Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Plate Tectonics - a digital escape room and how to create one

Escape rooms have been in vogue in education for a couple of years. The proponents, such as Breakout EDU, tout them as a fun way to engage the students, and I can totally see the appeal. However, the mere idea of purchasing all those locks and boxes, making all those copies and "transforming" my classroom for a class period gives me nightmares. I also knew that there was a digital version of escape rooms, which house everything on the cloud and for my situation seemed more manageable, but again I had not really thought about actually running one.

As I was prepping for my classes a couple of weeks ago, I came to that awful realization that sometimes happens. I would finish a unit a day before a break. Not a good time to start something new but a great time to review. Usually, my fall back would be to create a Quizziz or Kahoot and call it a day, but as I was thinking about this and scrolling down on my Edmodo stream I saw a post talking about digital escape rooms and thought, what if I just take the plunge and create one. From my Boss Battles and some of the other stuff I've done with gamification, I knew some of the mechanics that I could use, and while visiting BreakoutEdu's sandbox I saw there were several sites housed on Google sites. I visited those in the hopes of getting some inspiration and was not disappointed. From there I gathered that I needed some kind of narrative (why are the students attempting to break out?), a set of tasks (the questions that will need to be answered in order to break out), a conditionally formatted Google form (where students will input "the codes"), some sort of linked image (to make the game "interactive"), and a set of "decoders". Before I proceed, let me show you what the end product looks like:

Plate Tectonics Escape Room

Creating a digital escape room

The tasks: 

Research has shown that educators should begin with the end in mind. For this particular escape room, I needed review questions, which I already had. However, if you are inspired to create your own, this would be the time to think about what you'd like the students to interact with/do. Since I knew that I would be creating linked hotspots on an image I housed each set of questions on individual Google slides and spent some time making them pretty.

The decoders:

For the escape room that I was creating students would need to answer the questions correctly, and I needed some way to also not make it a straightforward "abcd" selection. A Google search of escape room decoders gave me some ideas and the magic of Google draw made them possible.
Though I did not use it for this game, LearningApps would also be a great way to do it since you can create the task and add messages at the beginning and end, much like what you see here:

The main image:

This is where you will house all of the clues and tasks you have created. For me, this is a Google Drawing that uses a cluttered image as the background. Think "Where's Waldo", "I Spy"  or any room image that has lots of smaller images where you can "hide" things. The messier the image the better. Once I selected a background image I liked, I added transparent shapes to it and linked them to the 6 tasks I had created. If you are unsure about how to do this, visit @mpilakow's blog post "Hiding Easter Eggs in a Google Drawing"

The Decoys: 

Although you do not have to do this, while hiding Easter Eggs in previous classroom activities, I learned that my tech-savvy students quickly figured out a way to "find" them all by creating copies and using the select all option on their own copy. Since this would defeat the purpose of searching for clues, I decided to create decoys also hidden within the main image. These are one-page, published to the web Google slides, that also open, but are irrelevant to "escaping" the room and sometimes have some sort of commentary.

Below you see the image that I chose, with all the tasks and decoys before they are hidden:

The narrative:

This is where you get to be a little creative. Students need a reason to escape or look for clues, and while it needs to offer the incentive to engage with the tasks, it does not have to be long or convoluted. In the case of the Plate Tectonics escape room I created it simply reads:

"It is the year 2050, and a group of scientists has been sent out to explore the center of the Earth in a newly developed “dig-pod”. Unfortunately, the secretive lead scientist forgot all of his instruments in the office, and the team is now stranded without any tools. As an intern, you are now tasked with finding all the tools he left behind in his office and bring them to the dig site before they leave. Look around the office, and answer all the questions, which will allow you to collect the different instruments. If you get there in time, you will be able to join the expedition. Good Luck!"

The Lock Sheet: 

How will you know that your students completed the tasks and decoded each one correctly? While I do give my students a worksheet of sorts so that they can keep track of their work, I used the magic of Google Forms to collect their responses and auto-correct their progress. This Google form also allows me to determine who escaped first and even assign points directly into our leaderboard (using the Vlookup formula explained in "Assign XP automatically"), so I do not even have to look at the sheets they fill in to know who did what.

Putting it all together - a Google Site:

This is where everything I created for this escape room came together. Although there are several platforms to choose from to house the escape room, for me a Google Site was the easiest choice so I would not have to worry about whether the students could open any of the different things I had created. 

I resized the font on the page title to the smallest available and copy/pasted my narrative. Then I used insert from Drive to place the room with hidden clues and decoys and finally inserted my form, again from Drive. Clicked on publish and DONE!

So there you have it. It does take some time and patience, but your students will thank you for developing new experiences for them. If you've tried out digital escape rooms and would like to share with us, leave a comment. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Interpreting graphs with "What's Going on in this Graph?"

