SAIIER Annual Report 2014-2015: Effective Curricular Integration of Technology

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"Edible Weeds and Naturally Growing Plants in Auroville"
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Eluciole Circus
Effective Curricular Integration of Technology
both physical and virtual, to enhance learning


Introduction

This project used physical technology and virtual (i.e. programming) technology as learning aids in Math and Science. The aim was to contextualize abstract concepts through hands-on activities that engage the thinking mind. We used DIY Bigshot cameras, Makey Makey, a Finch robot, and Scratch programming, in collaboration with other tools. We also addressed the question of effective use of computer facilities in schools, by changing the fundamental nature of children’s interaction with computers, redefining the relationship from “users” to “programmers”.


Description of project

Primary work focused on classroom interventions in mathematics and problem solving, for 5th-8th grade students at Udavi School and Isai Ambalam School. This is the age at which many abstract concepts are grounded. We received 10 Bigshot cameras from Prof. Sree Nayar of Columbia University, New York. The Finch robot and the Makey Makey by were donated by friends and visitors who felt that these technologies could make a real impact on the children’s learning. In January 2015 three electronics engineers from Aura Auro joined us, which triggered a lot of hands-on activity by the children including working with motors, electronics and magnetism.

Scratch programming

This academic year the focus was on extensive use of technology starting with programming in Scratch with 7th graders, and mapping aspects of Math curricula through projects and challenges in programming. Three broad approaches were adopted for Math curricula through programming:

  1. A set of challenges involved children demonstrating their understanding of abstract concepts visually through programming. The concepts included fractions, long division, and pie charts; for example demonstrating what it means to add numerator with numerator and denominator with denominator in a fraction.
  2. A set of challenges based on programming was used to understand mathematical ideas such as linear expressions, percentages, and simple and compound interest. For example “5x +10” was graphed as rectangles of varying heights. Then the children could vary the slope or vary the added constant and see the resulting change. This allowed them to explore and interpret the formula. This exercise was then modified so that students could investigate solutions to equations, e.g. “5x+10=75”, which that used the given expression and the pictures, and paused when the result was reached.
  3. Children created games that helped them learn and then progressively master concepts, such as positive and negative integers, and cube roots that result in two-digit numbers.

We found that once children got into the mode of creating their own programs, they tended to use available computers in creative ways, instead of drifting or getting carried away playing games.


Screenshot Effective curricular - fractions.png


Applications of programming in English class

We introduced programming in English class, letting children animate stories they had written using Scratch. 7th and 8th grade students participated in this activity. The 7th graders, who had been working rigourously with programming to learn math, surprised us with how elaborate, complex and refined they could make their animated stories, despite being the younger group. Students did self-assessments of their work based on quality criteria that was agreed on beforehand by the class. The work of the 8th graders resulted in a presentation at the end of the year called 'If I had wings...', which was a 5 minute video, developed through over 1000 lines of code and simultaneous virtual play with 60 characters and over 30 changes in backdrop.

The English teacher reports:

Every year the 7th and 8th grade classes explore different kinds of text such as stories, essays, letters, and dialogues in their creative writing class. This year, after the first term, the students chose a story to animate in Scratch. The children worked over the course of 8-10 sessions (including first term holidays) on the computer animating their stories.

The main accomplishments of the project were:

  • Creative writing and expression – The children were encouraged to use their imaginations to create stories in English. Their work on the computer fueled this creative process. The students enjoyed choosing their characters and settings, and experimented with a variety of graphics and colours. Giving concrete form to their imagination this way was a unique experience for them.
  • English language skills – The children had to type the stories and dialogues, and this gave them an opportunity to work on grammar, vocabulary and spelling.
  • Fun and familiarity with computers – Most of the children in Udavi do not have access to computers at home. This project was an opportunity for them to gain familiarity with the computers, a growing necessity in today’s context.
  • Organisation and perseverance - To complete the project successfully the children had to type their stories, choose appropriate images, arrange images and text in the proper order, and add audio effects. This was a huge and cumbersome task and a few could not complete it. However, all of those who finished had a sense of achievement which comes from persistence.
  • Logic-building capacity – As the stories were to be seen and understood by others (besides the teacher), the children got genuine feedback on their work. They came to better recognise the logical flaws that often creep up in the work of 12 and 13 year olds.

Children naturally respond to modern technology with enthusiasm and curiosity, and this was evident during the entire project. They showed a lot of enthusiasm to the extent that they were willing to sacrifice their holidays to complete their work. Their body language also showed that they were concentrated on an enjoyable task.

