STEM Invention with SAM Labs

I recently was lent a SAM Labs kit from MTA, so I decided to design a unit for an upcoming STEM class. I normally beta test these with students before I blog, but I couldn’t wait to make these available, and maybe you can give it a go.

The unit is wide open, with a lot of work in having students identifying a problem that needs to be solved or how life can be improved with some kind of IOT device. While this has always been my dream, its probably only for the brave and perhaps a hackathon in a restricted context is wiser.

I have also used Blockly via Workbench, which is starting to complement Makecode nicely. The standard environment for SAM Labs is their proprietary App which is a node-based coding environment.

The unit also uses Agile project management and team problem solving for all those 21st Century soft skills. These are also mapped into both the Digital and Design Technologies syllibi.

The unit can be downloaded as a Onenote or PDF and other goodies are available on the DigTech page.


Explicit Instruction, Problem Solving, The Middle Way and other 21st Century Skills

I have spent the year trying to make inroads into Project-Based Learning and I have decided that it doesn’t fit my needs or context. On top of this, it seems to have dubious efficacy for A-E outcomes and learning by inquiry has a low effect size (0.35). It probably is very good for developing a Growth Mindset and other ‘soft skills’, such as collaboration and social and personal skills, but these are not measured by any standards in any syllabus that I use. So, for next year, I am going to focus on ‘The Middle Way’.

Why Explicit Instruction?

Explicit Instruction is my Pedagogical Framework and common language of instruction. It is important that I maintain this learning culture and support my colleagues by being consistent in my practices.

Hattie’s Effect Size 2016 Update reiterates the significant effect of Direct Instruction and adds collective teacher efficacy as making a big difference.

Why Problem Solving?

Teaching problem solving has a higher effect size than Direct Instruction. In the Technologies learning area, we use the Problem-based learning framework. [Digital Solutions 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus – QCAA]

Why 21st Century Skills

This should be a known factor by now, but some recent articles are:

The New Basics – Foundation for Young Australians

The Commonwealth Bank jobs and skills of the future report.

Australian Curriculum General Capabilities

Read also: Digital Solutions 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus – QCAA

What is the Middle Way

A balance needs to be struck between:

  1. Explicit Instruction and learning by Inquiry
  2. Teacher directed and Student directed
  3. Projects and Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The balance between Explicit Instruction and learning by Inquiry

The majority of research backs the effectiveness of Explicit Instruction; particularly for A-E data. Inquiry-based teaching has an effect size of 0.35 (below 0.4 significance), compared with 0.6 for Direct Instruction.

However, being able to inquire is an important 21st century skill. As part of their place in our contemporary world, students need to be able to define what they need to know and plan a search to find the answer; locate data and information; and select and evaluate the answer. Another important 21st Century behaviour or quality is for students to be self-managing and self-directed.

The Middle Way strikes a balance between the two by modelling and guiding students through the inquiry process. With the gradual release of responsibility, the goal is always to impart these skills so that students can apply them independently.

The balance between Teacher directed and Student directed

It is clear that Teacher led instruction is more effective than purely Student led learning. However, in the Technologies learning area, the problems that we want students to tackle are often complex and don’t benefit from teacher imposed constraints. To account for this, we will head the advice in Digital Solutions 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus – QCAA:

In technologies:

– problem-based learning is an active process of knowledge construction that uses open-ended problems as a stimulus for student learning

– problems that support problem-based learning should challenge and motivate students to engage their interest

– provide opportunities for students to examine the problem from multiple perspectives or disciplines

– provide multiple possible solutions and solution paths

– require students to comprehend and use a breadth and depth of knowledge during problem-solving

– recognise students’ prior knowledge

– recognise students’ stage of cognitive development

– provide opportunities to allow all students to explore innovative open-ended solutions

– relate to the real world

– the learning environment is organised to represent the complex nature of the problems students are required to solve, e.g. the learning area values collaboration using teamwork and brainstorming, as these are strategies used during real-world problem-solving

– the teacher is responsible for scaffolding student learning and cognition during problem- solving as a coach, guide or facilitator to maintain the independence and self-directedness of student learning

– self-directed learning does not mean students are self-taught; instead, teachers balance their participation so that students maintain responsibility for learning, e.g. students make decisions about the knowledge and skills they require to effectively solve a problem, supported by the teacher’s questioning and cueing strategies

– the perception of student self-direction in the learning process is fundamental to problem- based learning.


