Lego robotics basics

In my summer of exploring robotics, one of the first ones I was playing with was the Lego EV3 kit.  There are a lot of good videos out that can help with programming the robots and understanding the variety of sensors that are available.  My go to series was from Kevin Briggs ( who has a perfect explanation (with code) to help you with the basics.

The main sensors available are the ultrasonic sensor, gyro-sensor, touch sensors, and the color sensor (this one is tricky because it needs to have “Lego” colors).  The sensors I worked the most with were the ultrasonic and the touch sensors, as I was most curious about makes a self-driving robot that can avoid obstacles.

I had played around with one of these a year before but had a lot of trouble using the sensors that were available.  The biggest thing I noticed from the tutorials is that you need to setup the sensor, and then using a logic statement, you need to make the loop continue or not for autonomy.  Lego has a control setup in the loop structure but I was finding that it would not work appropriately because it was an end loop check rather than a beginning loop check.  For example, it will drive then look for the wall and then drive again, so if it is close to the wall it will crash as opposed to stopping when it gets within a range.  Also it is a lot easier to make the distance check work within the given range with a control statement setup at the start of a loop.

Last year I had students play with the robots to learn how to use them better and the students were unable to make the loops work correctly.  Unfortunately I did not have the time to look at it closer but now I can show them some basic programs that can help with understanding how the robot will move.

Below is an example of a distance sensor in action.  The robot will continue straight unless it is within 10cm of a wall (or object).  The structure is set up that it will check for a distance less than 10cm, if it is within that range, it will reverse and turn left, if it is not, it will drive forward.  This is in a loop so it will go on forever.


The best way to make a robot to be autonomous with the EV3, is to set it up similar to this.  You simply change the sensor (the yellow) and then the condition (the red), and then make it complete the steps in the true (check-mark) and the false (x) in order to make the robot function endlessly.

I find that this robot is perfect for high school students to learn about robotics and procedural learning because it is easy to use for basic movement, and the software comes pre-loaded with tutorials to teach them how to drive the car and learn the functions.  It is also nice because the students can try to build a better robot with the pieces and even the GyroBoy, that has instructions included in the software.  This is also nicer than Arduino for new learners because it does not require any code to write and is a good progression from scratch (and the hour of code).


Here is the touch sensor code:



CS Teachers Conference at UWaterloo

I had the pleasure of attending this 3 day conference where I was able to learn some older and new technologies that are available from the university as well as things that other educators are doing in their classrooms daily.  For me, it was an amazing opportunity to learn because I have been focused on my math teaching for the past 3 years.   There were come key themes that I took away and some questions I have for the next steps.

The first thing that I continuously thought about (as well as something that I heard from others) was the desire from our students on instantaneous feedback.  Students want to know how they did, if they need to improve, and how they need to improve as soon as they complete a task.  Although this may sound like exciting news, it is not always as great because some students do not want to think about how they can improve, but rather want you to tell them how to improve.

One way the University of Waterloo and other websites provide a way for instantaneous feedback in coding is through “tutorials” where students do not have to download the IDE.  Some examples we looked at in the conference were CSCircles, Codingbat, and Websheets (this is a newer one where you create your own code).  All of these provide some information on the program, the elements you will be tested on, and then a space to code the program required.  When students “ran” the code, the sites would compile and run test cases against the solution code.  It would give error messages and give results based on the test cases.  I found the test cases very helpful because it allowed to student to see that you need a number of test cases and need to make sure that you test a lot to find subtle problems.  They do not all track the students progress as they are to complement the student learning rather than be the classroom they are in.

The other concept that a lot of teachers were implementing was the idea of using cloud services to submit files and to promote collaboration on code.  One industry tool that is constantly being used for coding and other services is Git and Github.  This is a neat tool that creates online repositories and then allows you to share the code with anyone you allow (free Github makes all code public).  In order to collaborate together, you need to give special permission to the other users.  In our session we were all able to access the code presented in an easy way as we didn’t have to download the files and then locate the package to open.  The only downside was that you needed an account and some boards block the use of Git and Github.  Once I get the handle on this, I will hope to use it in my own classes so that students are able to work together and learn skills that the workplace already uses.

The last take away was not the newest concept, but was something that I would like to practice in my classes (even math) and that was the idea of Genius Hour.  The one teacher took it a step forward and talked about how they implement aspects of project management into the genius hour sessions.  In order to work through their personal project they are required to complete the basic components involved in project management.  Every session also included a basic exit card that had key ideas, such as what they learned, what they did, where they need help, and what their next steps were.

