The Day I Met Edith Ackerman’s Beautiful Mind

Edith Ackerman prepares to answer a question after her Fablearn 2016 keynote, October 16th, 2016. That’s my grey, balding head in the lower-left center foreground.

She sat, alone, at the table in front of the auditorium, fielding questions after her mesmerizing keynote at Fablearn 2016.

An audience member pondered:

“I’m interested in the nexus of purpose and play, as someone who works with numerous students, I think the idea of getting people to make and be creative is critically important to getting them involved … but at some point … what’s the purpose, not so much as the need to follow a curricular standard, but, are they being altruistic … is there a broader purpose other than making a keychain and feeling good about that? What is the balance between just being creative and and also ensuring that our students and whoever we’re working with have a greater purpose in mind?”

To which I added:

“I think the greater purpose is to make design the focus – human centered design – so they are not just making a ‘widget,’ they’re making something that matters to someone.”

Image: Fablearn

That’s when it happened. Edith looked right at me, and without a moment’s hesitation, began to deliver what some said amounted to an entire graduate program’s worth of education theory in a nine minute response.

To process it all, I have attempted to transcribe the bulk of her remarks (and, as a result, now have tremendous respect for people who do transcription for a living.) The complete video can be found here; her response starts the 54 minute mark and ends at about 1:03.

So, here’s Edith’s response:

This is an important point, I think that there has been a big shift in view … if I look at the history of active learning or constructivist approaches to learning … the important shift I think came with scholars and practitioners that suddenly realized the very notion of constructing new knowledge is about a process of abstraction, from concrete to abstract, and the process of decontextualizing … it’s like how to move from ‘here and now’ to more generalizable ideas.

So, the essence of making, effectively … the process of abstraction … making ideas into knowledge. She continues:

And, to a certain extent, certain constructivists like the sort of Jean Piaget, the older generation, or Vygotsky, they still had this idea that cognitive development – superior ways of thinking – are ways of thinking that actually enable you to sort of ‘disentangle’ from context and to allow you to interject or internalize your experience and draw lessons from it. The big reversal I see coming, I saw it myself in the 1980s, when most people who were interested in design, I think of Seymour Papert, I think of Donald, who wrote The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön, all of a sudden people started realizing, wait a minute, there has not been enough focus paid on the opposite of reflective abstraction, which is intelligent form-making. It’s the process of externalization or projecting out project-added (?) design, in order to precisely turn ideas into some tangible artifacts that can then be taken and as shared ground for conversation around.

I love the word ‘disentangle’ – it sounds like the learning in my lab – a discrete, personalized experience where kids interact with tools and technologies as they ponder, experiment and create.

I think it’s from the moment on when people start paying more attention to that process, that’s a huge change, and Seymour Papert played an important role in that. Because, what he said is that ‘we have to put this Piaget on his head,’ and what he said is even more interesting, because Piaget was so obsessed with the genesis of becoming a formal thinker, that his contribution to the world, was to actually help us understand that sensori-motor grounding, and concrete operational grounding, is required to teach these formal ways of thinking.

All new concepts to me…

Now there has been a lot of water going down the river since then, we have had the whole tradition of more situated approaches to learning, of more embodied approaches of enactment series of learning, and what they have in common is exactly what you say, is that, the idea is projecting out is as important as introjecting. To my pleasure, because Jean Piaget was my master, he already had this insight. Because, the way he said it, if you want anybody to construct cognitive invariance, what was this more abstract that you pull out of these situations, offer variation in the context.

“Projecting out” – meaning, making things that matter to others. Yes!

This is very close to the idea of Marvin Minsky, is that to understand something, you have to understand it in at least three different ways. And the whole work that he did for example on the way to help children understand concepts such as numbers, it’s not just to make it concrete, like, you know, now the fraction becomes a pie, but it’s precisely to look at different aspects of numbers, of numerosity, that actually experts – mathematicians – have come up with like ordinal aspects of numbers, cardinal aspects of numbers, inclusive aspects of numbers … and then you give concrete situations, in which those different aspects  of numerosity are manifested, and you let the children play around with them, and when they are ready to make the connections between these different aspects, the conservation of numbers, then you have actually allowed them to be more abstract or be cognitively invariant by offering variation, and this seems a little bit of a paradoxical idea, but it’s absolutely key I think.

