Category: Teaching Journal

Laser Cut Bowls For Fun and For Good

Each year, we do a fundraiser for local food pantries and homeless shelters. The aim is to raise awareness, and help address hunger in our local area. An integral part of this fundraiser are decorative bowls that are given out as keepsakes of each years events. This year, I was tasked with producing bowls, and needed to splice this task with getting the 6th grade confident in 2D design and laser cutting.

The result is simple laser cut bowls made of concentric layers that are rotated and glued to create the final form. The design process is simple and comes out intricate and quite beautiful.

The designs are done in, an amazing vector illustration tool that runs perfectly in the browser. To get my students into designing quickly. I put together a step by step guide, as well as a walkthrough video that you can use easily to get going. You can see the video and the guide here.

This lesson took two 70 minute periods, one to design and one to assemble. Most of the laser cutting took place outside of classtime in order to keep the project moving forward, but could certainly be done during class time with each bowl taking no more than 10 minutes to cut out. It would be a perfect introduction to the operation of the laser cutter as well.

In the end, these bowls were huge hit. In fact, we were asked to make an additional batch of 15 in a bit of a larger size as gifts for hosts during an Upper School exchange trip. It is certainly one of those rare and wonderful successes in the space this year.

Simple, inexpensive classroom woodworking projects.


I’ve really taken to woodworking this year. I think the ability to transition from high-tech to low-tech in the same space is a powerful experience for my students. Using the lovely mini-week program, I had 7 students for 3 full days of nothing but woodworking. We had a blast, and made lots of amazing things. Today, I want to take the time to show off some of these simple woodworking projects that were big hits, were cheap to do, and reasonably safe to pull off in the classroom.

The Pencil Holder – Introduction to Drill Press

The pencil holder is simple. Start with a 4″x4″ fence post, chop into square 4″x4″x4″ chunks, and let students drive holes to fit pencils. I used an 8′ piece of douglas fir from the big box shop that cost me around 10 bucks. That’ll make 24 pencil holders at a cost of about 40 cents a piece.  I let the students mark out the center points for their holes, and let them at it.

The Tea Candle Holder – Introduction to the Miter / Hand Saw


The tea candle holder was a simple project. Start with a 2×4, cut it down to about a 12″ section, and drive 3 holes for tea candles using a spade bit. We rounded our corners using the belt/disc sander, and one student split the 12″ section into 3 separate pieces. She even finished with contrasting dark danish oil and boiled linseed oil. It turned out amazing!

Simple Cutting Board – Introduction to the Bandsaw


The last simple project was a cutting board. I picked up a 6′ length of 7″x3/4″ poplar board from the big box store, and split them into cutting board blanks that were around 10″ long. The challenge was to sketch out a simple design to give the board some character, cut it on the bandsaw, and put down a coat of mineral oil. This was super simple, and super rewarding.

The Finishes


I wanted the students to experience the challenge and joy of finishing their projects. That meant lots of hand sanding (foam sanding blocks are worth the investment!), and hand rubbed oil finishes. I had a small selection to choose from, a danish oil, boiled linseed oil, tung oil finish and a wipe on poly. This final step in each of the projects too the experience above and beyond and the students had a blast.


Woodworking doesn’t need to start off with complex joinery, or fancy hardwoods. Some of the best projects take just a few cuts, a few holes and a coat of finish. The students had a blast learning about the tools, and were all extremely proud to walk out with all of their projects.

Creating algorithmic designs for fabrication in Beetleblocks

I was recently tasked with creating a quick activity that could be done within a booth at the Philadelphia Science Carnival, something that would take only a few minutes to do so kids could filter in and out of the booth. It was going to be tough to do something great with that sort of timeline, and nearly impossible to stock enough supplies to support the 400+ kids that will come through during the carnival. I decided to tap my favorite ‘free’ supply, adhesive vinyl scraps from the sign shop, creating stickers on our craft plotter.


Now stickers resonate with kids in a way I don’t really understand, so I knew it would be a good draw at an event like this, but I wanted to do something less frivolous than just making worthless stickers with a craft cutting machine. So, I turned to code. We could program a cool design, and cut that out. I dove into Beetleblocks and came up with a really simple bit of code that quickly demonstrated the power of code, and the magic of math.

