Thursday, January 22, 2009

Building Computers part 2

Over the holiday break, my 13 year old, Rudy, decides he wants to build a computer. Earlier in the fall he wanted to save up for a laptop, but found the cost to great especially for the specs he wanted. So this was the process:
I wanted this to be his project, but needed to supervise to make sure it would work. I have built computers in the past and work with them today.
Decide on budget. How much money he had after Christmas was over?
I wanted to see a spreadsheet before anything happened.
What did he want for a computer, and do you really need a 1TB hard drive?
All of the parts need to be listed with cost and shipping.
Amazing how many parts you don't know about that need to be bought. He learned
After seeing we were well above budget we started cutting back and doing more research. Found out if he packaged orders from some suppliers, the shipping was lower. We also figured out he did not need a sound card, as he uses headphones while on the computer. Video card was axed until his birthday.

As the parts arrived he installed. One problem is he lives with his mother, and I live about a half hour away from him, so some work was done over the phone, others over weekends with me, or before picking up him or his brother for various activities. I also bought him a simple book on building computers.

Typical phone conversation: "Have the Motherboard installed, power installed and memory. The book says this is a good time to test the bios. I turn it on and nothing happens!"
Me: "Is everything plugged in according to the manuals and book?"
"ummm don't know"
"did you read the manuals"
"Call me back when you did"

Half hour later another phone call "The bios works!"
"Great, now you can configure the bios and install the drives"
"uhh how do you do that?"
"read the manuals and book"

Using this process he has learned how to build the machine. If I were there, he would not have learned as much, as I would be plugging stuff in and he would wander off.

Tonight we should have the OS installed. I contacted motherboard support in search of missing SATA drivers. Just got the correct drivers, and he can install while I take older brother to robot club. I will teach him how to contact customer service next time. Amazing how much data you need for customer support.

Now back to where this fits in with PBL. This would be the third post this month related to that. He came up with the project himself, asked for guidance, I helped him understand what was needed. He did research on the topic, and then we discussed the research, and he refined his search. During the build phase, he used instructions from various sources and manuals and needed to synthesise this information into new knowledge. When he needed help he asked for specific things. His motivation was entirely intrinsic.

If we let the students choose from a range of topics to do a project, does the project become interesting? How do you best modivate students to do PBL projects,and what works best for you?

Building Computers part 1

I remember the good old days, back when I was in Elementary school- we went on a field trip to the bank and saw their computer!!
-by the way almost everyone my age can tell you about field trips, and perhaps seeing big 1960's computers.

And so of course I remember this happening that evening when I got home.

Hey Dad, guess what? We went on a field trip to the bank downtown and saw their computer!
Oh, hmm
It was great! I want to learn more about computers!
When I hear one of our competitors is using a computer to do their calculations, I figure we have them beat, slide rules are much faster.
Oh, so when to Red Sox come on the radio tonight?

- Actually that is longer than any conversation I had with my father at that age.

Computers were huge, took up much space in static free, dust free, air conditioned rooms. The cost of these early computers were well beyond one year salary for most people out there, more expensive than houses. On can imagine how much electricity it took to run. For most businesses, if you wanted to use a computer, you bought time from a University or large business, and communicated using some old modems, punch cards or some typing, but typing took time and time is money. Now that I think of it, the phone company did not like anyone using unauthorized equipment on their lines. What a Mess.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Third FIRST post

Or how Eric discovers working in a group is sometimes not fun.

A committee is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour. ~Elbert Hubbard

When I went to pick up Eric from his robot building session yesterday, he seemed to be upset. Sometimes when he gets upset it is not readily apparent what happened. However I anticipated this from him at anytime, and wondered what took it so long to appear. He has had a run in with “Work by Committee” the death of any Project Based Learning activity, or any activity.

When we set up group activities in the classroom we tend to assign roles to the students, the recorder, the timekeeper, the reporter and so on. In the real world these are jobs that are voted on or occur naturally. I tend to be the person moving the agenda along and trying to get rid of extraneous conversations.