Learning things in one way through play, which then results in learning it in different ways. Whoa. Did I get that right?

And actually there was another shift, I noticed it at the school of architecture, because I work a lot with architects, and designers, is the second shift came like five years ago, everybody was talking about learning as design, designs for learning, and it was Don Schön, and design was still considered project direct, we had to have prototypes, rapid prototyping became important, this whole notion of co-creation of artifacts, then all of a sudden everyone talks about fabrication, and that’s another important shift. I think this shift has to do, and I said it yesterday, with the fact that this very cycle of projectari (sp?) and building prototypes, and then sort of manufacturing, is getting accelerated and broken down because in a way what happens is that no more prototyping is needed, almost, with the technologies that allow you for a single project or idea, to create a single product. That completely changes, again, the ways in which people think about the role of these intermedial objects (I like to call them intermedial objects and not models) in actually trying to sort of evolve your design or sharpen your ideas.

The power of prototypes as a pathway to fabrication, of course, until the prototyping tools become so sophisticated that prototyping itself becomes ‘instant manufacturing’. A vision of our possible future, playing out before us as we speak. Talk about a visionary.

I didn’t know when I met Edith at Fablearn that it would be the last and only time I’d ever get to see her. She passed away just a few days ago – December 24th, 2016 – at age 70. I’m glad that I got to personally thank her after her talk (and our exchange) at Fablearn. I look forward to learning more from her as my own career, and program, evolves.


Parrot Minidrones, Tickle & Tynker: A Lesson in Edtech Economics

Students program a Parrot Rolling Spider minidrone to complete a simple objective Edcamp New Jersey on November 19, 2016. Photo credit: Rebecca McLelland-Crawley.

We have been using the now-discontinued Parrot Rolling Spider Minidrones in my district for a few years now. They do not require FAA registration, are relatively inexpensive, amazingly durable, easy to program and fun to fly.  As you can see in the photo at left, these devices can really captivate and engage learners of all ages as they explore the basics of coding. Consequently, they are very popular with educators, after-school programs, and kids of all ages.

While they can be flown via the provided app for fun, their popularity as educational tools to help teach coding is the result of a a great, free iOS app called Tickle. As a result, many schools and educators have built lessons and even entire units & programs utilizing these devices.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in the wonderful world of Edtech Economics, the “free” applications we teachers love so much have a long history of eventually either a) starting to charge for their service or b) going away entirely. Unfortunately, the latter scenario just played out: as of October 2016, the Tickle app no longer supports Parrot minidrones, including the Rolling Spider.

Users everywhere are now discovering that Tickle will no longer be able to create programs for their beloved Parrot minidrones. (Existing code will still work / can be modified, and, the v4.0 release of the app is entirely separate from the older version, so if people never upgrade, they will be fine.)

I know all this because it happened to me last night.

Drone Squadron
My Parrot Minidrone Squadron, with 3D printed rotor guards. I like these guards better than the wheels the drones come with, even though the guards provide less protection from drops and crashes. Tradeoffs, people. Tradeoffs.

In a mild panic, I started searching to find out what was going on and quickly discovered users complaining via the Tickle in-app support board and on Twitter. Fortunately, I easily located information about Parrot’s Educational offerings and their K-12 EDU Guide (.pdf). In it, I saw they referenced Tynker, an outstanding (and formerly free) web platform for learning to code. In desperation, and fully prepared to have to pay something, I downloaded the app and started checking it out. (Note: the .PDF linked above also refers to Tickle, so, whatever happened between these two companies was likely a fairly recent development.)

Well, there’s a happy ending to this story – at least for now.

