile that it can be used in nearly all scientific disciplines. Help your students gain practical, relevant data-collection and analysis experience that they can use wherever they go next.

  1. Business Center for a College- and Career-Ready America
  2. AP and Advanced Placement Program are registered trademarks of the College Entrance Examination Board, which was not involved in the production of and does not endorse this product.
  3. stemconnector.com

Four Ways to Get Elementary Students Excited About Science

by Nüsret Hisim

Elementary students watching vinegar and baking soda react with a Go Direct temperature sensor collecting data.

It can be challenging to engage students in science activities, despite how exciting the lessons are. As an Education Technology Specialist at Vernier Software & Technology, I frequently receive phone calls and inquiries from elementary teachers looking for ways to engage their students with hands-on science experiments. Teachers are tasked with teaching an array of subjects, and as a result, many find themselves teaching science despite not having the experience to describe complicated and seemingly intimidating concepts in an effective and stimulating way. After years of attending and conducting workshops with teachers of all levels, and being a former science teacher myself, I know this to be an especially significant challenge for teachers.

Read more »

One Device for Teaching Science and Coding with Scratch

Do you teach force and motion? Equipped with a load cell to measure force and both an accelerometer and gyroscope to measure motion, our Go Direct® Force and Acceleration Sensor is perfect for hands-on science activities. Drag a sneaker across the floor to study friction, or tie Go Direct® Force and Acceleration Sensor to a string and swing it around your head to investigate circular motion. Incorporate the sensor in your LEGO® machines and measure the mechanical advantage of levers and ramps.

If you use Scratch to teach coding, you can also easily use Go Direct Force and Acceleration to teach basic programming skills and computational thinking. When students add the Go Direct Force and Acceleration extension in Scratch 3 (the most recent version of Scratch), they have access to several new blocks/commands that can be used to control Sprites. For instance, students can use the Go Direct Force and Acceleration Sensor “tilt” reporter block as the x-coordinate of a Sprite’s position. As students tilt the sensor back and forth, the Sprite moves side-to-side. Students can also write code to use the sensor as a trigger to start and stop action or even as a virtual slingshot.

Screenshot of Go Direct Force and Acceleration extension for Scratch 3.
When connected, commands for Go Direct Force and Acceleration are available in the Scratch 3 extensions menu.

Scratch 3 also supports other hardware, such as the BBC micro:bit™ microcontroller and LEGO® robots. Adding multiple extensions to your Scratch project means that you can use Go Direct Force and Acceleration to control your LEGO® MINDSTORMS® EV3 robot or use a micro:bit to display force or acceleration readings.

Science investigations and coding activities are great complements to each other. Science investigations using Go Direct Force and Acceleration help students build understanding of forces, motion, and Newton’s laws. Coding activities with the same sensor provide additional context and motivation and give students an outlet for creative expression.

Learn more about the Go Direct Force and Acceleration extension for Scratch 3 and see sample projects at scratch.mit.edu/vernier

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