Spaceship Earth

If you are a 7th grade teacher at Liberty Middle School in West Fargo, North Dakota, you first thoughts are on the integration of active learning strategies that instill in all your students a regard for collaborative problem solving, creativity, and communication.

Seventh graders are on a cusp, evolving from elementary schools which even traditionally are interdisciplinary, that is one teacher providing instruction for the cohort of students, to a high school that will make or break the students attitudes for a career, teachers and parents playing the most important role.

At Liberty Middle, Principal Michelle Weber eagerly and emphatically corrals her troops on a daily basis to teach STEM. Whether a 6th, 7th, or 8th grade teacher in this newly minted school, your mind is on learning the highly engaging learning strategies, mentoring new adopters, or both.

On occasion organizations like the Great Plains STEM Education Center (GPSEC) can provide added value through educator workshops to teachers who are motivated to put in the extra effort it takes to teach STEM. It is particularly rewarding when that educator is in a non-STEM field such as Language Arts, and that the first recipient is the student.

As 12 year olds, students are nearing adulthood: their ability to discern truth and behave maturely is sometimes distracted by playfulness and fun; more reason for 7th Grade instructor Jane Laux who with intuition and genius prompting coding through the development of a computer-based game.

Coding? That is learning to manipulate a computer’s central processing unit to direct will and outcome. Gaming? for relevance, so that the learning is that much more effective.

Introducing 7th graders, who are versed in playing computer games (because it is 2015), to make a game utilizing the Language Arts proved to be a tractable leap for all of the 95 students in four teams over four periods, the added value provided by GPSEC staff John Boucha and the author of this blog entry; for what makes s good game is a compelling story.

Typically, Mrs. Laux’s students are reading, discussing, writing, and sharing, but on this not-so cold sunny February day the students embraced the activity of coding using the open-source, web-based, non-linear Twine tool.

Twine publishes directly to HTML, so works can be posted nearly anywhere. Anything created with it is completely free to use in any way, including for commercial purposes: www.twinery.org.

Jane’s first instruction to her students: develop a sequenced story of their choosing that would span multiple chapters, but of no particular word-length.  With that directive an orientation to the Twine system was in order, students, each of which had an HP laptop retrieved from a cart as they entered the classroom,  opened the web-based version of the system on a Chrome browser, in part due to a caching error that Explorer seemed prone for.

On Twine, a book chapter is referenced as a passage and represented on the screen in a UML-like diagram, akin to the software development process, a feature of the project, after all software development is key to a number of STEM disciplines.

With all of STEM education is a focus on design, a cyclical multi step process that is more systematic than chance and strict experimentation. Moreover collaboration is important, student learn well from each other.

Students, students, please let us have your attention, listen to Mr. DeMuth, we have a lot to get through today, chimes Mrs. Laux.

Each created their first passage, giving it a title as though it is the title of their story, their book, mine: Spaceship Earth.

For a newbie coder, the Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) that drives each of the web pages our eyes engulf is an effective entry point. To start an image embedded at the top of your first page of your story, then a resize using cascading style sheet syntax, and Voilà declares Mrs. Laux, you are a coder – you Language Arts students who had no idea you would be participating in an integrative STEM active of such depth.

Each student’s capacities are different, then more advanced tend to flock together, sometimes rearing subtile competition, while others a quite factitious, particularly the girls, wanting to get it right.

We moved on to setting header types, bolding text, and adding other font styles, then onto creating multiple chapters and interconnecting them with the command structure that Twine includes. Barely was there time to demonstrate variables for scoring and my Spaceship Earth game, and we reinforced that good writing/gaming becomes compelling for the reader/player, and evokes challenge.

The students published their work to a local file and packed up for their next class that day, jane and I encouraging them to be thinking about how their stories could become a game in advance of a two hour working session planned for the next day.

In seems for the majority of students working after school on their works was a long shot, whereas we knew a few were in fact bitten by the bug.

The next day the “advanced” kids were sent over to my classroom, while the more language artsy kids stuck it out with Mrs. Laux; advanced because they suggested earlier that they wanted a challenge, and that each had some Java experience, so we envisioned they would be bored with the HTML coding – turned out otherwise!

With each group of students there are always the one or two who created a reputation for hacking into the school web site, changing a logo, playing a bit of fun havoc, with others aspirational and independent.  Like the Lord of the Fly’s like hierarchies, kids are pigeon-holed but burbling to showcase their talent, but that’s where facilitation becomes important.

We broke into the higher coding assignments where each were prompted by the imagination of the student, “how can I use a clickable image to go to the next chapter?” or  “can I decrease the energy points as I move through chapters?” both of which we addressed in short order.

Each looked on as we live coded via the projector at the front of the class. Occasional was the young girl walking into our boy chamber (although there was one very accomplished female coder with us) asking why their image sizing or navigation was broken, and we’d fix it together pointing out the usual unbalanced delimiter.

The activity levels were intense, the production high, and learning enhanced. We never got to Spaceship Earth game, but the assignment for all 95 students was to complete their Twine stories to the degree that best suited their capacities and to turn those in next week.

Our next project, to teach these Language Arts students Stencyl, extending on their experiences with Scratch.


About

Professor of Physics, Director of Undergraduate Research, STEM Consultant, STEAM Practitioner


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