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The code is fairly simple. First we can have students create a square, realizing that we can use the repeat block to make our lives easier. The result is this simple little chunk of code that produces a square.

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Great! We have a square…but that is a pretty boring shape. Maybe we can make it interesting. Now we can start to think about some math. We know that a square is a 4 sided shape, with 90 degree angles in each corner. If we multiple the amount of sides and the angle of the corners, we get an important number: 360 degrees. What if we wanted an 8 sided shape? What would be the angles of the corners?

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Great! Now we’ve learned something important, and we can really get creative with the initial shape that we draw…but a single shape is boring. Lets now create lots of these shapes, and rotate the origin of the shape a bit each time to make something a bit more interesting.

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Now we’ve got something interesting! But look, we can make another interesting observation in this code. We are drawing 6 shapes within the repeat block here….each time rotating by 60 degrees. 6*60 again gives us that magic number 360! So we can create more shapes, and as long as the product of the degrees of rotation and the number of shapes equals 360 degrees.

Now that we have this code set up, we can let students play around with the numbers.

What happens if we have a 360 sided shape with 1 degree angles?
What happens if we nest yet another repeat block?
Can we use operators to automate the math for us?
Can we write our own functions like drawShape or repeatShape?

There are lots of questions that can drive further exploration. In the end, we might clean up our code using custom blocks, or add some math and variables to automate things for us.

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A quick tip of note; to make the lines easier to see, we can change the display port settings in Beetleblocks. Uncheck the grid and the axis and check off ‘Parallel Projection’ to see directly down on our shapes. You can change the color of the background under the settings ‘gear’ icon, and change the color of the line with the ‘set hue to’ block under colors. You may need to zoom to fit as students start to build bigger shapes with more sides as well.

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Now, the problem with this lesson is turning these thin lines into something that can be cut out into stickers, or on a laser cutter, etc. It is easy to cut these lines, simply exporting the .SVG file out of Beetleblocks. The hard part is giving those line thickness enough to create a defined shape. The easiest way I have found is importing the SVGs into Inkscape, giving the path a fairly thick stroke, and using the Stroke to Path tool.

Ultimately, this simple activity can show a great deal of coding concepts quickly. Loops, operators, variable and functions can all be explored. The connection to geometry is obvious, using degrees in an applied way can help solidify how degrees and periodic functions can be used in action. IMG_5068

I’d love to build on this concept to do things like laser cut jewelry, hand coded letters to create signs, continue to drive algebraic math connections while creating complex machinable 2D designs. With the focus on 3D design and 3D printing, the power of 2D line is sometime forgotten.

Cutting up some wood.

I’ve ventured into the woodworking world this school year. I’ve made the effort to go out and outfit the lab with a simple set of woodworking tools, and provide chances for my students to run power tools and make some wood dust.


I did this with no real project or plan in mind, other than that I knew I wanted to provide more hands-on, mess making madness into my room. In the world of digital fabrication, the lab can become pretty stuck behind screens, but these tools take us back to the roots.


I started working on some personal projects, to break the tools in and hopefully become inspired to get my students behind the driver’s seat. The tools really make for a pretty productive little workflow, were reasonably inexpensive and are generally safe when used properly.

Project number one came for my 8th graders who were wrapping up their final semester with me in the lab in the middle school. I wanted to make something that they could take with them, represent their time in the middle school. Something with the creative openendedness. The results were laser engraved panels, and simple wooden frames.


The images were designed in Canva, a simple little graphic / collage tool. It was simple enough to drop the student into, with a high enough ceiling that the students could make something they’d want to keep. The frames were made out of super inexpensive rough spruce furring strips from the big box store.


Students were given a board long enough to make the frame, and we made the cuts quickly, and safely with the miter saw, clamped to the fence and with stop blocks set up ensuring clean safe cuts. It was easy to set the miter, show the students the cut, and let them jump on. The miter saw is a big, scary tool, but with the material fixed properly, there were no issues.


Sure, the cheap furring strips were warped pretty good. Some of the miters came out a bit nasty. Gluing up wasn’t easy, because we didn’t have 20 framing clamps, and only a few band clamps. However, just taping the corners was fine, in the end the board was going to be firmly fixed to the frame with brad nails, giving it plenty of strength.

