PAEMST – Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching

I received this award a few years back and I encourage others to apply.  It’s a great experience to video yourself, really analyze what you are trying to do, and get feedback from the NSF reviewers. Here’s some info on the award.

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) are the highest honors bestowed by the United States government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science (including computer science) teaching. The 2017-2018 nomination and application period for K-6th grade is currently open.

The awards were established by Congress in 1983. The President may recognize up to 108 exemplary teachers each year. Awards are given to teachers from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense Education Activity schools, or the U.S. territories as a group (American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and U.S. Virgin Islands). PAEMST recognizes those teachers who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning. Since the program’s inception, more than 4,700 teachers have been recognized for their contributions in the classroom and to their profession. Presidential awardees receive a certificate signed by the President; a trip to Washington, D.C. to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities; and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The National Science Foundation administers PAEMST on behalf of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Please consider nominating a talented science or mathematics teacher using the PAEMST website today. If you are interested in applying yourself, you can begin an application at The 2016-2017 nomination deadline is April 1, 2018, and the application deadline is May 1, 2018.

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Can You Teach Motivation?

I have been helping out at my son’s Suburban basketball team, mostly scorekeeping, but I did substitute for a coach one night.  I was working with the “bigs” on close to basket shots feeding them a pass with the kid turning and shooting and then rebounding and shooting again if they missed the first shot.  I noticed that the kids, especially the tallest kids, were not super motivated to jump, rebound, or to get the second shot in.  The two coaches have been noting the same things and discussing it with the team.  After they had a lackluster performance during yesterday’s game – not jumping, not rebounding well, not moving towards passes, etc. – one of the coaches basically told the team yesterday that he can’t coach motivation.

In my owning coaching, especially in baseball, I have definitely thought the same thing.   But I starting thinking about my Heffernan Fly Ball challenge experience.   I have been seeing more and more in my own coaching how what we practice and the drills we make up affect the kids when they come to games.  This is expressed well with a phrase I read in a Cal Ripken baseball coaching book, “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” (Ripken Jr, Ripken, & Lowe, 2007)

I was an assistant coach two years ago on a 4/5/6 Cal Ripken baseball team.  The coaching was very good especially on teaching baseball fundamentals and diagnosing hitting, pitching, fielding issues.  But the team was in a slump.  The team hit a nadir during one game when kids were missing lots of fly balls, making a lot of mistakes, and not hustling.  The lowest point came when the coach’s twins got into a physical altercation on the bench.  However, the other coaches’ attitudes bothered me more than the kids attitude.  The coaches were really yelling out when kids made mistakes and showing their displeasure when it happened – especially with their own kids.  I got to wondering if that was inadvertently increasing the pressure on the kids, which has the side effect of causing more mistakes, which further decreases confidence and causes even more mistakes.  This whole process, I was wondering, results in a hard to correct negative spiral.  I think this especially true in baseball when the spotlight is really on the player fielding, hitting, and pitching.

And was this really all on the kids like the coaches were saying?  I recall one of the coaches saying the same thing as the basketball coach – that they could not teach motivation.  While there is some truth to that and some kids are motivated despite what coaches do, as a teacher, I knew that adults can strongly influence all aspects of teaching and coaching, including social-emotional factors.

I learned from many years of training and performing with my two whippets in the dog sports of agility, obedience, and rally is that proofing can be the hardest part.  My dog Wyatt was great at home but it was much, much harder for him in actual trial setting, especially in the less action oriented sports like obedience.  Dogs can find it difficult to transfer their knowledge and their training to different locations, different equipment, and to busy or distracting environments.  Dogs can also be super sensitive to their handler’s changes.   Increased nerves can translate to the handler being slightly different – even though we are not necessarily aware of it.   What’s this all have to do with the fly ball issue the team was having in baseball?

Well, one of things I really liked about the baseball coaching on this team was that drills were turned into fun games and contests.  I later learned that this a big part of the Cal Ripken coaching philosophy.  I had a chance to lead a practice one day when the head coach was unavailable.  The practice field is opposite an ice cream stand where we would sometimes take the team after practices.  I got the idea to make a team challenge for fly balls that would increase pressure (but in a enjoyable and not a stressful way). The kids got the “proofing” but in a fun way.  Increasing the pressure in a fun way can help kids handle game pressure and also have more fun playing in actual games. As a team, the kids had to get a certain number of points to get various levels of ice cream – 100 points was a small cone, 125 was a small cone with sprinkles, and 150 points was a medium cone, 200 was a medium cone with sprinkles.  I then made a system for getting points.

