TCEA 2017 is a GO!!

I just got my acceptance letter to present a premiere session at TCEA 2017 in Austin, TX tbusyhis year.  I will be presenting Arduino and the Internet of Things on Monday, Feb. 6 at 8:00 am.  You will need a premiere admission to attend as this is a half-day “hands-on” session.  I would LOVE to see someone there who is also a blog reader.  Speaking of which, I know I have been remiss in posting but this year has been incredibly busy.  I have nine (NINE!!) preps this year.  Seven classes, two of which run two classes concurrently.  Needless to say I am very overloaded.  Also, my fledgling music career is moving forward.  Fifth Sparrow completed their summer tour of West Texas and also played the Whitesboro Peanut Festival.  So before you chide me for inattentiveness, please be aware that I am not just being lazy.

TCEA 2016: Here We Go Again

tcea2016Here I come again now Babaaayy!  I never knew what In a gad da davita meant and I was afraid to Google it just in case it was something bad and I had to quit listening to Iron Butterfly.  Anyhow, TCEA is already posting the web site for TCEA2016.  I had an outstanding time at the expo this year, and with any luck we will be taking another group in February ’16.

My 2015 presentation was a great success.  A member of TCCA was in the audience and he invited me to apply to present at the TCCA conference in October.  With any luck I will be introducing those folks to the wonder of Greenfoot next year.  The TCEA 2016 presentation window should also be opening pretty soon.  This year I am proposing two half day presentations: Modding Minecraft Made Easy and Getting Green Again: Greenfoot Java. It would be nice to have two days of presenting for next year.

Why do I care about educational technology and Computer Science you may ask. I see the opportunities that kids today have and I think back to my own educational experience. The year I graduated college, our university put in the first computer lab for general student use. I took programming with Basic and was hooked. I suspect my life would have been quite different if the current level of technology had been available to me then.  Regardless, it is important that we do everything we can to encourage student interest in technology and development in particular. Not everyone has the knack for programming but for those who do, it is better that they start early. I look forward each year to introducing students to the satisfaction that comes with seeing something they build run and work as expected.

If you are a teacher, find a reason to introduce coding into your curriculum. HourOfCode.org is a great place to start.  If you are a student, get involved, learn,  buy in.  If you are an administrator, find a teacher that is willing to try this and support them.  Give them the latitude to work technology into the curriculum.  If you are a parent, give your kids the opportunity to learn something besides facebook and twitter and instagram.  Encourage them to learn, to explore, and grow on their own.  Sign them up for a camp, let them join a club,  buy them a computer and get involved.  You never know…You might learn something as well.

Top 10 Tech Skills Every Teacher Needs – Day 3

Tech560And now for our final installment of technology tools that every teacher needs.  Remember that these skills are in no particular order and if I missed your favorite, please comment and let me know so I can add it to my own list.

7.  Teachers should be App Smashers.  App smashing is defined as combing two or more apps or programs in inventive and useful ways.  I listed my own personal favorite several posts ago when I highlighted the combination of Greenfoot java IDE and the GIMP image manipulation program.  In short, teachers must be inventive and think quickly.  Mental agility can overcome budget constraints, administration conflicts, and just about any obstacle a teacher may face.  This is truly one of the most important qualities any teacher can possess.  It may or may not be technical but it IS important.  “Think outside the box” is a cliché but it is still meaningful.

8.  Teachers need to be cross-platform compatible.  A teacher must not be tied to any particular operating system, program, or other piece of technology.  It is OK to have favorites and GOTO pieces, but a teacher should be able to build lessons on a PC, in a Chrome Book, on a Mac, or even a Linux system.  You never know what will work.  If you can adapt and put different systems together and make them work then you will be ready when your favorite things decide to take the day off and not tell you.

9.  And finally, a teacher must never forget that the ultimate goal is to educate students.  I know I said top 10, but hey…it’s my blog, not yours.  Ten does not divide into 3 evenly and I am not dragging this out another day.  This might be the most important (if I were putting them in order).  Too many teachers get caught up in the process, either of their own making, or a process that is imposed upon them from above.  A teacher must never forget that the purpose for all the toys and tech and turmoil is the student.  A teacher must do whatever that particular student needs done in order to learn.  We must be adaptable and open to different learning styles because no two kids are created equal (The founding fathers never intended that idea to be taken out of context anyhow.  People are only equal in the church house and the court house).  All the technology in the world won’t replace a single teacher that cares about students and is genuinely interested in their development.  Remember, they don’t care what you know until they know you care.

And with that thought in mind, gentle reader, I bid you goodnight.

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!

Tools for Teachers

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I am starting a new series of blog entries aimed at providing reviews for some of my favorite teacher technology tools.  Hopefully it will be useful to others of my profession.  If nothing else, it might save you some time by showing you what you don’t want to use.

Tonight our first entry will concern a tool that I have used for several years now to create online content and evaluations. Quia.com is a web site that allows the user to import class rosters, build games, activities, and quizzes, and then compile the results into a grade book.  Students are provided a unique user name and password and must log in for the activities to be credited to them.  This is a paid application that I cover out of my own pocket.  The cost is only about $40 per year.  It is well worth the price.  Using this site it is possible to create engaging review games like Hangman, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, virtual flash cards, Battleship, Concentration, and many others.  The games are all content based and provide and thorough and engaging review.  It is also possible to create online quizzes and formal evaluations involving true/false, multiple choice, matching, short answer, and essay questions.  The quizzes and activities with absolute answers (eg. multiple choice or matching questions) grade themselves.  The written questions (eg. short answer or essay) may then be graded by the instructor.  It is possible to embed video, PowerPoint, Flash, and other interactive content directly into the activities to provide a guided learning environment.  For all you flippers out there, this is an excellent tool to provide guided instruction outside of the classroom.  Images, sounds, and other files may be embedded into the activities as instructional material or feedback.

There is an extensive online community to provide support and ideas for the new user.  It is possible to share activities between instructors so if you need inspiration for building a lesson, something is always available and people are willing to help.  Questions may be imported via text files and stored as question banks for year to year continuity.  Every part of the quiz or activity is HTML and LaTex enabled to add a personal touch or emphasis to the questions.  Grading of the questions that require review is simple and different point values may be assigned to each question to provide emphasis.  Students may work the assignments multiple times or be limited to one time only for testing purposes.  Of all the online assignment environments I have used, this is the most complete and the easiest to get started and become adept at.

Free evaluation memberships are available and the cost for a full membership is very reasonable.  I have used quia.com for the past 4 years and I will continue to use it for the foreseeable future.  It has allowed me to convert to an almost completely paperless classroom environment, and is well worth the time to evaluate.  I would highly recommend this site to any educator in almost any grade level.  High school students are engaged by the more complex games and younger students will find activities to match their level of development.  All in all, and excellent educational tool.