Some of the most frustrating meetings I have ever been in have involved writing a document. There are always grammar people that want to parse each sentence, and argue about punctuation. There are meetings after meetings after meetings. Then eventually I just write the document, send it out and ask for changes to be sent in within 48 hours. The job then gets done.

This is similar to what Eric ran into yesterday. After getting the drive system finished for their robot, he was asked to go over and work with the electronics group, the group that makes it so the robot can move. He was happy to do so, so he went over to their group. The electronic group was discussing, not only about the layout of electronics, but everything else in the world. Eric attempted to focus the group on the task at hand with little or no success. They did cut out a cardboard piece the size of the electronics tray, but not the components. All of this in about 4 hours of work.

He is a person that takes ownership of a project and runs with it, not one to disappear into committee so that if it works they can take credit and if it does not work, it was not their fault. He has helped his brother build his computer by reading and following directions and plugging stuff in. He is like this in most projects. I am the same way, cut out the talk and let’s get to work.

Is this a good thing to do in any group project? When does something move from a group work to “my work”? How do you move in the other direction? I have had students grade each other after finishing a project, and usually someone in the group did nothing, or two of them just sat and chatted while the others did the work. It is difficult for the let’s get moving crowd to work with discussers, but with out discussion, the design may not work.

How do you draw the line in your projects to see things get done?

Friday, January 16, 2009

This Old School

I live in an old house, built sometime in the 1890’s. Old houses have their charm, the workmanship is usually excellent, and the use of wood is wonderful. Sometimes I think that living in a new house would be wonderful. Sometimes I think about a new house, just think: more than one outlet in each room, new windows, better insulation, good heating system, new plumbing and other features.

When living in an older house, you learn how to improvise, nothing is ‘standard’. A 2x4 actually measures 2” X 4” rather than 1.5” x3.5” as modern studs are. In order to work with that is to add a shim to bring the new studs in line. Electrical systems are always difficult, one house of mine had “knob and tube” wiring. Which was great when it was installed, but running a modern house on six circuits and questionable wiring is not the best thing in the world. Sometimes I would like the crew from “This Old House” to show up and help out and re-do the house.

Yesterday I was replacing a bathroom faucet. This is usually a quick half-hour job, so I allotted an hour to finish. Being an older house, the vanity is homebuilt; made of the same wood that panels the walls, a nice tongue in groove pine; being old the wood is fairly thick. I ran into a problem right away, the mounting, which should be tightened just slightly beyond hand tight were on very, very tight, and they were caulked in, this was an easy fix, took my Dremel and cut the nuts off, not going to reuse the faucet anyway. Then another problem cropped up. The connections for the new faucet were about ¼ inch shorter than the previous faucet. There was not enough room underneath the sink to mount it. I had to take a RotoZip saw and cut away an area under the sink for the mounting nuts to reach and make good contact. After that the job was simple, and in 2.5 hours I was done. Things are very rarely by the book in older houses, and the owner needs to improvise and work with what they have.

While I was under the sink, I got to thinking. Working on any house is like schools and school reform. All schools are unique, and finding “the directions” to fix things takes innovation and invention. What works in one community may not fit another community. Are you replacing a faucet or re-wiring the whole house? Some are quick and easy, others are expensive and take lots of planning and work. At times the major renovations seem like they will never be finished, and there are always changes and issues to deal with. Even with the faucet, it takes longer than expected and can be frustrating; using the right tools helps in the project, but knowing how to use the tools is important. Once the changes are done, renovations finished, things look good and work well, but you still need to maintain the house.

What type of educational repairs and renovations do you need to make in your school, or in education in general? Do we need to lift the old house and replace the foundation, or little things to make the house work better.

Where are Norm and Tommy when we need them?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Second FIRST and teams

A few posts ago I wrote about FIRST Robotics. We are now about a month away from the deadline for having the machines finished and shipped out.