1 – regular catch

2 – running catch

3 – shoestring catch

4 – diving catch

I added a point for an accurate throw back to me.  I also made a time limit, which was both practical but also a way to subtly increase the challenge to more closely simulate the pressure of a game.

I hit the fly balls to the kids and had them record their own points as a team – hopefully increasing their ownership and excitement in the drill.  Well, it certainly increased the kids’ motivation and they immediately bought into the idea and were encouraging each other.  One of things I noticed right away was that kids were really hustling to get to the ball, which had been a real problem in practices and hence games.   There was a marked decrease in the number of errors and a marked increase in good catches.  Some kids (see discussion of inadvertent side effects) were doing diving catches when they were maybe not actually needed (my own son being the prime example).  However, they were so into it they went for and earned the highest point level and we had a fun time at the ice cream stand.

I thought it went well and I was hoping some of it might transfer.  When the next game rolled around, I reminded the kids before the game of the fly ball challenge, specifically that they could catch and it could be fun and they should show the same hustle they showed during practice.  I was blown away by the huge difference in the fly ball fielding. Kids were running to balls and not making any errors!  I used the same challenge last year when I was a head coach of my own grades 4/5/6 Cal Ripken 40/60 team with similar results.

Getting back to basketball, I wondered about ways these kids could be more motivated, especially the bigs.  I did notice the team was super motivated when the coaches were occasional creating contest drills.  Would more contests help this team be more motivated, jump more, hustle more, etc.?  Well, I did not have much time but I tried to think of way to make our turn and shoot drill into a contest.  Many of the “bigs” were super lackadaisical about getting their rebound shot in.  I said if they missed a certain number of second shots, they had to do a lap.  Meanwhile, I did explain about “game speed” and perfect practice makes perfect.  But I think that talk needs to backed up with drills that expressly show the kids what is meant.  When I added the lap thing, the kids immediate perking up and got exciting but there was an inadvertent side effect of them slowing down and really setting up that second shot, which I did not want.  So as coaches we have to really watch for these inadvertent side effects.

I see this a lot when one part of the drill is the focus but we don’t look at the second part.  One of example of this was a drill we did when one kid shoots and the second rebounds.  In this case, the coach was focused on the shooting part but not the rebounding part and I saw that at rebound kids were walking with the ball and not even dribbling or passing after the rebound.   We certainly don’t want the kids traveling after the rebound but was what we were inadvertently teaching.  We have to always be thinking of what it should look like in a game and how drills should teach game speed and desired game behavior.

I am still trying to think of way to design the drill to make the whole thing fast including the rebound shot, if any.   Maybe have two teams, one on each side of the basket, complete to get the most shots (which might include second or subsequent shots) in a certain amount of time.  Then the kids would be motivated to make the whole process as fast and as accurate as possible.

So I think we as coaches can help teach motivation by how we structure our practices and drills.  However, I still agree that “you can’t teach height.”



Ripken Jr, C., Ripken, B., & Lowe, S. (2007). Coaching Youth Baseball the Ripken Way. Human Kinetics.


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Two Speeds at Once

This photo shows one of the common issues I see with our grade 6 make your own dragster project.  Frequently, kids try to have different wheels on the same car go at two different speeds at the same time.  Not sure if this has to do with causal reasoning or a lack of structural knowledge of gearing or something else.


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Empowering Kids to Create with Technology – STEAM, Maker, & Design

Empowering Kids to Create with Technology – STEAM, Maker, & Design from John Heffernan on Vimeo.

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New versus Old Tech Labs

We recently went back to our old building as a staff to see how far we have come.  Here are photos of our new and old tech labs.  Can you identify the newer lab?


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Going With the Ant Squad

This fall, I  had indoor recess duty (usually a dreaded duty) with a first grade class.  I noticed that many of them busily working on (some might say obsessed with) some ants that had been seen in the classroom.  They had formed an ant squad to handle the problem.  They were drawing plans, looking around the room, and designing paper constructions to handle the ants.

