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© 2016, California State Parks A PORTS interpreter videoconferences from Point Lobos State Reserve.

Picture this. A kayak bobs on the gentle waves in the midst of a giant kelp forest. Nearby a raft of sea otters groom themselves as they float placidly anchored in the kelp. “Why do they have such dense fur?” a student asks. “What might be the benefits of a thick fur coat in the ocean?” the state park interpreter bobbing in the kayak inquires of the students sitting in their classroom thousands of miles away. Interactive videoconference programs like this happen every day through the California State Parks PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students)™ Program.

PORTS is a free distance learning program designed to connect K-12 students in their classrooms to the wonderful resources preserved and protected in California State Parks in a meaningful and engaging way. Want to bring in a content specialist to talk with your students about ecosystems but you don’t know who? The PORTS program places those content specialists at your fingertips virtually. Students can converse directly, in real-time, with a state park interpreter at one of ten state parks. Through the engaging and interactive PORTS programs students get to see and apply their classroom lessons to a real world scenario.

© 2014, California State Parks PORTS within the US Immigration Station Barracks at Angel Island State Park.

With the advancement of mobile videoconferencing technology PORTS is stepping up its game to connect K-12 students to California’s state parks. One way we are doing this is by moving outside the confines of the green screen studio and to videoconference with your students directly from the park resource. Students can converse with a state park interpreter standing in next to a giant redwood tree at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, kneeling next to a tide pool at Crystal Cove State Park, walking between rows of metal bunks at the US Immigration Station in Angel Island State Park, or paddling in a kayak in Whaler’s Cove at Point Lobos State Reserve just to name a few of the PORTS mobile locations.

For some students when they participate in a PORTS program this may be the first time they have seen the ocean live or gazed into a forest. Using technology tools like tablets and GoPro cameras to zoom in on natural specimens or historic artifacts, or share scientific data or historic stories, PORTs interpreters can now bring the state park resources directly to the students in a way that encourages critical thinking and analysis.

Another way PORTS is stepping up its game is through its long-time partnership with the K-12 High Speed Network (HSN). PORTS is just a click away now for teachers thanks to the K-12 HSN’s deployment of Vidyo , a cloud-based videoconference bridge system. In the past schools needed stand alone, standards-based

© 2013, California State Parks PORTS is just a click away on a tablet or computer.

videoconference machines to participate in PORTS. Through Vidyo, teachers can easily connect to a PORTS program with a simple click on a web link we provide using a computer with a web-camera, or a tablet device. With one computer or tablet connected to a display device at the front of a classroom, set up is easy. The hardest part is choosing a PORTS program for your students and a date to videoconference with a live, state park interpreter.

The California State Parks PORTS program is an easy way to bring to life the concepts your students are learning in the classroom. With the advancements in technology and easy connection we are one step closer to bringing California State Parks into your classroom for an engaging and meaningful program. For more information about PORTS visit us on our website at www.ports.parks.ca.gov.

Heather Holm has 15 years of experience in museum education and public history, having worked in various non-profit museums, archives, and California State Parks. Serving as program coordinator in Northern California for the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) Distance Learning Program Heather is responsible for coordinating and developing relationships in the educational community, and providing professional development trainings on technology for teachers and State Park Interpreters.

Crash and Dot- A STEAMpunk Experiment

20151119_095009Dash and Dot Wonder arrived at my classroom in a big orange box. Excitement turned to nerves as I realized I had no idea what to do with these small robots and 30 5th graders.

Not long ago CUE STEAMpunk sent me five Spheros. My class figured them out through experimentation and play and we learned a lot about coding, persistence, and iteration learning. When we were given the chance to have three Dash and Dot Wonder pairs I immediately said “yes!” And, just like with the Spheros, I had no idea what to do with them once I got them.

I realize it’s not pedagogically sound to have a lesson plan that says:

Step 1- Hand students robots.

Step 2- ???

Step 3- Learning!

