Colin's Sandbox


A Noble Conference Embiggens the Smallest Man

by on Oct.21, 2013, under ramblings, stem

I was privileged to take part in the Anchorage Math and Science Conference this past weekend, appearing with Dr. Chip McMillan, Dr. Megan Buzby, and Lori Sowa, PE, all professors at UAS, presenting ideas on how to incorporate STEM in the K-8 classroom.  The presentations went really well!  My portion of the presentations was an overview on how Minecraft (and MinecraftEdu) has been implemented to engage students constructively and how it may be used in their own classroom.

Outside of the presentation I took part in a few sessions that were particularly “embiggening”: an overview of elements of “Project Lead the Way“, incorporating STEM into curriculum.  When it comes to proprietary curriculum (or proprietary anything for that matter) I’m admittedly a little biased.  What I took away from it though was the necessary concept of a vertically aligned curriculum, with one course building upon another, from principles of engineering on up to a final design project.  Some students from Dimond High School presented their work and thoughts on their efforts and they did a great job.  Communication is key to being a good engineer – the ability to describe your efforts and needs to others is crucial to good teamwork.

Earlier, I took part in a quick ArcGIS Online walk through, making our own maps.  I’m currently trying to figure out how to do a time-enabled map showing increase in temperature in Alaska over time.  I haven’t yet figured out which layer I need to add to get that data, or how to adjust it over time, but below is an example of an interesting layer, that of permafrost extent.

View Larger Map

One of the most interesting experiences for me however was the digital circuits presentation that I sat in.  While in college I used Motorola microcontrollers as part of digital design classes and I loved them.  I can remember the the “a HA!” moments while programming the units (in assembly) along with many hours of debugging wiring and improving the various projects.  Now to the outsider it might not be that exciting to see lights blink on and off and LED / LCD displays flickering different words across the screen but let me tell you – very exciting while you’re doing it.  Today’s kits featuring Arduino processors make it _lot_ easier.  The programming language is C (and I believe C++, although I didn’t code up any classes objects to check), which is a huge step up from assembly when it comes to readability.  I would like to see additional languages such as python, but that might be a lot easier to use on a system-on-a-chip (SOC) implementation such as the Raspberry Pi.

I heard a great phrase this weekend that I’ll take with me: “Don’t be a sage on the stage, be a guide on the side.”

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Principles of STEM

by on Oct.14, 2013, under stem

If I were to ask you what the “Principles of STEM” were to be, what would be your top 3 or 4 attributes? I want to speak directly to those while I’m working on these Minecraft slides.

In a proposed course description document that a professor sent out recently, I saw these listed as “STEM Character Traits”: “Grit, zest, creativity, social intelligence, curiosity, adaptability”.  And while I think that these are all true, but perhaps not sufficient, characteristics, can these be considered principles to guide formation of curriculum?  Are “Character Traits” necessarily “Principles”? Or does the application of guiding principles give rise to character traits over time? This question sounds late-night-in-the-dorm-room-bull-session-ish perhaps, but consider that I’m coming off of two days of being pounded by the flu and also that I’m looking for big banner words / short phrases that you can stick on somewhere on a T-Shirt, the top of a website, or 3-D printed to mount on your wall if you will. Creativity without a doubt I think is a “Principle”, capital “P”. Curiosity as well, perhaps. I think creativity + curiosity itself provides adaptability. Grit is self-confidence combined with curiosity I would think. I can go on and on, but I think there’s not a 1:1 mapping between character traits (at least the ones provided) and what I would think of as fitting the definition of “principle”.  There’s certainly an interplay between a defined need, freedom and creativity of thought, combined with the discipline of the scientific method that defines a professional curiosity of the best engineers I worked with (back in the day, long ago…). Not to mention the ability to accurately describe their work and listen to others and grok what they’re saying, which provides them with a deep understanding, allowing them to quickly switch courses as needs arise.  Adaptability!

Back on planet Earth, when I have a question I generally turn to Google, so in a quick search, I turn up some rather prolix principles.  From the STEM Ed Coalitiion, I turn up these principles of why STEM ed is important (

– STEM education must be elevated as a national priority as reflected through education
reforms, policies to drive innovation, and federal and state spending priorities.
– STEM education is closely linked with our nation’s economic prosperity in the modern
global economy; strong STEM skills are a central element of a well-rounded education
and essential to effective citizenship.
– Our nation must expand the capacity and diversity of the STEM workforce pipeline to
prepare more students for the best jobs of the future that will keep the U.S. innovative,
secure and competitive.
– Policymakers at every level must be informed about policy issues related to STEM
education and their implications for the economy, national security, and continued
American leadership in science and technology.
– Effective policies to promote STEM education as a national priority should be bipartisan
and evidence-based and must be backed up by a strong and united community of
stakeholders and advocates in the business, professional, research, and education

And from the state of Washington, they kindly break down the acronym (but that’s self-referential in my view!), and provide a questionnaire to assess your own curriculum (, be sure to check out its attendant questionnaire at

Scientific literacy is the ability to use knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth/space science to understand the natural world and to participate in decisions that affect it.

Technological literacy is the ability to use new technologies, understand how new technologies are developed, and have skills to analyze how new technologies affect us, our nation, and the world.

Engineering literacy is the ability to use the systematic and creative application of scientific and mathematic principles to practical ends, such as the design, manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems.

Mathematical literacy is the ability to analyze, reason, and communicate ideas effectively through posing, formulating, solving, and interpreting solutions to mathematical problems in a variety of situations.

I found these in a slidestack (annoyingly hard to copy and paste from:

1. Student learning experiences should bridge in and out-of-school learning.
2. Students should have authentic learning experiences.
3. Student learning experiences should include core disciplinary concepts, processes, and skills.
4. Student learning experiences should embrace meaningful use of new and emerging technologies
5. Don’t forget computer science and computing

Surely there’s a better, snappier way to put all of this. Are engineer-y type people just bad at using a thesaurus? But I’m also having a hard time pinning in concise statements what it means to teach in the STEM vein.

OK back to real actual work.

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