The project was a blast, if a bit messy and lots of work. It was ultimately a great experience for myself to introduce the woodworking tools to my students, and for my students to have the opportunity to get behind these tools. I’m looking forward to doing more of this sort of thing, taking a step back from the high tech and doing things the good old fashioned way with my students.


Introducing Design with Vexillology

As I planned to introduce some elements of design to my new 6th grade group, I turned to my personal guide through the world of design, Roman Mars and 99 Percent Invisible. The stories in their podcast are always captivating, and eye opening about all of the tiny designed elements that make up our world. I knew I’d find a good story there to share with my students…however 6th graders don’t have the attention span to listen to a 20 minute podcast…neither do I really some days. So I turned to Roman Mars’ Ted talk on the design of flags. In it, he lays out his hatred of poorly designed local city and municipal flags. He doesn’t just complain though, he offers a solution in the form of a set of flag design rules laid out by the North American Vexillological Association.

These design rules are simple, and clear:

  1. Keep it simple: The flag should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: The flags images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2-3 basic colors: Limit the number of colors to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set. 
  4. No lettering or seals: Never use writing of any kind or an organizations seal.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: Avoiding duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

These simple rules are quick, and easy to introduce to a group of students. In fact they are all described in great detail with examples in ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag‘, a 15 page primer in flag design published by NAVA. This provides a really great framework for a quick and easy design lesson: Design a flag for your school, classroom, neighborhood, etc.

So I did this quick lesson with a group of my 6th graders. I wanted to have them experience the practice of using a design rules to develop a unique flag for either the school, or the city of Philadelphia, which itself is in need of a new flag.


Building from the Ted Talk, I encouraged (but did not require) that students draw the flag on a 1″x1.5″ square cut from a notecard. As noted by Ted Kaye in the Roman Mars Ted talk, that is the size a flag appears when seen from a typical distance. IMG_4355There were lots of ideas, lots of great flags, and a few that failed to listen to many of the design rules, but the gears were turning and the conversations were happening. What is the best symbolism to represent our school? If we threw away our blue and grey colors and had to pick our own colors, what would you choose?

My effort with teaching design is to have my students look at the world in a different way. Roman Mars and I have the same mission in this sense:

“My mission is to get people to engage with the design that they care about so they begin to pay attention to all forms of design. When you decode the world with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over to make our lives better. And that’s essentially the definition of design: making life better and providing joy”
– Roman Mars


The level with which the students connected to this lesson was pretty shocking. I was expected a bit of ‘this is stupid and boring’, but after breaking down what makes a good flag, and what makes a bad flag, we had a blast digging through different flag designs and showing off the best and worst we could find.

This project can easily to be extended in the makerspace classroom, using tools like the vinyl cutter to cut stickers that my students love to put on their computers, or to cut fabric that can be stitched together into a full scale flag.

It was a quick and easy lesson, and surely all of my students will now never look at a flag the same ever again. In fact, they might be critical of all of the terribly designed flags in the world, and perhaps do something about it.

I’ve prepared a slideshow of good flags and bad flags to show to students, or to use to quiz them after reviewing the design rules. See that here. Or, if you like to Kahoot in your classroom, I’ve put together this Kahoot too.


A New School Year & New Challenges

It has been a fast and furious first few months of the new school year. Lots of new things have changed too, namely the move to block scheduling, and my efforts to develop a sound method of project-based assessment.

Firstly, lets talk project highlights.

The 6th grade has come in with an incredible energy level and excitement for working with technology. They have devoured lessons on basic HTML web page coding, creating really wonderful reflection blogs where they collect their thoughts on the work we have been doing. They then took to the laser cutter, designing toy planes in Sketchup. We got to cut out multiple revisions, and finally raised $180 for Maker’s Care and The Make-a-Wish Foundation. I could not be prouder of their efforts to make a difference with this project!


The 8th grade has dove head first into a semester long design thinking challenge. This project is poised to be the capstone project for the 8th grade, where they get to take their skills and apply them to whatever project they choose, so long as we follow our design thinking workflow. The project has been taking a bit to get rolling smoothly, but we are on a good track now. The students struggled with the relatively slow and deliberate preliminary phases of the design thinking workflow, namely empathizing and ideating. Now that we are in the prototype phase, with defined goal, we are rolling. There are lots of problem-solving social media applications being built on BuddyPress, a few apps being built in App Inventor, a handful of robots being built with our Makeblock robot construction set, and even a jetpack. I’m super excited to see how these projects all turn out.


