Tag Archives: 21st Century Skills

Introducing Maker Studio Construction Sets

Maker Studio Construction Sets: Igniting Budding Engineers

Maker Studio Gears Set

We’ve got some great new ThinkFun products and programs arriving this Spring 2015. I’m proud of them and I want to take the opportunity to describe them to you. The first one I’ll describe is our new Maker Studio Construction Sets.

Our Goals Going In

We usually seek out products that build on our mission to ignite minds and give kids an early advantage. In this case, we wanted to do several things.

  1. Stimulate interest in engineering and creativity
  2. Make a product that was open-ended—not just one-and-done building
  3. Add challenges on top of the builds—ask kids to make their contraption actually accomplish a task

For the Maker Studio sets, we teamed up with two awesome inventors, David Yakos and Parker Thomas; both of them are active in the Maker movement. In fact, on our YouTube Channel, we feature David’s “Pitch Video” to us because the vision was so clear and aligned.

What Is Maker Studio?

Each Maker Studio set consists of a set of parts and instructions for how to build machines using discarded household items like food boxes and plastic bottles. The parts are magical—they are a collection of wheels, gears, axles, connectors, rubber band motor and instructions that show players how to build four machines.. Step 1 is to make household items into moving contraptions. But there’s much more to it. You can create many things with the parts in each set by using different containers and different decorations. The real beauty of Maker Studio is the fact that it has challenges to make your project do something. Push an apple across a table. Lift a soup can from the floor. That’s why we all it Open-Ended.

Made by Bella - Maker Studio Gears Set - Cable Car Challenge

Made by Bella – Maker Studio Gears Set – Cable Car Challenge

It Would Have Flopped!

It’s funny… just a few years ago these products would certainly have flopped. How do you explain something that is “open-ended” on a store shelf?

But in a world of YouTube channels and social media, we have a whole new opportunity to present the Maker Studio imagination by showcasing the cool stuff that kids are already making, then inviting our audience to join in themselves and share their own designs and builds.

And to prove our point, we’d like to introduce Bella Yakos and her YouTube Channel, Made By Bella. Bella is the 7yo daughter of one of the inventors. Take a look at some of Bella’s videos, and you’ll see why we think Maker Studio sets are going to set brains on fire!

This is new territory for us, we’re excited! We are seeing great interest from the Maker movement, STEM and STEAM advocates, and Girls in Engineering programs. It’s the beginning of a whole new category of products for us, products that let the players tell the story.

Here’s hoping that it works! I’ll keep you updated along the way.

Arts in Education Week: Celebrate Creativity in the Classroom!

It’s rarely a tough sell to convince parents and teachers that our kids need more exposure to the arts, but the  past several years has seen these valuable programs all but disappear in many schools.   Which makes it all the more encouraging to learn that this past July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 275 establishing this week, September 12-18, 2010, as the first annual Arts in Education Week across the country!

This resolution recognizes the critical connection between the arts, education, imagination, and 21st-century economic success, and declares that, “arts education… is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students.”

Recently, the US fell out of the top 10 in Newsweek’s 100 best countries, and related studies show this decline as particularly significant in the realm of education.  Interestingly, this happens as countries like China and Singapore are gradually moving away from rote learning, fearing that their pupils are not being adequately prepared to tackle new 21st century challenges.   As these systems explore ways to develop critical thinking in the classroom, many feel US schools are reverting toward these traditional “drill-and-kill” model as other counties are backing away.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and fear that the next generation of US thinkers are ill-equipped to compete in the 21st century was arguably the driving force behind this Resolution, which states, “as the Nation works to strengthen its foothold in the 21st century global economy, the arts equip students with a creative, competitive edge.”

Whatever the impetus for this kick-in-the-pants focus on the arts, if it means more creativity, imagination, and problem solving in schools, I’ll take it!

While celebrating “the Arts” is a wonderful message, a week during the school year is a drop in the bucket as far as real, meaningful change is concerned.  Instead, view this week as a kick start to draw attention to arts education in our schools, building momentum for the school year.  This national movement has the potential to produce impactful results at the local level!

Is your school doing enough?  Here are some ways to get involved in your own community!

Celebrate Problem Solvers Everywhere!