Not only does the Tynker App (for iOS and Android) support Parrot minidrones, for FREE, its offering is actually very compelling and in many ways an upgrade to Tickle. Check out these screenshots:

The Tynker App programming interface (iOS). Note the capabilities and commands. Super cool!
Drone support is built in and these programs can be studied, dissected and easily modified.
This is the “Air Controller” program – coding view. It’s more complicated than Tickle, but understandably so when you consider its capabilities.
This is the “Air Controller” program in operation. Pressing each button commands the drone to perform the selected task. Slick!

So, I’m happy, for now, and everyone who uses a Parrot Minidrone in school will be too, once they find out about Tynker’s offering.

But here’s the thing: the Tynker app is free.

For now.

So, what will happen if scores of educators adopt Tynker, and, for whatever reason, Tynker decides to start charging for it at some point?

Yeah. Exactly.

It’s simple economics, folks. These organizations are in business to make profit. It’s unrealistic and unfair for us to expect corporations to provide free versions of their paid programs for educational use. When they do, it’s fantastic! But anyone that builds lessons or units around any free program or online service must always remember to have a Plan B … just in case!

Note: this entry was cross-posted on my Fablearn Fellows blog.

Fablearn: the most amazing conference you (probably) never heard of

30224546620_f06af41bfb_mThem: “What are you up to this weekend?”
Me: “Going to San Francisco for a conference.”
Them: “For the weekend? What conference?”
Me: “Fablearn, at Stanford.”
Them: “What’s ‘Fablearn’?”
Me: “Well, it’s…”

And so went many conversations as Fablearn 2016 approached. It would be my second time attending, but the first as a newly-minted Fablearn Fellow. So, while I had some idea what to expect, this was going to be an extra special trip.

Image credit: @chapmansar
Image credit: @chapmansar

Fablearn 2016 did not disappoint. My top 10:

  1. Watching world-class students present their work. (Here’s another. And another. And perhaps best of all, another.) I was also imagining my Northfield students on that stage some day.
  2. Listening to Edith Ackerman deliver a masterclass in educational theory in response to my comment about the importance of human centered design. (Fast forward the recorded livestream to about the 54 minute mark for the entire conversation.)
  3. Meeting and making friends with like-minded educators from around the world; also, trying (and failing) to find something low-carb to eat at a Chinese restaurant during dinner with the other Fellows.
  4. The multiple often accidental, but so inspiring, connections.
  5. Erica and Rich Halverson’s powerful closing keynote, a delightful and at times sobering back-and-forth between two incredibly smart, passionate, funny and thought-provoking speakers with often different perspectives on the same topic.
  6. Listening to researchers exploring assessment in makerspaces, including Ole Sejer Iverson, Professor at Aarhus University (Denmark), whose paper, Towards a formal assessment of design literacy: Analyzing K-12 students’ stance towards inquiry, was just published. Download it here.
  7. Seeing simple but powerful innovations that can make life as a maker-educator better, like, sewable, conductive lycra coin cell battery holders. You’re welcome.
  8. Learning how debugging an intentionally faulty e-textile is a great way to teach problem solving while you see what kids know about electronics.
  9. Moderating a panel on Innovation and Entrepreneurship and digging deep into their approaches, techniques and practices.
  10. Exploring the FabLab.

There were however some not-so-great parts…

  • Missing a fabulous workshop I was registered to attend – due to #9. (I at least got the laser-cut materials and can assemble my own lamp when I have time.)
  • Liquid Sunshine! It rained much of the weekend. California desperately needs it, so, I didn’t mind really, but, walking back to my car in a torrential downpour on the way to dinner, getting soaked nearly to the skin in the process, was not fun.
  • The food. To their credit, conference organizers asked for dietary requirements [I should have requested a delivery from In-N-Out], and the lunches were California-healthy, so, not really to my taste. (Not shown: my lunch, a CarbRite Diet Bar. Chocolate Brownie, of course.)
  • Information overload. Where’s my Matrix Headjack? Oh that’s right, DARPA’s not done with it yet.
  • The Red-Eye home wasn’t actually that bad. The flight was smooth; we landed almost 40 minutes early, allowing me to drive straight to work from Philly International, walking into my classroom at 7:00 am like any other day. Piece of cake…

All in all, it was an utterly fantastic weekend of learning, sharing and networking with hundreds of passionate educators and researchers from around the world doing cutting-edge work with kids and all sorts of maker technology.

