The Art of STEAM

A friend of mine was lamenting on Instagram recently about the lack of space in primary and elementary schools dedicated to Art. She is a brilliant art teacher and knows first-hand the positive thinking, community building and enjoyment that happens when children are allowed to express themselves through something they create themselves.

I sympathize entirely, the art room at my school was a wonderful place that had its own relaxed atmosphere, an inviting amount of mess, and walls and shelves for displaying the students work. But sometimes, it felt like an exclusive place for people who had been told that they were talented at Art. Worse still in the UK as in the US, often electing to take Art ruled you out of taking an additional Science. With Art and Science departments often physically far apart, there was little chance for any projects that encouraged the two to work together, unfortunate since so many jobs demand problem-solving skills, requiring people who can be both creative and analytical in their thinking..

Of course it would be wonderful to have a room in every school dedicated to creativity. But for younger years, I wonder if this needs to be a room that's labelled The Art Room. Here in California, schools are rapidly converting corridors, corners of classrooms and underused cupboards to be makerspaces. And the ones that do are seeing very positive results. 

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These creative spaces have the materials that you would expect to see in an art room, but also tools that encourage children to explore mechanics, circuits, and technology.  You don't need to be arty, knowledgeable about science, or anything in particular to enjoy these places.

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They are spaces for tinkering, exploring, self-directed learning. They are an open invitation to create work that is not graded, because how could anyone possibly grade someone's imagination?

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I welcome these pop-up makerspaces as the modern version of the art room, and would encourage any arts teacher to look into ways they could integrate this kind of STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) cross-curricula learning into the projects they choose to teach.

As schools up their game for being 21st-centures of education, there is a huge demand for STEM teachers in schools. Their role is often as coordinators who work with all the teachers - and students - in the school. In my book, the more teachers that come from an Arts background, the better. Who knows, do it well enough, and they may even get their own room.

Claire Comins is the founder of TinkerTech, creating and providing curriculum that helps students discover STEAM through fun themed project-based activities

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'So how did you get into doing this?'

By TinkerTech Founder, Claire Comins

Talk to anyone who's a maker or maker educator and they'll have a totally different story about how they got to doing what they do.

There is no set route into being a Maker Educator

and I think the vocation is all the richer for it. Makers and maker educators I've met are equally from science and arts backgrounds - sometimes they're people who learned to tinker because they had a parent who encouraged them, but others just learned the fun of taking things apart and building things from scratch slightly later in life. I'm one of those people, and the joy I discovered in Maker was enough for me to start the non-profit, TinkerTech, whose work is celebrated in this website.

Back in London in 2012, working late nights and weekends, I built the first iPad magazine for girls. It was called Lily and was unashamedly pink. Its mission was to entertain girls aged 7-10, encourage them to create not consume using the cools tools and apps being built for the iPad. As a business, Lily did not live beyond issue 1. A month after launching it, I moved to California and had to turn my attention to helping my family settle into a new country. But in creating it, I had discovered the joy in a building a digital product that could instantly be sold all over the world in the App Store.

I had created Lily with zero budget but bucketloads of enthusiasm. The activities were inspired my three daughters and I wrote all the content. The design was done by a freelance designer I’d worked with at Egmont on Disney publications; the rights to the digital illustrations were bought from an illustrator I met through a friend, and I had got it all developed FOR FREE by Tag, an established printer that had starting developing apps in London’s East End. It was a wonderful crazy collaboration.

In California’s Bay Area, I was keen to make more apps. But at the Intel Computer Clubhouse down the road from my new home in Marin, I saw something even more powerful. There I had been in London encouraging girls not to consume but create using technology, and

here in California were kids playing with the actual code.

Not only were they coding, but they were programing robots, creating computer games and designing products they cut on the laser cutter and printed on the 3D printer.