Central to problem-based learning is the provision or identification of suitably challenging, subject-specific, context-relevant, real-world problems. Student engagement with these problems facilitates student learning of Digital Solutions subject matter. Problems suitable for Digital Solutions:

– are identified as any human need, want or opportunity that requires a new or re-imagined digital solution

– are identified by teachers, clients and/or students in situations related to unit-specific and subject-relevant technologies elements, components, principles and processes

– promote purposeful analytical activities undertaken in response to an identified real-world related problem that requires a digital solution

– are resolved using the problem-solving process.

The balance between Projects and Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The big difference between “Doing Projects” and PBL is the process. Amy Mayer has compared the two:

[What’s the Difference Between “Doing Projects” and Project Based Learning ?Image attribution flickr user josekevo; The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning; © Amy Mayer, @friEdTechnologyThe Original WOW! Academy,]

The main factor that separates the two is rigorous assessment. PBL is excellent for fostering 21st Century and “soft skills”, but these are not ultimately measured and have no standards in syllabus documents. Every year at ABW everyone agrees that they see anecdotal (students are actively engaged in activity) evidence of good learning outcomes; and these are mainly “soft skills”. But when you drill down, the learning is not linked or assessed against any curriculum standards.

The main pillar of PBL is student led inquiry and this has been shown to have a low effect size. In my own attempts at PBL, I ended up scaffolding the process for rigorous assessment so much that it became much closer to Teacher led Explicit Instruction. PBL may be very effective if it is overlayed on a learning culture with a growth mindset, student agency and self-management and students have well developed social and emotional skills.

The middle way strikes a balance between the two and marshals explicit teacher guidance throughout the problem solving cycle, with constant formative assessment, coupled with the gradual release of responsibility for summative assessment. 21st Century and future skills and behaviours are still embedded throughout but they are explicitly modelled and taught. Students need spaced practice and the gradual release of responsibility to formatively master these skills before being released on their own and summatively assessed. Likewise, with the problem solving cycle. Students will need to go through several iterations before they can work independently.

The balance between Explicit Instruction and Blended learning

Blended learning works well when there is a high level of students agency and self-management, coupled with a Growth Mindset. However, if you are not quite there yet, try Not Quite Blended learning.

In the technologies area, there are many online self-paced courses; that even have learning management built in. There are others that have a series of video tutorials to follow and you can easily create a schedule for students to follow. To increase the effectiveness of student learning with these, it is a good idea to leverage both Pair Programming and the Gradual Release of Responsibility within Explicit Instruction. To do this, start off modelling (I do) the process of watching an instructional video or interactive presentation, pausing and reproducing the instructions within the application or development environment. In pair programming, this would be one screen for the instructions and one for the development environment. Then students can follow (We Do) until you are confident that they can keep going independently (You Do). You may need to keep going with this process from lesson to lesson with the below proficiency students, while the above proficiency students may go off ahead; effectively differentiating and personalising learning.

Continue Reading…..


Coding the Parrot Mambo Drone

The Parrot Mambo drone can be coded via the Tynker App (iOS, Android) or via Swift Playground. If you choose Tynker, then you may need to enroll students (at cost) into their stunt pilot course. The Swift Playground, Parrot Education Accessory is free and will lead students through coding the drone rather than dragging and dropping blocks (as with Tynker).