I’d like to thank many people – but most of all Paulo Blikstein and Sylvia Martinez – for the opportunity to attend this conference on a scholarship, especially as a Fablearn Fellow. I’m very excited about the year ahead and the work we will all do together.

I’ll close with this provocation from Edith Ackerman:

Image credit: @McLargeH

How, indeed.

Let’s get to work.


Using Her Superpowers for Good…?

Image credit: Youtube

So yesterday, I saw “Betrayed,” the six-minute cinematic trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic – Knights of the Eternal Throne, a popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) based in the Star Wars universe. Some say this trailer, and the full 29-minute movie it is drawn from, are better than some actual Star Wars movies. Watch and decide for yourself.

Anyway, the video really spoke to me, and our mission in Digital Shop, specifically in regards to empowering girls, a central and strategic theme in my program.

My favorite part in the video occurs about a minute in … the young force-sensitive girl is in the woods trying to learn how to control her powers. She tries, and fails, tries, and fails, then tries again, with all the strength she can muster (anger?) and obliterates a suit of armor hanging from a tree.

For me, the best moment is her surprised reaction in the immediate aftermath of that moment, as the camera pans around … her expression, essentially: “wow, I DID that.”

No spoilers here, you should watch the whole thing, but, yeah. (Not exactly the educational end result I’m going for, but, I’m using the beginning of the video to make my point.)

Superpowers. I’m all about having these kids learn how to channel and control theirs.

I am reminded of this amazing young inventor, Alexis Lewis, whose work I introduced my students to last year:

Click to Watch

At the very end of the movie, she says:

I’m hoping I can do for others what my grandfather did for me, to pass on the invention and innovation bug, and inspire the next generation to have a fascination with the world around them … and to understand that they are capable of changing it. (emphasis mine)

This … is another central and strategic theme in my program … one that applies (and I hope, appeals) to everyone regardless of gender. We plan to use entrepreneurship and innovation as a lens to explore and magnify student creativity – their superpowers.

I’m presently deep in final preparations for Design Experience One, which launches on October 20th, and I’m underwater / overwhelmed … a.k.a. standard operating procedure. Got some excellent news yesterday … Alixandra Klein, the young entrepreneur from Vermont who uses a laser cutter to make jewelry out of reclaimed rubber and metal, will be speaking with my students via Skype.

This is Alixandra and her company, Alixandra Barron Designs:

[We’ll also be Skyping with Andrew Coy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Jorge Valdes, Ph.D. at the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), connections I’m hoping will inform, inspire and challenge my students to think about how making, entrepreneurship and innovation figure into their educational futures.]

Anyway, I’ve been using this pair of Alixandra’s earrings to help kids see what’s possible with a little creativity, a lot of design savvy, and a ridiculously powerful laser cutter:

Click to view on Instagram
Click to view on Instagram

I can’t wait to see where this goes. But for now, it’s back to lesson planning experience designing…


NCMS Students are Presenting at Maker Faire NYC this weekend!

Screenshot of our panel’s page on the Maker Faire site. Inset: Anila (Grade 5) shows a prototype communication bracelet to Jake (Grade 2), who lives with hearing loss, while Will and Jake’s brother Andrew (both in Grade 5 as well) look on.

