The Plastic Brain

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10 Ways to Use Lego Robotics to Teach Things Other Than Robotics

I met Rob Torok today at the Google Digital Curriculum Summit. Along with Damien Kee, his online resources helped to kick-start my learning journey with Lego NXT Robotics. I was talking to him about some of the things we have done or could do at my school, using NXT robotics in the curriculum. He challenged me to provide a list of 10 things we could use robots for, that wasn’t primarily about teaching robotics. Challenge accepted!

[1] Mathematics: Coordinate Graphing – program robots with y=3x+2 equation. Each group gets a different x value. Robots drive forward y rotations. What pattern do they end up in?


[2] Physics: Energy transformation – Use sound sensor to record the sound of a bouncing ball. Use peak intervals and decay to discuss conservation (and loss) of energy (hat tip to Damien Kee)

[3] Art/Maths: Drawing systems – attach pens to Domabots and program to drive in complex, recursive patterns.

[4] Biology: Coordination of Body Systems – combine an NXT kit with a chemistry kit to control the flow of liquids. Model bladder fill/empty feedback system (see here)

[5] Mathematics: Interpreting graphs – Use light or sound sensor to record input over a long period. Analysise data retrospectively. What do you think happened in the room over time, when? (hat tip to Damien Kee)

[6] Biology: Ribosomes – The ribosome is an amazing piece of biochemical engineering which translates messenger RNA codons (three-letter sequences) into a strand of amino acids to make protein. I have planned, but never built, a device which would take a paper strip as an input, and read grey scaled boxes (light sensor) or colour patches (colour sensor) in groups of three, then translate them into an amino acid letter sequence. The hardware build wouldn’t be too hard and the program should be fairly straight-forward. It would use the ‘genetic code’ as its reference.

[7] Chemistry: Reaction rates – We already have reactions which turn cloudy, and students use a black cross under the beaker to determine when it is too cloudy to see. This gives you a single time point used to estimate a reaction rate. Using the light sensor on one side of the beaker, and an LED on the other would give a data log of the whole process of precipitate formation (in real time).


[8] Physics: Sustainable energy – When teaching Year 7 students about sustainable energy they came up with the idea of using the light sensor to track the sun across the sky. By using this to rotate a solar panel, maximum power generation can be achieved.


[9] Computer Science: Data transmission – Encode a message in binary and send out bits using the light or sound output. Use the corresponding sensor on a recipient device to record the signal, then decode.

[10] Earth sciences: Building Earthquake Test-table. This device was used to generate oscillation for a shake table. We tested different building designs for their ability to withstand increasing levels of vibration, controlled by the NXT device (see video for full set-up).

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Google Digital Technologies Curriculum Summit

I sent in an application at virtually the last minute, but it seemed like too good an offer not to throw my hat in the ring: Flown to Sydney to participate in a two-day summit discussing the implementation of the Digital Technologies strand of the Australian Curriculum, hosted by Google.
The application required the usual details, some short sections on how you use technology and, here’s the kicker, a one minute, vision-statement video.
I’ve made videos before, I know how long it can take to make even just a short one. This was a long-shot, and I didn’t want to waste much time. I threw something together, uploaded it to Youtube, and pressed submit. It’s embarrassing, but I suppose I should link to it.
Miraculously, my application was successful, and here I am, at Google HQ in Sydney, about to meet some great folks, learn a lot and hopefully pick up some great ideas.

Day 1

Keynote: Maggie Johnson
  • Computer  science is an important skill in our society
  • The demand for people with CS skills is greater than the number of graduates
  • We can address this by teaching computational thinking (see this seminal article)
  • Computational thinking is as important as literacy and numeracy
  • Google has done a lot of work defining what computational thinking is, and how we can teach it
  • The core of their definition is Abstraction: the ability to take a complex situation and reduce it to its important features
  • Pattern recognition was the other key skill she discussed
  • Combining these allows you to take a pattern-to-program approach to coding (at Google they have students code in python)
  • Interestingly, for teaching purposes they also had students work on program-to-pattern problems: run numbers through commands and investigate patterns in the output data

Digital Technologies Update: ACARA Julie King

  • Digital Technologies will form part of the Technologies stream along with Design and Technology
  • Core of subject is around: Computational Thinking, Design Thinking and Systems Thinking
  • Aim is take make students creators of technology, not just users.
  • Will be taught F-8 to all students, and as an elective subject from Year 9.
  • ACARA will be working closely with Scootle to produce resources for teachers