Now, lets talk the trials & tribulations.

The projects that are going on in the 8th grade are awesome. Well thought out, and well intentioned thanks to the design thinking process. However, I have really seen the extent of trouble the students have with self-directed work, and self-instruction. The real challenge of the projects in the 8th grade is that they are on their own to discover resources, learn about tools, and keep the project on task. It seems at times however that that challenge is a bit too great. Students have been quick to give up on challenging components, quick to change their goals to avoid a tricky tool that they’d need to learn. With 14 unique projects going on between all of the 8th grade, it is incredibly difficult to keep motivation high in each group as they face difficulties.

There are lots of things I think I could to do solve some of these issues. Namely, constraining the type of projects more tightly. If the projects are more constrained, either being build and app, or build a robot, it would be easier to ensure there are robust resources for the students, and ensure that I have enough time to keep all groups moving forward.

The biggest trouble I am having this year is with assessment. It sits on my mind nearly all the time. I spent a great deal of time this summer trying to determine the most authentic, useful, and efficient form of assessment and feedback for our entirely project based classroom. I was given the opportunity to grade on a pass/fail basis last year, as it was the first year of the lab and the program. This year however, I have made sure that I am providing more productive feedback to my students.

I decided to stick with something simple this first year of assessing, in the form of rubric based assessment, just as many educators use in PBL. This solution works pretty well. My rubric consists of primarily soft skills, and no focus on content knowledge. I wanted to provide feedback to my students on how well they were pushing themselves through challenges, how well they are collaborating with their peers and how well they are participating with the projects, not whether or not they know what .SVG stands for, or if they know exactly how to use the arch tools in Sketchup. The issue however with the process is ensuring I have collected enough observational data to use as the basis for where they scored for each rubric. I will walk the room, clipboard in hand writing down small notes for each of these soft skills, maybe writing quotes I have over heard, perhaps just plus or minus marks. However, when I sit down to grade, I still feel like I don’t have enough evidence to put a student into one category or another. I’m looking to collect more data moving forward, and have turned to Classdojo as a way to quickly give plus/minus marks for each of the soft skills. I am thinking I’ll have to turn more to the numbers than to anecdote as evidence tools moving forward.

The year is off the a good start though. The lab is a mess, things have been made, things have been broken, and I have watched frustration turn into outbursts of ‘I did it!’. I find myself stressing over assessments, ensuring my students are motivated in their project, keeping kids from the depths of frustration, but I always remember that my kids are doing awesome things in my classroom and having an an awesome time doing it. Perhaps my assessment isn’t perfect authentic, but at least I know the experiences my students are having sure are.

Intentionally Vague Projects (or, Leaving Room To Be Surprised)

Starting this school year with a new lab, in my first year at the helm, I’ve set off to make some easy projects for both my students and myself to get into the swing of things. Our first project this year was using the laser cutter to cut out wooden letters to create name plates. This is an easy to design, easy to cut project that is fairly quick (or so I thought).


While I could have put together a shiny, lego-esque manual of how to design, how to cut and how to assemble their name plates, I opted to offer little more in the way of expectations other than make a nametag. (Other than it had to be designed in Tinkercad and submitted in .SVG format to be laser cut.)


The cutting was a much slower process than I had anticipated. Spending 5-10 minutes with each girl introducing the software and getting the job running, and another 3-5 minutes waiting for the job to finish meant I could get 3-4 done in our 40 minute class time.  In the end, I took the time I was very graciously given to myself while the girls were out on class trips to fast track the remaining few.


The assembly proved to be the most interesting process. The task was to mount the letters to the board. I had given them the example of the one I had made, and sure enough most girls opted to follow my (boring) straight arrangement. However, some girls decided to break the mold. Offsetting the letters, coating the entire surface in wood glue, intentionally gluing pieces in ways that made them look like they had fallen over, etc.