Excited and proud to officially announce that a team of NCMS students will be sharing about their experience in “Digital Shop” at World Maker Faire New York this Sunday afternoon at 4:30 pm! Our event team includes:

  • Brooke D., Grade 6
  • Charlie P., Grade 6 [panelist]
  • Courtney I., Grade 7
  • Gianna G., Grade 6
  • Hanna T., Grade 8  [panelist]
  • Logan R., Grade 8 [panelist]
  • Madeline R., Grade 7
  • Melina C., Grade 8 [panelist]

Although we could only have four kids on the actual panel, all eight will represent NCMS at Maker Faire and the Education Stage event. Jessica Parker, Education Community Manager for, will moderate the panel. (Glenn Robbins and I will also be along for the ride.)

We are truly grateful for Jessica’s support of our fledgling program, and for giving our students’ work a wider audience. N.B.: Courtney and Madeline were part of our award-winning team* at Maker Faire National (Washington, D.C.) in June; this will, I believe, be their first Maker Faire for the others. I can’t wait to see how the experience excites, amazes and challenges them.

Congrats, kids! Enjoy and learn lots!

* – our insanely popular hands-on exhibit won ‘Best in Class’ and ‘Editor’s Choice’ awards. Pics here!

Digital Shop 1.1 | Design Experience Zero: And We’re OFF!


Today marks the half-way point for Design Experience Zero in Digital Shop, as we wrap up the third of six cohorts and dive into the new school year. So naturally, it’s time to reflect.

Grade 5 students are getting an iteration of last year’s Experience, but Grade 6-7-8’s are getting something completely new, something that builds on last year in significant new ways.

I spent the last few weeks of August trying to process a summer full of the most intense professional learning I’ve ever experienced. From Washington D.C. to California, Indiana, Michigan, and Vermont (in that order), I learned more from more learned people than any summer before. Design Experience Zero had to synthesize all of that and get the year started powerfully. Early indications are that we’ve done just that.

Some accomplishments, 2015-16. That was then...
Some accomplishments from last year. Source: DE.0 | 6-7-8

The challenge, of course, is how to inspire our kids to do more, learn more, be more this year. We accomplished a lot in 2015-16; the photo above, ripped from my lesson slide deck, only offers glimpses.

Well before the end of school, I decided after a lot of reflection that our focus for 2016-17 should be entrepreneurship and innovation. We ended the year with, among other things, student teams of then 7th graders presenting their original design ideas at Jefferson University Hospital. Other students expressed entrepreneurial tendencies. We acquired important new hardware for the shop, giving students powerful productive capabilities they never had before. We made connections with innovators and those who support them, from young entrepreneurs like Alixandra to the US Patent & Trademark Office and all the way to the White House. What would we DO with that much of a head start?

Yes, they remember. Source: DE.0 | 6-7-8

We made an impact last year because we followed a systematic approach: we learned design by doing design. As 2016-17’s Design Experience Zero came into focus, a systems theme emerged. Fortunately, the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Student Learning Standards for Technology, which I had the pleasure of helping to craft, provided guidance. Consider, for example:

  • 8.2.8.A.2 Examine a system, consider how each part relates to other parts, and discuss a part to redesign to improve the system.
  • 8.2.8.A.5 Describe how resources such as material, energy, information, time, tools, people, and capital contribute to a technological product or system.
  • 8.2.8.C.3 Evaluate the function, value, and aesthetics of a technological product or system, from the perspective of the user and the producer.
  • 8.2.8.C.5 Explain the interdependence of a subsystem that operates as part of a system.

Central to the capacity to understand and improve systems is the ability for students to see (and know they can change) the world around them. Agency by Design’s fantastic interactive is instructive:

Source: Agency by Design, Harvard University
Source: Agency by Design, Harvard University

Becoming a “Noticer” is central to that objective and so I determined we needed to work on those skills. With the help of former NCMS 8th grade writing teacher Teresita Doebley, whose blog, The Incredible Lightness of Seeing, is fantastic, we discussed some images to get kids thinking about what they saw and why. Then I asked them to study something nearby, the Middle School Office.

Design Experience Zero
Fishbowl Exercise: Studying the Middle School Office, DE.0 | 6-7-8

After observing the office for a few minutes, we debriefed to find commonalities. I wanted to see if any students made the connection between individual items and a larger whole.

