Novel Engineering Update

One of my favourite and most powerful ways of motivating and enthusing students into STEM elements is through design challenges.


Novel Engineering out of TUFTS University have updated their resources and book list and the site now offers teachers a great opportunity to connect literature and texts to real life problem solving challenges. In having students construct solutions to challenges faced throughout texts then design and engineering opportunities can be considered, alongside responses to, and deeper engagement with various fiction texts.

The Butterfly Garden – Project Based Learning


Butterfly Garden Project Based Learning


I am always keen to have my students undertake at least one major project based learning experience each year. In mid 2016 I had my class work on revitalising an overgrown garden area into a ‘Butterfly Garden’. I was inspired by my visit to High Tech High in Chula Vista a few years ago where I saw a comprehensive PBL program in place including a butterfly component.

Exploring regional butterflies and appropriate feeder plants introduced a strong environmental and biodiversity perspective as students considered the ecology of a butterfly habitat.

Over the course of six months it was rewarding to document and reflect on the process that covered a multitude of learning areas such as measurement, science and information reports but also the physical tasks of gardening and assembling materials.

Of course PBL is a terrific way to ‘access’ this type of learning and each student was able to achieve success through various entry and exit points that they could identify with. Key Learning Areas such as mathematics, science and English and PD,H,PE came into play and offered a broad scope of learning opportunities.

There was extensive use of measurement; both through aerial photography via a DJI Phantom Drone and scale and grid tasks that calculated the area of the garden and path. This then evolved into a volume activity as the depth of mulch and crushed concrete were calculated.



The students used websites to source local materials, cost the materials and to then ring the landscape company to place the order.

Highlights included in-depth research into local butterflies and suitable host plants. The class explored colour and the types of colour needed to attract butterflies.

Importantly it all came together as student’s physically engaged with and enjoyed the gardening – from clearing weeds, moving barrow loads of mulch and pouring crushed aggregate to make the path. The area came to life as the seedlings and young plants were put in and began to develop. Students then followed a procedure to assemble benches so that it was a welcoming learning space.

A daily watering regime was added to the class task list and deep saucers were added for birds and to provide water for butterflies.

As the area established it was used for nature sketching, quiet time, reading and sensory awareness activities by the class.



Now in early 2017 the garden is evolving as species continue to mature. Now is the time for other students and classes to take the opportunity to enjoy this special place. Those who contributed to its making remain keen to use and proud of their learning and effort.

The garden six months on!

Integrated design challenges and coding with Sphero and K’nex.

Learning through serious play…

I love the excitement that children express when faced with what, to an adult, might be considered a ‘ho-hum’ type of learning opportunity. It serves as a reminder to respect a child’s view of the world and the thought processes attached. The examples below exemplify this thinking and are fun and challenging engineering based challenges designed to enthuse and engage students.

These STEM based design learning tasks resonate with years 2-6 and utilise K’NEX pieces to design and make both a bridge and chariot that are tested using a Sphero robotic ball. These are both activities that any teacher can lead and they both offer entry points that enable success for all students.

I would also add that both of these activities are detailed on the Sphero SPRK Lightning Lab education website, accessible by a free educator account.

The Bridge

The bridge is another great design and make challenge. I always show Galloping Gertie, the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster via Youtube to engage and hook the students into thinking about bridge design and engineering. The oohs and aahs alone are worth showing the footage.

The challenge is to span a distance via a bridge that Sphero can be driven or coded to cross. I like a span around 40cm as it is longer than a ruler and results in multiple connections and more complex thinking. K’NEX works well for this activity as do rulers and paddle pop sticks, albeit with more masking tape, Blutac or similar.

I’ve found that two or three iterations (number of designs) are often needed to deliver a structure that can support the Sphero and provide some edge guidance or rails. Be careful on smooth desks as Sphero can spin due to the lack of traction, some masking tape to rough up the surface is worthwhile.

To add to the challenge, students working in groups might only be allowed to ask the teacher (engineer) one design question or students could be given a $ budget and purchase materials from the teacher as would happen in real life. I also have students weigh their bridges and compare results. Leaning to balance weight versus strength and rigidity is an important learning point.


The Chariot

This is a fun and somewhat tricky challenge offering opportunities for multiple iterations and trials. The challenge is to build a chariot (or harness) that a programmed Sphero acting as horse can drag over a course. K’NEX is ideal due to the range of connection options. I’ve also used CDs as wheels and LEGO pieces as needed by students. Sphero can be programmed using SPRK or Tickle app to complete a course, or for a straight line race, I’d recommend the Sphero Draw and Drive app. The design of the chariot can be simple or complex and students often find the axle/wheel combination one of the more challenging aspects to master.

