App Smashing: Working with Combinations

Thus far I have been concerned with reporting on programs for teachers and students to use in the education process.  Now I gimpfootam going to mention a pair of programs that work together with an energy much greater than the sum of their parts.  The hardest part of game development is creating the assets to use in the game.  The code syntax is fairly easy to master but creating the sprites or images to be used in the game as well as backgrounds and character design is tough.  This package provides all the tools you need to completely design and build games that can be shared online or compiled into a desktop application.  I’m talking Greenfoot and GIMP.  Introducing GIMPFOOT.  Both of these applications are portable.  It is possible to create a game or simulation from start to finish with these applications installed on a flash drive.  This is very convenient when one is unable to install applications on a PC or when using a public computer that is incapable of having software added.

Both of these applications are open source.  They may be downloaded and distributed for free.  This is a huge plus when starting up a development class because it is possible to put professional quality tools in the hands of students at no charge.  In fact, given the cost of a flash drive, it is possible to provide students with multiple copies of the software, one for school and one to take home.  The programs will run on just about any flavor of Windows and it is possible to build flash drives for Linux and Mac as well.  All in all, this is a great way to get kids started developing for almost no investment.

This is not a perfect solution.  While Greenfoot is easy and intuitive to learn, GIMP requires a bit of practice.  It will, given appropriate training and effort, rival Photoshop in its capabilities.  There are plenty of tutorials and training material available on the Internet to bring anyone, teacher or student, up to speed.  Greenfoot may be downloaded from http://www.greenfoot.org  While GIMP is available in portable format from Major Geeks.  Both may be downloaded and install on any flashdrive and both take up no more than about 400 M of space.  They will seem a bit slow to run the first time they are activated from the flash drive but will speed up considerably after that.

MinecraftEdu What are the odds of that??

MinecraftEdu-Logo-1erntkcSeriously!?  Minecraft in School??  Yes, without doubt.  Minecraft, the blocky video game sensation of digging, diving, building, and burrowing has a very comfortable place in education.  I know it seems like we spend an awful lot of time trying to pull young people AWAY from time consuming, mind occupying activities like this, but, if used correctly, Minecraft can be a valuable tool in the educator’s arsenal.  Especially now that there is a specific edition targeted at the education environment.

MinecraftEdu is a specialized version of the wildly popular video game, recently purchased by Microsoft, that allows the player to become an engineer in his or her own world.  Most of the game involves collecting resources, refining them, and using them to survive.  The opportunities for education are endless.

I am going to emphasize the Computer Science aspects of Minecraft because that is my area of expertise.  During the first year of our programming class I had a waiting list of about 40 students because I announced that during the last two six week periods we would be modding the game of Minecraft.  I have never seen kids so anxious to get into a classroom.  These kids are 100% engaged.

Modding Minecraft is a fairly involved process of installing the Eclipse Java IDE, Minecraft itself, and a facilitator and mod loader called Forge.  Once these programs are properly set up and aware of each other, it is a fairly simple matter to add items, armor, mobs, or even entire biomes to the mix.  The mods can be shared between students and published to the Internet.  My only complaint is that the process can’t be done in Greenfoot.  Eclipse is the best way to go.

If you would like an easier setup option, then the Minecraft modding curriculum provided by YouthDigital   The package is modestly expensive but provides video lessons, one touch installation, and complete technical support for a year.  I would recommend running through it yourself before you offer the class to students.  By the time you complete the coursework you will be very familiar with the process of creating mods for Minecraft.  If you choose not to go that route then there are plenty of books, web sites, and tutorial videos to be had on the Internet.

The bottom line is that ANYTHING that captures a child’s interest to this extent can be used in education.  A little imagination will go along way in helping you find the tools you need in the most unexpected of places.

Introduzione Arduino

Saluti amici.  Benvenuti nel mondo della tecnologia.  Tonight TechnologyNEducation is featuring a software/hardware combination that is sure to be a hit in any Physics, Engineering, or Technology classroom; the Arduino microprocessor and its accompanying IDE software.  Arduino is one of the best Italian exports since the Ferrari.  With a few electronic components and a little imagination you can literally do ANYTHING.  Built robots, weather stations, web servers, plant waterers, garage door openers.  spider dresphotoses with legs that move like the real thing when people get close to the wearer…ANYTHING.

