Design Your Own COVID App Student Interviews and Example Presentation

Pioneer Valley Regional School has started a new Computer Science (CS) curriculum called Computer Science Discoveries from  In the first unit, students learned the basics of computers and computer programing studying the key concepts of problem scoping, input, output, processing, and storage.  All seventh graders – who have a yearlong computer science and engineering course – and a subset of eight graders – who have a shorter rotation of computer science – designed a potential app that could help some way with the COVID pandemic.  I was impressed by how each student designed an app that strongly reflected their own concerns and interests.  CS students will move on to learn web site design and app programming.   

Interviews – Middle School – Design Your Own COVID App Project 

Girl 1 – RW 

How did you think of the idea for this app?

Well, it was kind of first came to me because some people just don’t understand what’s going on so the app can help others to understand things better.  

What was it like to do this project? 

It’s really fun.   You get to be creative and think of things differently.  

When you say think of things differently, what do you mean by that?

Like look at different perspectives, like looking into the perspective of people not completely understanding how they should be handling Corona Virus.  

Girl 2 – BM 

How did you think of the idea for this app?

I came up with the idea because it’s something a lot of people are having a problem with.   They don’t have enough stuff to sanitize things because stores limit people to one or two items every single time they come into the store.  

What was it like to do this designing your own app? 

I think it was really fun.  It wasn’t the easiest thing to do but it was fun to think and be open to a bunch of things and possibilities because there weren’t any limitations.

Why did you say it wasn’t the easiest thing?  

It wasn’t the easiest thing because there are just so many factors to think about.  

Girl 3 – LK 

How did you think of the idea for this app?

I just thought it was kind of cool.  Something different other than what the other people.  I made masks with my mom so it’s already something I kind of do.  

What’s your interest in Computer Science?  

I like it.  I like the whole thing.  You don’t have to do one certain thing.  You can make your own thing in Computer Science.  You don’t have to stick to one thing and I like the coding,  

Boy 1 – JG – Social Distance Activity Generator – SDAG

How did you think of the idea for this app?

Well, I know that personally I’ve been feeling stressed and/or bored. This is just a great way for people who feel like me who need keep it moving, get the blood moving, just to take your mind off things.  

What do you think of projects like this – computer science and engineering – that you’ve done?  

I’ve really enjoyed them.  I think it very important because the future is going to have all types of this stuff. In general, I just like this class. All these projects have been really fun. 

Boy 2 – JL- The Germ Finder 

How did you think of the idea for this app?

I was just sitting down and I thought and I thought. And I was thinking about how you could stay clean.  II was thinking about these teachers were saying they take these UV lights across the room to clean the classrooms.  And what if I made an app with a UV light in it?  So, I just started thinking so I thought of this.  

What was it like to do this project? 

I liked it.  It was pretty interesting.  You had to think.  

Boy 3 – BG – Go Xpert – Fitness App 

How did you think of the idea?

I was basically just thinking was would be good in this pandemic.  What would be a relevant topic for it?  The first thing that hit my mind was fitness. My second idea was gaming or something but that wouldn’t help anybody with health in any kind of way. So, I was basically thinking that fitness would be a good choice.  And so, I’m like, “Let’s make my own type of app.”  

What was it like working on this project – this type of project – for you?

It was challenging – not hard.  I’d say it was a good project.  It was fun to make it too.

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Pioneer computer science students design apps that could combat pandemic aspects


Staff WriterPublished: 10/29/2020 4:43:18 PM

NORTHFIELD — Students in Pioneer Valley Regional School’s computer science program have spent the last two months developing apps that could be applied to real-world aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Innovation Center teacher Dr. John Heffernan, a former engineer and computer scientist, said he is impressed by how each student designed an app that reflected their own concerns and interests.

“I wanted students to be empowered to create solutions to a pressing real-world problem,” he said. “That is our end goal ultimately, so why not start now?”

In the new computer science curriculum, called Computer Science Discoveries from, students study key concepts of problem scoping, input, output, processing and storage. Seventh-graders who have a year-long computer science and engineering course, and a subset of eighth-graders who have a shorter rotation of computer science, all developed app concepts.

In the first unit, Heffernan said it was important to clearly communicate the concepts and objective of each app, as well as create an icon and portray the app layout. Students who continue into the second computer science unit will  learn more about website design and app programming.

“We are excited to see our Innovation Center continue to expand, providing students the opportunities to use today’s technology to find solutions to present-day problems,”  Pioneer Principal Kevin Burke said.

Presenting virtually Wednesday, seventh-grader Lauryn Kalinowski explained that her app concept, “Custom Made Masks,” is for all ages and helps those who trust that masks are an effective way to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The idea to create a sales outlet for masks was inspired by the work she has already been doing to combat the pandemic.

“I make masks with my mom a lot at home,” Lauryn explained.