Collaboration, creativity, problem solving, reflection and resilience are evident in these tasks and strong connections to the maths syllabus and coding are embedded.

design make improve – learning through serious play!





Draft consultation on the revised K-10 Science Syllabus

The Science K-10 Syllabus is up for review and BOSTES is currently holding consultation sessions around the state. I attended the Wollongong session last week and came away impressed by the level of engaged and passionate discussion by those that participated. Session locations are here.

Based on the Draft Directions for Syllabus Development document the main changes being considered are:

  • the inclusion of a Connected World content module –  this takes on board elements of the Australian Curriculum Digital Technologies. Concepts will include;
    • Communications: examine how living things communicate and transmit information.
    • Digital systems: recognise and explore how hardware and software components interact.
    • Data patterns: recognise different patterns in data including coding. Test predications by gathering data and evidence to develop explanations of events and phenomena.
    • Data types: recognise that whole numbers are used to represent data in digital systems.
    • Networks: explore components of common natural and digital systems and how they connect to form networks to transmit data.
  • the inclusion on a ‘make’ component as an explicit part of the design process – Inquire, Design, Make, Evaluate.

We had an interesting discussion about the order in the syllabus of value and attitudes, skills and knowledge and understandings. Skills is now separate to Knowledge and Understanding. There was general agreement that values and attitudes should be placed first on the page as instilling in students a positivity and curiosity that encourage them to value science was of significance. Without valuing science the lessons  and learning experiences mean nothing and simply become another curriculum box ticking exercise.

All in all I’d highly recommend teachers make the effort to contribute to syllabus development. How often do we hear staffroom rumblings about content and outcomes, continuums and rationale. This meeting was an insight into the development process and the BOSTES staff were very keen to hear and capture  feedback.

Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning Online Course

Coursera is offering the Exploratorium’s great Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning online course. It starts June 27.

I did this two years ago and it was without doubt one of the best professional learning experiences of the year. It offers global collaboration, hands-on learning and solid theory and insights from leading practitioners.

Most project parts can be sourced locally and the skills and knowledge gained are very useful if making and tinkering is to be a focus in your school or classroom.

Check it out at  –

Also check out the Tinkering Studio for an insight into some of the projects –

dare mighty things!

Inspire Innovate Presentation 2016

Here is a pdf of the Make2Learn presentation. Please note that the many videos will not be playing!

Inspire Innovate Make2Learn

Some of the equipment showcased includes;

Sphero and Sphero SPRK app



Parrot Rolling Spider mini-drones (although I’d recommend Airbourne Cargo now)

Tickle App (iOS only)

Feel free to contact me for further information. Thanks for sharing and dare mighty things in your classroom!


InspireInnovate 2016

InspireInnovate 2016 is on March 9 and 10 and offers a great opportunity for NSW Department of Education teachers to experience two days of contemporary best teaching practise examples shared through keynotes and workshops. I’m running a workshop on Makerspaces and how Mt Ousley is implementing a K-6 inclusive making environment. Come along and learn through tinkering and making in a fun yet challenging environment!

Register here  –

Make2Learn – Adventures in Makerspaces

This semester we’ve been fitting out an old lab into a K-6 makerspace. For now, we have a dedicated room for children to explore, design, create, make mistakes and reflect, while in effect they learn through play. Kids can make a mess and ideate in a room designed to grow ideas and resilience.

Outcomes wise (and see my previous post for the rational), making meets a range of syllabus outcomes, especially in terms of Working Scientifically through the design process and Working Mathematically aspects of communication, logical thinking and reasoning. Student reflection (English) and a growth mindset that develops resilience are also school priorities.

IMG_5841 2 IMG_5849 2

IMG_5846 2 IMG_5840

IMG_5979 IMG_5851 2

IMG_5975 IMG_5963

After consulting with staff, the room has been fitted out with a range of starter equipment including –

Various electronic circuits and kits


Lots of LEGO bricks, building pieces and characters

LEGO simple machines sets


Boxes of plasticine, paddle pop sticks, match sticks, felt and cardboard

Parrot mini-drones

Sphero robots

LEGO NXT and EV3 robotics

Littlebits electronics

Cubelets robots

Digital microscopes

And before you ask a 3D printer? – No (not yet convinced!)

As K-6 classes identify what suits both students and teachers we will top up kits as needed. Initially we have had great success with Sphero and Parrot mini-drone coding through Tickle app. We don’t want the kids just driving and flying the drones (though it is an introduction) we want students taking on challenge problems using coordinates, angles, distance and time. Logical programming apps such as Tickle enable this to occur.