Seeing the students work in a real problem-solving environment is interesting. As stated before, none of us know the “real” answer, and there may not be a real answer. My son in on the “JV” team, Team 424 there is also the “varsity” Team 340. Because team 424 is first or second year members the mentors are doing more guiding, but not making the decisions. The brainstorming is interesting to hear. Ideas are listened to and discussed. Ideas from everyone. The ideas are kicked around and modified. All of the students have input, which is greater than the input of the adults. The team is moving along with some pieces being built and others being prototyped and designed in CAD. It is enjoyable to see my son working with others and contributing to the team. This is a great thing for him to be doing. This group is doing a great job of cooperative learning.

Then there is Team 340. This team is made up of the older students and for the most part has younger mentors. The concept of team decision-making is not going on. When I looked in on them yesterday, they were still arguing about concepts and about three different factions were prototyping “their robot”. Each group was sure their idea was best, and wanted to prove it. But even in this process there was little constructive criticism in the group, just criticism. Is this going to end up as a failure? I don’t think so. This is a motivated group, and eventually they will realize they need to get going and work on a robot together, even if it is near the deadline, they will get it done.

What can I draw from these observations and connect them with PBL? How are the groups different, and how does this change the group dynamic?

Both groups have a set deadline, no excuses. If they miss the shipping date, too bad, your robot will not compete.

Both groups have been given goals for each meeting, are the goals reachable for this, yes and no, and the more experienced the group, the more they are able to think through some problems posed by the game and the robot. They have a larger knowledge base than the younger group, and hence more options.

The younger group has more mentors and the mentors are more vocal with opinions, the older group, the mentors are mostly a few years older than the students, with a similar amount of experience.

The older group is made up of a bunch of leaders, the younger group has fewer leaders and more followers.

What can be done? In a week or so, team 340 will see the time is near, and will somehow decide the best method to work. They will do a good job; some will be upset and be a drag on the team.

Do we ever expect this number of leaders on a team? Can this energy be put into various parts of the robot, working in sub-groups? That will have to happen soon. As long as the sub-groups work together.

Right now, it looks dire, but I am looking forward to how they work out their problems and move forward.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Death of a Newspaper

I have been a newspaper reader all of my life. I recall the first time that I read was the Sunday funnies. The family noticed and made a fuss, so I guess I was reading. Over the years I have subscribed to at least one newspaper, usually two. When growing up, we had a morning paper, the Springfield (MA) Republican and an afternoon paper, The Berkshire Eagle. On Sundays we would get the Springfield paper and the NY Post. Getting a chance to read both allowed to get different points of view on many issues. There was a certain satisfaction in my family during Saturday or Sunday lunches, reading the papers sharing sections and discussing what we were reading. I learned more about government and the world around that table than I did during most of the social studies classes I ever took in school. There was a newspaper out on the table all day, we would pick up a section and read things that we skipped the first time though. I learned a whole bunch of useless facts by reading the space filling tidbits below articles, I miss these. When we were young, and traveling to visit relatives, we could tell when we reached the hotel we were staying in, as my father would buy the local newspaper. It is nice to see what is news in various parts of the country, such as hog prices in the mid-west or ocean issues in coastal areas. During my adult life I have lived in areas that have had good newspapers, Boston, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Chicago. These papers were supplemented by the local county or town papers, the Statesville (NC) Record and Landmark, Laurinburg (NC),Exchange, Sanford (NC) Herald, Macomb (IL) Journal, Livingston County News. I always fell as if the world is not quite right if I have not read a morning paper.

In 1982 USA today made its debut. This was the beginning of the end for newspapers. USA today used short articles, color printing, bullet points and graphics to tell their stories. I only felt the desire to read this paper if nothing else was around. Lightweight news and no comics, not what I am looking for in a paper. In the years following, other newspapers tried this upscale tabloid approach, cutting long stories or multi-day reports, adding flash and less substance. This slow decline in newspaper quality has been disappointing, to say the least, there is little intellectual stimulation if the story needs to be told using pictures or question and answer format. Newspaper readers want to read. They want information. I read eating breakfast and after work sitting in a comfortable chair. In my opinion the smell, feel and sound a paper makes are all part of the experience.