Now, I had a few choices here.  I could tell them not to worry about the ants and assign them some other activity.  I could take the “ants are people too” approach and urge/require them not to interfere with the ants.  I could ignore the kids and let them continue their ant squad unimpeded by adult action.

I decided not to take the usual adult approaches. I decided to really take time to really find out more about the ant squad.    The kids were very excited that I was going to join the ant squad and gave me some assignments. I filled an empty spray bottle with some water and gave it to them as an ant spray (knowing it would not hurt anything). They sprayed the ant locations using the bottle.   I checked out their drawings and plans and made and shared some of my own.

A student came down to the tech lab later in the week and excitedly shared his ant squad plan with me.  (See below.)  I was reminded of this recently when the same boy told me they had changed the ant squad to the white caterpillar squad at outdoor recess.  (Kids have been very afraid of these white caterpillars that some kid are allergic to and adults have warned them about.)  I was happy that I had decided to join,  get a little glimpse of, and become a part of  the kids’ world.

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Careful – Don’t Stack Your LEGO NXT/EV3 Kits Too High!

Kids actually cleaned up the part in about 20 minutes. Will have kids resort kits next year.

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Robotics Day in Aidan’s Classroom

I had the chance to do a robotics day with my son’s fifth grade class thanks to his teacher.  What a smart and well-behaved class! They did some super thinking, programing, troubleshooting, and applied math and they seemed to have fun doing it.

I had not tried to do my whole fifth grade curriculum in one day.  It worked well.  At a certain point, everyone -kids and teachers – were mentally tired so I switched the end up a bit and the kids programmed their robots to do a coordinated line dance together.  Great and fun way to finish up and apply their knowledge!

It was fun to work with these kids I know so well from coaching and just being in our small town together.  The school has one class per grade so they have all grown up together in school and out.


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First Experiences With 3D Printing in an Elementary School


Ultimaker 2+ 3D Printer before it was ever used


I recently purchased an Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer with some of my prize money from winning a Presidential Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Math and Science.  This is now part of the elementary Maker Space I have been creating the last 2 years with seed money from the Williamsburg PTO. Kids can come to the Maker Space on Fridays at recess time if they desire.  Students are instructed that they can come and design, create, or invent something.  This includes coding.  I do tell them it’s not for playing educational apps and games.  Typical choices have included 3D printing, LEGOs, additional LEGO robotics, LittleBit circuits, duct tape creations, taking apart old computers,, claymation,  Scratch, and Scratch, Jr coding.  In this blog post, I am going to focus on some lessons learned and some observations of 3D printing.


Students were fascinated and excited to have a 3D printer from day one.  Most students had at least heard of 3D printing.  After the initial setup, I decided I would start having elementary students use to print out existing designs.  Thingiverse is a web site where users submit their own designs that other people can print out and/or modify.   Thingiverse also has an option (if so designed by the person who submits the design) to configure the design.  For example, students could print a keychain with their initials on it.  I figured it would be best to start with printing existing designs and work our way up to creating our own objects, which I understand, is a bit tricky for elementary students.  I also figured that a major goal should simply be to experience the ability to print out objects.


Student learning TinkerCAD to create her own design.  This student is very creative and a huge LEGO fan.  She has been super motivated to come to Maker Space and pursue her own creative ideas.  

The student above is learning how to create her own object using, which is a web site where original designs can be created.  It includes numerous tutorials.  I was very excited to see the first student created design print out, as was she.  I did tell her that we would be learning together and she accepted that.  I have stressed that point throughout.  It is important that students know that  sometimes designs do not print out successfully and that we are learning 3D printing together.


Epic Fail!  We have not had success to date printing out models of cars or Imperial Destroyers.  When the model detaches from the glass, this happens.  It could be that the PLA plastic we use (no fumes) cools and does not stay attached with larger models.  We may have to raise the glass temperature for these larger models or use some kind of adhesive substance.  Printing a build plate adhesion layer, which is a thin layer of plastic that surrounds the print and can be easily removed later does seem to help but not enough in some cases.  



I told the student that the Dark Side of the Force was at work on his failed Star Wars Imperial Destroyer print.

The basic workflow we have used is that students go to and select a design that is not too complex and that consists of one part.  They download the CAD file that describes the object.  They next “slice” the file using a free application called Cura (also from Ultimaker), which takes the 3D CAD drawing file and creates a printing directions file for the specific 3D printer.  Some students have also learned how to scale the object up or down in Cura.