It's been three years since the New York Times partnered with the American Statistical Association to bring "What's Going on in this Graph?" to teachers and students. The premise is simple, every week during the school year they publish a graph asking students to think about it and discuss their observations whether on the site itself or on Desmos. A week later, they have a reveal, with more information and highlights from the moderation.

I started using the activity with my 8th grade Science and Engineering classes last year, as I struggled to teach them to interpret motion graphs. What I was looking at at the time, was students who jumped to conclusions without stopping to actually look at axes or units,  or choosing to bar graphs over line graphs simply because they were more familiar. I also, at the time, was invested in having students create infographics for projects, but again, they were doing so without actually looking or thinking about why one choice was better than another, or even worse, Googling for ready-made ones and pasting them without realizing that what they had included actually contradicted or was completely irrelevant to the message they were trying to send. The need was obvious - How do I help students acquire the skills they need to analyze graphs and charts.

During the first few months of using them, I presented the graph posted by the NYT that week and used their prompt:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?
  • What's going on?
This was fine except for one little thing, they started looking at the comments posted for "correct" answers or as a guide for what to write in their response to me. While it did force them to at least open and read the comments, they were still taking that short-cut of having someone else do the thinking and noticing. So I started adding some other questions that would require the act of reading the graph in order to answer them. These questions were not necessarily of a very high DOK, but rather of the "actually look at the graph" type. Things like
  • "What is the military spending worldwide presented on the graph?" for this installment
  • "Which destination seems to be the most popular for Thanksgiving Travel?" for this one
  • "Describe how the author represents data in the graphic."
These types of questions are always presented before the analysis questions and have served us well to help students look at the graphs before moving on to the deeper analysis posed by: 

  • What's going on in this graph? (i.e. what would be an accurate conclusion that can be supported by this graph). To answer this question use the CER framework
  • Write a >140 character Tweet that could accompany the sharing of the graph. Your response must include a relevant hashtag.
By now, I have a bundle of 29 such activities in the GoFormative library. Most of which come from the weekly NYT publishing, with a couple added from other sources due to my students' interest in a topic. The activity for me is weekly and takes up about 30 minutes of class time. Since many of them are related to my content it ends up supporting not only the acquisition of the skills for interpreting graphs espoused in the CCSS and NGSS but also addressing ISTE standards for students, making the activity an absolute win.

Documenting Peer-Reviews leads to better builds

As a project-based learning teacher, I know about the importance of feedback during project runs. I constantly conference with students, formally and informally, trying to push them to think critically about the project as well as what they are creating. Unfortunately, these conversations and documents don't always make it into their final projects, leaving both me and the students frustrated come unveiling day. You see, often my students become enamored with an idea and it is really hard to sway them, even when they realize that they should have taken a different approach. They come up with "patch" solutions to "fix" the immediate problem, but they seldom take a step back and realize that they should start from scratch. While I know that the learning is in the process, I also see a lack of transfer of those lessons from project to project - i.e. this did not work last time, why would it work this time?

Case in point - I run a project based on Teach Engineering's "Adding Helpful Carrier Devices to Crutches", and have this whole set-up that walks students through the engineering design process for it (Assistive Technology - Crutches). Last year we even had one of the students as an actual client that needed the device and built to her specifications, supposedly. What happened was that students basically attached whatever they had on hand without much consideration for usability - boxes and bags that make holding the crutches almost impossible, or too big causing a severe imbalance, etc. When challenged about this during first testing, their solutions were always about fixing what was already there (create a hole for the hand or adding dividers so help with the swaying of things), but they never included "take the whole thing off and re-work from scratch". After weeks of patches, students unveiled final products that did comply with the requirements but were not actually useful. The posed to the student we were building for, "Would you buy this?",  was always met with, "No, not really" - even for her own build! This led me to a bigger reflection of where I was dropping the ball and/or what could I do to help promote better builds.

As I pondered this question, I came up with two key things that I've implemented and seem to be working:

The fast build 

As soon as the project is introduced, the students have one class period to create and test a quick prototype. This happens even before the brainstorm. The goal of the fast build is to help students identify where the problems may eventually arise.

The Peer-Review documentation

After the fast build, my students continued through the engineering design project as usual. However, when it came time for testing the first full build, I introduced a "Prototype Evaluation" rubric.
The key portion for us was the requirement of providing specific ideas to help the team improve.  I "sold" this to the students as "your team has already thought about different ways to address issues, but that is only 4 brains. You are getting the benefit of 28 other brains that are seeing other things you have to address." After the testing and prototype evaluation rubric has been filled out, each team is responsible for compiling the feedback and presenting a summary of the information obtained from those rubrics and creating a plan of action for the next prototype. 

This peer review documentation seems to be working, though it does add three days of work for each prototype. In this case, I am requiring at least three rounds, extending the project 9 more class periods.  while this may not be feasible in every situation, I believe that it will be time well spent.

What do you think? What scaffolds do you have in place to ensure yous students are successful during their project runs? I'd love to hear about them.