Few did; we’ve got some work to do.

We were able to find some common threads and spark conversation around the theme of redesigning the world around us. One 6th grader, a kid who normally struggles in school, saw things differently than the others. To him, the office was not a collection of objects, it was as a place where “people work to support their families.” I thought that was interesting and showcased how he was thinking at a different level from his peers. I told him so.

We concluded with a Parts, Purposes & Complexities inspired exercise, a “See, Think, Wonder” reflection utilizing common household items.

Design Experience Zero
Students record video reflections about common objects. What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder? DE.0 | 6-7-8

What’s Going Well

  • Kids get the magnitude of our program’s accomplishments to date, that these accomplishments are unprecedented in the history of the school, and that we are setting examples for others to follow. That makes me very, very happy.
  • Kids understand that the resources they have access to means we expect more from them this year. To wit: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
  • Kids are getting that despite being young, and living a daily life that is largely controlled by others, that they, nonetheless, have the power to change the world.

What Could Be Better

  • 40-minute periods are still too short. We barely have enough time to get into work at any depth before it is time to pack up. Five sequential days together ameliorates this to a degree, but, it’s still a major constraint.
  • We need to work on being mindful. Digital Shop is a place where kids can be creative and relax; some, shockingly (!) take that too far and think this means they don’t have to put in the effort required. I never thought that my program being ungraded would be a negative, but for some kids – the ones ‘too cool for school’ – it may be.
  • The private, secure video reflection tool,, is excellent but either kids aren’t taking it seriously, my questions aren’t good, or they are too wrapped up in the technology, or all of the above. I’m not seeing the depth I hoped for in the responses. I’ve thought about making a homework assignment using this tool; I think reflecting privately at home or on a device would make the reflection more effective. The kids are too distracted by each other (see above.)
Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

Having completed three weeks of Design Experience Zero, we are now three weeks away from Design Experience One. The process of crafting these things from scratch is incredibly exhausting. I’ve written about it before. I’ve never skydived, and never will, but it feels like I’m free-falling through the clouds, hurtling toward the Earth at terminal velocity, waiting to pull the ripcord and wondering if the chute I’ve packed – the Design Experience – will open in time, allowing a precision landing … or if I’ll frap.

I don’t have a reserve, either.

Honored, humbled, grateful … and ready to get to work

See also:

“The FabLearn Fellows program is part of a larger project sponsored by the National Science Foundation entitled “Infusing Learning Sciences Research into Digital Fabrication in Education and the Makers’ Movement.” FabLearn Fellows brings together experienced educators from all over the world to create an open-source library of curriculum, resources, information, and contribute to research about the “makers” movement and digital fabrication in education.”

More to come…

When the rear-view mirror says you’re headed in the right direction

Image: Pixabay
…days until launch!

There are just two days until we are back in session, but three until I see students … (kids don’t have Digital Shop on the first day of school due to new year start-up logistics) … so, we’re continuing work this morning / day / weekend on the all-new Design Experience Zero [DE.0] for grades 6-7-8 (Grade 5’s will get a variant of last year’s DE.0.)

Just spent some time reviewing the NAEP 2014 Technology & Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment, but not just the results. I was also interested in learning about the structure and design of the testing instrument. What did it test? How did it test it? I wondered: Are we doing the right things in Digital Shop? And are we doing them right?

I wasn’t expecting validation for our pedagogical strategy – but got it nonetheless.

Consider this brief video, literally published a month ago:

Among their findings:

  1. Overall, girls performed better than boys.
  2. Students who did activities outside of school focused on design and systems, like a robotics club, or building or fixing things on their own, scored higher.
  3. In-school learning focused on technology and society was associated with higher scores.

Design Experience Five (DE.5)We definitely see #1 in my program, but, we’re not sure why. It would be nice to think we’ve somehow “cracked the code” regarding girls’ interest in STEAM but there’s no way we can make that kind of statement. (Besides, from what I’ve read and been told, it’s not unusual for girls’ interest in STEAM to peak in middle school, but it really drops off in high school. It will be interesting to see how our graduates progress through their high school careers.)