Students or my parent helper (see below) take the printer file and transfer it to an SD card that can be inserted into the printer.  I just purchased a second SD card so we can have one object printing and copy files to there other SD card at the same time.


Parent helping students create 3D prints.  Two sixth graders babysit this parent’s 2 year old son for an hour during Maker Space.  While this may not directly be considered part of Maker Space, in a broader sense it is, because we are  giving students experiences with things they are good at and are also personally interested in.  

We load up the SD card(s) with files that are ready to print and I then print them during the following week during the day and overnight.


3D printer in action

I wrote up the process directions for older students in 2 versions.  One is simple and does not include customizing designs.

3D Printing Directions Simple (PDF)

The other includes making customized items.

3D Printing Directions Full (PDF)

We have created a Google Document to keep track of the 3D prints.

There have been some interesting things happening with 3D printing and students.  One of these is a constant parade of students, mostly sixth graders, that continually stop in the tech lab to check on the 3D printer and what it is currently printing.  With its open design, it is easy and fascinating to watch the Ultimaker 2+  print.  I find myself doing the same thing.  Gradually, more and more students have become interested in printing an object they choose.  I assume that word gets around when students  show their printed objects to other students.

For whatever reason, many of the students that are constantly coming into the lab to check on the 3D printer have learning disabilities of some type.  Many of them are also very talented with all things mechanical and many (but not all) also are boys.  For whatever reason, these students have been fascinated with 3D printing and I have encouraged their interest.  One boy, in particular, I have made my 3D printing helper and he is mastering the process and becoming quite good at helping other students.  I think that for students who find traditional schoolwork challenging but have other mechanical and hands-on talents, that opportunities to excel in school with  things they are good at is very empowering and positive for them.

The SPED teacher of many of our the “3D printing kids” shared with me that it was hard, at times, to motivate the students during their math class.  We decided to try and use their newly found and intense interest in 3D printing to help with their math motivation.  Two natural mathematical concepts are great to illustrate with 3D printing.  One is scale and the second is x, y, z coordinates.  Students came into the lab and we showed how the printer uses x, y, z coordinates to print.  We also had students scale some sample objects up and down to get at ratio, scale, and multiplication.  This led naturally to measurement as well because Cura shows the dimensions of the current object and you scale by replacing one of the x, y, or z dimension measurements with a new value, which is then scaled proportionally in the other two dimensions.

One thing the our Maker Space has really shown me is the importance of and joy in empowering kids to instantiate their own ideas, have a job they are good at, and pursue their own interests.  More photos follow of students either using 3D printing or showing some of the objects they have made.






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Dissertation Conclusion


Development and gender were not significant factors in determining the EDP or the success of designs in this study with the exception of executive functions such as causal reasoning, which, in particular, showed some evidence of an age related component. Elementary students’ engineering design processes (EDP) were defined instead by build complexity and the overall tools that students brought to the task. These tools were found to be structural knowledge of LEGO and a combination of executive function (casual reasoning, planning ability, and cognitive flexibility) and domain specific process skills (EDP process knowledge, application of design principles of stability, symmetry, and scale, and application of mathematics and science). Note that three of these – structural knowledge, EDP process knowledge, and design principles – were found in the literature review as being utilized by experts. Since these particular factors did not appear to be developmental, this suggests that they could be taught to students explicitly. Additional research is needed to determine more accurately the relative importance of the different factors. See Figure 106 for a diagram of these key factors.









What are the primary implications of these findings? Students with high tools that choose a low complexity build had an idealized EDP without much need to research or evaluation. These students need a more challenging assignment. Students with low tools and a high complexity build may get stuck in research and may need scaffolding in planning, structural knowledge or other process skills. Other educational implications were found primarily on how to effectively scaffold the various process skills. For example, neutral questions or restating knowledge can trigger deep student learning.

Elementary engineering based on LEGO robotics in a K-6 yearly program showed rich affordances to develop student engineering and executive function skills. While not a part of this study, students also develop 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, and creativity. Additionally, students have shown high interest and enthusiasm for these open-ended engineering challenges based on LEGO and programming. My hope is that this study has provided significant characterization, insight, and implications for teaching elementary engineering to help sustain the natural interest and ability of young children to design, build, and program to help overcome the complex problems of today.

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