I am currently working with a year 9 class, with an emphasis on developing algorithms, using the problem solving project sequence below.


  • team building
  • team work plan
  • design brief


  • how to fly the drone
  • how to program the drone
  • identify what you need to know and the skills you need to complete the project


  • what is an algorithm
  • what is pseudocode
  • algorithm design


  • code the drone
  • publish a project portfolio


  • evaluate process and production skills



Using drones is a good opportunity to develop student ‘soft skills’ such as collaboration and communication because it forces you to work in a larger space than a normal classroom and with limited resources. I normally work in a computer lab, but needed to move to the library where the class could access the space as well as ipads. Back in the normal classroom, students are able to work on other aspects of their project.

You could extend on this and have students design and build the obstacle course. I started off on this path but realised that I needed a proper makerspace, with art supplies, storage for student projects and project spaces for teams to ‘make a mess’. If you have a makerspace, maybe give my  Drone Game Board Unit Plan a go.

Learning About Life in Medieval Times with CoSpaces and Virtual Reality

I recently worked with a year 8 history class to experiment with CoSpaces. This is an easy to use 3D environment for creating 3D scenes, animations and interactions for Virtual Reality (VR). Have a look at their YouTube Channel for more ideas.

The Plan

I posted something of a learning sequence on Padlet, in the form of a mini project, where students worked their way through a series of questions that would lead them to develop particular objects in their Medieval Town. The kinds of questions I asked were:

  • Will you need a water source?
  • Will you need a Market Square?
  • What were Medieval streets like?
  • What was the biggest and grandest building in a Medieval town?
  • What about houses in Medieval towns?
  • What about people and animals?
  • What was the structure that kept Medieval towns safe?
  • What was Farming in Medieval times like?

The Results

The results were not too bad. For me, this was really just an experiment to see how easy CoSpaces was to use. To this end, I would really encourage you to give it a go as it is probably the easiest 3D environment I know of and students picked it up quickly.

From a learning point of view, students also seemed to pick up on the knowledge associated with the questions that I asked because they straight away recalled it and applied it to their creations.


As with any project that requires the creation of a PRODUCT of learning, there is quite a bit of lead-in time required to learn the skills needed to produce the 3D environment. At the other end, there is also a considerable amount of time needed to manufacture or produce the end product (the VR environment, in this case). This may be too much of an investment in time for the assessment of just one standard. Therefore, I would create a project that required all parts of the inquiry process; where students need to find gather data (primary and/or secondary source), evaluate information sources, apply, analyse and design/create a solution. This is fairly standard fare for Project Based Learning (PBL).

On The Road to Project Based Learning (PBL)

Or Not Quite PBL

“The road” by Rick Turoczy is licensed under CC BY 2.0 ]

I’m hoping that this is a “before” snapshot and later I will be blogging the “after” version; because I’m just not there yet. Many people and organisations, such as BIE, Edutopia,  teachthought,  gettingsmart  and  globaldigitalcitizens,  stress the importance of inquiry and a student-centred approach to PBL. There has also been some work done on the difference between projects and project-based learning and continua to consider for effective PBL.


[Effective PBL Continua by Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.]


In my context, the culture of Teaching and Learning is very traditionally based. Students learn and behave in an environment that is teacher-centred, fixed and synchronous. There is very little collaboration and so students don’t have the interpersonal skills they need for PBL. There is very little personalization or student agency and so students aren’t used to taking responsibility for their learning and don’t have the skills they need to manage their own learning; and so they tend to be passive rather than active learners. Lastly, there has not been an emphasis on 21st century fluencies or capabilities and so students do not possess the information fluencies they need for  inquiry.

I surmise, that because of this prevailing culture, I have not been successful in my attempts to have students collaborate in their learning and exercise voice and choice. Typically, the moment students realize that they are no longer tethered to their chairs in a seating plan, they have a tendency to become giddy and unfocused (I have even witnessed a student doing cartwheels). Then, even though I have provided all the resources and scaffolding they need, they do not engage unless I explicitly or directly teach them as passively as possible; such is their expectation.