We are being told that the newspaper is being driven out of business because people are getting their news from the Internet. I too use RSS feeds to get information, but much of what people read on computers is chosen to be within their comfort zone, some will only get information from sites that have a hard right bias and others their news is only from far left sources. A newspaper is a place where many different viewpoints are given. The editorial pages present many view points, these views are presented side by side. It at least exposes the reader to other ideas. In the echo chamber or TV news, we need to have the depth offered by a newspaper, that is a newspaper that can write to readers who want depth. The newspapers are putting more information on line. I want to sit in a comfortable chair with a paper, or at the table with a paper, not in front of my computer, in a chair similar to what I have been sitting in all day.

Our local paper, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, has been in steady decline for the nine years I have been reading it. When we first moved to the area, it was a decent paper, with good funnies. The reporting was OK, but the standard for mid-sized cities. Over time, the printing has become smaller, I suddenly needed a magnifying glass to read the Sunday Funnies and crossword puzzles. The living section, which had some local stuff was running more articles from other papers, there were fewer investigative pieces, it seemed as if the reporters were more stenographers than actual reporters. The style of writing has become more "Personal" with the mention of some person or family in the area that something like gas prices were effecting. Report the news, I don't care really how a family has cut down on going out to dinner three nights a week to pay for gas. This paper is supposed to be covering the area, yet most of the information found is related to the eastern part of the county (the rich area) The west and south are generally ignored. I know that is where the money is, but we in the hinterlands are interested in other things than the expensive store opening up.

Last month the paper cut the editorial pages from two to one, except for Saturday. Previously local editorials were on the right side and national columnists were to the left. This gave enough room for issues to be discussed. Now with one page, the discussions are shortened. The letters to the editor are fewer, giving less feedback on the writing.

This past Sunday there was a letter from the President and Publisher of the D&C, talking about making changes to enhance our reading experience. There are claims that there will more investigative reporting, will believe that when I see it. But what it boils down to is each section is 6 pages in length. Hardly enough to make sections, just make two sections. The NY Times crossword puzzle is gone, giving us the Newsday puzzle, a drop in quality by several steps. I knew the Times puzzle was on its way out, when the moved it to the classified pages, at that time I spoke to the editor of that section and was assured the Times puzzle would always be there. So with that promise given I have to take the publisher's comments with a grain of salt. All I see is the dumbing down of the paper, not something newspaper readers want, in the hope of getting "others" to read . It won't happen, and folks like me, life long newspaper readers, are left out in the cold, thinking about canceling their subscriptions.

Monday, January 5, 2009

FIRST things FIRST PBL and stuff

We have been talking about project based learning (PBL) in schools for several years. Last time I was in the classroom, about 9 years ago, it was getting to be an old topic. We have heard the words; we want the teacher to be the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”
How far are we in this concept? I see some PBL, but generally the teacher knows the answers and is able to use guiding questions to help the students along. Is this really PBL?

Here is a Google doc with PBL lessons listed. These are all good, and remind me of some of the lessons I did (pre-computer stuff) where the students did actual real-world research, I had a science class specifically for this, and it was fun. Wore me out, but it was worth it. Having “real researchers” work with the students helped motivate and focus the research.

But do we see actual research and development by students in our classrooms?
Project Lead the Way is a good example of some of this, but again I see the teacher knowing the “answer” There is some innovation by the students, and how much depends on the teacher and their abilities.

Maybe I need a good definition of PBL? If any of you can help, that would be great.

I think there is a great program out there that is really and truly PBL. The program is FIRST Robotics. Brought to you from the same people that do the Lego league. This program is in its 18th year, which I found surprising.

My son has become involved in the “Robot Team” in a neighboring school district. His district does not offer this program; my district is pushing to start one. The purpose is not really to make robots, but introduce the students to areas of engineering with mentors who do this stuff for a living. Each year the teams are given a task for the robot to do. Here is the task for this year:

If you do search you could find previous years tasks. The teams have about 6 weeks to build a robot to do the task.
The students and mentors work side-by-side to solve the problems involved in making the robot, yes, the students are to the actual work, but the mentors are there to help with issues and ideas. It is more of a partnership between the adults and students. There is a whole lot of learning that takes place in the six weeks the students have to build.

By the way, if you were involved in this program in the past, they are looking for you in order to get an alumni database started.