This past spring, through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we completed a project that identified factors that drive the willing of teachers and mentors to participate in initiatives aimed at developing computational thinking skills. Here’s a summary of that effort and what we found.
Solid computational thinking skills are useful across domains and provide a key foundation for the development of tech talent. Developing these skills within computer science classes is constrained by several factors:
Computer science classes are not widely available, particularly in schools that serve diverse populations.
Educators certified to teach computer science are in short supply.
There are limited incentives for teachers to pursue certification and few educators do.
Computer science classes are largely taught at the high school level. If we want to develop strong computational thinking skills among students, they need exposure to and practice with them throughout their elementary and secondary school years.
A strict focus on computer science as the domain where these skills are developed limits the points of engagement for both students and teachers. As a result, it weeds out both students and teachers whose primary interests (at present) lay outside of computer science.
Widespread development of computational thinking (CT) skills will require a different approach— one that can leverage the interests and passions of both students and teachers in domains outside of computer science.
Computational Thinking Interviews
Through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we interviewed a total of 11 teachers involved with either MPS’s efforts to introduce Project GUTS, SHARP Literacy’s Design Through Code (DTC) program, or TEALS. Recognizing that computational thinking is a perspective new to most teachers and they would benefit from outside support, we also conducted interviews with 10 mentors from the FIRST Robotics and TEALS programs. Each of these programs provides an opportunity for students to develop computational thinking skills. Apart from TEALS, all are in domains and classes outside of computer science.
We use the lens of Jobs to Be Done to understand how teachers and industry mentors make decisions about where and how to invest their time and energy. Adoption of a useful and effective practice will move no faster than the practice solves a real problem for teachers in the context within which teachers operate. Failure to understand the context within which a teacher might employ a practice and how this practice fits given their other priorities will, at best, slow adoption. At worst, it will lead to active resistance. For mentors, if the chance to guide students in work that can build computational thinking skills does not align with their own goals, pressures, and schedule, they won’t do it.
Findings & Recommendations
“I felt it was my responsibility as aneducator to at least learn and bring coding to them”
For teachers, the primary factors which led them to participate in one of the three programs noted above are:
Support from their school or district administration
A desire to help their students develop coding skills
For Project GUTS teachers, a recognition that the tools and curriculum provided a much richer way for their students to explore topics that involve dynamic systems
A lower cost to deliver the experience for students
Curriculum that fits within their schedule
Factors holding them back from doing more with the programs are a lack of experience with coding, modeling dynamic systems (Project GUTs), or design thinking (DTC).
“I want to help kids do cool, hard things.”
The mentors we interviewed are motivated by a desire to help students build skills–not just in coding, but an ability to work with a team– and to see them succeed in a challenging project. Their willingness to participate is tempered by the obligations they feel towards their colleagues at work– they want to know that the time they spend as volunteers at worst does not impact their team, and at best, makes them a better team member.
Given what we heard over the course of these interviews, we see a number of opportunities for interventions which could support teachers who want to expose their students to computational thinking in general and speed the adoption of Project GUTS in particular.
Engage students in coding as a way to explore or solve problems
“…the interactions of students, the sharing of ideas, are almost more adult.”
Project GUTS provides an opportunity to expose students to coding in ways that allow them to explore ideas and problems in science. The tools provide a way for students to test ideas and lets their curiosity around the topic or problem at hand drive their desire to master the coding required to do so. This approach offers both teachers and students many more possible points of engagement than would a program focused on simply learning how to code.
Leverage teachers’ enthusiasm for Project GUTS
We were surprised by the enthusiasm teachers showed for Project GUTS. Teachers involved with the program recognize its value, can see opportunities where it can be used effectively, and are excited enough by the possibilities that they look to get colleagues involved.
Support teachers who want to do more with Project GUTS
The teachers we spoke with all had specific ideas for the topics they’d like to explore with Project GUTS. Several mentioned a desire to collaborate with colleagues at their own school or to connect with colleagues at other schools working on the same topics. Beyond having additional training or ad hoc support from district specialists, the current set of Project GUTS teachers could benefit from:
a program to develop and test models and integrate into curriculum;
a network of local practitioners with regular opportunities to meet in person;
training opportunities for their
Create a mentor pool for Project GUTS teachers
Teachers were not completely confident in their ability to make full use of the tools without additional support. An outside mentor who can bring domain expertise around the systems to be modeled and some sense of how best to do so would provide welcome help.