But that’s how I like to introduce new things. We spent our first day with the bots looking at the various apps, making Dash spin and moo, and trying to share. (You’ll see this information again.) The students were explicitly told, “I don’t know what these do. Your job is to learn and teach me. We’re going to come up with some ideas together.”

A day wasn’t enough time for them to come up with something we could do to demonstrate learning that I felt was creative and challenging. I will note that CUE will and does provide starter lessons, as well as links to what other people have done. But I’m- let’s go with “creatively-minded” rather than “stubbornly independent.” I took to the tweets and asked brother Sam Patterson for some advice. In the list of his suggestions was, “Jousting is fun.”

Jousting. With robots.  I got a hit and my mind went ping. I showed a joust on the class projector. I made the announcement.  

Jousting is cool. I think I set it up fairly well. I tried to give every student important, engaging work. But that’s not enough and here, I think, is where the project lost part of the plot- I had three pairs of Dash and Dot and I’ve got 30 kids. Pull out your cellphones and figure out the group size that gives me. I’ll wait.

20151113_101727Right? Those are exceptionally large groups for the most well behaved class, which I mostly have. Kids want to be involved, they want to be learning, but I’ve only got one iPad to control the bot per group so there’s got to be more to do. I assigned armorers. Ok, not true– I told the kids to assign armorers inside their groups. I also assigned slideshows which should cover very specific things about the process. I tried to make sure everyone was involved. I stressed handing around the iPad and being sure everyone in every group could explain what everyone else was doing. We will all be coding. We will all be learning.

Cue the music and the active, productive noise and movement.

In the end, the kids were proud of their work and they have the right to be. Their slideshows are stellar. The armor looked good, and almost every kid could speak clearly about what they learned. None of the project’s failings were on them or on the STEAMpunk program. But jousting, for what I wanted, for the capabilities of the bots, was a poor choice on my part. I didn’t realize that until we were too far into the project to hit the brakes and try something new. It wouldn’t have been fair to the kids to stop. Normally I’m all about stopping when something doesn’t work, but when you’re locked into a two week time frame you make do.

Had I it to do over I think we’d code a play. Maybe a musical. By jousting we basically used Dash like a Sphero. We didn’t take advantage of all the things we could have done. But a play or a dance routine, that would have pushed our code much further. It would have taken advantage of the things that make the Dash and Dot bots unique. They talk, they look around, they work together.

20151130_100127On the day of our final jousts I was feeling down about the lesson. I felt I hadn’t planned well enough, guided well enough, thought it through well enough, and we’d squandered a wonderful opportunity. Then they ran their programs and the kids got so excited. They cheered their knights, their codes worked, and they seemed to genuinely enjoy what they’d accomplished. (I also realized much too late that I’d basically told them to crash robots we don’t own into each other. Whoops. Low speed impacts aren’t that bad. Roger Goodell told me so.)

What turned my attitude around was what happened after the jousts were done. Reflection and student voice are important, as we all know, so I asked my class to assess how they felt about Dash and Dot vs Spheros: Dawn of Coding. Compare and contrast our experiences. Rate and review. I fully expected most of the class to be Team Sphero. Instead, and you can see some of this for yourself in the video starting at 5:55, I got excellent reasoning and thoughtful explanations of how they felt about what they’d done. On their own they talked about the greater possibilities of Dash and Dot and were legitimately excited to explore those possibilities. I’ve also linked to two of the slideshows the groups created (one and two) and here too you can see deep thinking and learning taking place.

I’m less modest than most, something I freely admit, but I take no credit for the learning my students did with Dash and Dot. They demonstrated once again that if given specific goals, plenty of support, and a lot of freedom, learning takes many shapes.

And, because of the CUE STEAMpunk program, my school’s MakerSpace is open for business, complete with four Spheros and a plan for some Dash and Dot sets. This learning will not stay in my classroom. I can’t wait to let my kids guide other classes in their exploration.


CdxiPwKUYAAr5NwDoug Robertson is the CUE blog editor, Ravenclaw faculty representative, and a tenth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education, He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome) and an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words).  Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST

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