From the high tech of drones to low tech, students are planning, making, testing and improving their designs. Marble runs with cardboard rolls and paddle pop sticks and simply creating plasticine modelled landscapes and objects are still a favourite.

Interestingly and pleasingly, making and tinkering is already moving into classrooms with children and teachers using both high tech (Littlebits, Sphero etc) and low tech (plasticine, cardboard).

As making becomes embedded in the contemporary teaching and learning cycle I’m sure we will see more making and tinkering in rooms, and it will become a norm rather than the exciting and somewhat ‘new’ type of learning often thrown into the now well out of date 21st Century learning myth.

Always learning.

2016 Honeywell Educators@Spacecamp

You only have to read previous posts to see how much the Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program has influenced my STEM teaching over the past five years –from rocketry and space, LEGO NXT and EV3 robotics to innovative math lessons such as 2015 coding with Sphero and Parrot Spider mini-drones.

Applications are now open for 2016. Follow the link for a possible countdown to global collaboration, life long friendships and rewarding professional learning!

Dare Mighty Things!


Cubes in Space – Student Space Experiments

Enabling authentic science or learning in any subject area is a real passion of mine. I want my students, and those in other classes to partake in learning that has true meaning and purpose whenever possible. Authentic learning hooks students (and adults for that matter) because it is REAL and students rightly believe that what they are doing has both real purpose and validity. You don’t find it in worksheets, most textbooks or in any one size fits all form of teaching with a teacher blah, blah blahing at the front of the room.



Space science and project based learning have provided my students with fun, exciting and purposeful opportunities, and one that two groups of Mt Ousley students have participated in in 2014 and 2015 is the Cubes in Space (CiS) program.

CiS offers students across the globe an opportunity to send an investigation into space from NASA Langley Virginia on a sounding rocket. Yes… launch your idea… on a rocket with the help of NASA – very cool!

Here is the video of our 2014 launch.

Cool but challenging. The selected investigation had to be contained in a plastic cube container measuring approximately 40mmx 40mm x 40mm and weighing 30 grams or so.


Last year my first group of students submitted an idea to test the effects of magnetism in a micro-g environment. It is important to remember this is the students investigation and their research, as the teacher I’ve helped with materials and roughing out ideas but I don’t discuss their hypothesis or any misconception – that would take the fun out of it! The students covered one side of the magnet with iron filings and the other side with iron filing covered in chalk dust. The idea being to see if there was any movement of the filings due to reduced magnetism in space.

So what happened? Well the school bought in to the idea and many families sat up late to watch the live launch of the Terrier rocket – exciting in its own right! The local paper got on board and shared the students’ journey. A month later the payload returned and it was opened and yes there was chalk dust everywhere – something had happened to move the dust but what? The students then realised the potential flaw as the dust could have spread during the flight over, during the shake test, during micro-g? or on return. So with a smile of the unsure, the results were inconclusive.

This year another group of students chose to submit the same investigation, this time using rusted filings on one side and normal on the other. The idea being the rust would hold and a better indication of movement would be measured. Again the school bought in, the launch was watched, and the payload was launched and recovered.

A month later the payload returned to our school and again the iron rust had spread throughout the case covering not only the filings but also everything else! Again, no result that could confirm or deny the students’ beliefs. That’s the great thing about science, you have to keep failing forward and I look optimistically to next year when our third group of students will have their opportunity to get hands-on and launch their idea.

Important CiS is accepting applications from October 12 from schools across the globe for 2016 sounding rocket and weather balloon launch opportunities.

So get your kids together and enjoy the challenges and rewards of authentic space science through the Cubes in Space program.

Space Foundation – Teacher Liaison Professional Learning

Continuing to grow professionally and personally is an essential ingredient to maintaining enthusiasm, knowledge and currency in the teaching profession. Professional learning experiences for myself include life changing opportunities such as a Churchill Fellowship, Honeywell Educators@Spacecamp and Apple Distinguished Educator conferences, to earthy, yet as valuable, TeachMeets and Edcamps that offer valuable local networking and professional learning opportunities. ‘Thanks for sharing’ is so great to hear!

The Space Foundation Teacher Liaison program offers K-12 and other educators with a passion for space science and education, the opportunity to share, collaborate and network under the umbrella of The Space Foundation. Applications are now open and if you can demonstrate evidence of student engagement, community outreach, teacher education and a Space Foundation connection (not difficult) then you might well join the 2015/16 intake. Applications close December 4 2015.

Good voyaging –

K-6 Making and Tinkering (+ NSW syllabus links)

 because making is fun….

Tinkering and making, or Tinkertime as the kids term it, has been the learning activity of choice in my stage two class for the past year or so. After seeing a range of makerspaces and hands-on learning environments on my Churchill fellowship last year I was keen to introduce tinkering into my classroom.