From e-learning to free learning: Dr Chris Tisdell
  • The future of education is: online, on-demand, mobile.
  • Youtube is a powerful tool for scaling teaching and allowing students to control their consumption of his teaching content
  • Doesn’t require a lot of know-how or equipment to get started
  • Analytics helps him to data mine student learning activities
  • However, lacks the personal touch. So Tisdell uses Google Hangouts to provide live webinars where he can respond and give feedback to students
  • He has also written a large, free text book to accompany his Youtube channel
CS Unplugged: Tim Bell
  • Computational thinking does not require computers
  • Foundational core skills (which can be very sophisticated) can be taught through simple and fun activities
  • There are some excellent teaching resources through CS Unplugged and CS Field Guide

Unconference Sessions

  • Computation thinking and digital technologies should be embedded across the curriculum
  • We can use new language and approaches (possible moving away from coding) as ways to engage with reluctant students
  • Need new models of professional learning (primarily face-to-face and buddying) to help colleagues upskill
  • Focus, as always, should be on good pedagogy
  • Student-centered learning and project-based learning are important directions
  • Transparency in syllabus design and providing student voice and choice
  • School structures (logistical, administrative and even physical) need to change to facilitate, rather than impede these changes
  • Open classrooms with observation as the norm helping teachers learn from each other
  • Need to sell the message to get parents and communities on board

Day 2

CS Unplugged 

  • Activity 1: Using “bit cards” to explore how numbers and letters are encoded in binary.


  • Activity 2: Treasure Hunt (Finite state automaton)


Can be drawn for stopwatches, microwaves, DVRs, etc, etc

  • Activity 3: Information Theory. How much information do you need to define a number?DSCN0940
For a number less than 8, it is only 3. But, in compression algorithms we can use assumptions about the data in order to narrow down the range. The assumptions are based on context – what does the data (eg colour in an image) look like around the one you are encoding.
  • Activity 4: Sorting Algorithms. Pairwise comparisons (select and sort).
Chris made a great time-lapse of the process here.
Nick Falkner

Nick is an academic at Adelaide University, doing amazing things in the School of Computer Science. He is part of a team launching a new program with Google which will “help teachers encourage the next generation of students become the creators rather than consumers of digital technology”

 He asked us to explore:
  • Ideas
  • Resources
  • Community
  • Scale of effort

Nick asked to consider where these things have come together for us. How did it work for you?

This is what our group put together:


Key take-home for me was encapsulated in the central diagram: PD should happen in classroom, to students and teachers at the same time! Great idea Phillip.

Why do computer science? Fun, change the world, be ready for the world.

FIRST Robotics

Just the setup looks exciting. Can’t wait to have at it!


Such a great session that I didn’t get a chance to take many process shots, but here are some of the robots our groups put together.
The EV3 systems (both the hardware and software) are a great incremental improvement on NXT and Mindstorms, but a still completely intuitive for people experienced on the old platform. Had a blast.
HUGE thanks to Google for an amazing Summit. It was great to meet up with so many passionate people and share ideas. Much to think about (and implement!).

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(For conference tweets, search the hashtag #googledigiteach on Twitter. Storyfied here)

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Striving for Happiness is Futile. Try Curiosity

It’s going to sound like heresy but when we make our objective of life to be happy it’s problematic… I think it’s the wrong objective in life and this is something that’s become very clear to me as someone who’s taught classes and been studying wellbeing for 15 years.

I’ve been listening to an All in the Mind podcast (MP3 and transcript), in which Lynne Malcolm interviews Todd Kashdan. He’s the Professor of Psychology at George Mason University in Virginia and author of Curious: Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. His thesis is that rather than pursuing happiness, we should embrace curiosity as a guiding principle. In the interview he discusses how being a curious explorer of the world allows you to be present in the moment, and enjoy the wonder of life. A key theme is embracing uncertainty: we cannot immerse ourselves in curiosity if we feel we cannot handle a sense of not knowing.

…we think that curiosity is all about just something new and mysterious walking into our field of vision.  But there’s another part of curiosity that people miss: it’s besides whether we think there’s something new or uncertain or mysterious. We need to believe that we can handle that novelty and that uncertainty, and if we don’t feel that we can handle it we’re not going to feel curious; we’re going to feel confused or we’re going to feel threatened.  And often the reason people don’t feel this sense of wonder is because they don’t feel like they can handle or tolerate any of the tension that comes with the unknown.not handle a sense of not knowing.

Kashdan explores the connections with positive psychology, neuroplasticity and growth mindsets. In particular, he has strong views about fostering curiosity, and how we should interact with children. He is essentially talking about our own children, but it can be easily extrapolated to our students.

…there are some studies of people in New Zealand following children at adolescence for four or five years and showing that even when you account for how intelligent children are, the more that they seek out stimulation the more that they’re curious explorers the more intelligent they become over time, the better they do at school, the more satisfied they are with school, the better relationships they have with teachers.