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The Power of Paper(Airplanes)

Conference season has begun! This year, we kicked off with poster session at SciCOMM 2016. This great event allowed us a chance to engage with the local community and to have some in depth discussion with those interested in what we’re doing.

20160923_161950-1Friday night found us in the Railyard making paper airplanes with kids of all ages (and, even their parents). We also wore awesome hats. Our idea was simple: bring a ream of copy paper and have people show us their idea of what a paper airplane should look like. Through this, we engaged them in discussion about what the airplane does, what impact different designs have on the functions of the airplane. The idea starting from a place of “what do you want the airplane to do?” – having the participants decide the specific objectives. Then, working together to see how we could design and airplane to be faster, go further, flip. For those who had no idea how to make an airplane, we had a couple of stock designs to teach them.


I think one of the greatest things about this for me was being able to articulate to people how easy it can be to engage in a learning moment without feeling the need for the usual trappings of school. We were not in a traditional classroom, we were not using traditional curriculum or materials. Yet, we transformed our outdoor table into an interactive, educational experience.


Whole families came by to see how to make paper airplanes, to talk about aerodynamics, to talk about engineering (how to design for a target purpose) to talk about science – and to have fun. Several siblings decided to have a competition. To see who could create the airplane that would fly the longest, that would go the highest, that would complete the highest number of loops. Science doesn’t always have to be complicated. Teaching and learning doesn’t always require a classroom.

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Maker Madness

This summer, Zoe and I were thrilled to present three workshops at the Lincoln Children’s Museum. These workshops built on our Universal Design for Learning with embedded academic language by challenging participants to think, act, and talk like scientists and engineers.

First, during the Abracadabra camp, participants got to learn about the science behind bubbles and slime. We all got our hands dirty using household materials to make different kinds of bubbles (some were even edible!) and Kool-Aid colored and scented slime. You can check out our simple lesson plan here.


In these pictures, Brandy leads campers in making slime out of Metamucil, Kool-Aid, and water!


Who knew bubbles were serious—ly fun science? 🙂 Zoe leads campers in exploring different ways to make bubbles.

Next, we all became electrical engineers (and chefs :-)) for a day as we created Squishy Circuits dough, learning about the difference between conducting and insulating. The kids then turned the dough into awesome light up creations. Our simple lesson plan is here.

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Finally, we wrapped up with an oldie-but-a-goody, a making workshop using recyclables, tape, and glue to create Moon Buggies. The younger kids followed the directions step-by-step, while the older kids used their imaginations and knowledge of cars to develop their own creations. You can check out the lesson plan for the younger kids here and modify it as needed for more autonomy for older kids. Special shout-out to our helpers!

Just look at how much fun we had making Moon Buggies!

We’re looking forward to the fall when we will be making our Mad Scientist/Engineer Hour concept a monthly thing at the Lincoln Children’s Museum. Come join us!

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Spontaneous Making

Brings all the students to the yard.


Okay, so maybe the play on words was a bit much, but Brandy and I had such a great time at the Nebraska Educational Technology Association’s (NETA) conference that I couldn’t resist. We signed up to be part of the “playground” at NETA and set out to give teachers a chance to prototype with rockets. The amazing part was that, unbeknownst to us, there were 20160422_110905students attending the conference. It was the students who came to the booth and wanted to play with the recyclables. Of course, that was a happy surprise for us. We brought a bunch of materials, and expected to spend most of our time walking teachers through the process. But, when the students caught sight of our table, the discussion quickly changed to one of “look at what the students are doing”. The truly great part for me was having evidence of why this type of activity works. It is more than just students being entertained, or simply having a good time; both of which are important aspects of learning. The first group of students wanted to prototype something that would help students learn about they heart, so they pulled out their phones – not to Snapchat, or text their friends, but to look up a heart diagram to help them draw an anatomically correct heart.


For me, this was a drop the mic moment because I felt like everything Brandy and I have been developing, thinking about and showing to educators at conferences was validated in this moment. Our booth, which stood out from the crowd due to its lack of tri-board, had a small crowd of students surrounding it. They wanted to hear about what all the “stuff” on the table was. They wanted to explore, they wanted to demonstrate their learning and knowledge.

It didn’t take much either. Our table was made up of a bunch of leftovers, a bunch of stuff K-12 teachers could find in the supply room, or bring from home by saving recyclable materials prior to having students engage in a prototyping activity. Or better, encourage students to bring recyclables from home, too. It’s such an easy way for students to demonstrate their knowledge and have an outlet for their creativity. 20160422_115922One of the other groups create a monster. When asked, the student told me the monster was angry because everyone thought the monster was scary, “but he isn’t”. I ran into the students later in the day and was quickly told of the monster’s untimely demise, but they quickly told me the monster had been photographed, so I assured them it wold live on in the digital universe. What I think is so powerful about this moment, is the lesson extended beyond the few moments these students spent at our booth. They remembered the activity, and their creation took on a life of its own. This is what creates lifelong learners. This is the power of an informal learning environment. This is science that engages.