I wanted to do it do, and so put myself on an unpaid apprenticeship shadowing the teacher. I started a weekly class called Codemaker Club and - because there was no one else to do it - learned enough to teach the students myself. Within weeks, I was helping middle schoolers program robots, and a year later I started coaching teen girls to prototype apps for international competitions. Lily the iPad app was long gone.

Fast forward to 2017, and the classes I started there have grown into an independent business called TinkerTech, the non-profit arm of Kidscontent llc.

TinkerTech classes are for children aged 4 to 12. They are project-based with themes and challenges to help inspire ideas quickly (our classes are just one hour long). Visit a TinkerTech class and you will see children busy with their hands. They are creating, not consuming. Failing, inventing, rapidly gaining skills, and tinkering - discovering the world of STEAM and beginning to understand how the technology they use every day works. The laughter, focus, and the fact that students never want the class to end is proof that we’re creating something children love.

Beyond the classes in schools and local Rec Centers, TinkerTech classes are shared through after-school enrichment programs across the USA. This year, over 10,000 children used TinkerTech projects as inspiration for their own making. In addition to this, I’m being asked to write curriculum for some of the amazing companies making the tools that kids can use to explore STEM and STEAM.

But the best thing I have created so far is opportunities for people to teach.

What happens when children gather round a table to create something that is all their own is MAGIC and I think everyone should have a chance to see this for themselves. Being the mentor who helps children discover this amazing way of learning (and in turn discovers it for themselves) is a complete joy. Just check out #STEM #STEAM #maker and #makered to see pictures of children - and their teachers - proudly sharing projects they have created. It’s incredibly empowering for all involved.

There’s still a long way to go to make starting these projects easier. It takes a brave, determined educator to teach #maker and #STEM. There is no fixed outcome and the projects can be hard to appraise because
the learning is in the process not the finished product.

Sometimes it feels like there are just too many options, too many things you don’t know. And although you can upcycle just about anything to be a maker project, the extra equipment and materials you’d like to use are not always easy to buy unless you know exactly where and what to tap into the search engine. This is not something anyone taught us at school.

TinkerTech's program is already available to use by license, but this year, we'll be making it grow further with more classes and more projects created by a growing team of inspired educators. 

Look out for us here and on social media @tinkertechkids. It’s going to be a whole lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

A Whole New Year of Making!

Mill Valley Rec held a Community Center Event today and TinkerTech was thrilled to be part of it. We took Brian's new red maker trailer and spin art powered by solar panels we'd made at the reMake Education conference in Sonoma earlier this month. At the craft table, wooden craft stick and brass tack linkages to build and decorate. Children challenged themselves to make the longest linkages which they renamed 'grabbers'. The Circuit Cubes invented by Marin teacher Nate MacDonald kept many small hands busy, especially combined with a box of Legos. Super popular today and coming soon to a Barnes & Noble near you!
It was another sunny day of tinkering in California and a great way to launch the new classes TinkerTech is offering from September - on Mondays for Grades 3-5 at local elementary Edna Maguire, every Wednesday at the Mill Valley Rec Center for TK-8, and at Strawberry Point Elementary on Thursdays.

Mill Valley Course Codes:
#42847 TinkerTech Invent and Code M 3:05-4:05pm 3-5 $310 Tinker Tech 1st Gr. Middle Space (Edna)
#43768 Ages 4-6 #43770 Ages 5-7 #43772 Ages 8-11 TinkerTech Inventors at Community Center Wednesdays  
#43724 Tinker Tech Inventors Th 1:15-2:15pm TK/K $310 Tinker Tech Staff Room (Strawberry Point Elementary)
#43725 Tinker Tech Inventors & Code Th 2:30-3:30pm 3-5 $338 Tinker Tech Staff Room (Strawberry Point Elementary)

Check out the Animoto here and on TinkerTech's YouTube channel

Introducing superstar maker educator Brian Kaplan

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Great news!

