Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Pi Wars!

When I started teaching, I had no idea that at some point I would be welcoming three year 11 students into my hotel room to cover the bathroom floor in insulation tape, at 11pm. However this was what happened on the 31st March, the reason? Pi Wars.

Pi Wars is without doubt the most fun, most challenging and best value robotics challenge available for schools. The challenge is to create a robot powered by the raspberry pi and smaller than an A4 sheet of paper to complete a series of challenges, including an obstacle course, line following and of course Pi Noon. With such a wide brief the variety of robots brought by the times was vast, from an ice cream tub on wheels to custom laser cut, high powered creations. The only constant being they have a Raspberry Pi of one version or another at their heart.

The real beauty of Pi Wars is the focus on robotics though. Other challenges require pupils to deliver presentations on a topic loosely connected the robots purpose, surrounding an aspect of science or engineering in the world around us. Not so Pi Wars. The focus is entirely on making the best robot possible – and that is quite simply fantastic. This suited the team. All of the pupils in the team had at one stage or another had a prolonged spell of school absence and was attending my school’s provision for pupils with high anxiety or a diagnosed mental health need. Several of the pupils viewed the world from a position on the autistic spectrum. Pi Wars was the perfect challenge for them. And they rose above anyone’s expectations, coping with the noisy and busy environment,  electronic dramas on the robot and working with other competitors.

Which brings me to the robot the team fielded. Crafted a couple of weeks prior to the competition after we discovered the first version’s power issues were due to the motors drawing around 4 amps each, it was a mix of components on a chassis we had lasercut. Not particularly complex by pi wars standards, it was nevertheless a real challenge to build and program. Not only for the pupils but for me as the teacher! Twitter was essential in finding solutions to the challenges we faced, for example, how do you schedule a crontab event that needs to run with sudo privileges? This sort of challenge shows just how valuable the Raspberry Pi community is, it would be impossible to build a working robot without such support and back up.

There are very few challenges in schools which see everyone stumped and hunting for a solution, staff and students alike. That’s why we were in the hotel bathroom with insulation tape – trying to get the line following program working. It did work, sort of.

I can’t recommend Pi Wars enough, and we hope to go next year!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

This is What Burnout Looks Like

It stalks the staffrooms of today, and is the universal warning of more experienced to less experienced ones. The dreaded "burnout". What does it look like? Total exhaustion.

Last term I pushed it hard. I work on a small software project for school on the side of teaching, leading a teaching group, school clubs and all the other periphery which goes with modern day teaching. I pushed it too hard, in a bid to make push through some large updates.

As a consequence, by the time the last day arrived I was tired to the point of total exhaustion. With the relief of finishing term, on the last day I cycled home after going to the pub (for orange juice and lemonade) with collegues, and lost it. Not in the crying, chair throwing, uncontrolled emotional "lost it" I occasionally see from my pupils, but in the ability to cycle. I crashed out.

This is what burnout looks like-

As a result of the damage, and a loss of confidence in the bike (it is a weird match of components), I have ended up with a new bike and more safety gear. But more importantly I have learnt the value of stopping, and not working too hard. Hopefully I can learn it well this time.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Resources for PLT Day Training

Thanks to all those who survived the PLT day training I ran and hopefully didn't get too bored. Here's a link to all the resources from the day. Enjoy!

Teaching the Internet

You know when get stuck in a rut teaching the same topic each year, but you only ever seem to teach it one way? I had that with teaching how the internet worked. I reckon it's because by the time the internet pops up in our scheme of work were getting close to the first half term and everyone is knackered, but maybe that's just me. Either way, the teaching I was doing at the time just wasn't up to scratch. So this year I decided to do something a bit different, I introduced a really simple activity that I had thought up on the fly (normally either whilst otherwise engaged or running). We were going to model the internet using chocolate!

Now I don't know what your school's rules on using chocolate for teaching are, but ours is "we don't like it but if they're not bouncing off the walls we can sort of ignore it." I scrapped my original plan to act it out with pupils walking along paths marked by masking tape after a single attempt (too much distraction). Instead we mapped it out on the bench as you can see above. Different chocolate goes in the IP addressed envelopes on the left and the post-its act as the data packets.

Pupils gave their "orders" in the form of plain text (eg mars), they then had to describe the function of every component the "packet" passed through on the way to collecting the chocolate, from the client (cut off in the picture) throught the router and the modem, to the ISP, to the DNS, to the ISP and out to the server (collecting the chocolate), and then back to client. The pupils got it! I was surprised, but I'm really chuffed with them :)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Data Analyst Anyone?

In this age of Multi-Academy Trusts, five zillion data collection points an academic year, and measuring the "progress" of pupils with summative assessment every time they enter the school building, we are generating loads of data. And that's not counting the data we generate on a day to day basis as teachers by completing a register, filing behaviour incidents, etc etc.

Whats the point of all this data? Well, in most schools I've been in, I would suggest there's not much point. This is not down to the desire to see normal teachers die under a workload of data recording by SLT, rather I would put it down to ignorance. Schools feel they have to record everything to cover all the bases, most importantly that when the dreaded OFSTED show up they can produce some nice case studies of pupils with their full back story, progress history, what they had for lunch etc. There is also the knowledge that some kids, whilst they may not have made "enough" progress academically, have made progress in terms of their behaviour, ability to stay in lesson etc, schools know this is in their data somewhere, but because it tends to be spread out over different systems it is difficult to show this using the data recorded. The majority of data goes to waste because people, genuinely, don't know what to do with it to turn it into some sort of meaningful information which can better the learning experience for the kids.

So are we stuck in this mess? No! Lots of tools are out there for teachers to use to have a look at their data. However, all of these require time to learn to use effectively, then we can begin the process of analysing data to produce information. So at very least investigative data analysis should be a TLR if not a full time job, and it will take time to produce results. It also helps if the person doing the analysis is up to speed with data and statistical analysis methods (I'm a science teacher so I'm going to take the biased view point that a science graduate would be best, but I realise that's a pretty narrow view).

So what would a school data analysts job look like? I would suggest that their time would be split between producing reports for progress etc on a regular basis, highlighting for staff anomalies in the data and disparities (to lead to higher data reliability), but they also need at least 25% of their time devoted to "blue sky" research. By this I mean they are free to investigate a hypothesis and questions, for example can we detect kids at risk of exclusion in KS4 early from their KS2/3 data and thereby setup an "early warning" system for future pupils? Obviously the data analyst would need some fairly serious computing resourcing if they're analysing data over the past 10 years, but in the age of cloud computing on demand that should be doable.

To conclude. I reckon it would be a good job! I'd quite enjoy it, I also reckon it would allow schools to turn piles of languishing data into information that has an impact on pupils education.

Useful links

As my old university tutor (Dr Paul Kenton) used to say "the plural of data is not information" (or similar)

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Back online

Either because I've found some more time (unlikely) or I've missed blogging (more likely) the blog is now back online - new content coming soon!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Blog mothballed

I've decided to mothball my blog for the time being. At present I don't have time to properly research and write decent posts, and there's plenty of rubbish online without me adding to it! Twitter will stay active though :)