This Week in the Classroom: Top Maker Tools in the Middle School Classroom

My semi-regular column This Week in the Classroom is back!  I have accepted a position in a small, mostly rural school district just outside of Northern Virginia.  It’s great to be in the classroom again, bringing project-based learning to new audiences.connect_usb

I am teaching middle schoolers, all levels.  Middle school is a great age to teach, despite some of the unique challenges the students pose.  Students can really make connections, find passions and dive deep into a project.  They are about as creative as they ever will be and watching a kid’s creative power light up is just something cool.  Middle school is also a fraught time for many young people, making the classroom a place of great promise and great worry.Scratch

Here’s my current greatest hits list of web tools, software platforms and services I like to use in my Tech Ed/Maker Classroom.

Classroom & Project Management:

Google Classroom Suite.  I’m new to this particular software, but really enjoy its simplicity in set up.  While it does work best in a 1-to-1, connected classroom, less connected classrooms can still get mileage from the suite.  Google’s Productivity Suite does pretty much anything and everything Microsoft Office products ever did…and does it connected.  My students share documents, collaborate and turn in projects quickly.  I have a great way to track assignments, organize curriculum,  link to resources, etc.  I really haven’t unlocked its true potential, but I will.  So far I have set up Google Slide assignments, hyperdocs, seating charts, and classroom planning lessons.  My entire school, students and faculty, uses the Suite, which makes collaboration and tracking very simple.  A great tool I am thankful to explore this year.

Computer Programming

Code.org has free courses available for the Maker teacher.  Since the last time I used the service in 2015, Code.org has added a middle school exploration course and a high school course available for classroom use.  Both courses recommend dedicating 150+ hours to instruction.  Discoveries, the middle school course, has a great mix of plugged and unplugged activities, but it relies on a browser-based programming environment.  While CS concepts travel between languages, classrooms can bog down in transitions.  The Fundamentals Express course, on the other hand, incorporates programming in a game like environment and you can pick and choose lessons to complete with the students.  With my older crew, I will mix the tougher coding challenges and concepts with unplugged lessons.code screenshot

The Scratch Programming environment is still the best programming sandbox around.  It has an extremely low threshold for participation.  Most students can explore programming and demonstrate some really sophisticated techniques with only a few hours of instruction.  Some Scratch programs reach incredible complexity.  I plan on using Code.org as my “direct” instruction platform and Scratch as a sandbox for game design.  I’m very excited to explore both platforms in greater detail across three grade levels this year.

MakeyMakey & the FunKey FunKey

The MakeyMakey has been my go-to platform to connect hardware to software for at least three years now.  MakeyMakey’s strengths have been documented elsewhere on the net and this blog, but the platform has drawbacks.  It must always be connected to a computer, it does not really play easily with sensors and the small clips are difficult for some students to manage.

Enter the FunKeyFunkey by Stephen Lewis.  This prototype board features several packaged sensors & switches (such as a photocell, IR and tilt-switch), different modes of operation, bigger board and better clips.  A true game changer.  My next classroom column will focus exclusively on this amazing board.  Look out for a Kickstarter soon.

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Computer-Aided Design

TinkerCAD & Project Ignite will take top honors for accessible CAD software in my classroom.  TinkerCAD packs a big punch in a simple, browser-based platform.  Students can design simple and complex objects, from keychains to Matchbox cars.  Project Ignite, now bundled with TinkerCAD, allows teachers to manage classrooms of students, track their progress and work.  I am pumped to see the innovation since I left the classroom a year ago.

Two CAD packages sit on my horizon to explore in the coming year:  Autodesk’s Fusion 360, a free cloud-based CAD/CAM package free to makers and students. Onshape is a similar program, with a similar pricing structure, free to hobbyist, student and semi-pro maker.  I have played with the two pieces, but haven’t gotten in deep into the weeds.

Thank you for your continued support.

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