TinkerTech is joining forces with Marin Science teacher Brian Kaplan to offer even more great STEM classes to the students in Marin. With his 25 years in carpentry and 13 years in teaching including setting up the makerspace at San Domenico school, Brian is excited to take his skills on the road with a MOBILE MAKER VAN. Brian will be teaching some of TinkerTech’s new Invent and Code classes from the van, as well as helping train new teachers.

TinkerTech mobile maker classes are for children aged 3 to 12 and take place in community centers, recs and schools in Marin, from Mill Valley to Novato. With the addition of Brian’s classes in and out of the van, we’ll be able to reach even more students. By bringing the classes to the children as after-school enrichment, we’ll also be saving parents on a lot of driving around Marin! 

TinkerTech’s Founder Claire Comins interviews Brian Kaplan here.

CC: We love the idea of your mobile maker van and are so pleased to have you teach classes for TinkerTech! Tell us about the van - what will it have in it?
BK: I am super excited to have a mobile maker trailer set up with everything from basic hand tools to what I call "cool tools." An example of some cool tools are 3d printers, CNC routers, laser cutter and vinyl cutters just to name a few. The air conditioned trailer and shaded outside space will be used during the exploration time.

CC: The mission for TinkerTech classes is always to encourage creativity, innovation and get kids inventing something all of their own. What are the classes you’ll be teaching?
BK: I’ll be bringing the most popular projects from my woodworking classes at San Domenico into the TinkerTech Invent and Code classes. For Fall, we’ll be making toys, games and puzzles - and getting to grips with tech by tinkering in the always-popular take-apart sessions where we see how toys, telephones, VCRs and other home appliances work. When we code, it’ll be to add interactivity to projects we are building ourselves.

CC: Best maker project so far?
BK: That's a hard question since there have been SO many fun, interesting projects. If I had to pick one or two building full size wood kayaks from scratch from wood to water in one week is always so fun to see happen with kids as young as 9 years old. Another kid favorite is my custom designed electronic LED wood basketball game. 

CC: What do you love about teaching STEM?
BK: What I like the most about teaching a STEM based maker program is knowing that my students are having fun while not realizing that they are engaging in STEM Science Technology Engineering and Math. Also, there are future jobs that we don't even know that will require problem solving,trouble shooting and that Maker projects naturally provide.

CC: What first encouraged you to build with wood and how did this become a job for you?
BK: I first started working with wood as a child building tree forts in the hills of Terra Linda. I really appreciated the flexibility and versatility of this natural resource. After taking shop class in Junior High at vallecito school that I dearly loved I joined my older brother Larry who was a talented woodworker. We worked for various building contractors until starting our own business in the early nineties. In 2000 I decided to go back to school to become a credentialed teacher. All during the four year process I had 3 kids and finished my degree and credential. A side-note is that my brother Larry decided in 2002 to become a doctor and finished his fellowship in 2015 and now is practicing at UCSF. I went on to teach science and making for 13 years at San Domenico School. I also designed and built a 3,000 square foot makerspace. At the end of the school year I left San Domenico to start a new chapter, Craftsmen Kids Mobile Maker.

CC: What’s the best experience or story of a student you have from your classes?
BK: Some of my favorite things I've seen happen in my Craftsmen Kids over the past 10 years is seeing the joy of 12 boats get launched in the pool without a single leak. I have always been amazed by my Craftsmen Kids persistence in their projects and hearing that they didn't want to stop after hours of hard fun work! I’ve also had the opportunity to have students that normally have a difficult time in regular school excel as excellent leaders in my Craftsmen Kids. Many children aren’t wired for the typical classroom environment and engage best in these kinds of workshops.

TinkerTech class booking goes lives August 21st. Until then, if you are interested in offering a class in your school or community center, please email Claire via hello@tinkertech.me

Why we're tinkering in Swift

STEVE WOZNIAK, COMICON

STEVE WOZNIAK, COMICON

It’s ComiCon 2016 in Silicon Valley and Steve Wozniak (Woz) is being interviewed on stage about his early days of tinkering with technology.

‘I liked [technology] because I could know something other people didn’t know… I could build little devices that could trick people,’ says Woz with a laugh.