She said the inputs — information a user gives to the computer or app — would include their name, shipping and payment information, and mask fabric choices. The outputs — information provided to the user by the app — would include the cost of the mask and images of the possible mask designs.

Fellow seventh-grader Bryanna May’s app “The Refiller” is meant for all audiences, and informs the user of retail locations with sanitization products in stock. Going to stores that may not have items can increase a person’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 or other viruses.

“The Refiller app is designed to solve this problem by informing you when a product that you need is in stock so you get in and out of the store without as much exposure or risk,” Bryanna said.

Users would input a list of needed supplies, connect to their phone’s GPS and add their mode of transportation, whether it be a personal vehicle or public bus. The Refiller app would then tell them stores stocked with these supplies, compare prices and list closest locations and transportation options.

Eighth-grader Sarah LaRocque said she enjoyed “feeling involved in real-world” solutions by working on her project. Sarah, who plays soccer, basketball and softball, said it felt discouraging to be unable to play sports during the pandemic, and noted that physical activity is linked to mental health. So, she created “Move With Your Mood,” an app that targets people of all ages who may be struggling to maintain a positive mindset or motivate themselves to be active.

Move With Your Mood has users input their age, current emotional state, location and access to exercise equipment. Processing this information, the app will suggest activities based on the inputs.

“If you were feeling depressed, you might not have the motivation or you wouldn’t be in the correct mindset to go on a run,” Sarah said, “but you might do yoga or meditate.”

Eighth-graders Rachel Wood and Jerad Goulston both designed apps that would use a quiz to collect users’ input information. Jerad’s “Social Distant Activity Generator,” or SDAG, is designed to help eliminate stress by providing enjoyable and safe, socially distanced activities. All activities are suggested at the start of the quiz and as users input their answers, the suggestions are narrowed down to a few activities. Suggestions may include fishing, having a picnic or going for a hike.

Rachel’s “Coronavirus Prevention App” asks users questions related to COVID-19 health safety, such as “How many days should you quarantine if you go out of town?” or “How much distance should you keep between yourself and others?” If a user answers incorrectly, the app provides the correct answer to further the user’s knowledge of COVID-19 safety.

In addition to the computer science project to create an app, high school robotics students used the LEGO Education EV3 robot and EV3 motor sensors for their own COVID-19-related projects. Heffernan explained some of the robotics are meant to mimic a wearable device that can act as a warning system when people come within safe social distancing limits.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-930-4579.

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10 Tips For Making K-12 Remote Learning More Engaging

Due to COVID-19, K12 teachers have been thrust into the role of distance learning teachers without much training or guidance into the unique challenges and rewards of teaching online (versus face-to-face). Also, teachers are using Google Classroom, which not really a full Learning Management System (LMS), which presents some distinct challenges.

In this post, I will share some ways to make distance learning more engaging for students. In addition to 23 years teaching, 3rd grade classroom, elementary tech, and middle and high school engineering, and 5 years as a an ed tech consultant, I have also been a part-time lecturer for many years at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach Teacher Engineering Education Program (TEEP) and I have converted face to face classes to online classes for the Collaborative for Educational Services and PBS Teacherline. I picked up many of tips directly from these organizations as well as my own experience. I hope you find them useful!

  1. Supplement asynchronous with synchronous options. I would say for grade 5 and up, scheduled, asynchronous distance – where students access material when they want to – within a specific schedule – works best. The scheduled part differs from totally self-paced material, which does not lend itself to class interaction and can be isolating. While this post will focus on scheduled, asynchronous learning, synchronous options can be used as a supplement to get some “face to face” time. In a recent middle school Make Your Own Instrument I designed and ran with a music teacher colleague, we had a synchronous kick off meeting using Google Meet Hangouts. We also had daily office hour time, where we keep a Google Meet open for specific one to one help. Finally, for the culminating synchronous activity, students played Hot Cross Buns on their homemade instruments for the rest of the class. We also had a special guest from another part of the county join us who made and played a “slide potato”.
  2. Use lots (but not too much) of multimedia. It’s important to remember that lots of students have reading issues. It’s also challenging to face large amounts of text on a screen. Many students, as my own very social 13 year tells me, lose a lot of motivation for repetitive or long assignments sitting in front of a computer or other device, which has many interesting games or tabs, etc. So the more simulations, games, interactivity, videos, images, audio, the better. Of course, this needs thought. You don’t want a long, boring “talking head” video either. Podcasts are often a good option.
  3. Use regular, narrated slide shows “podcasts” with personal connections to yourself and students. Depending on the length of unit (semester or week-long), we produce either weekly or daily podcasts respectively. These are probably not strictly podcasts but podcasts in more general sense of regularly scheduled content available asynchronously online. [Strictly speaking, podcasts are typically defined as audio content available via a subscription service.] For the semester long TEEP courses, I use Apple Keynote to create my slides. I include lots of images and photos. Typically, I share a few things about my week and then do a mini-lesson, if needed, on the week’s content. Then I go over last week’s submitted work, going any points that seem to be confusing. I also summarize common themes in the content response assignment. I also drop in photos of learner’s work and may even say something about each photo (or video) or learner work. I end with a review of the week’s assignments. Note how it’s important to make an extra effort to try to connect with learners in multiple and different ways since it is asynchronous and you don’t have that regular, face to face contact. Here’s an example of a daily student podcast from the music unit. Note since this was daily, I did not have sufficient turn-around time to show and summarize student work.

