Make Time for Coding and Problem-Based Learning

Editor's note: We're excited to bring you the first in a series of guest posts from Shane Diller. Read on to learn more about Shane and how he uses electronics in schools.

Hi there, SparkFun Education community! Long-time lurker, first-time poster, and I’m incredibly excited to be a guest blogger for SparkFun. I’m going to do my best to keep things serious but as a disclaimer, there will probably be some bad puns and jokes in here. Blame that on my upbringing by circus clowns (first bad joke example).

I work as the Lead Technologist of the Bryan Innovation Lab at The Steward School in Richmond, VA. There is no typical day, but more than likely it involves either tinkering with new projects, or acting as a mentor to other teachers working on their own projects. A small team and I serve to help other educators integrate modern knowledge into their curriculum. I also teach a 10th grade Design and Innovation course. This course only runs a total of 40 hours over a semester, and I don’t give homework. My time is limited, but one of the class mottos is: Good design follows constraints.

I’d love to spend this series of blog posts discussing all of my cool projects, but instead I’m going to focus on educators who don’t have a full CS course and want to do more than one-off lessons with their students. I’m trying to get you the most bang for your buck and raise the bar for student work. It’s time to stop thinking of coding and making as the end product or engagement tool, and instead, use it as a tool like PowerPoint or Google Classroom.

Now, I know that I’m preaching to the choir when I say we should all integrate more coding, circuit building, making and 3D printing. And for anybody reading this who fist pumped and went, “Heck yeah, down with traditional content," I love you, but let’s be realistic. We all also know that these are buzzwords and the pendulum always swings both ways (sorry fist pumping educator, I still love you).

The students know it as well, especially high school students. Sometimes it can be tough to engage high school students as they look toward college, where APs rule the kingdom, and modern knowledge is the crazy guy running around claiming the earth actually revolves around the Sun. We know it’s useful, but it’s tough for high schoolers to see that without having the same life experiences as us. Educators are really in the business of sales when we try to use concepts that are not AP material. As I’ve practiced more and more Design Thinking and Jobs to be Done and other various tools, I’ve realized that the students are our customers, and each of them will want something different. We can actually map them, just like customers, to the Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation bell curve.

 Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation bell curve

Source: juliekrohner.com

We will always have those that love using code, art and making to learn and demonstrate their knowledge (our early adopters); there are those that run with it because it sounds better than a quiz and doesn’t sound like a lot of work (early majority); and there are those who really struggle with engaging with it unless it appeals directly to their particular passions or interests (late majority). I hate to label anybody as a laggard, but every day is different, and there is always at least one person who is struggling that day in school and would rather just listen to a lecture (me).

I was definitely a laggard. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do well in school; school was actually very easy for me, conceptually. Go to class, receive information, write it down, study it later, take a quiz/test on my memorization of that information. Lectures required focus, but not much actual thought. Synthesis questions always got me. (How dare they ask me to use the information instead of just recite it???)

It was only around college that I realized that school was a lot different than real life. I’m sure many of you can relate. I wanted to build cool things – after all, I was an engineer! It was strange to be an engineer who is supposedly a master builder, and yet I had no idea how to do anything that hadn’t been taught to me previously. I had so many ideas, but no clue how to make them a reality, or where to even start – until I got my first and current job at The Steward School.

Now, I teach Entrepreneurial studies and use coding and making and 3D printing as tools for students to realize their own ideas. Developing prototypes rapidly with an Arduino that may look ugly but can at least demonstrate functionality is a skill that carries over into real life. Students are asked to determine what a customer (this could be a boss, coworker, partner, actual customer) really needs and wants, and to make a plan to test that. It’s that whole Synthesis thing that I wrote off originally, and so do many students today. So my focus is on selling the idea of synthesis. The majority of them won’t go on to be developers or product managers, but they still always need to know how to drive their own projects forward. Even if they forget all coding and making skills, they know how to learn and how to find answers that aren’t in the back of a textbook.

The one thing I hear all the time from teachers is, “If I just had more time, I could ___________.” If you are guilty of this, please donate a nickel to my paypal, I will be able to retire very early. But seriously, you’re right. We’re never given enough time. However, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy and an excuse to either lower the quality of work, or spend just a day hitting the fun parts. So here’s my pitch: I’ll give you the resources to learn and teach coding/circuits/3D printing in less time, if you challenge yourself and students to push the envelope a little bit in terms of quality of work. Otherwise, the students will continue to view these concepts as fun but not very impactful to their lives.

Keep an eye out for my next post where I’ll give you a sample of a project I teach using Arduino as a tool, and I’ll give you access to my Arduino curriculum. It probably isn’t the best, but teachers love resources and assessing other resources against their current resources.

Xzibit assessment meme

Until next time! If you want to see more of my projects instead of curriculum, follow me on twitter: @rellidenahs

Shane Diller is a biomedical engineer turned educator, all around turbo nerd and innovation geek. Shane is the Lead Technologist for the Bryan Innovation Lab at The Steward School in Richmond, VA. His favorite piece of hardware is the classic Arduino Uno due to the low price point and sheer variability. His favorite projects include any that can demonstrate high-level engineering concepts in an artistic and approachable way. He’s passionate about wearables, web development, human-centered design, prosthetics, mentoring and inspiring others, and sticky notes. Oh, and pictures of pugs in costumes.