I find myself tapping the words into my iPhone, the device Woz invented as co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs.

He continues talking about the small steps you take to building technology. Completely in awe, I resolve to keep growing the TinkerTech program I started to help kids do the same.

‘Do the right things and sometimes you can make money,’ continues Woz and I dutifully type it into the Notes app.

Hmmm. Sometimes.

Because certainly, iIf kids learn to code, and they like it and can do it well enough, there is a job for them. If kids learn to code but they don’t want to pursue it further, it’s still good because they’ve learned a very useful thought process. It’s a mindset that will serve them well in just about anything. Tinkering with technology helps create innovators, the kind who have potential to create something as powerful as the iPhone.

Swift playgrounds on ipad

Swift playgrounds on ipad

There isn’t really an argument against learning to code. Coding, tinkering with code, is problem-solving. Problem-solving is seeking solutions. Seeking solutions is how we’re going to fix a lot of problems. 

The last few years have seen an explosion of great programs encouraging and supporting people of all ages who want to learn to code. In TinkerTech’s previous incarnation as CodemakerClub, we used a fair few of them. But here in Marin in San Francisco’s Bay Area, most of the kids have iPhones in their pockets and family iPads back at home, so I was always craving a program that taught them code on and for the devices they use most. Importantly, it had to work as a group class, encouraging collaboration as the students share their learning experience.

A year ago, Apple brought out Swift Playgrounds. We tested it in class and it was great, but for the impatient types, it seemed like too big a leap from the fun coding challenges to actually building apps - for most TinkerTech students, the final destination in learning to code.

'Code should be everyone's second language,' says Harald Batista of ilumina Tech. 'The Swift programming language is easy and fast to learn, yet it also gives you the most power and impact in today's technology environment.'

TinkerTech Founder and blog author Claire Comins sharing a joke with a waxwork Steve Jobs. At ComiCon Silicon Valley

TinkerTech Founder and blog author Claire Comins sharing a joke with a waxwork Steve Jobs. At ComiCon Silicon Valley

With Apple’s updated education program introduced this year, there is a continuous program waiting to be discovered and TinkerTech is diving straight in. For the 2017 school year, we’re offering a program that leads students from intro to coding with Swift Playgrounds on the iPad to using Xcode for building apps.

‘Follow your heart and your instinct,’ says Woz

and I’m sure he’s right.

To be the first to hear about TinkerTech’s latest coding classes, sign up here or email hello@tinkertech.me

Hello TinkerTech

May is a busy month for makers and educators in California.

Projects started in class need to come to final stages before the end of the school year, schools and activity centers are organizing next year's programs, and everyone is talking about THE show and tell for makers, the Maker Faire in San Mateo.

It's also a great time to start shouting about new programs - and for me that means TinkerTech, the new name for the classes I've been building as an independent maker educator for the past three years.

The world needs more creative thinkers

TinkerTech uses a combination of cheap maker materials (card, paper, tape, Lego and LEDs) and the best edtech tools (makey makey, littleBits, circuitcubes and Sphero) to help kids learn the skills they need to be a creative thinker.

If students use these skills to become the next great innovator, engineer, or entrepreneur, that’s fantastic as the world needs more people with these skills! If they just like the class because it’s fun and they get to make cool stuff, well that’s what we really like to hear. When kids are enjoying themselves, they are in that place where the best ideas happen.

Creating an environment of playful learning is key because it's the 'it doesn't work' moments that provide the richest parts of the class. This is where the real learning and understanding of what STEM is all about happens. My background as an educational and creative writer meant fun, themed classes were a natural way to create this environment, building the hands-on tinkering for ages 4-12 (Grades Pre-K - 6 US, Nursery - Year 6 in the UK) around a program that encourages imagination. After a year of hands-on testing in our classes in California, we now have a unique year-round program of activities.