Here’s a slide from a TEEP podcast, where I would show and talk about each students’ work (no audio in the example below but there was in the podcast).

  1. Respond quickly. Since there is not quick and frequent face to face social interactions online, responding to students quickly is important. I would include grading, answering email as the main ways. I have a TA monitor the learner discussions in TEEP classes and also answer first level tech questions quickly.
  2. Testing as a student. It is very handy to test your material as a student sees it. I asked our tech department to create a special student account for this purpose. We do the same thing in Canvas at Tufts. [Canvas is the full featured LMS we use at Tufts. ]
  3. Consistent, regular, format with clear expectations. All learners will benefit from consistent formats and clear expectations but be prepared to be bombarded with questions from middle school and younger students if you do not! Post a grading rubric so students are clear on how they are graded. Use Google Classroom assignments for all assignments. [Don’t have students post assignments in the stream.] Send comments and grade with the assignment tools. Also, note the grade tab to see results for class. Here’s a snapshot of how our Make Your Own Musical Instrument module is organized. Note that we have clear weekly topics and clear daily assignments. The general pattern each day was Podcast, Assignments, Comments Assignment.

At TEEP, our regular format is: podcast, reading or video content, reflection on content with learner comments, and hands on assignment with learner comments.

For assignments in Google Classroom, I always provide a Google Doc – Choose Make a Copy for Each Student so that each student gets a structured document with embedded directions. That way, they don’t have to flip between multiple tabs to see what they have to do. Note that I always fill in the due date so the student will know and be notified about upcoming deadlines. Also, the turn in directions are right there and are standardized but we keep a copy in a shared teacher google doc.

  1. Use learner to learner peer commenting. This article from Alice Keeler has a great technique for how to do peer commenting in Google Classroom. It’s not obvious (again, GC is not a full LMS, which would have this built in). We did find a few caveats. Doing middle school classes of 60 students, only 20 student works can be attached to an assignment so we just broke them up by last name. Last name is how you can select subsets of students to assign things to. Google Classroom does not have the concept of subgroup unfortunately. See the Friday comment assignments above. Also, some students were very anxious to do their commenting assignment right away. However, in this method, the teachers has to add the student google docs manually so it takes a while. Next time, I would make the commenting assignment the next day to give me a chance to load the student work. This method has students insert comments directly into the other students’ work, which promotes more specific, detailed, and meaningful comments. In contrast, in my view, having students post and comment on the stream encourages less detailed, summary comments, plus can be a confusing long, “stream” of comments and content.

Here’s an example of what it can look like.

  1. Use discussion questions. Many online courses, such as the ones I worked on for PBS Teacherline, had weekly discussion questions. The trick here is to come up with one deep question that uses higher level’s of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Avoid long lists of questions (question banks and low level factual questions). You want to have a question that will have many differing responses and reactions. Note that Google Classroom has a specific option for Discussion questions – + Create Question. There’s an option so that students can reply to each other.
  2. Use remote hands on activities. Don’t keep students sitting at the computer. Try to think of hands on activities they can do. This can be challenging since you can’t easily send home common materials that everyone will have. But this is precisely what we did with the Make Your Own Instrument module and we discovered everyone had something that could be used. For example, homes all had three glasses that could be filled with different amounts of water. Some students did much more!
  1. Keep everything short and sweet but not too short. Enough said!

Good luck and happy remote teaching! Hopefully, we will be back face to face soon!

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Optimal Engineering Constraints In Open-ended Learning Experiences

I became interested in the determination of optimal engineering constraints in open-ended learning experiences when adapting a spaghetti bridge project, that I had previously taught online to elementary teachers,  to middle and high school engineering students.

When I initially did not constrain the amount of pasta and glue, most students created very strong structures with large amounts of glue providing much of the structural support.  This was especially true of middle school students and not as much for high school students, with one exception. When I previously taught this project to teachers, teachers also build traditional bridges with spaghetti trusses and used glue only to connect the beams.  Let’s call this the minimal constraints case. See below for some middle school examples.

After I noticed that the bridges were basically indestructible and mostly made of glue, I decided to try and further constrain the problem to see if the results would be more in line with real bridges. When I constrained to 40 linguine and 2 glue sticks (and the addition of a rubric that included aesthetics and other considerations), the results were much more aesthetically pleasing and in line with actual bridges.  Let’s call this the fixed constraints case. See below for minimally constrained (top) and fixed constraint bridge (bottom) from the same middle school team. 

My next thought was to change from fixed constraints to a fixed cost where students could choose/buy materials based on what they had designed – so each piece of pasta has a value as well as each glue stick with the bridge required to support a certain amount of weight at the lowest cost.  This makes the problem even more realistic in terms of providing cost based engineering constraints. High school students built a second spaghetti bridges under this fixed cost, variable materials case. Students built realistic bridges and furthermore were more “spare” than the fixed constraints  middle school bridges, reflecting consideration of the cost constraint. See below for minimally constrained and fixed cost, variable materials bridges made by a high school student.

Here’s another example of a minimally constrained (bottom)  and fixed cost, variable materials (top) bridges made by the same high school student.  

Taking the fixed constraints case (but would also apply to fixed cost, variable materials case), we could theorize that as the constraints are made tighter, there would be a frustration point and the project would be too hard.  Likewise, if the constraints were too lax, it would turn into the minimal constraints case. So I got to thinking about whether there was some optimal constraint that exists for engineering problems given to students. This is reminiscent of the notion of trade-offs in engineering.  

I did a literature search of academic papers but could not find any previous research on this topic.  I also consulted with two leading academics in the field, who reported they were unaware of any research on this topic.  It would be interesting to try and set up some experiments to find the optimal constraints for different age students for this project.  The research questions might be:

  • What is the optimal constraints value in the fixed case that is not too strict (frustration) and not too lax (not realistic)?
  • Should this differ for different students or teams to differentiate the project?
  • At what age, should the most realistic fixed cost, variable materials case be used?
  • What learning does or does not take place in each case and how does it differ?

I did capture some artifacts in my first go around on the project.  The first was a question to high school students in their project documentation.  Three students did not answer the question. Students reported that the more constrained bridge was harder to design and construct.  

Question:  compare and contrast the minimally constrained and fixed cost bridges both  in terms of your engineering design process and the final result.  

Student 1 (HC)

The minimal constraints bridge I paid little attention to the amount of materials I was using. I just used as much as I wanted until I thought it was as sturdy I could make it in the time given for construction. I used the glue very liberally to make the connections as strong as possible. For the constrained bridge, I more thoroughly planned out my design for it to be as strong as possible using the least materials. Also I only used as much glue as I needed as to not run out of glue and have to buy another. 

Student 2 (LK)

Between my two bridges the first one was stronger and could support more. This is because we could use as many resources as we wanted and the second bridge we had a limited amount of resources so it was harder because we had to be cost efficient. 

Student 3 (ML)

Both followed a similar rectangle design. But, the unconstrained one used too much glue. The unconstrained one would easily succeed.

In summary, I found that minimally constrained bridges didons  not generally produce a realistic civil engineering experience.  Younger students seemed less constrained by traditional notions of bridges and produced very creative, strong, glue heavy bridges while adults and high school students were less likely to do so.  At this time, I am planning to use the fixed constraints case for middle school students and use the fixed cost, variable materials case for high school students. Further experiments are possible to further refine and answer the proposed research questions.  I have four rotations per year of middle school students, which provides opportunities for further research and refinements.  

High school student testing fixed cost, variable materials bridge. 


high school student carefully building his bridge according to his 1:1 scale plan.  

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Engineering Projects Help Add Common Sense to Math

In my Make Your Own Dragster unit, middle school students first calculate the velocity of a non-geared up robot car, in this case Riley Rover. They take three time measurements on a ten foot course. I observed that students do not have a common sense, deep understanding of the mathematics. My thesis is that this comes from years of largely doing calculations on worksheets removed from any real world context.

Example 1 – Average of 1.73, 1.73, 1.173

Students used calculator, made a mistake and got an answer that was not 1.73 and did not notice a problem. If students had an understanding of what average means, they would know that they did not need to calculate and the answer is 1.73.

Example 2 – Average of 2.78, 2.50. and 2.30

Students got an answer of 7.20 and did not notice a problem. Students with a conceptual understanding of average should have seen that their answer was not reasonable and the average should be 2 point something.

Example 3 – Students write answers like 2.434566 ft/sec and do not notice an issue.

Students should know that the measurement variation and errors make digits beyond one decimal point meaningless.

Of course, it was a great opportunity to discuss all these examples with the class.

Engineering really makes mathematics meaningful, useful, and ties it to the real world. The danger of years of mathematics education largely out of context is that students focus on getting the calculations right and not really understanding the concepts behind the calculations.

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Baseball Coaching – the RAPA Method – Repetitions, Accountability, Proofing, Attitude

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