As parents and teachers, we have endless opportunities to celebrate our kids’ achievements.  In school, bulletin boards become galleries to showcase budding artists and trophy cases boast athletic and academic victories.  As parents, we cheer our children on at spelling bees, science fairs, on the sidelines at soccer games, and in folding chairs at piano recitals – celebrating the product of much training and hard work.

As important as it is to recognize end results, we need to honor our children for their thinking processes along the way.  Parents and teachers today have a huge job to do – we must equip students to tackle 21st century challenges and prepare them for careers that have yet to be imagined… pretty daunting!  So how do we train our kids to be flexible, creative problem solvers and celebrate success when it comes to process thinking?

Showcase a Problem Solver of the Week!

A problem solver is anyone who sees something that needs to be fixed or improved and figures out a creative new way to do so.  Discuss with your child what it means to be a problem solver, and identify and celebrate creative thinking heroes together!

  • Overflowing stuffed animals in the toy chest?  Figure out a new way to use your space to find room for all your furry friends!
  • 1 pan of brownies and 15 hungry friends? A problem solver can help figure out how to divvy up the treats evenly!
  • Playing chess and realize you’re missing a Queen? A problem solver may invite a plastic dinosaur or spool of thread to take her place!

Encourage your child by celebrating his/her problem solving successes, and expand your hunt for Problem Solvers in your school community, in the news, history, science lessons, the possibilities are endless!

Need some inspiration?

Share the story of William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi who, using just a library book and scrap metal, built a windmill that brought electricity, and with it new hope, to his drought and famine-ravaged village!

A Visit from Uganda!

In 2008, ThinkFun donated several sets of MathDice to the Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH), a US-supported primary school in poverty-stricken rural Eastern Uganda.

We received an update and photos last year from an American volunteer teacher, and this spring we were contacted by Elisa Joseph Anders, a local parent who produced From One Village, a documentary on this remarkable school (video is embedded at the bottom of this post).

We were thrilled to learn from Elisa that AAH Headmaster Thomas Kisolo Kitandwe was planning a visit to the area, and even more excited to learn that he hoped to spend an afternoon at ThinkFun further exploring ways in which games like MathDice could be integrated into the learning experience of his students!

We spent a very productive afternoon listening as Headmaster Thomas shared both his desire to stretch his students’ critical thinking skills through game play and the struggles he faces in a country in which students’ future prospects are dictated by a their performance on a single, incredibly rigorous exam.  The Ugandan schools follow a rote learning model, in which students are to accustomed to having opportunities to explore and play as part of their learning.

However, seeing the flexible mathematical thinking a game like MathDice can foster sparked an idea with Headmaster Thomas, and we spent a long time brainstorming ways in which his teachers could integrate more experiential game-based learning into the curriculum to stretch students and better prepare them to be problem solvers and creative thinkers in the 21st century.

Also as part of his visit, Headmaster Thomas joined us to celebrate the 7th Annual Arlington County MathDice Competition!

We are very excited to continue to support the Arlington Academy of Hope and work with Headmaster Thomas and his staff to find ways to integrate thinking games into the lives of his students!

To learn more, here is the fabulous documentary which details the incredible work being done at this school! Enjoy!

It’s all fun and games… until someone learns something.

Last week I attended the Sandbox Summit, a conference that explores how technology affects the way kids play, learn, and connect.  Fittingly, the Summit was hosted at MIT University with the support of the school’s esteemed Media Lab and the Education Arcade.  An incredibly diverse group of individuals came together to share their expertise, ask questions, play, and learn from one another in panel discussions, research presentations (teddy bear robots!), and hands-on workshops … I’m still buzzing and eager to share these ideas and continue the discussion with you!

One session touched on an issue that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time, and in sharing it here I hope to invite you, a member of our trusted family of educators, to join the conversation and help push this dialogue further.

The issue at hand is simply this… What role can games play in education?

This question emerged as part of a larger panel discussion on the resistance of educators to validate and embrace online games (i.e. Farmville, World of War Craft) as learning opportunities and invite them into schools.  Knowing these are hugely popular with students in their extra-curricular life, the professors on this panel argued that incorporating game elements into the school arena could not only help more students engage, but also would call out and validate the thinking skills honed through game play.

The major roadblock, these panelists explained, is the misguided argument against the curricular value of game play.  With budgets, resources, and instructional time constrained by the pressures of under-funding and state testing, it’s easy to see how these learning opportunities are quickly dismissed as “just PLAYING GAMES.”

