Saturday, June 12, 2010

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010 - Day Two

Here are my thoughts about the second day of the LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010, held at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Once again, please let me stress that this is not meant as a formal report, it's just a collection of my reflections about the event, primarily for my own benefit.

Morning presentations
  • Y. Debbie Liu (Harvard) - Talked about the thinking patterns of scientists at the "cutting edge" of science (e.g. bioinformatics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology). It looked like she talked to a *lot* of scientists to identify theses patterns of thinking: systems thinking, engineering thinking, quantitative thinking, interdisciplinary thinking, distributed thinking. I like this way of thinking about thinking. I can't help thinking that these are the tips of iceburgs. I just had a quick look for some of her work online, because I'm interested to read some more later and found this: Using Scratch to Teach 21st Century Scientiffic Thinking Skills.
  • Timothy Lannin (Tufts) - Timothy, an undergraduate (!!) mechanical engineering major , designed and ran an engineering course at Tufts for other, non-engineering, students. The course focused on energy (how to measure energy production and consumption) and the engineering design process. Projects included: A model city powered by alternative energy, wind turbine design (test the effect of varying blade length, blade width, pitch angle, number of blades), solar collectors (parabolic troughs, parabolic dishes). [He said his materials are online, but I couldn't find the link just now. I'll add them later.]
  • Brian Gravel (Tufts) - Multiple representations in science and engineering. This was one of those, "I heard of it, but I didn't really get it until now" moments for me. Brian showed us SAM Animation and gave some very solid justifications for its use. Unfortunately, I was so engrossed in the presentation that I didn't make any notes. )-:
  • Travis Franck (Tufts, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy) - Travis gave us an example of a mental model relating to climate change, and showed us some amazing simulation tools at Climate Interactive.
  • Al Hurst (Cranston High School East) - Talked about his students use powerpoint to keep a log book of their work. The log books include: day & date, detail what you accomplished in class, any problems/solutions, define any new vocabulary, screen captures. The project he has them do for the last quarter of the course is to build a carnival ride, that must use three sensors.
Development lab: Facilitating v Instructing (LEGO Serious Play)
Having been suitably impressed by Robert Rassmussen over the previous day and a half, I was keen to attend his workshop (sorry, I meant "development lab"), but I was not nearly as excited about the toolkit, LEGO Serious Play. On paper, it didn't look promising and I was a bit worried... "express your thoughts and ideas through metaphorical LEGO models and in that process balance different modes of instructions". Uh oh! This is going to be worse than butcher's paper!

Well, how wrong was I? Robert has us working individually and very quickly sucked us in by giving us a building challenge that we could all do, "build a tower, using only yellow pieces". No problems there. And then he asked us to each say something a couple of things about our towers. Okay, fine. But that's what's all about... each person created something of their own and seemed to have no difficultly in talking about it. Robert made the point (that I've been concious of for a while but rarely hear it mentioned) that all too often in group discussions or brainstorming sessions, whatever idea is shared first affects all the subsequent suggestions, and tends to derail everyone else's ideas. [He later gave me a reference for this, but maybe I didn't write it down... I'll find it later.]

The second challenge was something along the lines of "thinking about this morning, pick three pieces that you can use to say something about how you feel or what you would reflect on from this morning". This question was less "neutral" than the yellow tower, but still quite safe, I think because it was more about finding/creating meaning in the pieces than it was about personal reflection.

The third challenge was build a model showing what you are most passionate about in education. This was trickier, and Robert prefaced it by asking us to not have a meeting with ourselves, but just to start building. As with all the questions, we were given only four or five minutes to complete our builds. At first, I had no idea how to respond, but I finally did what I was told, and something came together. It was great hearing each others ideas, and also how in some cases the act of building had triggered ideas just below the surface. For example, I started with some pieces that represented something about giving students the tools to think for themselves, and the importance of talking/working together to achieve this. But then I noticed a ship's steering wheel and realised this could represent "charting the course between constructionism and instructionism", and then I found a map that I used to represent "curriculum design". These are topics that I'm very passionate about, but I find it interesting that they didn't occur to me until I saw something that triggered my memory.

After the break, Robert talked about the "flow", and I think he was quoting Papert [more research required] with an idea that he showed graphically... Challenge on the vertical scale, Knowledge/skills on the horizontal. High challenge + low knowledge = anxiety! Low challenge + high knowledge = boredom! Up the middle of the graph is a region of "hard fun". The yellow tower challenge got us all started at low challenge/low knowledge because it was achievable for all. From there we moved up the graph, this is the "flow". Coming from the high challenge/low knowledge side of the graph into the flow gives an "aha!" moment.