Psychologically, at a subtle level, the project gave a boost to their creative writing process because it let them see a visible end result of their imagination and the impact it had on others. Subsequent to this project some of the children worked with enhanced seriousness and put more thought into their creative writing.

Overall, I feel it was a wonderful project for the children.



Makey Makey

Beyond mathematics and English, programming was taken further into sensing the real world using “Makey Makey”. This invention kit lets kids set up electronics that respond to real-life events, such as their hand touching a plant (or another object that has some moisture content). Using Makey Makey the children made their own version of a water tank filling alarm, and a non-touch (pressure based) burglar alarm. These exercises helped children see how programming can connect to the real world, and think up further possibilities and applications. For their final project they built a mat made from stems of plants, which the Makey Makey could detect, and placed it on an insulator just above the ground. If someone stepped on the mat the mat would touch the floor triggering an alarm.



Finch robot

We worked on controlling in the real world with the Finch robot. This was done by directing the actions of the robot to go around obstacle courses and deliver small paper balls into goal buckets. The most popular game we created was the parking game, with a random set of commands that made the robot move around. The goal of a participant was to predict where the robot needed to be placed initially to reach a fixed goal. We used this version at the school fair which generated much interest.



Bigshot cameras

We also used physical technology, one being the DIY (Do It Yourself) “Bigshot” cameras that can be assembled by students. Over 50 children of 6th grade and higher assembled the cameras, took pictures, put the pictures on the computer, and then used the instructions backwards to disassemble the cameras for the next group to use. They worked on this project for about two weeks. The children enjoyed the work of assembling the apparatus. They took a number of pictures and picked up several techniques in photography. Overall it was an interesting exercise of group work, reading and comprehending instructions, and analyzing pictures. The camera’s hand crank also gave a context to look into gears and ratios. A lot more can be done using the cameras, such as learning about optics and imaging. The children were very curious about the 3-D images taken by the camera, and experimented with how it could perceive depth.

Outcomes and reflections

Technology can be a powerful tool to explore new pathways of learning in children. However, just as any other tool its usage and the atmosphere created for its effective use is important. Rural children are able to take to Programming using visual programming languages like Scratch that allow them to stitch the code together (rather than type it and need to compile it). They are also able to advance in its use to make increasingly complex programs.

Programming is significantly different from the ready-made computer material for passive learning including online lectures or videos. Programming projects are also different from the so-called educational games that attempt to replicate rigor by asking children to solve sums to progress in a game. With those, children typically choose to play games that they are already good at, to get a higher score, rather than stretch themselves with new games. Playing games on the computer by and large appeals to a child's vital.

However, instead of trying to program the child through the computer, if we let the children program the computer the work moves beyond the vital to mental and beyond. It breaks the socialization pattern many children learn that the computer is always right and we are always playing catch-up. With programming the children realize that the computer actually needs to be given step-by-step instructions and can't make the simplest connections on its own. Programming requires children to think for the machine and break down complex problems into simpler problems. Children are able to make mistakes and learn from them without needing to constantly consult adults, which lets them handle their vital impulses of frustration, boredom, etc.

After working on programming for some time, when given a choice of what to do with a computer, more than half the children choose to create or refine something they built rather than play a computer program they had played before. When the children see a good computer program they appreciate the amount of work that goes into making a computer look smart.

The children learn implicit knowledge through programming such as the Cartesian system, velocity, etc, and they learn about the importance of agreed-upon conventions as they increasingly work with each other’s work.

Children who feel like failures with test scores in time-bound examinations, persevere and feel proud when they are able to demonstrate their learning. The work with physical technology integrates their physical, vital and mental parts of being to create concrete objects. It can be as effective as any other technology through the complexity and dexterity of the object being worked on.

Future direction

The research prompts us to take STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) more seriously in our school and we recommend that other schools also look at it seriously. In a few years we may also be in a position to support the training of teachers for those schools that lack the volunteers or teachers to take this up effectively.

Conclusion

For effective Math and Science education there needs to be context for what is being taught. Technology has become ubiquitous and can no longer be ignored by schools. We have made a good beginning in the use of technology in Maths. We have been able to map some curricular areas, e.g. integers, long division, addition of fractions, linear algebra, etc, and implicit knowledge of the Cartesian system, etc. We have further noticed that children are eager to give life to stories they write by creating animations. They are willing to break patterns and get creative, and are open to handling complexity.


See also

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"Edible Weeds and Naturally Growing Plants in Auroville"
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Eluciole Circus