Learning through play is the term used by Chris Rogers from TUFTS CEEO when talking about LEGO bricks and robotics as tools for classroom learning. Tinkering is also about learning though play and is inclusive of creative, challenging, reflective and shared learning experiences.

Photo 5


Tinkertime and making has proven a very successful way to have all students engaged in hands-on design and make activities.

There are demonstrable milestones and outcomes programmed against the NSW Science K-10 syllabus and the Working Technologically strand. Importantly, when combined with aspects of the Mathematics K-10 syllabus covering Working Mathematically and English K-10 via student reflection, tinkering offers comprehensive cross key learning area differentiated learning. The K-6 NSW outcomes that may be applicable are shown below.


science outcomeseng1


At the same time I regularly check-in with students to ensure that they are effectively reflecting on the design and make process. I have them verbally identify their successes but also challenges.

I always ask, ‘What could be improved?’ and ‘How sweaty is your brain?’, a question that encourages students to reflect on the mental effort and thinking that is taking place.

Frustration, failure and persistence are traits and experiences that students need a self-awareness and understanding of. Too often student mindsets don’t allow for failure and I’ve found that tinkering greatly develops resilience in students. Failure and mistakes are what tinkering is all about and giving up on a task is not an option.

Entry level tinkering

A few examples of successful activities and that also use a minimum of resources are outlined below.

The scribbling machine.

These simple yet effective machines are made with a cup, 3-5 felt tip markers and a small DC motor and battery with plasticine or similar to act as a balance. Students are set the challenge of designing a machine that scribbles across a page leaving a colourful and creative design or pattern. The trick is to get the motor out of balance so that the machine is vibrating across the paper. Adjusting the motor position and adding material to ensure that the shaft is out of balance are essential to success.





The marble run.

Marble runs have a been a wonderful surprise, this year. They are surprisingly simple, yet can offer degrees of complexity and opportunity that I had never considered. Using just paddle pop sticks and plasticine my class have had hours of challenging fun designing and testing courses with set criteria such as the run must take 9 seconds from start to finish, or, it must include 14 sticks or 3 acute angle and 4 obtuse angle drops. The criteria are endless!


What else? Well LEGO brick constructions, deconstructing broken mechanical items and toys, robotics in its many forms including littleBits, cubelets and NXT/EV3 robotics, paper and sewn circuits, coding and programming are all options during Tinkertime!


Photo 11

There are many resources now available on the web and I recommend Stager’s Invent to Learn text and website and the Exploratoriums Tinkering site for activity guides and their wonderful Coursera Tinkering course.

With the increasing focus on making STEM interesting, valid and valued within the K-6 curriculum, tinkering and making have rightfully bright futures in the contemporary teaching and learning environment.


Project Based Learning PBL – Sprucing up the classroom doors!

This is a follow up project based learning experience to “Operation Sandbox’ completed earlier in the year and detailed in a previous blog. The focus on this activity was on mastering aspects of area while sandbox dived deeply into volume. The feedback from most (but not all) students on ‘Operation Sandbox’ was that they really enjoyed the exploration, creative learning and real life aspects of the project. It was challenging, and of course many aspects of the maths content will be revisited for consolidation and extension during future maths lessons.

Mt Ousley PS staff are focusing on improving the learning spaces in the school. It’s a standard 1960 building with corridors, square rooms, and some areas that are under utilised for learning. Teachers have been allocated a generous budget to partially refurbish their rooms with flexible seating, storage and display furnishings – exciting times!

As classes increasingly focus on differentiated learning and small group learning, we are seeing students working on the floor, in corridors, bagrooms, our blue room recording studio and outside. Being 1:1 laptop also encourages student self-paced, anytime anywhere learning. A makerspace is being developed, new playground equipment has been installed and students are also designing a new outdoor learning area.

As our class collaborated and discussed items that would benefit our learning space the idea of painting the three dull green doors was raised; a perfect opportunity to engage the students in authentic learning via maths and the topic of area. I allowed the class to work in groups of 2-4 and set the task.

‘How much paint will we need to buy from the hardware store to adequately paint the three doors?

That was my set up question that would lead to other questions such as –

What units of measurement will use?

How will we physically measure aspects of the door?

How many coats does each door need?

What colour does the class agree on?

With a stage two class I had a small number of students who could confidently attack the problem and the majority who required some scaffolding and support, mainly through encouragment and providing confirmation that they were on the right track with strategies and equipment.

Over a week we had three practical sessions exploring the measurement tool used; metre ruler, class ruler or tape measure. Students practised taking accurate measurements in metres or centimetres. Students in their groups then used known area strategies, Googled ‘area’ calculations or came to me for tutorials on area.