He also talked about how this approach could be used to answer a question like "What do you think the team should be working on in relation to water pollution?". He made mention of seven sub-strategies, and intended to show us just a couple, but we talked him into giving us an overview of all of them. It was all a bit quick, however, so I can't do them justice here, but they had to do with how you take the individuals' ideas and put them together in some way, ultimately show how they are interconnected and how changing one will effect others.

Afternoon presentations
  • Amber Kendall (Tufts) - Wow!! This was the most significant presentation for me. It asked (and more importantly responded to) a style of question that I've been wondering about for ages... "Exploring science through engineering might be fun, but do students really learn any science?" After reading every article I could find on robotics education, I am pretty confident that this question has not been addressed in robotics, and even though Amber's presentation was not exactly about robotics, it's the most relevant, and mature, collection of work I've seen so far. The curriculum and resarch tools looked very interesting, so I was pleased to be able to meet the lead researcher, Kristen Wendall, a couple of days later... (more to follow)
  • Norazleen (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Talked about her approach to structuring their robotics program, SPACE – Scenario, Problem, Ask questions, Construct?, Evaluation. She showed us video of students undertaking a story-based challenge (I think maybe a rescue of some kind?), that involved the robots moving forward to a certain point and then turn in a particular direction. It wasn’t clear from the presentation, but I was informed by someone who had seen the full video that the robots had to turn on different surfaces, therefore making the magnetic compass necessary (as opposed to using dead reckoning).
  • Lim Hui Hsin Jeanne (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Describe how she uses "Construct, Integrate, Differentiate" in the context of a tower challenge and a crane challenge, as an example. For the tower, the students are required to build the tallest and stablest tower. For an extra challenge, it is to suppport 500g. The crane challenge involves building a crane that can lift 500g. Assessment includes an electronic portfolio and written work.
  • Chua Khoon Siong Ray (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Showed us a series of physics based challenges designed to develop understandings of time, speed, and motion. A 100cm sprint provides the context for challenges that involve either varying motor power (speed) or time. I’ve never been particularly excited by the classic “drive a particular distance without going over / hitting the wall” challenge until now. Ray showed us a neat variation of this classic that provides a culmination for their speed/distance/time investigations. The challenge is to rescue a princess, by first knocking over the monsters that guard her and then get as close as possible to the princess, without hitting her! The robots have to move a particular distance (dead reckoning) to demonstrate the skills learnt in the previous lessons. I guess this was always the idea with this challenge, but it never quite seemed as fun as this. I could imagine using this with my Maths Applied 2 class as a linear modelling investigation, and having them collect data and determine a rule experimentally as well as calculating it theoretically.
  • Mark Lockett (LEGO Teacher Award recipient and Proselytic Banana Bender, Australia) - Talked about how he uses De Bono’s 6 hats and the 4 Cs in robotics. Well, this is embarrassing… I was so busy taking photos for Mark (and to be honest, they didn’t end up being anything more than snaps really) that I forgot to pay attention to his talk… I put down the camera and started taking notes just as he finished his talk. D’oh! I had been intending to record an interview, I guess now I’ll need to make sure that happens. Sorry Mark!
We were asked what we would like to know more about. I only copied down the sections that interested me the most, but I’m sure the full response will be posted in in due course.

General feedback
  • Workshops on programming – Agreed. If I wasn’t coming back in a few week, I would’ve been a bit annoyed that we hadn’t done some LabView programming.

  • What are the age appropriate techniques/tools for engineering design?
  • How do we train teachers to incorporate engineering in the classroom? Methods, time, content, program v building.
  • Differentiating instructions - ability/readiness
  • Presevation of curiousity. How do we keep students thinking v just plugging numbers into formulas?
  • Repeat Merredith’s research at different grades. Are there different ways of expressing planning?
  • Parents’ perception of these tools in the classroom. How to support kids at home?
  • Educating administration.
  • Longitude effects of including engineering K-12. Help? Hinder? More engineers?
  • More resources to teach how to build. Eg. The LEGO WeDo Activity Pack.
  • Technical specifications about devices. Eg. Motor efficiency.
This lead to a quick brainstorm of some of the best currently available:Another very good day. By this stage I was starting to get sad that it would be over so soon.


  1. "Tze Hwei Yeo (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Talked about her approach to structuring their robotics program, SPACE – Scenario, Problem, Ask questions, Construct?"
    It was Norazleen who had presented.

  2. Sorry about that. I've made the correction. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. My course materials are available here: