Thursday, June 29, 2017

4 Podcast Episodes to Expand Your Mind This Summer

Summer is a chance for educators to think about something different, expand our minds, and explore new ideas.

And if you're anything like me, some your best sparks of inspiration will come from taking in ideas outside of the edtech and education world. These concepts collide with what's already working inside your brain to create something new and beautiful.

Or maybe they'll just make you stop and think for a second.

In honor of exploring outside ideas, here are 4 great non-edtech, non-education podcast episodes you may want to give a listen to this summer. You just never know what you're going to find.

  1. Jason Friedman: Restoring Sanity to the Office (31:32)
    Harvard Business Review Ideacast 

    The HBR Ideacast talks to authors of articles that have been published in the Harvard Business Review. And honestly, some of them can be just a touch dry.

    This is not one of them.

    Jason Friedman is the CEO of Basecamp and also wrote one of my all-time favorite business books, Rework. He's a very straightforward writer, and this interview goes the same way.

    He takes on the insanity of our current office culture, the stupidity of status meetings, and the nuttiness of our excessively collaborative multi-tasking (all of which also applies to school culture) and gives some ideas on taking back your work environment so you can actually get some work done.

    Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will appreciate the simplicity of Jason's approach to creating a more sane culture of work.

  2. Disruptive Leadership (52:28)
    The TED Radio Hour

    The TED Radio Hour, hosted by Guy Raz, pieces together TED Talks that all share a common theme. In this episode, speakers and interviews include (among others) retired general Stanley McChrystal on learning from failure (and he did have one, if you don't remember), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (also of Lean In fame) on cultivating female leaders, and Seth Godin on how ordinary people can find and lead their tribe.

    There's a great variety of perspectives in this episode, and I felt like I learned something from all five segments of the show.

  3. What to Make of Philando Castile's Death, One Year Later (21:59)
    Code Switch

    Code Switch is a team of seven NPR journalists who cover race, ethnicity, and culture, and they do so in a very honest, engaging way.

    This episode explores the landscape after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July 2016. A journalist who has followed the story since it happened and close-friend-turned-activist talk about their perspectives on the tragedy.

    Two takeaways: first, Castile had been pulled over 46 times since he was 19 years old, and only 6 of those were for offenses that could be observed from outside the vehicle (speeding, running a stop sign, etc.).

    Secondly, in the suburban area where Castile was pulled over, 50% of the arrests made are African-American, while African-Americans only make up 7% of the population.

    An eye-opening episode indeed.

  4. Virgin: Richard Branson (34:54)
    How I Built This

    I love stories about how entrepreneurs have built their companies. It reminds me that they were scared, uncertain, and unsure if their idea would work long before they became successful.

    This interview with Richard Branson reveals a very honest portrait of a very interesting guy who went from starting a magazine, which became a record store, which became a record label, to currently mining the possibility of commercial human spaceflight.

    Virgin now has over 250 lines of business worldwide, and Branson couldn't even tell you what all of them are. But he is a serial entrepreneur and a once-in-a-generation type of personality. Really a fascinating listen.
There are 4 episodes to get you started. Let me know what you think, and if you have a "must-listen" episode of your own, post it in the comments below.

Icons made by Madebyoliver from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY
Icons made by DinosoftLabs from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Using GSuite to Teach the Engineering Design Process (Part 3)

Part 1 - Engineering Habits of Mind and the Design Process
Part 2 - How GSuite Supports the Engineering Design Process
Part 3 - A Simple Design Challenge using GSuite (includes example GSuite docs)

A Simple Design Challenge Using GSuite

It's easiest to see how GSuite supports the Engineering Design Process by using an actual design challenge. Let's take the simple act of building and optimizing a paper airplane for the longest flight possible using only the materials provided. You can join my Google Classroom with all the example assignment files here. The class code is ss9zv2w.

Identify the Problem/Brainstorm/Design Selection - Google Docs

Students start by using Docs to clearly define the problem they're attempting to solve. In this challenge, a lot of students will leave out the constraint that they can only use the materials provided to them. It's important to push students to have a clear and detailed problem definition before they start designing.

Then, students work with their groups to brainstorm ideas they'd like to include in their design. As they do this, they're activating their prior knowledge and what they already know about airplane design before moving into research. After exhausting what they already know, students use the "Explore" feature in Docs to drag-and-drop images, websites, and other resources to help inspire their possible designs.

Finally, students work together to decide what aspects of their brainstorming they want to use in their prototype.

Build Prototypes - SketchUp

Prototypes can be built virtually or by hand. In the case of this challenge, it's probably not necessary to spend a lot of time in SketchUp, since paper airplanes can be prototyped pretty quickly. 