Robotics Club Gets Underway at NCMS!#2 is a great testament to our decision to focus on design and systems. Interesting how experiences students had outside of school resulted in academic better performance on the assessment. Well, guess what. Here in Northfield, we’re giving kids that opportunity both inside school (not just in my program, by the way) AND outside of school. So, we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice…

Design Experience Five (DE.5)#3 is proof to me that human-centered design, and therefore, dreaming up society-benefiting devices like the prototype these gentlemen are showing at left, stimulate kids’ brains in ways far more powerful than a typical “recipe” based STEM learning experience. By tapping into (and requiring application of) their creativity and imagination, the learning is just so much more meaningful. Don’t believe me? Talk to some of my students.


Structure of the Instrument

This was not a multiple-choice test. Students were “asked to perform a variety of
problem-solving tasks based on interactive scenarios reflecting
realistic solutions.” Check out the sample tasks yourself. Wish they were collaborative, but, perhaps that’s asking too much in terms of difficulty to attribute results to a single indivudual. You can learn more about the testing methodology here.

More About Kids’ School Experience

Percentage distribution of eighth-grade students assessed in NAEP technology and engineering literacy (TEL), by frequency with which they built or tested a model to see if it solves a problem as part of school work. Source:

Admittedly, this has been a weak link in our program; our prototypes have been so low-resolution that they couldn’t be expected to function as intended. This is something we want to focus on this year.

Percentage distribution of eighth-grade students assessed in NAEP technology and engineering literacy (TEL), by frequency with which they learned about designing something when there is limited time, money, or materials, as part of school. Source:

We DEFINITELY emphasize constraints when designing solutions.

“Percentage distribution of eighth-grade students assessed in NAEP technology and engineering literacy (TEL), by frequency with which they learned about inventions that change the way people live as part of school work.” Source:

Why focus on human-centered design? Why not design things that change the way people live, and make the world a better place? Things that matter to the community? Why, indeed.

Conclusions, Reactions and Interpretations (Mine)

I designed (and am designing) experiences for my students that require them to use systems thinking; ponder societal impacts; and consider real-world constraints. Our program is hands-on, developing (especially this year) fabrication and tool skills. We can (hope to this year) create more sophisticated, functional prototypes utilizing tools like Arduino micro-controllers. (That pesky 40-minute period is still a killer, though, even considering we have five sequential days to work together.) All of this leads me to conclude that while we’re not perfect, we are, as I’d hoped, at least directionally correct.

More to come…


Go, Speed Racer, GO!
…days until launch!

Hello, September.

I’ve been expecting you.

What an epic summer. Over 6,000 miles DRIVEN (not counting ~5,000 in the air) crisscrossing the country. Five conferences. Countless days of mind-bending interactions with inspiring educators, entrepreneurs and government / industry folks. National Maker Faire. The National Week of Making at the White House. Kids Design for Kids @ Jefferson. The occasional burger. Sleeping under the stars. All of it … focused on a singular objective: preparing for Digital Shop, Year Two. Let’s get started.


“What is the experience you are trying to create?” The true power of David Jakes‘ words, which I first heard months before our design charrette back in July 2016, is that the question can be asked at any time, at any point in a program, from the highest of the high levels, to the smallest, most minute level of detail. So, what is the experience we are trying to create in Digital Shop, in this, our second year?