Never the less, I intend on moving forward. So far, my PBL looks like this:








Locus of control

Before: At the moment, I initiate the project, but there is some latitude. For example, a project may revolve around developing a website for a client and the client has specific needs that need to be met, so the way students solve the problem will be different. However, students still rely on me to help them manage their projects, with me setting milestones and deadlines. Students are further supported with extensive scaffolding and templates.

After: I think that I need to work my way from setting the theme of the project to allowing students to engage their passions and interests. However, for students to operate successfully at the other end of the spectrum, they need to take responsibility for their learning. Therefore, I will work my way towards giving students more autonomy, in parallel with training them to personalize and manage their learning. The approaches that I could use, with increasing locus of control to students are:

1. Creating a theme or context – students solve a clearly defined problem with a restricted scope. In my teaching area this would be designing and developing a technical solution such as a website or an app.

2. Hack or remix something that already exists – in this situation students could choose something to modify but it may turn out to be too difficult, so I still need to restrict the domain. Students will still have some latitude within these restrictions though. This option works well in my area because students can follow some instructions to build something and then add their own modifications. For example, could learn how to control LEDs with an arduino microprocessor and then create their own wearable T-shirt with flashing logo.

3. Tie project to a competition or challenge – there are many competitions and challenges that are essentially PBL challenges. These often have scope for student choice.

4. Real world client – not only is there a level of choice here but also motivation. When students have a level of accountability to a real person its a whole new ball game.

5. Free play – this is where students can really engage with their passions and interests.

In their book, Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom, Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy encourage teachers to choose a track:

1. Set-Product Track (most restrictive) – produce a set product or thing.

2. Problem Track (medium restrictive) – initiate project by presenting students with a problem or scenario.

3. Open-Ended Track (least restrictive) – the only restrictions here are the learning goals.


Before: I do all the questioning here. My scaffolding mainly consists of design questions. Even when having students identify “other things to consider”, I use questions. My students aren’t delving very deeply into learning through self-directed inquiry.

After: I need to build up my students’ information fluency and inquiry skills. I can do that by embedding the ICT Capability of Investigating with ICT into my project scaffolds or explicitly train students in the process and then encourage them to use these skill to ask questions and develop their solutions. I can also take up the advice from Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy in their book Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom and qft pg 24 and class-wide umbrella questions pg 68


Before: This rarely happens explicitly; often students will collaborate in a spontaneous way but this is not part of the process. The main reason for this is summative assessment, where it is difficult to determine which evidence has been generated by individual students. For this reason, on projects that are team-based, different aspects are nominated as team or individual.

After: A key hurdle seems to be summative assessment. In Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age (2nd Edition) by Suzie Boss & Jane Krauss, it is suggested that a final performance task that requires students to apply what they have learned is one approach that can be taken. However, my projects lead students through an engineering cycle, resulting in a final product. Therefore, I will keep with team and/or individual milestone tasks but may add an ongoing reflective learning task, such as a development log.

The other hurdle is collaboration skills, or the lack of. Again, Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom pg 29 has some good guidance on how to teach these skills.


Before: Again, I scaffold very heavily here and provide the content.

After: Definitely need to build up my students’ information fluency and inquiry skills. I can do that by embedding the ICT Capability of Investigating with ICT into my project scaffolds or explicitly train students in the process and then encourage them to use these skill to ask questions and find their own content links.


Before: Not doing too badly here as students do a fair amount of analysis, evaluation, design and creation. I do use blogs and wikis so that students can share and evaluate each others’ work.

After: This could be made a bit more visible by assessing the level of sharing and evaluating between students.


Before: The majority of my projects do have a real world context and students are forced to seek out a client for some.

After: I need to include a client in all projects and source a real-world mentor for either groups of the whole class.