My lack of clear instruction set has confused some of the students (as well as parents), but these name tags serve as a symbol of the girls’ personalities, and their mindset. They got to spend the first few weeks really ‘playing’ in the lab to make these nametags, and I’ve gotten to know the girls, and what they are all individually capable through the process.


The atmosphere for play, experimentation and freedom to make has been established, and well before the scaffolds that will be forming around them as our projects become more technical.


Scratch Day 2013


 I’ve had plenty of students in the past who ask me where they can go to learn about programming. With movements like, kids are starting to get excited about programming. However, programming is not a subject that many teachers have seen. Students are turning to learning on their own, exactly as I did myself when I was younger. Learning things on your own from books, web resources, videos and the like certainly have their merit, but programming isn’t something that is easily approached by elementary school students, even with that wealth of resources being available. Command lines, IDEs, compilers, C++, Java, functions, prototypes, Python, interpreters, PHP, HTML, Perl…there are enough terms to make any adults head spin.

That is where Scratch comes in. Scratch was developed by The Life Long Kindergarten group at MIT’s Media Lab, for the intention of creating somewhere to learn programming concepts simply and easily. They’ve succeeded in this objective, to a fantastic extent. Through a simple drag-and-drop interface, the complications of typing hundreds of likes of ‘code’ in jumbled strict syntax are removed. The result is that students can dive to the root of programming concepts, concepts that 8 year old children can understand, given the technicalities are no longer part of the equation.

What makes Scratch even greater, is their efforts to build a community of students on their website. Here, students are sharing their projects, be it a game, an animated video, or a lessons on Scratch itself. This community organically spawned students teaching one another, sharing ideas and publishing tutorials and guides. To go even further, students began to build ‘companies’, creating a team comprised of skilled programmers, artist and animators, working to create large complex projects. This is the sort of community that has been formed by students, for the students, in an organic fashion that can never be intentionally created.

This community, and the development team at Scratch, schedule an annual ‘Scratch Day’, where local Scratch users and educators come together to teach workshops and celebrate all that is Scratch.

This year, along side of my fellow Free Library Maker Corp’s instructors, we ran one of the workshops for the Philadelphia area Scratch Day, hosted by University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.  Inspired by the Library of course, our workshop centered around Storytelling in Scratch.


Scratch poses the ability to teach through a grand lecture, describing the blocks and their uses, and creating demo projects over a projector…however that is not the way it was made to be learned. As such, our workshop consisted of little to no structure; introduce and demo a couple of example projects that we had made, and let them take these samples and build from there.  

The informal ‘workshop’ style of Scratch Day played out perfectly to this particular ‘zero-structure’ layout. Within minutes, we had everyone in the room rattling away as we made ourselves available to help understand how to use a particular block, or pose challenges to the students who seemed to be running a head. That is all that it took to have a well oiled classroom of students rattling away on projects for the 90 minute sessions.

The results speak for themselves! And with the power of Scratch, I have embedded them here! Taking that power even further, feel free to click a project to visit a project on the Scratch site, and open up the code blocks that power them!

The music in this one really puts it above and beyond!

This project highlights what makes Scratch public sharing ability so awesome. When I last saw this project on Saturday, it looks a great deal different. Now I can see what my students has been up to, the progress he has made and even leave a comment with a few more challenges!

I had a blast with Scratch Day this year, and hope I can be around to help in the coming years. Programming is a subject that is sure to seep into the curriculum of public education in the future years, and Scratch will be one of the tools that will make it possible. Educators take note, Scratch is the ultimate tool to bring programming lessons into your classrooms, be it in telling stories, or teaching mathematics!


Seaperch 2013: The Robo Pirates


Just last weekend, a group of middle school students I was lucky enough to mentor competed in the 2013 Philadelphia Seaperch competition. The event was the culmination of the last 2 months or so of weekly (and sometimes bi-weekly) meetings, a few long busy days and tons of amazing effort from the students. The kids went above and beyond and put together and amazing showing at the competition and I could not be more proud of them! I think we all learned countless lessons throughout the adventure, but the ultimate one is that they need to be ready for next year, and other area robotics events. It really is amazing to see such motivated students participating in their first robotics, and engineering based project in general, and finding a passion for it. I look forward to seeing what the Robo Pirates will pull off in the future, and I look forward to being able to help them get there.