The Arduino consists of an ATmega328 processor embedded into a printed circuit board with various inputs and outputs.  One has access to digital and analog inputs and outputs, PWM (pulse with modulation), an on-board oscillator, and many other features to make prototyping your next great invention a snap.  One communicates with the Arduino from a PC via a standard USB connection and the unit will run off USB power or by way of a separate power jack.  It uses a processor platform called Wiring which is essentially a C/C++ library modified and geared to input/output.  In order to have a viable Arduino program (or sketch as they are called) one must simply create two functions; a setup() function in which any instantiation or initialization can occur, and a loop() function that, as it’s name indicates, continue to operate once the program in initiated.

As I am a serious proponent of teaching code in the classroom at every opportunity, this device immediately intrigued me.   Since I have begun using it in my “Concepts of Engineering” classroom, I have not ceased to find new applications for lessons.  Outside of the very useful coding and programming applications, Arduino teaches problem solving via algorithims, basic engineering skills, electronics and circuit design, and it is a wonderful introduction to the Internet of Things.  If you don’t already know what the IoT is, you need to stop reading this and head over to Google.  It is the fastest growing facet of the Internet today.  The Arduino and its supporting cast of breadboards, resistors, capicitors, and switches is a great way to get engagement and interest in topics that would ordinarily receive a groan of dismay when announced.  The product is fairly inexpensive and requires no great training commitment on the part of the instructor.  Besides…They are FUN!

Domo Arigato Programming a Roboto

Tonight’s entry is another programming tool but this one is geared more specifically to teachers of technology and specifically logo_robotcRobotics.  RobotC is a subset of the C programming language geared specifically for controlling robots and other microprocessor powered automation.  I have been using RobotC for over 3 years now and I really appreciate the control it provides my students in performing the tasks and assignments I set for them.

If you are a physics, math, middle school science, or basically any teacher in any discipline, a robot kit would be a worthwhile addition to your classroom.  A wealth of resources is available on the Internet covering lessons in math, history, language arts, or any subject you can think of.  A robotics kit can be found to fit any budget.  Most will run perfectly fine with RobotC.

If you haven’t learned by now, I am a proponent of teaching coding to anyone who will take the time to learn.  As with any new language, it is much easier to teach to the young than the old.  The problem-solving skills inherent in programming make it a valuable discipline for any educational environment.  More than technology, more than computers, more than anything, we can use problem solvers.  Programming is an excellent way to learn the skills.  RobotC teaches valuable analysis tools like the idea of “Divide and Conquer” for making one big problem into a series of small problems.

If you are interested in robots for the classroom there are many organizations that will help get you started.  You might consider beginning an after-school club through First League or contacting a local university for help.  Most of them have some sort of STEM department.  Talk to local businesses about sponsorship to provide funds.  If you can bring robots and kids together you will be amazed at the synergy that results.

Getting Your Feet Green in Java

Tonight’s entry into the Teacher Tech. Tools series is also a personal cause of mine.  Greenfoot is an entry-level Java IDE (integrated greenfootdevelopment environment) that is tailor-made for education.  This software package allows a complete beginner to begin creating interesting and engaging games and simulations almost from the moment lessons are begun.  Given the rapid growth of the IT and Software Development industries, anything you can do to stimulate interest in computer programming is going to be beneficial to your students.  Greenfoot teaches legitimate Java syntax and “real world” object oriented programming theory while hiding the more complex operations “under the hood” so to speak.

I teach basic programming to high school sophomores at for a rural school district in North Texas and I can vouch for the interest and engagement value this software and it’s curriculum provide. We began class with Michael Kölling’s book “Introduction to Java Programming with Greenfoot” and by the end of the first lesson, the class was hooked.  We have since moved on to Eclipse and more advanced topics but my class constantly requests that we go back and visit one of the Greenfoot projects.  As I am presenting a coding boot-camp at the TCEA state conference in Austin, TX (also over Greenfoot) during the first week of February, my programming class will be running a Greeps competition in my absence.  Those who are initiated into the Greenfoot world will understand and rest assured, my kids are ecstatic at the prospect.

“But I don’t know anything about Java, or coding, or computers, or greeps for that matter.  I DON’T teach computers, How can I possibly make use of this tool?”  Believe me, teaching with this program is every bit as easy as learning with it.  There is a wonderful community of users, most of whom are also educators, who are happy to help get a newbie up and running.  Lessons and projects abound on the forum and Michael Kölling has an excellent text book available to provide inspiration and support.  His blog site, The Joy of Code, is a step-by-step tutorial on how to teach java, object oriented programming, and introductory computer science to anyone at almost any age.  This curriculum would be useful as it is in a middle school or high school, and, with minor modification, could be easily ported to an even younger group.