However, if you're interested in students doing some 3D modeling work, they can start with 3D Warehouse, which is Sketchup's 3D object repository. A simple search for "paper airplanes" will bring up several 3D models that students can rotate and explore.

If you'd like, groups can then work on their own designs in SketchUp, download the file (.skp), then upload it as an attachment in Google Classroom.

Test and Optimize Design - Google Sheets and Forms

Once plans are made and prototypes are built, it's time to test. Groups will launch their planes multiple times, make modifications between each throw, then track their data in a shared Google Sheet. This particular spreadsheet has a bit of conditional formatting to help them quickly see if their modifications improve their flight distance (or not).

After their first round of test flights, students will answer the questions in a short Google Form about what worked to improve their flight distance. In the Google Classroom I set up for this challenge, I gave all students access to the "Responses" spreadsheet so they can learn from the experiences of the groups around them.

Once they've reflected on their flight data and the Form responses, it's up to you and the time constraints of your classroom as to whether or not students will take another round of test flights to further optimize their airplane design.

Share the Solution - Google Slides

When all the testing is complete and each group is satisfied with their design, it's time to share. Groups will use a shared Slides presentation and add their flight distance data and reflections on their slide. They can capture images of their airplane using the "Insert > Image > Take a Snapshot" tool. 

After each group has their slide completed, it's easy to share their results with the class efficiently so everyone benefits from the experience. 

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, it will always be true that it's not about the tool, it's what you do with it. Using GSuite to support design thinking and the engineering design process encourages students to find multiple ways to solve a problem, test and optimize their designs, then share their results with those around them.

Because no matter what our students go on to do, that's a skill set every one of them will need for the future.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Using GSuite to Teach the Engineering Design Process (Part 2)

Part 1 - Engineering Habits of Mind and the Design Process
Part 2 - How GSuite Supports the Engineering Design Process
Part 3 - A Simple Design Challenge using GSuite  (includes example GSuite docs)

How GSuite Supports the Engineering Design Process

As students confront complex problems, GSuite provides a great toolkit for working through the engineering design process. The animation below shows how Google tools can support each step.

You'll see all of these in action in part 3, so here's a quick overview of each tool and its role.

Google Docs

Docs is the perfect tool for problem identification, solution brainstorming, and design selection.
With the ability to collaborate with other members of their team, the use of the "Explore" feature to find endless ideas to spark creativity, and the comments feature to discuss final design selection, Docs becomes the central hub of the group's planning process.


Okay, so it's not technically a Google tool anymore (Google sold it to Trimble back in's why if you're interested), but I still have a hard time not thinking of SketchUp and Google as being linked. Google used it for about 6 years to model buildings in Google Earth until they found a better way, then sold SketchUp and moved on. 

However, with the recently announced "SketchUp for Schools Beta," schools using GSuite for Education will have access to the web-based version of Sketchup for FREE. So yes, throw the penalty flag on the inclusion of this not-technically-Google tool, but the GSuite integration lets me slide it in here with only a mild prick of conscience. :) 

Sketchup is powerful 3D modeling software that lets student design models and prototypes quickly with a small learning curve. Couple that with a promise of 3D printing ability coming soon, and SketchUp becomes an amazing tool for rapid prototyping during the EDP.

Yes, you can even build dinosaurs with SketchUp

Google Sheets

When students test their design and then work to optimize it, they have to have data. Data tells them whether or not the modifications they've made to their design have improved it or made it worse. It becomes even more powerful they have access to the data set of the entire class, which lets them compare designs and share ideas as they optimize their own work. A shared class spreadsheet is the perfect way to gather everyone's data in one place for comparison and discussion.

Google Forms

Depending on the design and ultimate end user, part of the optimization process is user feedback. With Forms, groups can create quick surveys to get feedback from classmates, teachers, and industry professionals on how they can improve their design.

Google Slides

When all the brainstorming, building, testing, and optimizing is finished, it's time to share. The ability to insert images and video into Slides lets student communicate not only their end result, but also lessons learned throughout the design process. When presentation time comes, it's also pretty handy to have one class presentation that everyone has put their work in instead of countless separate ones.

With that general outline in mind, let's take a look at a simple engineering design challenge and how these Google tools support the process.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Using GSuite to Teach the Engineering Design Process (Part 1)

I recently led a half-day training focused on how to use Google tools to support STEM activities in the classroom. Specifically, we explored the role of GSuite in the engineering design process and STEM design challenges. These posts capture the essence of that training, along with links to examples so you can modify them for use in your classroom.