The time commitment here need not be anywhere near as intensive as that required by TEALS. Having some availability to exchange ideas with a teacher and visit a class a few times per semester when students are working through models would be a valued addition to the support currently provided by colleagues and curriculum specialists within MPS.
Teachers value on-going relationships with mentors and want the same for their students. Having a mentor assigned to a teacher for the duration of a school year is preferable to a pool of volunteers where any one of whom might drop in on an ad-hoc basis. This partnership would be further enhanced if teachers have a chance to work with mentors who interests are strongly aligned with their own.
Demonstrate that the employer values mentors’ work with students
Mentors want to know that the time they spend with students is valued by their employer and that it does not distract from the work their team needs to complete. While mentors recognized that work with K-12 students can provide an opportunity to develop skills they can leverage in the workplace, few of those we spoke with indicated this was recognized by their employer.
Overt signals from the employer that mentorship work is valued as a professional development opportunity by the firm will leave mentors more willing to participate. As examples, a firm might:
Provide employer sponsored opportunities for mentors to learn how to effectively engage with students– this would both demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the effort and help mentors be more effective in the classroom
Incorporate meaningful student mentorship as a recognized track in building leadership and communication skills for employees
Provide opportunities for mentors’ students/teachers to share their work with co-workers. This could come through on-site presentations, newsletter articles, or by encouraging attendance at off-site presentations.
Facilitate deep connections between mentors and the classroom
The desire of teachers for support they can count on, and that of mentors to see growth are more easily satisfied when mentors have an ongoing role with the class or classes they support. Mentors who have built good relationships with the students they work with are an asset to the teacher and allow the teacher to play a higher value role within the classroom.
Want to know explore our findings in greater detail? Our full report detailed report is available here. If you’re interested in leveraging what we’ve found, or helping Milwaukee move forward with any of our recommendations, let us know.
Family/date night math came to the NEWaukee Night Market last night. Math educators Mary Langmyer and David Temple created opportunities for attendees to solve number puzzles, play with shapes, build nets with Magnatiles, use “shape finders” and participate in our first “street survey”. It was a chance to engage with math (and mathematicians) in playful and creative ways as well as chance to meet others who stopped by for positive math experiences! All in all, a night of great (and humorous) conversations and learning for everyone!
Following on from discussions with COA staff earlier in the summer, Collab-Labist Mary Langmyer set up a number of math activities for COA’s family picnic. Children had fun with the chance to play number games, count collections, create number sentences, build with blocks, make patterns and design attribute trains…and play with bubbles! It was a great day to sit down and relax with new friends… while using one’s imagination to engage with math!
Last night Silver Spring Neighborhood Center held a family night for parents in the neighborhood or whose children attend Browning Elementary School. As part of the activities they planned for the evening, we brought along some math activities to see what children were inspired by.
The playground at Browning has a number spiral that to date had been used as the place to pile coats while playing elsewhere on the playground. Last night we proposed rules for some games students might play using a pair of large foam dice to figure their next move.
The big hit of the evening were the Zometool bubble wands students built.
It was a beautiful evening to watch bubbles drift across the playground, or when the breeze calmed, observe the structures created within a wand. A student was heard to say “that’s a tetrahedron!”
We had a record crowd for Collab Lab 27, where we explored ways to enable kids and parents find creative and playful ways to engage in math throughout Milwaukee. The focus for the session started with an idea Mary Langmyer raised coming out of our December Collab Lab– what would it look like if we could see math everywhere in Milwaukee? We worked with Mary to put together a vision statement, and started talking to folks we wanted to pull in to help figure this out.
Mary introduced the evening’s topic and several of her sources of inspiration. We then had attendees form groups that each contained a mix of educators and community partners. Their first task was a brainstorming activity to capture ideas what seeing math everywhere might look like.
Each group was then asked to pick an idea to develop. We had them flesh out details, get some feedback from other attendees, and then outline what it would take to move the idea forward. Here’s what the groups came up with.
Estimation on Location
A scavenger hunt to estimate distances, times, quantities, percents age, etc. of neighborhood landmarks.
What’s the math around dying the Milwaukee river green?
What: On the (now past) occasion of dying the Milwaukee river green, have students estimate how much dye is actually required.
