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Freebee Friday: Tablet Teaching

665-acer-iconia-a500This Tuesday Acer is hosting a one-hour online seminar on making the most of tablets in the classroom. Hosted by members of the faculty at Westlake Christian School, it features Paul Weaver, Technology Director, as well as Michaela Keats, a 10-year teacher. It starts at 3:30, eastern time, on Tuesday. It’s free and you can register at http://bit.ly/1bj3npq

Mimio Goes Common Core

MimioMobile2_ms_0223_flagsTo help teachers cope with the onslaught of Common Core requirements, Mimio has updated its MimioStudio software with a slew of new features to enhance learning and collaboration. In addition to impromptu open response assessments, the software can automatically grade most tests. Plus, the latest version of MimioMobile adds compatibility for recent iPod Touch devices and iPhones as well as Android tablets.

Robots Take Over the School

Mindstorms ev3 cWhat is the one thing that’s more rewarding than teaching kids about mechanics, computers and programming? Actually using the knowledge to make working robots that do their bidding can be sure-fire hit with students and can show teachers a thing or two about physics, creating software and working with technology.

Aimed at fourth-graders and older, LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3 is the company’s third generation robot kit and the company has learned a lot over the years. The $433.95 EV3 set up is the easiest and most educational of all. It comes with everything you need to create anything from building a science curriculum around robots to setting up an afterschool enrichment activity.

It all starts with a huge assortment of plastic gears, rods and wheels. All told, there are 541 mechanical parts and the kit comes in a reusable plastic box that stacks and has trays with indents to help keep parts together. Sooner or later, though, parts will get lost.

The kit can be a little daunting at first because there’s so much to deal with, because the parts can be arranged and snapped together in an almost infinite number of different arrangements. In fact, the more you use the EV3 in the classroom, the more things you (and your students) learn they can do with it.

Ev3lab_cover_webWhile the documentation that comes with the EV3 set is more than adequate to get the process going, No Starch Press’s “Lego Mindstorm’s EV3 Laboratory” book can give you a leg up with detailed instructions on how to make five different robots, comics, additional construction ideas and some extra help in programming them to do specific tasks. There’s even a section with order numbers for getting replacement parts. The printed book costs $35, which includes a .pdf eBook version; the eBook alone is $28.

The center of attention is the EV3’s Intelligent Brick, which contains a small powerful computer that controls the robot. Inside is an up to date 300MHz low-power ARM 9 processor along with 64MB of RAM and 16 MB of Flash memory to store its programs. If that isn’t enough, you can add an SD card with up to 32GB of extra storage space. This should be more than enough for several classes using the same equipment.

It’s powered by six AA batteries or an optional 2,050 milli-amp hour rechargeable battery pack. The Brick has a basic 6 button interface that lets you communicate directly with it. I particularly like the 178- by 128-pixel monochrome display, which can show programming details, what’s connected as well as how much charge remains in the battery pack. It can also display a graph or be programmed to mimic eyes or show a message. The Brick has a single speaker, which can give the robot a voice.

The EV3 system can be controlled with its Linux-based software. There are four input ports for sensors that can accept up to 1,000 samples per second and relay instructions to the kit’s actuators via four output ports; the connectors resemble the RJ-45 jacks used on LAN cables.

Mindstorms ev3 aThe Brick connects with a computer via a USB cable, WiFi or via a Bluetooth wireless connection. Unfortunately, you’ll need a PC or Mac computer to work with EV3’s programming environment. It doesn’t work with a Chromebook, Android or iPad.

That’s just the start because along with all the cables you’ll need, the kit comes with sensors that can detect color, touch or ultrasonic vibrations as well as a solid state gyroscope; there’s also an optional $30 infrared sensor that measures heat. At the receiving end, EV3 comes with three digitally controlled servo motors that have built-in rotational sensors so EV3’s processor always knows what position they’re in.

After giving the Brick its own name, a group of three or four students can turn it into a real (almost) live robot. There’re instructions for creating a wheeled machine that picks up a cube, but this should be nothing more than an introduction to the world of Mindstorms Education EV3. After they’ve mastered the first project, it’s time to let their creativity rule and build something new.

On the downside, there are several rules that you need to adhere to for EV3 to work. For example, motors and sensors have their own ports, which can be confusing. It’s all spelled out in the instruction manual although it might require some page-flipping and a little head scratching to figure it out.

Mindstorms ev3 dOnce everything is put together, it’s time to connect and program the monster. Rather than jumping into programming right away, I suggest using EV3’s useful test mode, which can troubleshoot any problems before they get in the way. This mode lets you run any of the actuators or look at the sensor’s signals so that you know that everything is connected and working.

The Brick comes with five built-in programs and dozens of tutorials already set up. My favorite is the Robot Educator, which is a series of videos that can ease students into the mindset of making robots. It’ll get your class started in less than an hour. All of this provides an easy entry into the details of making and using a robot for everyone from the class geek to its technophobe.

It took me and a 16 year old about three hours of trial and error to finish our first project. Figure on four periods of group work with a teacher or two hovering, ready to answer questions. But, the real fun and educational potential comes from getting the kids to create their own programs and mixing and matching the hardware. Several EV3 controller Bricks can be daisy chained for a whole-class project that uses most of not all of the parts from several kits.

As far as programming goes, there’s no better way to introduce this valuable skill to students. Rather than typing arcane commands, EV3 has a drag and drop interface for creating new programs. Just click on a block of code from the side that brings in a sensor’s data (like the light level) or makes a motor spin (to make a wheel turn) and put it in the middle of the screen. Then, grab another and another until you have the rough outlines of a program. You might need to change the order or swap a few code modules, but the robot’s program emerges in a left-to-right linear fashion.

The magic really starts when it’s time to try it out. If it works, it’s time to celebrate and play with it. If not, it’s back to the drawing board to see what went amiss and rewrite the program or redo the robot so that a sensor or actuator isn’t blocked. All told, it is a great exploration of a class’s ability to collaborate, create and problem-solve.  And, that’s what school should be all about, isn’t it. 


Mindstorms ev3 b
LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3


+ Great way to teach about technology

+ Complete set of mechanical and computer parts

+ Thorough software

+ Storage box

+ Online resources

+ Add-on items


- Kit can be daunting

- Requires computer

Learn in the Cloud

Itslearning Socratice SeminarInstead of requiring a different program for each platform, itslearning does everything in the cloud, so that all you need is a computer that can access the Web. The system does everything from curriculum and classroom management to professional and classroom development. It can even help get parents get involved in the classroom. There’s a free demo so you can try it out before committing to it.


Loud Mouths

Pa25rbt (1)There’s nothing like a megaphone to get student’s attention on a field trip or in the recess yard. Califone has a trio of loud mouths that get the message out but have different ways of connecting. While they look the same, the $165 PA-25RBT megaphone uses a wireless Bluetooth microphone, the $148 PA-25RX has an auxiliary audio jack for a plug-in microphone and the $140 PA-25RX has a permanently attached mike. 

Freebee Friday: Science Made Simple

Discover STEM lessonThe best way to teach science is to make it into a real world situation, such asa cleaning up an oil spill or how much water a tree requires to live. Discovery Education and 3M have teamed up to create a bunch of science lessons, ready for the classroom. Called Science of Everyday Life, the materials are free and quite detailed. There are four lessons online with videos, games and virtual labs.



HR without the Paper

Employee_Portal_1Are the Personnel department’s file cabinets in control of your school? Aspex Solutions’ AppliTrack HR Files can pitch the paper because it is a Web service that can work with just about any computer. The system is built around digital forms for payroll, teacher evaluations and for absences; it’s easy to add your own special forms. The software is being used in 60 school districts and will cost $365 a year for a school with 250 students. 

Meet the New Slates

IPadAir-Diamond(LockScreen)-PRINTJust when you got used to the old iPads, a new generation of Apple’s tablets comes along. It’s been worth the wait because the next-generation iPad takes slates to new heights of mobility. Called iPad Air, it is available in silver or gray and continues with its 9.7-inch screen, although this one has a Retina display that can show 2,048 by 1,538 resolution and respond to 10 individual touch inputs. The iPad Air is powered by an Apple A7 processor, has cameras front and back as well as the one-two communications punch of 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.

 At 1-pound, the Air slate is roughly the same size as the old one, but only 0.3-inches thick and it weighs a pound. Unfortunately, like its earlier pads, the Air model can’t run Flash software and only has one connector. It goes on sale in a few weeks for between $500 (with 16GB) to $800 (with 128GB) and adding a mobile data card adds $130.

Dell venueMeanwhile, Dell has been busy as well with a tablet line-up that covers the gamut of school slates from 7-inch Android devices to 11-inch Windows 8.1 devices. The company now has one of the most complete tablet offerings around. This one-stop shopping for slates can streamline the procurement of tablets for a school while saving money. Here’s what the company has planned for the next several months.

Venue 7 8First up are the Venue 7 and 8. These Android slates use the latest 4.2 software and are built around 7- and 8-inch 1,280 by 800 IPS screens that are touch sensitive, extremely bright and can be seen at a wide assortment of angles. At $149 and $179 (for the 7- and 8-inch versions), they are competitive with similar school tablets and are powered by Intel’s latest low-power Atom processors, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage space.

Venue 8.1By contrast, the company’s Venue 8 Pro is similar although at about 13-ounces, it is a little heavier and thicker The Pro version provides the ability to run Windows 8.1 and use all the software the school already owns. It runs on an Atom processor, comes with 2GB of RAM and has room for 32GB of exams, term papers and math assignments. The tablet starts at $300, including a copy of Office 2013, and has an optional active stylus pen for precise work.

Venue 11Of the three new-age Dell tablets, the Venue II Pro is expected to arrive last, and has been built around Windows 8.1 slate and a 10.8-inch display. Students and teachers can use an optional active stylus as well as their fingers to work with the Venue 11. It weighs 1.5-pounds and runs on either an Atom, Core i3 or i5 processor and can be ordered with a variety of security options. This model goes for $500 and has an optional snap-on keyboard that turns the tablet into the equivalent of an Ultrabook.



SLO, the Fast Way

SLO Admin screenPerformance Matters makes creating and tracking a child’s Student Learning Objectives (SLO) easier with comprehensive monitoring that consolidates all the important data. After Creating the SLO plan and method of scoring, all a teacher has to do is check over the Administration screen, which not only has a place for every student, but shows all test scores as well as whether they are meeting the improvement criteria. At any time, the objectives can be adjusted, but this action leaves an audit trail.

Next-Gen Socrative

Ipad-space-raceIf you liked the first generation of Socrative’s online lessons, you’re really going to love the second generation. After registering, teachers can set up a quiz, ask a quick question, assess the depth of their understanding with three questions or use the Space Race section, which is as much a video game as school test. Students answer the questions and teachers get instant feedback on their progress. The upgrade is free and automatic with classes using the same log in and password details.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.