We had a check in and found that some groups had the correct answer, while two that had only allowed for one coat of paint and forget to double their answer. The tutorial group had worked through the solution with my assistance.

The class then jumped onto the Dulux paint website and looked at enamel colours before reading the paint specifics from a hardware website to see what size tin was required. This was a great lesson in art and primary/secondary colours as we talked about the emotions of colour and how they impact a learning space. A lengthy discussion was had until we selected on a bright yellow to counter our turquoise green carpet and walls.

Ideally I would have had the students paint the doors, however  being enamel paint with strong fumes I decided against this. I did however have a few students give the doors a very light sand to get an idea of the preparation required. So with a one litre tin of bold yellow I’ve spent a couple of afternoons brightening up the room!  PBL

Photo 1 27So to me, PBL is a fun way of making learning authentic, engaging and challenging in a supportive and friendly manner. While backward mapping and careful programming are the keys to ensuring a cohesive delivery of the maths syllabus scope.


Project Based Learning PBL – Operation Sandbox; a primary school case study

‘Make the call,’ the stage 2 class chanted during the final part of our project as students rang a supplier to order and pay for a truckload of sand to refill the sand box. 

Project Based Learning, Challenge Based Learning, Purpose Based learning; call it what you will. The key is that it challenges both teacher and student to get out of their comfort zone (read boring for all, teach to the middle, not differentiated, textbooks etc.) and develop understandings through collaborative, authentic and real world challenges.

As we move to greater inquiry driven, differentiated and student centred learning opportunities, PBL through inquiry is a key enabler for success.

This term I set a PBL task a little different to my normal key learning area inquiry units and had students investigate, research and complete the task of refilling the school sandbox. Operation Sandbox was born as one student enthusiastically termed it!

With an empty sandbox that Kinder would like to use but couldn’t I had the ideal real world project with a meaningful outcome for the students to work on. Of course I could have asked the school office to ring up, order the sand and have it delivered but that would remove any opportunity for the students to make a meaningful contribution and engage in what turned out to be rewarding and insightful learning experience for all.

The Youtube video showcases the project and I’ll outline the key stages and make some observations.

I had the class form their own teams of 3-5 and took them to the sandbox, an empty box of around two metres by two metres and 45cm deep (of course they did not know this at the time, that was the challenge!). I then made it clear that the learning intention over the next three weeks was that our class, 3/4B had to calculate and order the correct amount of sand and have it delivered.

I then stepped back and had the groups go to work, they talked, debated and set about deciding what they had to do and what equipment they might use. Some students had a concept of area and that it was based on two sides, others knew that the words volume and capacity were involved. Initially none knew the formula to find the required volume.

After the first session each group shared their initial thoughts – use metre rulers, use 30cm class rulers, tape measures, 1000s blocks and one and two litre water containers. It was a real mix of strategies and ideas, and just what I hope to see, a cross pollination of ideas with some ideas stronger and more complete than others. Yet none were weak and all had real merit, even if they were not all practical as we would find out!

Over the next two weeks we had practical sessions and theory sessions. The practical sessions involved measuring, stacking 1000s blocks, running frantically with litre jugs of water. There was excitement, frustration, reflection and ‘gotcha’ or ‘uh ha’ moments when things stuck and concepts and skills were mastered.

Students discovered that volume and capacity are different, that finding the area only gets you so far, that measuring and re-measuring were important for accuracy (this was maths after all!). They went online to find local sand suppliers, asked me for the school credit card and looked at calendars and timetables to see the best times for delivery.

In the last week, three of the five groups achieved a volume calculation for the correct amount of sand, these were the groups using rulers and tape measures. I gave some clarification on the formula of length, width and depth but only when the students had forward the base idea. The group using 1000s blocks achieved area, but stalled at making two layers or doubling their base layer. The water group were wonderful to work with and are well represented in the video; their misconceptions and insights as they worked on the project are a delight to see. They chose water as they saw sand as a liquid, flowing if you like. Their thinking was interesting and they maintained a sense of humour even when things did not pan out as they had predicted. In this sense, their resilience was heartening to see. PBL challenges resilience and mindset.

So yes, eventually we made the call and two students used the credit card to order the sand and have it delivered. Kindergarten were and are happy, though just last week I saw that the sand is already thinning and much is on the ground where the children have built little castles and the like. So soon the opportunity will repeat itself and another class will take its turn. I’m already on the lookout for rooms needing painting, floors needing covering, gardens needing soil and so on. And that’s without looking beyond the school fence to where strong community and local connections can be made and successes celebrated.