Why: Apply concepts of volume, concentration, and flow rate to a real-life problem
Where: Competition at the Fiserv Forum where teams present their calculations. Winning team gets to participate in the ceremony to dye the river.
Who: MPS middle and high school students
When: NBA Playoffs for 2020?
Partners: Bucks, City of Milwaukee, DNR, Brewers, DNC, local universities
Resources: River measurement estimates (with which to calculate volume; data on dye concentration levels/coverage
Funding: Sponsors to fund Fiserv event; food & beverage donations
Test: Get the data from 2019 event; model the problem in a classroom to calculate volume and use food coloring to estimate concentration levels
Milwaukee’s Movable Bridges
Math explorations while waiting for a bridge to lower
Where: Milwaukee River bridges along Plankinton Avenue and Water Street
What: Younger kids – count the number of boats going past; older kids — geometry of bridges (height, angle when raised, shape), velocity, duration of events — boats passing, bridge raising/lowering; how can this process be made more efficient for everyone impacted?
When: Anytime, or while waiting for a bridge
Why: We have a captive audience that needs to do something during the wait time.
Who: Drivers, walkers, bikers, public transit riders, boaters
Funding: grants, advertising/promotion, brands pay for printing, food entrepreneurs for product placement; UW extension, WIC community outreach.
Test: individual store, easy to duplicate if successful; community stores
If you want to bake a pizza you must first invent the universe
An after school program to grow and prepare food
When: After school
Where: Neighborhood center
Why: People eat every day. If you are seeing math in something you do everyday, you’re learning math (in addition to nutrition and health)
Elementary School – garden
Middle School – Grocery store
High School – Test kitchen
How: Chez Panisse in Berkeley, grants, neighborhood center, partner
Partners: Grocery store, farm, restaurant, CSA school PTO, neighborhood center, Discovery World,
Build a Business
Student run business as exposure for applied math
What: Understanding economics of building a business; competition w/startup funding and showcase of ideas.
Why: Teach students fundamental math skills used in a business
Where: After school program
Who: Middle and high school students
When: During school (equity); after school
Partners: Banks, JA, area entrepreneurs, foundations, sporting teams
Barriers: Time, funding for startups, curriculum, scalability
Resources: Leighton (MPS Rec), interested teachers/school districts, Universities, business schools, B-school students
Testing: 1-2 MPS After School summer programs/CLC site
Thanks again to Mary Langmyer for her enthusiasm and work to pull the session together, and The Commons for providing the space for this month’s Collab Lab. Thanks also to Monique Liston from Ubuntu Research who brought her grad students to both lend a hand and participate in the session.
For those of you that want to connect with or learn more about some of the math folks and resources from the Collab Lab:
Teams from Menomonee Falls High School and Elmbrook’s Launch program were able to meet us at Marquette’s Visualization Lab (MARVL) to walk through their models for a new water tower at the Zoo train depot. Chris Larke, the Visual Technology Specialist for the College of Engineering set up the demonstration to include exploded views of the models with supporting documentation arrayed in the background.
To explore the models, and conduct a mini-review, we donned 3D glasses to view stereoscopic images projected on four walls within what staff call “The Cave”.
After a review of both models and a chance for students to drive the presentation, Mark Federle, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, was kind enough to give us a tour of the Olin Engineering building. Thanks Mark and Chris for all that went in to putting this together!
Water: How can we engage students in authentic learning experiences related to water and water technologies?
Beyond the facts that Milwaukee sits next to a whole lot of water and spans several watersheds, it is home to more than 200 water technology companies. This creates an opportunity not just to explore physical connections to water and the environment, but to tap into expertise around how water is used and managed. At our February Collab Lab, we pulled together individuals from area organizations engaged water technology and issues from a variety of perspectives. We then sat them down with educators to flesh out some ideas and make the connections that can help bring those ideas to life.
Amber DuChateau was kind enough to step in as a guest facilitator. She guided our discussion groups through a process that began with participants sharing what drives their work and what excites them now about what they’re working on. From our perspective, the really interesting work in schools is driven by teachers passions. This method of introduction provides a chance for them to connect with others who share their enthusiasm.
Our search for opportunities began with a brainstorming process within each discussion group. We asked each table to generate ideas for potential projects using one or more of these strategies:
Mix and match — What would it look like to combine exciting work from 2 or 3 members of your table?