At ThinkFun, our mission to bring games into the classroom to help build 21st century thinking and problem solving skills is often met with similar opposition… and when fun and play is stripped out of the curriculum, students are deprived of new ways to engage and stretch their thinking skills through meaningful play experiences.

I want to hear from you!

How can parents and concerned educators promote the curricular value of play?  How can we find creative ways to incorporate games into the classroom?  Have you had success or overcome opposition in using games as teaching tools?  Please share your thoughts and experiences by commenting here!

Attack of the Robot(ic)s!

ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie and his video camera have returned from the FIRST Robotics Tournament!

The energy in this video is just incredible (check out the line dancing!), and it’s clear these young engineers are prepared not only to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, but also to inspire the next generation of problem solvers!   For more on Bill’s experience as a judge, check out his new blog Bill’s Big Picture!!

Don’t Show Me the Money?

A recent large-scale survey funded in part by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic Inc. suggests that teachers “value non-monetary rewards, such as time to collaborate with other teachers and a supportive school leadership, over higher salaries.”

Called “Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s School,” the  purpose of the survey was to keep teachers’ voices in the debate over education reform, said Vicki L. Phillips, director of Gates Foundation’s K-12 education program. “If you’re the heart and soul of this profession, you ought to have some say in it.”

Some interesting highlights:

  • Only 28% of teachers felt performance pay would have a strong impact and 30% felt performance pay would have no impact at all.
  • Most teachers said they feel students in their states are doing OK but believe fewer than 75% will graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and work.
  • Teachers don’t want to see their students judged on the results of one test, and they also want their own performances graded on multiple measures.
  • 71% of teachers said one of the most important goals of schools and teaching was to prepare all students for careers in the 21st century, while only 6% said graduating all students with a high school diploma was one of the most important goals.
  • A majority of teachers would like to see tougher academic standards and have them be the same in every state, despite the extra work common  standards could create for them. Fewer were in favor of having common academic tests in every state, which would presumably be based on the common standards, but more than half said common tests were a good idea.
  • The teachers are not opposed to standardized tests. However, instead of yearly tests, they want to see formative, ongoing assessments in class to help them understand how much their students are learning over time.

Overall, the response from teachers was an encouraging blend of acknowledging the difficulty of implementing true, meaningful reform with a loud and clear commitment to rolling up their sleeves and digging in.  I took away the overall message, “There’s hard work to be done… Bring it ON!”

“They are very, very invested in the subject of reform,” said Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education Mayer. If you ask a teacher what they think, you’re going to hear what they think.”

So what do YOU think? Do the findings surprise you? As a teacher, what do you feel are the keys to job-satisfaction and thriving schools?

Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

The following is an article by ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie, recently published in ThinkFun’s bi-weekly Classroom Connection newsletter.  To receive these mailings, click here

This weekend I am off to volunteer as a judge at the FIRST Robotics New Jersey Regional Tournament, which I do every year. Founded by legendary engineer Dean Kamen, this is a wonderful program that teams high school students with adult professional engineers. Each team has six weeks to build a robot with special skills such as placing soccer balls into hanging baskets, and then we gather for a big weekend tournament and have a blast! The best teams move on to the National Championship.

FIRST calls this program “The varsity sport for the mind.” To be successful, teams must have strong engineering skills and be well organized. Most basically, though, successful teams are those whose members have learned how to be good problem solvers.

So what makes a good problem solver? For these kids, certainly it involves creative imagination. Should your robot have an arm to lift the ball or a leg to kick it into the goal? Do you focus on offense or defense? And once you decided the big directions, how can you tweak your design to ensure best performance?

A Robot on Display at the 2009 FIRST Tournament

As a non-engineer, I’m not qualified to evaluate the engineering choices teams make. Rather, I serve as a “Team Attribute” judge, which means I ask questions like, “What are you doing to make your community a better place?” and “How are you mentoring younger kids to understand your values and aspire to be like you?” The FIRST organization encourages teams to see themselves as leaders and innovators and to aspire to the strong FIRST value system, and the kids’ responses are just amazing.