TinkerTech activities are accessible for anyone, 'techie' or not

TinkerTech's themed curriculum encourages creativity, story-telling and collaboration through STEM activities. The target age is K-6 children (UK: Nursery to Year 6) and for now, we mostly work with educators who can use the program in schools, clubs and libraries. The activities are created by teachers who work with children all the time and know what they like. Engineering and science concepts inspire the activities, but educators from a mix of backgrounds - engineering, science and the arts, create them, which makes TinkerTech activities accessible for anyone to use. They are suitable for packing up in a box to take on location wherever your class might be, and are designed to take about one hour plus set-up and clean-up.

Students create projects that are an expression of themselves and that they are proud to share

Our themes range from Superhero to FunFair to Build a City, with each themed project exploring light, sound and motion and designed to be completed to ‘Show and Tell’ standard in about six weeks. Great for schools preparing for a Maker or Open House event - and wonderful for children who use a mix of high and low-tech tools and materials to create projects that are an expression of themselves and that they are proud to share.

We love working with startups creating educational technology for young students and enjoy connecting with maker educators across the world. Just drop us a line at hello@tinkertech.me.

Article by TinkerTech Founder, Claire Comins @clairecomins

 


 

Making Ideas Fly on Earth Day

One of my favorite parts of running maker and coding classes for kids is community events. Today's Marinovators Fair at local community college College of Marin is a top event for families to see work by students and create some of their own.

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We had a blast at the maker activity table for TinkerTech, the new name for the Rafiakids classes that are growing with each school semester.

Check out the video. And if you'd like a class, workshop or camp near you (or you're an educator looking for help to start a TinkerTech maker and coding club of your own), reach out with an email to hello@tinkertech.me

Claire Comins, Founder, TinkerTech

 

TinkerTech teacher Natalie  

TinkerTech teacher Natalie  

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TinkerTech Founder Claire Comins

Robots For Sale

Rafiakids Founder Claire Comins with robot friends from L to R: Dash and Dot, ozobot (in hand), mBot, another ozobot, and Sphero

Rafiakids Founder Claire Comins with robot friends from L to R: Dash and Dot, ozobot (in hand), mBot, another ozobot, and Sphero

Robots are a great intro to programming for kids of any age. Especially in the run-up to holidays, parents of students often ask me to recommend educational robots. It's a great time to buy as all companies will be doing Christmas gift-inspired discounts. Shop around as you could find your local Barnes & Noble offers as good if not better a deal than the go-to online retailers.

Here are robots I’ve used in my RafiaKids STEM maker and coding classes. I’d recommend them all for different reasons, not least because they encourage kids to look up from their screens. Robots are a brilliant visual representation of code. Watching them zoom about is entertainment in itself - take the controls and you’re one tap closer to being a programmer.

Most off-the-shelf robots sold as educational toys come with a quickstart remote control option, usually an app with a joystick type control that you can use on your phone or tablet. For children who can read, my advice is to try and get off these as quickly as possible and install the coding app because they can do so much more with it. Playing with code is easy with these robots because it’s all block coding - fat colorful blocks that you can move around with your finger and click into position on a smartphone screen. Kids who have done Scratch will have no trouble getting started. The Tickle app is doing a great job at this because it pulls in some of the best educational robot apps in one place. And if you are curious, you can tap further and see the ‘real’ code hard at work underneath.

Dash and Dot
These robots just work. There is no trouble-shooting needed for setting up so they are great with any age and learning ability. I used them in a class of young adults with autism and found them a brilliant way to connect. With just enough character in the rounded blue design to make them personable, these robots prove themselves time and again a best first robot for young children.

San Francisco Bay Area startup Wonder Workshop has developed a family of apps for Dash and Dot and there’s already a strong community of clubs sharing ideas through competitions. Not the cheapest, but because of their size, an easy robot to share in a school club or when your children’s friends come to play.