As always it was great to go to a conference that stretched my thinking and made me reflect on where I could go next with my learning.

Dr. Ross Greene and Collaborative Problem Solving

I meant to blog this shortly after I saw him, but got delayed on writing this piece.  Dr. Greene has two books so far “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School”. This post will focus on the latter of the two books which looks at why behavioural challenging students are failing in our system and how we are failing them.  I am only going to give some of the key takeaways from the talk because I think that reading his book and thinking about changing your own mindset on this area could be beneficial to the students we all teach.

I had the honour of seeing a presentation about a month ago from Dr. Greene.  It was insightful and was amazing to see the different ways that we could work with students to help them solve their problems.  The first part of his talk was something that I have come to realize, but was great to hear again, “Children do well if they can”.  All students want to do well and want to be successful, the students that have behaviour challenges just have other factors in the way and we (as teachers) need to help them out.

The main idea around the book and the talk was about how the students with challenging behaviours are challenging because they lack the skills to not be challenging.  It is a simple idea and thought but is very powerful and is a different lens to look through in the life of a student.  We used to think that it was the parent, or they were unmotivated, or attention seekers, or good manipulators, or even that they were testing limits…but these are wrong.  Some of the comical counterexamples are that if they were good manipulators they would be doing it without us knowing, we all test limits and can’t blame any student for doing the same thing, and that we as adults seek attention all the time to get our way; so why are we getting mad at children for  modelling what they see.  These were all old world ideas and if the strategies we had to fix them worked, we wouldn’t still be having these problems today.

He outlined some of the big ideas of his book which revolved around the skills that behavioural challenging students lacked.  They were executive skills (hindsight, forethought, impulse control), language processing and communication skills, emotional skills, cognitive skills (grey thinking), and social skills.  The amazing part of this discussion was that he did not place any of the blame on the parenting techniques a student was exposed to (something most of us do) and didn’t look at any of the psychiatric diagnoses that we are all expecting from a topic like this.  When he described some of the situations that displayed each one of the skills, it was easy to picture a student that I had taught or currently taught (in my short 3 year experience), which made talk that much more powerful.

I order to help these students he created a document to outline the different problems we see and strategies to help students and teacher collaboratively fix them.  It is all collaborative because in that model there are winners and winners (no losers if everyone agrees on the strategies).  You can find these resources at and they are all free!

The strategy is the ALSUP (Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems).  It’s a simple idea that can have a lot of impact on the lives of the children we teach.  Teachers of the student meet and as soon as one person identifies a problem they see, all the teachers discuss where they may have seen a sign of this.  This process is continued until the sheet is complete.  The key things are that there are no theories here and they need to be specific to what has been seen.  Once this is complete then the teachers decide which problem they will help the student solve and then the meetings with the student take place.

The reason for the meetings with students is because it helps them take ownership of the problem and shows that you have empathy as well.  Its better than an adult imposed suggestion because the student may feel that the concern is not met and they are simply complying to make sure that they are fitting the rules of the class.  The other alternative is to leave it aside and not work through the problem, which only leads to further concerns as the problem grows when left unsolved.  There are some guidelines for the meetings but it can be overwhelming to see all the different parts of this model at once.

I know that it seems like some of the findings he presented are trivial and that it just creates another “job” to do, but I have been in a school where problems were brushed aside or solved from a unilateral perspective and it did not lead to anything but worse behaviour.  I believe in the statement that children do well if they can and are given the opportunity to succeed.  I have seen it in my applied level class this semester that if students are given the chance to be successful and feel the empathy from you, they will work their best to meet the expectations you set.

My question to you is, what do you think about this topic? How do we proactively deal with students who have behavioural concerns and how do we get them to fit back into our system effectively?

Video Games and Teaching

I recently spent the weekend finishing off the game the Last of Us for the Playstation 3.  I had been meaning to play it for a while but the fact is I never had the time.  After getting started I instantly got into the story and couldn’t stop thinking of ways to beat a certain level or even strategies to best use my player’s skills in the game play (I even asked my students for some hints as I was getting stuck).  The one thing that stuck out to me as I finished was “How can we compete at school with the stimulation that these games are providing our students?”

As a computer programming teacher I instantly saw the connections that could be made and how we could spin a lesson out of video game design and storytelling, and then go on to create our own games.  Unfortunately as a math teacher I was (and still am) stuck on the idea of how to get students into a subject that is often deemed one of the worst classes.  I often try to being humour into the course and try to connect what we are doing to real-life and even popular media (singing all about the bass when working on power laws), but I want to further inquire about gamifying my classroom.