I have tried other “educational” software development products (Scratch, Alice, Lego NXT) and all have merit.  They do NOT, however, as a rule teach legitimate code technique and syntax.  Most are a “drag and drop” interface that has very little connection with the real world.  Greenfoot teaches Java.  It explains the concepts of class, objects, inheritance, constructors, methods, and other ideas that the neophyte programmer will still be using long after college and landing a job in the field.

Each year a programming event called The Hour of Code occurs in schools and other educational venues around the world. The idea is to get young people interested in technology and particularly, software development.  First, visit the link above and find out why you need to be teaching an hour of code, and then check out the Greenfoot link to see if it is not the perfect tool for teaching programming.  When the lesson is over, you might hear something from your class that you are not used to…applause.

ShareX: Screen Capture Made Amazing…

sahrex

In tonight’s edition of Teacher Technology Tools we look at screen capture applications.  Before we start, let me be clear that there are many many programs, web sites, and apps that will allow you to capture your screen image and save it as a series of still images or a video file.  There are simply too many to list and still give a reasonable amount of detail to each and so I am choosing my favorite and presenting it, along with WHY I like this one, to give understanding as to how this sort of application can aid you in presenting material to your students.

This application is called ShareX and it is a marvel for making things easy while providing all the features one could need.  The install process is simple and direct.  Go to the web site, download the file, run the installer,  capture your screen, share in literally hundreds of ways.  I have never seen a program that can connect to so many different networks and allow you to post to so many different venues.

Once the program is installed there are several parameters that need to be set.  One of the first and most important is “How do you plan to share your screen captures”?  ShareX will allow you to connect directly to Dropbox, Google Drive, One Drive, FTP servers, email, Pushbulllet, flicker, twitter, Imagur, Image Shak, Photobucket, Picasa, Amazon, Copybox, ownCloud, MEGA….There are just too many outlets to list.  You can also save to your local drive in every possible video format that your computer will handle.  In short, this is the Swiss Army knife of screen capture.  It has a built-in video and still image editor, as well as color pickers, and programmable hot key short cuts by the score.  While all of this performance would seem to require a lot of study, the opposite is true.  You can be up and running in no time.  The program is intuitive and has a very small memory footprint.  It is NOT a resource hog.

Why, you ask, do I need a screen capture program?  In our current education environment, the trend is to decentralize instruction and put more and more responsibility for learning into the hands of the student.  Standing before a classroom delivering lectures from on high will no longer fill the bill.  The move is toward flipped classrooms where the students receive instruction and gather information outside the classroom and then come to class for more direct and individual guidance with questions about the material they gathered the night before from the Internet or other interactive sources.  If you are not currently using video and producing multimedia content, you soon will be.  Relax, this won’t hurt a bit.  Tools like ShareX make it easy to get very professional looking results with only a little dial-up time for the instructor, and no budget outlay for the school.  Did I forget to mention that for all it’s features, ShareX is a free program.  I can recommend ShareX as a valuable tool to help create material for your students.  It is definitely worth your time to investigate.

Remind Me Again

As teachers we are constantly needing to communicate with students, other teachers, parents, and other stake holders in the educational process.

remind-app

Great care must be taken to secure the student’s contact information and protect yourself from potentially career threatening liabilities.  Remind101 (now Remind.com) makes the process easy and secure.

Remind is a web site using the twitter engine to send text messages to groups of students, parents, or anyone you choose.  The text messages are sent from a third party phone number and can not be replied to in any way.  While it may seem a bit frustrating at first, you can see how this is necessary to protect both student and teacher from any possible hint of impropriety.  The message is sent from the web site by the teacher to groups of students.  Each students receives the same message.  It is impossible to sent a private message to a single student.

Remind is a free service with basically unlimited group creation and student messaging.  It is also possible to embed HTML widgets into class web pages and blog sites to show the last message sent.  Students, parents, or other recipients must register at the remind.com web site or they may send a text to a number that the web site provides in order to sign up for a specific class.  Students who have multiple teachers using the service will get all their messages from the same number.

If you are sending SMS private messages to your student’s personal phones or devices you are placing your career and reputation at great risk.  Most schools have strict rules against this practice for good reason.  To avoid the liability and still provide the information your students need, check out Remind.com.  You might find it worth your while.