Shift context — What does it look like to take exciting work and put it in a different location, class (art music, language arts, history, business), age group?
Empower students — what does it look like when students drive the questions, act as mentors to younger students, lead the project
Distribute the work — what changes if you had 10 classes chipping in, what does it look like if you have 100?
Extend the scope — what changes if you can rely on the skills of students/teachers in other classes?
That process gave us a list of ideas that included:
What constitutes “healthy water”
How does water flow through the curriculum
aquaponics (our focus for Collab Lab 22)
connecting questions (inquiry) to answers (outcomes)
Test presentations of water related work before visitors to Discovery World
Tell the story of a drop of water
Tell the story of a drop of water through water bracelets (each token on a bracelet tells part of the story)
Enlist students in UWM’s School of Freshwater Science as mentors to MPS Science teachers working with Project GUTS
Tell the story of the Habitat Hotels constructed for the Harbor District by Bradley Tech students
Extend STEMhero‘s curriculum to connect students to look at water usage of businesses near schools
With those ideas in hand, each group moved on to select one idea and create a vision for what that might look like. Here’s where they landed:
Project Idea 1: Adopt a Storm Drain +
Students adopt one or more storm drains near their school. Students understand the function of storm drains, how pollution can enter the system, and be swept into area streams and Lake Michigan. Inspired by this understanding, they work to keep their storm drain(s) free from garbage that may be swept into the drain and out into area waterways.
Scalability– how can this effort spread
What education levels to target?
Green Schools Consortium
Project Idea 2: If I Were a Drop of Water
Engage student physically, mentally, and emotionally to understand the flow of a drop of water from where it lands in Milwaukee and its journey to Lake Michigan. Use a multidisciplinary approach to help students build these stories, which are then presented to an audience from the wider community.
Across the watersheds which cover Milwaukee in grades 6-12. Pilot the effort in 7th or 8th grade. Prep for the effort in the fall, get students outside in the spring to follow the path of water from their chosen source to the lake.
What’s Needed to Move Forward
Identify locations to use as starting point for water journey
Tap local expertise to do so (building connections between schools and partners)
Do a test run of the water journey with teachers
Map the work envisioned back to curriculum standards
How to get Started
Reach out to science curriculum specialists to help identify schools who might be willing to pilot
Run the idea past local experts to identify source locations that would allow students to follow interesting journeys
Project Idea 3: What Constitutes Healthy Water?
Incorporate actual water issues for Milwaukee– lead, lake levels, etc.
Include water quality into multidisciplinary curriculum
How to get Started
Identify a client (big or small) for the work
Craft a project to engage students in work to explore/address the client’s concerns around water.
Thanks again to The Commons for providing the space, to Amber for facilitating, and our featured participants for the experience and insight they brought to the discussion:
The idea for session came out of conversations we had last summer with Donna Genzmer and Kate Madison faculty members at UWM. Kate and Donna run UWM’s Power of Data Teacher Workshops. The Power of Data (POD) Project offers a 35 hour professional development program in mid-June that helps secondary teachers enhance existing lessons with Geospatial Inquiry. Through NSF funding the program is both free for teachers and offers a stipend to participants. We thought it would be useful to offer teachers interested in exploring how to leverage maps/Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools a chance to explore some ideas, and connect with resources early in the year so they might better be able to leverage the PODs training.
Milwaukee has a wealth of GIS talent at area universities, industries, and non-profits. Our featured participants brought a broad range of expertise and practical knowledge in the use of GIS/spatial data analysis across a variety of domains. We structured the session to allow participants to share their interests in exposing students to spatial data, explore ideas for potential projects, and solicit advice for how to make that happen.
It’s been almost three years since we started talking with folks about the change coming to education, the implications should Milwaukee lag behind, and what might be done to help move things along. We put together a brief manifesto that called for for connecting area educators who are doing interesting work to learn from each other, applying ideas from lean entrepenuriship and agile development to help educators seed the pace at which they are able to develop and implement innovative practices, and raising the visibility of that work.
Those early conversations led to a short series of workshops we ran in August of 2016. We took what we learned there to kick off our Collab Lab series in earnest that October, with a session focused on maker spaces and Fab Labs. Our friends at The Commons were kind enough to loan us use of space in Ward 4 for our initial pilots and the 21 Collab Labs that have followed as we reach the midpoint of our 3rd season.