PBL requires teamwork, commitment, reflection, a sense of humour and real effort; all things that we need to nurture and encourage in our students. Importantly it can be fun and makes teaching all the more enjoyable for the teacher and learning all the more enjoyable for students when adequate time and support are provided.

Mindsets and Education

For the last year I’ve had a class mindset poster on my year 3/4 room wall. One of my goals (along with the school in general) has been to develop and foster in our students a resilience and commitment to learning through having high expectations and a reflective and respectful culture within the class.

  1. We can succeed but might fail on the way.
  2. This learning has meaning for us.
  3. We are respectful and reflective learners.

Sentence starters for conversations, an expectation of respect and reflection at the end of most lessons have contributed to an improved classroom culture and strong sense of togetherness.

I’ve recently had the chance (or time!) to consider the work of Carol Dweck and her work in developing growth mindsets. Her text Mindset is a must read and there is much supporting research and readily available material on the Internet. There is a TED talk here by Dweck.

Both students and teachers benefit from a growth mindset. Students gain develop a resilience (so often lacking I’ve found), a comfort with making mistakes as part of the learning process and an understanding that effort and application positively help their learning. Importantly teachers also need a growth mindset to get the best out of all of their students, in fact a teacher without a growth mindset is not a teacher I would want in a school! More information on the school context is here.

So where do we go with this? Well this term I’m placing a stronger focus on the growth mindset in the classroom for my students along with encouraging all staff to explore their mindset as they drive into school each day and grow or suppress their students’ confidence and learning.

What can we do?

Praise effort not intelligence or talent – this is a biggie for me and also for Dweck. How many students do we have who are ‘naturally academic’ yet won’t take risks for the fear of failure. Those kids that have meltdowns when presented with a non-linear challenge such as project based learning or hands-on design and make activities which are classics. The students decide that they can’t risk failure so do not take risks, they themselves become locked into a fixed mindset which might limit their potential. At the same time the student’s resilience can be weakened if challenges are difficult and the risk of failure in their eyes is too great.

As teachers and parents we need to provide constructive feedback praising effort and application and persistence. We need to provide entry points for success for all students. Importantly we should maintain high expectation and be honest and provide support. We should not lower standards- easy work is a false reality and great disservice to our students. Dweck says and I would agree that ‘many teachers hide their own lack of ability behind statements such as ‘they don’t get it or are they don’t have the ability, why waste my time.’

Some other things to remember before we jump down a student’s throat and judge them in the negative is that all kids misbehave – it’s part of being a kid. Do we only want to teach perfect (whatever they may be) students based on our own misconceptions? We must move to growth-oriented teaching.

As Dweck says it is important not to judge, don’t give up on the dumb ones, believe in improvement and challenge and nurture our students. To repeat, praise effort and not intelligence!

Interestingly, to educators who also adopt the Visible Learning research and beliefs of John Hattie there are links and cross pollination of ideas. This article provides an insight into Visible Learning. A more complex cross referencing is by Gerry Miller in his paper Understanding John Hattie’s Visible Learning Research in the Context of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset

We need to tell the truth and give them the tools to make them stronger, more resilient and confident to achieve success, while fostering in our students the mindset of the life long learner, always seeking to be better.

FutureSchools and Inspire Innovate 2015 Presentations

Please find below presentations for –

FutureSchools 2015 Roundtable  –  K-6 STEM and Project Based Learning

Inspire Innovate 2015 –  Makerspaces and Tinkering in K-6


FutureSchools pdf of presentation – FutureSchools K-6 STEM and PBL

Inspire Innovate pdf of presentation – InspireInnovateTinkeringfinal

Genius Hour Starter (1)

Genius Hour Term 3 Rubric

Mt Ousley PS Genius Hour Rubric (1)

Novel Engineering –

The Tinkering Studio –

Coding –


Novel Engineering – engineering and literacy combined for student success!

Read a book, make a fish hook! Sound interesting?

If so, read on….

One of the real highlights of my recent Churchill tour to the USA was a visit to the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at TUFTS University, Boston. One of their main projects is Novel Engineering and the website at has detailed information. Essentially the project uses classroom literature as a context for engineering to engage kids in STEM through the integration of engineering and literacy.

Students identify a problem or challenge in a text and set about designing and building a solution to that problem. Examples of texts and the challenges the characters face can be found at


This term I have been using the classic American text My Side of the Mountain to support my Science and Human Society and its Environment units based on animal adaption and national parks. I’ve also been exposing my students to tinkering and makerspaces and they have responded very positively to design, make and create activities. So it was with interest that I set out to see how My Side could fit our ‘making’ environment in the classroom.