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Sunday with the Scientists


Brandy and I had the chance to volunteer at Sunday with the Scientists, a program sponsored by the University of Nebraska State Museum. The program allows kids to come and have hands on experiences with science and technology. As you can see from the picture on the left, I worked with the alligator clamps and Lilly Pad technology to teach kids how to make simple circuits. Using alligator clamps, the kids would use a battery to connect to various colored LED lights. For kids who were interested, they were also shown how to make a parallel circuit, and how microchips could be introduced to the circuit to control how the lights operated.

Another activity presented was Squishy Circuits. At this station, kids used conductive dough to light up LED lights. Kids learned about conductive versus insulating materials.11991_10102507795270197_4439162064663137074_n The dough functioned as wire, allowing younger kids, especially ones with less find motor skills a hands on experience with circuits.Kids were able to explore how pressing the various types of dough together would either allow the current to flow, or prevent the current from flowing. Batteries were once again used to power the the LED lights, and kids learned the difference between positive and negative power affect the flow of electricity.

As an added bonus, the local news station, KLKN Channel 8, had a reporter on site getting interviews with the kids and even some of the volunteers. You can hear my voice as I explain some of the steps to making the circuit work, and there’s even a clip of video with me in it. It’s great to see the local news stations taking an interest in these events, showing the efforts UNL students are taking to bring real, meaningful educative experiences to students when they’re not in the classrooms.

Check out the video here.

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Reduce, Reimagine, Relaunch: Prototyping with Recyclables


Just before New Years, Brandy and I participated in our second program with the Lincoln Children’s Museum (LCM). This lesson was part of the Full STEAM Ahead program run by the LCM. As part of a 3 day camp, kids engaged in various STEAM related activities, classes, and exhibits.

Our lesson was modified from the HS Prototyping with Rockets lesson developed as part of our Science Literacy curriculum. The challenge was creating an experience for the kids that was simple enough for them to grasp, but challenging enough for them to learn. Prototyping is an abstract concept, challenging for my undergrads to readily grasp. Finding a way to explain the concept to kids with the average age being 8 pushed me to think in new ways. I kept thinking about it in terms of creating, teamwork and imagination. All of those are concepts easier to explain to kids.

Working in groups, kids collected recyclable materials to create their rockets. 12434306_10102480723053137_1493875266_nWorking in groups gave them the opportunity to collaborate, to combine their ideas in order to come to the best possible solution. Of course, some kids were more resistant than others to group work, some wanting to make their own rockets. The thought behind the recyclables was to also expose kids to the idea of reusable materials, showing them how to reuse everyday household items for creative purposes. For educators, the recyclables are a way to keep the cost of the activity to a minimum, and allow students to be active in the cultivation of materials for the lesson.

Several of the rockets were imaginative, and some struggled through the teamwork aspect of working in a group – and often, their rockets reflected this. Overall, the kids had a great time and were exposed to new vocabulary, many using the word prototyping correctly and being able to describe what the process entailed.


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Cukuoo for Edible Clocks

CuckooDays after Thanksgiving 2015, Zoe and I came to the Lincoln Children’s Museum to present our first collaborative workshop—and to learn more about the population the museum serves. The museum has been undergoing extensive renovations, including the introduction of a multi-story functional build-it-yourself cuckoo clock. This led us to develop a lesson that was designed to complement the day’s focus on clocks and building—and being just plain fun. We invited participants to build their own clock faces, out of food. Supplying graham crackers, frosting, fruit, and candy, the children designed their own clock faces that displayed their favorite times of the day. This lesson engaged participants in practice with directional vocabulary, color lexemes, and process-orientated thinking, while supporting the Nebraska Early Learning Guidelines. The workshop was so much fun and we look forward to future opportunities to work with the museum and with the Lincoln community.

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Georgia TESOL Presentation

12195765_10102391607421577_2298065047308335834_nThis past October, Zoe and I were able to bring our universally designed science lessons to the 2015 GATESOL conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This enabled us to share our work with fellow teachers, primarily ESL teachers, for the first time. At the conference, we presented on our middle school lesson. This lesson integrates Nearpod into a solar system focused astronomy lesson.

The lesson was well received, with many of the teachers expressing excitement and interest in the future lessons. The integration of the Nearpod platform with accommodation strategies including cloze passages, guided notes, and gallery walks seemed to grab their attention and spark inspiration for things they could do in their classrooms. Attendance was very high and the feedback was great.

While at GATESOL, we also attended a session on writing for GATESOL’s journal, GATESOL in Action. The workshop was inspiring and we are working on submitting a piece on universal design to the journal. Fingers crossed!