Part 1 - Engineering Habits of Mind and the Design Process
Part 2 - How GSuite Supports the Engineering Design Process
Part 3 - A Simple Design Challenge using GSuite (includes example GSuite docs)

Engineering Habits of Mind

At the heart of STEM education is the idea that, no matter what content area we teach, we want our students to develop engineering habits of mind. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, those six habits are:
  1. Systems thinking
  2. Adapting
  3. Problem finding
  4. Creative problem solving
  5. Visualizing
  6. Improving
Those particular skills aren't exactly nourished in our current test-crazed, convergent-thinking, multiple-choice school culture. The question, then, is how do we help students exercise these skills in the classroom and what digital tools can we use to support them?

The Engineering Design Process (EDP)

The Engineering Design Process (EDP) provides a framework to help students think through and solve complex problems. As more schools adopt STEM, there are ever more versions of the EDP available, so you can mix-and-match/pick-and-choose which one works best for your purposes. This Google image search for "engineering design process" should be more than enough to get you started. 

No matter what version of the EDP you choose, though, they all have the same basic elements, which align with the engineering habits of mind listed above.
  1. Identifying the problem
  2. Brainstorming solutions
  3. Generating/selecting a design or plan
  4. Building a model or prototype
  5. Testing and evaluating
  6. Optimizing
  7. Sharing
For the purposes of these posts, I'll use this one from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory activity "The Sky and Dichotomous Key."

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Quick and Easy Vector Graphics: Vectr & Flaticon

I have no graphic design ability. Or it's just been dormant for the last 35 years. Anyway, the visual arts have never really been my thing. That's why I always appreciate a good tool that makes it easier to create the basic images I need for blog posts, websites, and social media. I consistently use PicMonkey, BeFunky, and Canva, and I'm always on the lookout for tools that make my lack of design skills just a bit less obvious.

My new favorite is Vectr, which I first read about in this TCEA post. Vectr can be downloaded for Mac, Windows, and Linux, but everything in the desktop version is available in the super-robust web version. That makes it perfect for students and teachers who need to create graphics in a Chromebook district like mine.

What is it?

Vectr is free graphics software you can use to create your own vector graphics. Vector graphics (like SVG files) are different than raster graphics (like BMP files). In short, vector graphics can be sized up or down without sacrificing image quality, while raster graphics lose quality when they're enlarged beyond their original size. This article from the folks at Vectr gives a more thorough explanation.

What can you do with Vectr?

With about 20 minutes of poking around and watching some of the tutorial videos, it's obvious that Vectr is a powerful tool. You can create all sorts of graphics, then download them in multiple file formats (SVG, PNG, JPG). Adjust the dimensions and, since it's a vector graphic, it retains the quality of the original.

Here are three ideas for harnessing the power of Vectr right away.

1. Text with Image Backgrounds

I was super-proud of my ability to quickly create text with an image background (see the uber-fancy "orange" and "green" below). Insert your text, then select "Background Image" on the right hand side. Choose the image you want to use, and it shows through the font as the background. You can adjust and resize it as needed to make your text look just like you want it.

For students who are designing digital portfolios or websites, this kind of ability is great for spicing up their work and adding custom touches.

Inserting the image background

Exported as .png file

2. Build Graphics with SVG Files from Flaticon

If you've never used the wonderful image site Flaticon, it will quickly become your best friend. They have a free, searchable image library where you can download graphics as SVG files or other image formats. If you're using Chrome, after you download a graphic, you can drag-and-drop it straight into the Vectr interface (see animation below). Then you can edit the graphic and add text and additional shapes as you see fit.

Drag-and-Drop from Flaticon to Vectr

In the graphic below, I imported the light bulb SVG file from Flaticon, added my own text, then put a simple rectangle with a radial gradient in the background.

Just make sure you give Flaticon credit for the graphics you're using by including this credit on your site: Icons made by Freepik from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY.

3. Explore Vectr's Templates

Need YouTube channel art? Twitter header? Facebook cover photo? Vectr has built in templates for each of these and more. Navigate down to the lower left-hand corner and click on the "custom page" dropdown (drop-up?) and choose a template. Or you can select your own dimensions to fit whatever you need.

Select templates to work with

Wrap Up

If you're already familiar with vector graphics editors, you'll have no problem using Vectr for quick edit jobs. If you're not familiar (like me), Vectr is full of lessons and tutorials that will have you creating in no time. As I need new graphics for projects, I think Vectr will become one of those tools whose power becomes more and more evident over time. I'm looking forward to going deeper, and I'll share more here as I do. 

Have ideas for cool projects with Vectr? Share them in the comments section.