My Side of the Mountain has at its centre Sam Gribley and his adventures in the Catskill Mountains after he runs away from home. It is very much about adapting to a foreign and sometimes hostile environment with many practical challenges – ideal for novel engineering. One of the activities Sam completes in the book is the making of a fish hook using twigs and reeds/grass.

I set the task of having the students make their own fish hook using twigs, bark and natural materials from the school yard. I gave little practical guidance and we went outside and spent the first session collecting materials and ‘trying’ to make a hook. This was really interesting as students approached the activity in a number of ways; some jumped in and started trying to tie things together randomly while others took their time and found fine pieces of twig and casuarina leaves or tore grass plants into thin pieces for the weaving and tying.

first attempts

first attempts

first attempts - tying the hook using casuarina needles

first attempts – tying the hook using casuarina leaves

completed hooks

completed hooks 



Frustration also become evident for some students who while academically very capable and high achieving in the tradition sense could not complete to their satisfaction a finished design. We shared our finished designs of varying success and talked about the iterative design process and my favourite belief of ‘learning through mistakes’. We talked about what we could change in terms of material selection for the hook and for tying. We then returned and started afresh, this time students that struggled initially had taken on board suggestions, reflected on their designs and seen the success of others. Again we repeated the process and after a third making session of about thirty minutes we had our finished hooks ready to share.

On reflection I think that Novel Engineering has much to offer and caters especially well for students with learning difficulties or who might not always achieve the general mainstream academic success of their peers. I also found that both boys and girls engaged equally well, however students who have difficulty with say comprehension and reading could produce a product related to the text and explain the process that they had undertaken.

What struck me was how this type of engineering design task really allows all students to shine, one of my students really struggles with literacy and in this activity she shone and quickly crafted and delicately bound together a hook. She came to me beaming and explained that the needlework and craft that she did at home made the construction component that much easier.

I see great value in the project. It offers teachers who are not confident with the design and make process, a way in through using texts that they are familiar and at ease with. By combining both literacy and STEM, an integrated project learning experience is accessible and students have an engaging and challenging environment in which to succeed. Thanks also to Cara Rieckenberg from SEA school who recommended both this text and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series.

Churchill Fellowship Report and Recommendations.

Below are the key findings of my trip. The full report is available as a pdf here. Churchill Report.Bramsen


Conclusions and Recommendations


“Hook them while they are young.

The new science and maths syllabuses provide schools with timely opportunities to re-examine and explore their commitment to the teaching of science and maths. In this age, when the likes of the Melbourne Declaration and a focus on 21st century teaching and learning perspectives (such as Wagner) encourage reflection and change in term of teaching styles, technology use and the expectations and the role of the teacher, then redefining the student as an active and an engaged global learner offers further scope for teaching and learning innovations.

I commenced my trip with some ideas of what I thought worked well in my school, some preconceptions of things that might work well and an open mind to the many experiences that the trip would offer. Over the course of five weeks, and on reflection since, I’ve been able to clarify and identify some key ideas or opportunities that I believe can support our schools in creating meaningful, important and valued STEM learning experiences. As so many educators enthused, we need to hook students into the maths and sciences while they are young, i.e. 8-12 years old , ideally during the formative years when interests can be developed and grown.

The following recommendations are by nature as broad as schools are unique and are aimed at school leadership teams that will choose to initiate and customise programs that support the ethos, culture, direction and needs of their students.

Project based learning (PBL) is effective method of incorporating STEM into the K-8 classroom. Inquiry learning, challenge based learning and purpose based learning are similar models. PBL allows for exposure to both deep content and skills. Opportunities exist for collaborative teacher planning utilising teacher skill and interests. Consideration needs to be given to allocated class time, teacher ability, student self regulation, assessment criteria and the explicit teaching of curriculum as and when required. Schools can introduce PBL models through in NSW for example through Human Society and its Environment (HSIE), Science and Maths curriculum outcomes. Popular science programs such as the current Primary Connections provide strong support for teachers lacking confidence or skills in teaching science but importantly should also be used as a jumping off point to develop PBL opportunities. I value the comments of staff at High Tech High who state that PBL offers multiple entry points for students and enables them to achieve equitable success in a given area.

Device choice is essential for fully supporting a STEM program. Whether it be dedicated 1:1 or access to 1:1 as needed, a commitment to providing equitable device access to students is needed. Devices will be used for creating and curating content, collaborating and communicating, making, sharing, coding, designing and creating. A connected world is that which our students live in, they need access as required to make those connections, design solutions and share successes.