Both through their creations and in speaking with these young engineers, I get to see what is in these kids’ hearts. With the most dedicated and inspired teams, I see the same problem solving skills at play. The choices are humanist rather than engineering, and they all involve creative imagination and a blend of strategy, planning, collaboration, and execution. At the underlying core of it all, the decisions these kids make all stem from passion and perseverance… Robotics with heart!

I spend a lot my time thinking about problem solving… and if you are reading this, I bet you do also. It’s a very hard thing to define, and thus a hard thing to measure or test. But it’s really important!

Here’s what I believe: Problem solving starts deep in the emotions. It starts with a drive, a desire to get someplace, a belief that you can achieve. From there, you gain experience, by observing, modeling, trying, stretching yourself. Through this you learn confidence and perseverance, and then you’re on your way!

What do you believe makes a true problem solver? Please share your comments and let’s get the dialogue flowing!

The Power of Praise… is “smart” a bad word?

According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.  To a parent looking to help a child reach his/her potential and feel confident, this seems both a natural and a surefire confidence boost.   However, research in the New York public-school system by psychologist Carol Dweck strongly suggests it may be the other way around.  Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

For the past ten years, Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on 400 fifth grade students in a dozen New York schools.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into NY fifth-grade classrooms. Researchers took a child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the student finished, researchers told each his score, then offered a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence and told, “You must be smart at this.” Others were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first.

Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

In my own classroom, inspired by my Responsive Classroom training,  one strategy I found helpful for delivering “better” praise was to post sentence starters and key phrases on the walls, both as personal reminders and to help students talk to one another in specific, respectful ways.  These phrases encouraged both teachers and classmates to use encouraging, descriptive language when speaking to and praising one another, such as “I like the way you…” or “Show me how you…”  Here’s another teacher’s account of how changing the way in which she and her students spoke to one another changed the dynamic of the classroom in noticeable and powerful ways!
What are some strategies you’ve used or come across to help deliver effective, genuine  praise?

Read more on this study in Po Bronson’s article: The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids

We Hold These Truths…

Given the current state of education, it’s easy to understand the frustration teachers feel as they are stretched thin and given increasingly mixed messages.  Forced to “teach to the test” while still focusing on differentiating to meet the needs of individual learners. teachers today often find their jobs precariously tied to student test results and feel their instructional freedom slipping away.

These challenges can stack up and feel overwhelmingly discouraging, which is why a recent conversation in a Teacher Leaders Network discussion group was both timely and uplifting.  Bob Williams, Alaska’s 2009 state teacher of the year, commented “It feels unhealthy for me to become defined only in terms of negatives or things that I am against. I’d like to propose that we list up to three things that we support and are convinced will help improve our schools and our profession. ”

From here, the open question was put out to teachers: “What do we believe in?

I found it incredibly inspirational to read these responses. Some that stood out to me:

“Education should honor and prepare students for their own lives in the world of today and tomorrow—not mimic the past educational experiences of policymakers and other adult stakeholders.”

“The single most important thing a teacher can do is to ignite the fire of intellectual curiosity in children, encouraging them to continually ask, “Why?” “So what?” “Now what?” “What if?””

“Children rise to meet our expectations. Children come to us believing in us, trusting we will teach them and help them grow. We must honor their trust and set the bar high for each and every one of them and ourselves.”

“Genuinely hearing, respecting, and incorporating student voices into schools is the single most important thing we can do to help them learn to be good citizens in a democracy… and to acquire other skills they will need for success in school and throughout life.”

“Learning is best when it’s absorbing and enjoyable, and that kind of learning sticks to brains. Learning is meant to be fun. Small children come to us in kindergarten, excited about learning to read, to draw, to add and subtract, to talk about their communities, to sing, to touch frogs, and to play games. We turn all of that natural enthusiasm and curiosity into “subjects.” Shame on us.”

“Our students need to be creative problem solvers. They need to be active collaborators with their peers. They need to be critical thinkers. They need to be challenged to do their very best, and what they can do will expand as their work is shared with peers, critiqued, refined, and reflected upon.”

“I believe in inspiring children at the earliest stages of their education to explore answers to their questions. As they seek answers, children learn to reflect analytically on the world around them… It is this experience that does not just lead them to answers but ignites a proactive energy and an eagerness to know more.”

As a teacher or parent, what do YOU believe in?  Please share your thoughts!

For excerpts from the original discussion, see the summary blog post by John Norton, co-founder and moderator of the Teacher Leaders Network.