Our roster of attendees now includes more than 400 individuals from public, private, and charter schools, universities, non-profits and area companies. The focus for a growing number of sessions have been topics which partners including Milwaukee Succeeds, M7, Marquette, UWM and other area organizations have asked us to cover. In January we’ll host our 24th Collab Lab in collaboration with faculty from UWM who have NSF funding to help teachers develop curriculum that leverages spatial data. The aim of this session is to identify projects on which schools might collaborate and help educators connect with expertise within the community well in advance of the UWM training so they can come well prepared to take full advantage of it.
Our hope when we started was to use the sessions to identify ideas that collaborative efforts could help move things forward. This has proved to be the case and we’ve run a number of experiments in different areas. Most notable of these have been around how we might develop an upcycling network to get excess material from industry available for use in school maker spaces. Our goal is to set this up as a network of student run business that can help build connections not just between schools, but between schools and the firms that surround them. Our efforts there include work with a number of schools and partners, among them MSOE, MIAD, The Commons, Goodwill, Discovery World, Betty Brinn, SHARP Literacy, and COA Youth & Family Centers.
Other experiments over the past couple of years have led to two major initiatives– an effort with Milwaukee Succeeds to address the dismal math performance in Milwaukee schools, and a set of engineering challenges for the Milwaukee County Zoo. Our math initiative is illustrative of our bottom up approach to driving change. We’ve been working with teachers and staff from MPS, private, and charter schools, with help from UWM faculty to understand what teachers need to make meaningful discourse a regular part of their math lessons– a practice that not only helps students build understanding of math concepts, but helps create a positive classroom environment and gives teachers a chance to experience more of the “Aha!” moments that energize them.
We have pilots running now with Brown Street Academy and LaCausa, where math coaches at each school are working with teachers who have chosen to make Number Talks a regular part of their routine. We launched those efforts this fall after spending much of last year working to understand what would need to be in place for teachers to feel comfortable with the practice. That support includes a community of like minded practitioners willing to help each other out, so we pull a group together every six weeks at Milwaukee Succeeds to do just that. That group includes teachers from other schools who are working with Number Talks now, or want to embed the practice in their school next year. Our January meeting with that group will be a planning session to lay out what needs to happen between now and September for schools that want to start in on the effort or expand the number of teachers involved.
Our Zoo Train initiative came together in collaboration with the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, which has been working with the Milwaukee County Zoo to test a bio-fuel on the Zoo’s steam locomotives. They would like to test the fuel on a Zoo scale locomotive of modern design. We’d like Milwaukee area students to design and build it.
This year we have 65 students from six area high schools working to design a replacement for the wooden water tower that services the Zoo’s steam locomotives. We’ve paired the teams with near-peer mentors who are engineering majors at area universities, and given the schools a pool of industry experts to tap for help. Over the course of this effort we are also creating opportunities for students to get on-site experiences that can inform their designs. This has included a design thinking workshop hosted by Briggs & Stratton, and a structural design workshop at MSOE.
On December 10th, MSOE hosted the Conceptual Design Review for the water tower challenge. Teams presented their design concepts to panels comprised of Zoo train staff, civil engineers and railroad historians. UWM will play host for the detailed design review in May. The design approach selected there will be the focus of a summer workshop for high school students at MATC where they will produce detailed engineering drawings. We’ll distribute the fabrication work across area schools next fall.
Our goal in all of this it to develop a process where schools can collaborate with university and industry partners, as well as each other, to take on complex work that has value to the community. Having a well defined project with a lofty goal has made it very easy for both schools and partners to say yes. This summer we’ll work with teachers to put together the next challenge– an automated coal handling system for the train. That will follow a parallel sequence with the design phase starting next fall. After that, it’s a caboose, perhaps a passenger car, and then we start in on a new steam locomotive.
Throughout all of this, we have been consistently amazed by the ease with which we can find educators doing great things, willing to share what they know, and try something new. We have also found no shortage of people from area organizations who want to help– they simply need to know where and how. This is a really interesting time. Education is shifting and those who see the change coming are excited by the opportunity to work together to help speed it along. We are grateful both for the opportunity to be a part of this and for all of the support, feedback, and ideas an amazing group of people have provided us.