Integrated literacy and engineering offers an accessible entry point for all teachers to pursue STEM. By using stage appropriate texts that the teacher is familiar with, engineering and STEM challenges that confront the character in the text can be used to introduce design and engineering tasks. Sufficient time needs to be allocated to allow for the design and make process. This is ideal for group work and offers great scope for creativity and engagement with a text in previously unexplored ways. TUFTS CEEO has generated a list of texts used during its pilot program and these can be found on the website


completed hooks                                            20% timeCompetition bot                                                       \HTH  Lego engineering



Specialist STEM subjects and enrichment/outreach should be utilised. Integrated STEM subjects could include programming and coding in Scratch for developing maths logic, LEGO robotics for measurement, Sketchup for 3D shapes, Garageband for music and notation, Arduino programming and the like. Staff expertise should be utilised and syllabus planning undertaken. Integrating STEM into the classroom offers scope to hook all students whereas lunch and after school groups cater for those already hooked. Integrated STEM subjects especially in grades 6-9 can leverage staff expertise ad student interest to provide a comprehensive cross curricula STEM opportunities. Enrichment and outreach are valid avenues (and in some cases the only avenue) to offer STEM specialty clubs and projects (e.g. Science club, First Lego League, VEX robotics, school environmental initiatives) to students, however as mentioned previously, the students that put their hand up for these opportunities are already often convinced that STEM is an area of curiosity or interest for them. The challenge remains in the mainstream classroom where all students need to be exposed to STEM opportunities that are differentiated and engaging. Coding and programming are increasingly being valued as skills required of students and future adults. Both the UK and USA education systems are placing increased emphasis on the formal teaching of coding through the likes of MIT Scratch, app development and traditional computer languages.

Global connections and use of experts encourages authentic learning through making real connections, Teachers and students need to leverage, connect, value and share in partnerships through building long term partnerships with outside agencies, other schools and the greater community. PBL, Scientists in Schools, Skype and face to face mentors are some examples. The walls in a school are designed to hold up the roof, that is all. Connections and global sharing are key tenants of the 21st century teaching paradigm and cannot be ignored. Social media networks through Facebook, departmental platforms (e.g. Yammer in NSW) and Twitter offer access to professionals with similar interests or specific expertise that can be leveraged to benefit student learning.

Teacher quality via extensive professional learning is essential for a successful STEM program. Consideration needs to be given to staffing positions, leadership awareness of teacher skill sets and encouraging staff with differing skills and experience to collaborate and possibly mentor/team teach. Enhancing skills and knowledge through internal development first and external options if appropriate. Teacher quality was raised by all institutions visited as extremely important to a successful STEM program. Teachers with effective classroom management strategies, a responsive nature, powerful questioning and communication skills and an ability to create a culture of mutual respect are well positioned to maximise teaching and learning opportunities and outcomes for their students.

In NSW the Quality Teaching Framework provides the structure and research to inform quality teaching in schools. Combined with the influential work of John Hattie, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority, leadership teams in NSW and Australia are well supported in developing and implementing quality teacher professional learning and development initiatives.

Makerspaces/learning spaces are 21st century spaces for creative learning and making. They encompass easy access, are open to all, have varied lighting, use modular furniture and are resourced with hands-on equipment such as electronics, pencils, paper, recyclables, computers, toys, play-doh, LEGO, Makey Makey devices, circuits, building equipment, tools, squishy electrical circuits and more. Schools need to identify a space, plan with student input and resource and timetable appropriately. Tinkering, constructing and de-constructing offer hands-on engineering opportunities that allow for student success and that engage student’s who may otherwise be at risk of failure in literacy especially. Children respond to ‘making’ and learning through play activities as a natural process. When scaffolded through curriculum outcomes, practical skill development and progress milestones, students can share a made product or artefact as an everyday part of classroom learning.  The text Invent to Learn is highly recommended for anyone looking to know about current education trends and pedagogy in this exciting new (yet old in many ways) area of learning.

Churchill Fellowship Tour

I was fortunate in 2013 to receive a Churchill Trust Fellowship for travel in 2014.

The driving question and focus is;

To study programs that successfully engage and enthuse primary and middle school students in MES (Maths, Engineering and Science)  or STEM learning to schools, universities and institutions in the USA and UK.

Please see the top of homepage and the link to the Churchill trip including observations and thoughts. A full and final report will be completed on my return in April 2014.

Project Based Learning – TeachWild Marine Debris Project


I recently spent a week with fellow teachers, educators and scientists on North Stradbroke Island as a part of the Teachwild Marine Debris Project managed by the CSIRO and Earthwatch.

debris survey

debris survey

Our school has a real focus on making connections and project based learning –  we want our students actively engaged with their studies and learning that has a purpose. TeachWild, through the monitoring of marine debris encourages students to contribute data on a national level while taking on an environmental stewardship role locally.

As a part of the project I wrote a daily blog that details the learning and how students benefit.


I also made a video showcasing the week