  • We want students to become “noticers” – to see the human-designed world around them, to understand how it works [with the help of every other area of study – math, science, language, social studies, art, music, physical education], but most of all, to recognize they have the power to change it.
  • We want students to build competency with the toolset(s) they’ll need for that work, so they will be ready when the opportunity arises. Physical tools, including hardware, things you can touch and create with; virtual tools, like software, systems, and ways of thinking; and interpersonal tools, primarily the soft skills needed to design things that solve problems for others, with others, as part of a team.
  • We want students to be inspired by interactions with successful innovators and entrepreneurs of all ages, especially women and people of color, not only to learn, but also to envision themselves similarly, then make it happen.
  • We want to fuel students’ creativity by making them feel comfortable in Digital Shop, a unique, flexible learning space offering an environment unlike any “classroom” they’ve ever experienced.
  • We want students to share their work with the world, and do so, where possible, via salable goods, so they understand the value of their contributions.


We will, once again, be working together during six “Design Experiences,” successive 40-minute sessions over five days, six weeks apart. This is far from ideal; 40 minutes per day is NOT enough time. Compromise, and working within constraints, is part of life. We’ll do our best.

We will be working this year more closely with professionals in our community, the state and the country – possibly even around the world – as we leverage human experience in ways we only hinted at last year.

We will leverage our physical space in new student-centered ways.

We will be collaborating this year with Science classes during their Writing Block. I will miss my Math colleagues, they were terrific partners last year. The connection, however, between our work in Digital Shop and the Next Generation Science Standards is significant and powerful. Consider this, from the Next Generation Science Standards:

Source: Next Generation Science Standards
Source: Next Generation Science Standards

Design doesn’t get more “real world” than that. But wait, there’s more…


a6fdeThe Nueva Design Thinking Institute last June was everything I’d expected and hoped it would be. (N.B.: especially important when you’re paying for your own PD.) I am literally still synthesizing it, translating the methods and tools we used into elements of my Design Experiences. I came away from that institute in awe of their methods and toolkit, the people behind the program, the high school students who facilitated the week, and the gigantic three-ring binder of materials that I still carry around with me in my backpack. I also left the Institute feeling incredibly validated about our program, it’s structure, emphasis and approach. We’re not just ‘directionally correct.’ We are absolutely, positively on target.

epics_logoI spent four days at Purdue University learning about their EPICS middle school curriclum, which links human centered design and the Next Generation Science Standards. A match literally made in heaven, this massive collection of processes, challenges, questions and tools is going to be critically important as we proceed through the school year, as we challenge our “noticers” to identify projects like these, then use the ample resources in Digital Shop, plus their knowledge and creativity, to design and create real-world solutions.

It was a great pleasure to be invited to speak about our program at the US Patent & Trademark Office’s National Summer Teacher Institute. Giselle O., now an 8th grader, did a fantastic job telling our collective story via Google Hangout. As a result of that connection, and later meetings with USPTO representatives earlier this month, we now have a significant, ambitious and exciting plan to leverage their significant expertise and resources to support student work with innovation and entrepreneurship. Thanks to the JeffDESIGN collaboration with our 7th graders, we already have teams of entrepreneurs developing higher-resolution prototypes of potentially real products designed to make hospitals less scary for kids. They are also diving into the world of patents and trademarks. These students are the first of what we intend will be many Digital Shop entrepreneurs whose work will be informed by the best resources available anywhere, for free. Expect to hear more from us in the coming weeks.

“It’s not about the tools,” the saying goes, but sometimes, yeah, it is. We are incredibly fortunate to now have an Epilog Mini-18 40 watt laser engraver for use in Digital Shop. This device is going to transform our program and students’ learning by giving them the ability to quickly design and produce high-resolution prototypes and even salable goods. Student designers will be able to create products that solve problems and meet needs – at a profit. Combined with the knowledge they’ll be getting via the rest of the program, this tool will be, and I hate to use the term but I will, a “game-changer.”


This one is easy, because we’ve already done the work. The Manifesto is canon.


We want our students to be Life Ready, and with the help of the entire community, they will be.

Stay tuned, we’re just getting warmed up. This is the 36,000 foot view, so, more details are yet to come, like our potential role in and involvement with Don Wettrick’s StartEdUp, connections to speakers to inform this work both locally, nationally (think: White House), internationally, and more.

I’ll close with this thought. The road ahead is going to be anything but smooth. So: