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, code.org, 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 thingiverse.com 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 https://www.tinkercad.com, 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 thingiverse.com 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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Dissertation Research Teaser – 7 Key Factors in LEGO Robotic Open Ended Challenges

7 Key Factors in Elementary Engineering

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Site Back Online

Kidsengineer.com was down for a few days due to a hack.  Sorry for the inconvenience.  I am still doing some cleanup.  It’s really hard to keep up with this stuff yourself.  I ended up using a service to restore my site after these attacks.

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New Kits

New kits for school LEGO EV3 and LEGO WeDo 2.  It’s going to be a fun year!



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Review of My Book

Nice review of my book I just noticed on Amazon.  Thanks, Ann Wyman.  Glad you liked it.

I recently read the book “Elementary Robotics” by John Heffernan and I recommend it to any teacher interested in starting a LEGO Robotics Program. This is a great book and very useful if you are looking to start an elementary robotics program or if you already have a program implemented and you are looking for some fresh ideas to enhance your program. The book is full of engaging lessons that integrate Mathematics, Science, Technology, Engineering and English language arts together. The lessons and projects range from projects for Pre-Kindergarten students up to and including lessons for students in grade 6. The robots used in the lessons are BeeBots for grades Pre-K and K, WeDo LEGO Robotics Kits for grades 1 through 4, and either NXT or EV3 LEGO Robotics Kits for grades 5 and 6.

I like the way John explains why he creates the lessons the way he does. He gives many pointers and goes over things that didn’t work well in his lessons before he perfected them. These pointers are very helpful, so other teachers know what to avoid and why to avoid certain things that don’t work well in the classroom. He explains everything really well which makes it easy for teachers to implement these lessons. He even states what time during the school year is best to use a particular lesson. He not only describes why he does certain things in his lessons, he also explains why he doesn’t do certain things.

This book is easy to use, has great well written detailed lesson plans that include handouts for the students. It is a nice addition to a teacher library and a great book to have if you are teaching or would like to teach robotics. I highly recommend this book and plan on using some of his lessons this year.

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How To Make An Activity Timeline in EXCEL (Revised)

How do you produce a timeline of recurring activity types easily using EXCEL?  I had some trouble getting EXCEL to do this so I am sharing my technique here.  I use this in my research to characterize the engineering design process of different students as they do a LEGO robotics open ended engineering task.

Let’s say you have this data (see below).











Select the Start and Code columns including the header.  Produce a marked scatter chart.  That produces this chart.  It is what we basically want but the duration of each activity is not shown.  Delete the legend marked “Code”. I also delete the y axis values 1 to 6 and manually write in the EDP phases using Insert -> Shape.    See final example.









The trick is to use custom X error bars (positive only), which is actually what we want to see.

Select the code series and format it. Select error bars, plus, and custom.  Then select the duration (elapsed) cells for the custom values of the error bars.

You then format the error bars to be a thick line.

Then erase the points by selecting and formatting those as  Marker -> No Marker.  Then delete the actual data points.

Here is the result.  I also changed the color of the error bars.  I have not yet figured out how to change each code’s timeline (error bars) to a different color.

Note that EXCEL correctly handles the overlapping, simultaneous activities 1 and 2 that occur between 2 and 3 minutes.











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