I feel that with the amount of students that play games (girls as well as boys), we could all benefit from the power of gamifying classrooms.  Games provide that connection to our imagination and provide us with opportunities to try new things without being punished when failure occurs.  Although I strive to make the learning zone in my classroom a fail-safe zone where students feel comfortable in answering questions even without full certainty, it is not the same feeling as with a game.  Due to the fact the lives can come back and that you will not be judged on intelligence, failing in a game is much safer than failing in real life.  I have tried to make “games” that have helped the students get interested in tackling problems and being successful in their own learning, but it is not the same stimulation that a game provides.

I have often thought about making the MAP4C class into a game of life or the SIMS, because they learn about buying a house, saving money, and planning for their future.  I think the trouble lies in the delivery of content such as statistics (two-variable data sets, weighted averages, percentile ranks, etc.), exponent laws and exponential functions, and algebraic models (linear vs. quadratic vs. exponential graphs).  There are the trickier topics that can demotivate students and I want to further explore how to incorporate these into the ideas that we have for personal finance, trigonometry and geometry.  These are the questions that I have for myself and have for my colleagues who are further interested in making the courses more interactive like a game as that can help our students stay focused in this over-stimulated world.

It goes without saying that we will have to face the challenges of motivating students for a long period of time when they are developing shorter attentions spans.  With games, smartphones, and Netflix we are becoming the most boring and least controlled element in the students lives.  It is a difficult (but interesting) challenge although I am unsure of how we are able to compete or even teach the students content that they do not feel is applicable to their lives.  Reaching the students and getting them to see the application of content in their lives is one of the greatest accomplishments but is also the biggest obstacle.  We need to use the lesson of great video games: get them hooked to the story and the tasks at hand and they will want to continue attempting the work for hours (even days).

Growth Mindset

Yesterday I attended Edcamp London and went into a session about growth mindset.  Not knowing what this would entail, I was wondering if the topic was going to focus on the growth mindset of educators or students.  When I went in I was hoping to get the perspective on how we as educators can help students in their mindset.  I currently feel that my Grade 12 class would benefit from me educating them on persevering in their education as most are off to college in September.  It was my goal to get a better idea of how I could educate my students to have a better mindset in their future education.

Great conversations started from Andrew Kwiecien, Ryan Chisholm, and Jeremie Roselle about the book on mindset from Carol Dweck.  The book covers how we can use our growth mindset when we want.  It looked at the mindset of professionals in education, corporate businesses, and parents and discussed how their own mindsets affect their life.  It is a book I plan to read shortly because it sounds like it will be very effective for helping me inspire my students to take on the challenge of having a growth mindset.

In our conversations we talked about the stigmas and the preconceptions students have about their ability to succeed in a particular subject.  For example, if a student has not been successful in math throughout elementary school, they will come into secondary school with the mindset “I’m not good at math, so I can’t do it”.  I know that I have seen this in England where I taught and this was one of the challenges we regularly talked about but never thought of the solutions on how to overcome this.  In our conversation we also looked at how students take the praise they have been given by parents and teachers and use it to create a “mask” that puts them into a comfort zone in the classroom.  We also talked about how students use this mask to shy away from taking chances and asking questions to help their learning.

One of the solutions we started to develop in the session was the idea of  modelling the growing mindset to our group of students.  This directly linked to a new approach to problem solving I am currently taking.  When we are solving a problem in class I talk about the thought process I am going through so that I model to my students how I want them to approach the problem.  I also want the students to understand that even the teacher has to think about the problem before coming up with the solution, nothing “just happens” for us to answer a question.

The issue we foresaw with that is that these new “masks” may be created from this new praise, which would defeat the purpose we have for praise in the first place.  Although from this point it seemed like a daunting task and one that was a catch-22, we as a group had an interesting thought.  If all of us (or a vast majority of us) in a school came to the agreement to start working on this growth mindset, we may start seeing more success and “I can” attitude in our learners in subjects they didn’t feel they could do before.  The question that sparks from this: How could we get more fixed mindset people in our schools to adopt to the growth mindset mentality?

We, as teachers, will face these challenges when it comes to having students think about their ability before they enter the class.  It is our job to help students “break” the mask they have created and provide them with the opportunities and experiences to gain new comfort levels in situations they usually feel uncomfortable in.  My question to you is: how do you work with students to change their mindset and make them feel confident in all areas of their education?