'Superhero Dash' gets ready to take a turn in a catwalk show

'Superhero Dash' gets ready to take a turn in a catwalk show

Sphero
If you’ve seen one robot in the stores, it’s probably this one, with its double-ball headline-catching relation, BB-8. Sphero has basically reinvented the ball, and this is definitely the coolest programmable robot here because, well, it doesn’t look anything like a picture-book robot. With no fiddly parts to break, it’s the most robust and offers the quickest path to programming.

sphero meets swift in the tickle app

sphero meets swift in the tickle app

There are some accessories to be bought (the chariot looks good), but you basically bring your own creativity to this bot. At maker faires, I’ve seen kids remote-control painting with Sphero, making it follow an obstacle course, and promotional videos show it swimming underwater. In my class, the students programmed a simulated zombie attack which was surprisingly delightful to watch.

mBot
mBots were some of the first programmable robots I tried with middle schoolers. They were challenging enough to fill one-hour classes, and 3-4 classes was enough to get kids understanding the basic settings, functions and programs. I also based some robot summer camps around them.

Programming mBots in Rafiakids mixed maker and coding class

‘I liked the mBots - you didn't have to do any wiring, it was just programming,’ said Sam, 10, who built and programmed an mBot in a mixed robot programming class.

Out the box, they take about an hour to build. For the original version we got from Kickstarter in 2013, code was only uploaded via usb and it took a while to find and download the right software for Mac. The mBot team in Shenzhen, China, has grown hugely since those early days, the product has improved with apps, and mBots are now a popular choice in schools in Europe, China and the US.

‘mBots are a great intermediary or second robot experience for kids,’ says Sara Bolduc, Innovation Manager of the CEC Makerspace in Hamilton, California. ‘The online interface of the mBlock program itself mimics Scratch and is great for teaching code skills at the same time as robotics.’

Author, STEM enthusiast and CEO of IoT Disruptions Sudha Jamthe agrees that mBot's variation of Scratch, called mBlock, is key to its success for teaching programing. 'It it easy for kids to program visually,' she says. 'mBot comes with many sensors which make it fun for the kids and keeps them wanting to try more things. You can program musical notes or LED lights, or make the robot follow a line. If the students get the easy programming concepts, you can use mBot to teach about variables and functions by creating an obstacle race.'

One of the latest additions to mBot is the Ranger Robot, a larger tougher-looking rover robot that I can see kids really wanting in their toy collection. Like the mBot, it comes in parts with a screwdriver and instructions. In the time it took me to do a google hangout, a middle school student built the Ranger and paired it up with the smartphone app. It was the first time he’d built a robot and he proudly demo’d it in the makerspace.

The following day, Ranger was zooming around under the control of Emily, 14.

‘It looks a bit like Wall-E… And the programming is just like Scratch,’ she said, as she navigated Ranger round chair and table legs and knocked a Sphero out the way.

Ozobot
These tiny robots fit into the palm of your hand. Place them on a line drawn in thick black Sharpie and they zoom along nicely. You can program them to change speed or direction and flash different colored lights by breaking your black line and adding in some primary colored dots. You can also upload code when placed on a tablet or smartphone screen that has ozobot’s apps installed.

‘They’re a fun, easy, quick plug-and-play for younger aged kids,’ says Sara Bolduc.

Ozobot following color codes

Ozobot following color codes

Ozobots are great for table-top entertainment although can be temperamental when it comes to uploading code from the apps. If you run into problems, make sure you have turned up the brightness settings on your screen, recalibrate the bot by placing it on the black circle provided in the box or in the apps, and check the wheels are free of fluff.

Whichever robot you choose to buy, the important thing to remember with kids is that for anything to become something they return to, it needs to be fun. 'There's something about being able to touch and hold something like a toy that engages kids,' says Sudha Jamthe who has taught STEM to middle schoolers. 'I enjoy seeing the amazement in kids. They think creatively about what else they can do and keep learning more programming, all while having fun.'

For free updates on other fun stuff that goes on in Claire’s rafiakids classes, subscribe at rafiakids.com or check out the class twitter, youtube, and facebook.