Developing STEM partnerships to encourage innovation

Makerspace camp at the University of Ottawa

Today I visited for the first time the makerspace at the University of Ottawa.  I was there to talk about ways our school could work with the Engineering Department at the university. I met with Dr. Hanan Anis and one of her students, Danielle Taillon.  They are in the process of developing a mobile maker space that will be ready for September to visit schools in our area.  

Already they have ideas on specific workshops that can be offered at our schools.  They include:

 Introduction to laser cutting

a.     2D to 3D (harder)

Using a 2D drawing, the participants will create a 3D birdhouse. They will be able to unleash their creativity by customizing the design while learning the different functions of the laser cutter

b.     Name Tags

Each participant will create a custom name tag pendant of their own design.

2.   Introduction to 3D printing

Participants will be split into groups and tasked to design a product that will be a solution to a defined problem.

3.   Arduino Programing and Vectors

Students will be tasked to program their robot to recreate a specific drawing by telling the robot to follow a series of vectors. 


This is the kind of partnership we need to move ahead with our makerspaces.  What we are really looking at are ways to bring STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) into our elementary schools.  The only practical way to do this is to form partnerships with people like Dr. Anis who are willing to think outside the box and link the university to our elementary schools. 

We don’t hear as much talk about STEM or STEAM (just add the arts – an equally important component) here in Canada, but I believe it is the  direction we need to move in.  

Our kids need to learn coding, they need to learn how 3D printers and laser cutters work and most of all they need to create and innovate.  This was so important in all the workshops we attended last week at the DENSI (Discovery) conference in Washington.  

The message was clear, we need to allow our students to innovate, create, inquire and build.  We need to get away from static, unchanging curriculum and open up to the possibilities outside the conventional classroom.

This partnership promises to do that.  It offers the possibility of training our teachers on how to use new technology effectively, it opens the door to coding clubs and workshops in the schools or at the university so students can learn to create and innovate.  

Partnerships are the way of the future, whether it is with Google, the University of Ottawa, local innovators or high schools, we all need to start thinking outside the box to explore the possibilities collaboration will allow.

the Makerspace at the University of Ottawa – they hope to have a mobile version up and running by September


What I learned from three days at Discovery’s DENSI 2015 Conference

Last week I had an education adventure.  Pretty different from the regular educational conference that I attend, the DENSI 2015 Principals Summit was ambitious in its design and very creative in its execution.

For me, the most important thing Discovery worked very hard on was to develop a community of administrators.  This is so unique.  No one seems to consider how isolating the job of a principal is and how important it is for us to have time together to learn from each other and build connections.  Discovery facilitated that and that is not an easy thing to do.  

Without pressuring us too much, they gave us the opportunity to talk to each other and strike up new relationships.  For me this is huge.  My last conversation with another admin just as I got ready to return to Canada was a good indication of the spirit of DENSI.  She simply said, ‘I really enjoyed having you here, thanks.’  Something very simple, but an affirmation from someone I didn’t know just three days earlier and a really positive affirmation that doesn’t happen all that often in our home districts.  

I think we all learned that it sometimes easier to be appreciated when you are with a group of strangers that you might feel in your own district.

There is no question that Discovery wants you to take advantage of their services, but there is nothing wrong with that.  They are actually interested in how they can offer better digital content – something that we are hungry for in our schools right now.  They talked a lot about digital transformation and as we move in this direction, we really need them as our partners, just like we need Google, Apple and other leaders in educational technology.

It was mentioned briefly at the conference, but it something that is becoming increasingly true and very important for administrators.  If we want to really be innovative for our kids, we need to make more alliances with businesses and not wait for our districts to take the lead.  Our needs are too great and the resources at the district level have been stretched too far.  

Rather than complain about this situation, I say – accept it and move on.  

I want Discovery Ed as a partner with my school, just like I want Google and a whole host of private funders and associations so that we can truly offer an enriched program for our kids.  This alliance with businesses will allow us to create in ways we have never imagined before.

That’s what I learned, and I have been energized by the experience.  Now, all we need is to see much more of Discovery here in Canada – you have a lot to offer us, but you need to spend much more time with us to create the energy that exists right now in the States.

Thanks again Discovery, the best three days of learning I have had in a really long time.


Building Lego Walls

This is another great guest post by Cathy Iverson – our amazing library tech.  She wrote this for other library techs who wanted information on how to build a Lego Wall

The name ‘LEGO’ is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt”, meaning “play well”.  Lego has been around since 1932 and has inspired several generations to create, build and has also been used in the classroom for years as a tool for teaching math and science and can be especially useful in grades grades 1, 3 and 5 here in Ontario where, Structures and Mechanisms are such a big part of the science curriculum. It is also a great opportunity for educators to make this a part of their differentiated classroom.

At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means “shaking up”what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively. Carol Ann Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd ed. (2001), p. 1

The idea of Lego walls and Lego tables was first introduced to the Library Techs in our Board a few years ago by Donna Presz, former Supervisor of Library Services. I remember reading the emails thinking, Lego what?? The point Donna was trying to make was that it was time to think outside the box.

The new Learning Commons model was causing a ripple effect across North America. A shift in thinking required some creativity to make our spaces viable again and realign us with 21st century Learning. With this shift came smarter technology as we saw the introduction of SmartBoards, eResources, Netbooks, Chomebooks Ipads, Wifi, flexible furniture, brightly coloured walls and of course, empty Computer Labs. Many of us were inspired to do some interesting things with that empty space but none inspired me as much as the idea of the Maker Space and building a brightly coloured Lego Wall.

The Lego wall, being a fixed station in our Maker Space here at St-Anthony, can be used at any time and is often a collaborative activity especially among the primary grades. The structure itself is made of recycled particleboard, which our very creative custodian salvaged from an old tech cart. We purchased some Lego plates and he carefully measured out the surface and then glued them to the wall using carpenter’s glue. After letting the glue dry overnight he then screwed the corners of each plate with very small screws. Another screw was added to the middle of each plate for extra support.

Buckets of Lego and Duplo blocks were salvaged from dusty basements, classrooms, math room, and a few were even purchased to complete the project. We now have a busy Lego Wall which, at any one time, can be home to a medieval castle, a vertical marble maze, a battleship or a simple greeting for guests.



I am in no way an expert on Cognitive Development or a technological wiz but I do know that the students here at St-Anthony get very excited about their hands-on learning in the Maker Space. Whether we run a High Tech station (Designing a house using Minecraft to teach area and perimeter) to a Low Tech station (using Littlebits to build a hypnotizing wheel) to a No Tech station (Lego Wall), the students are using their imaginations, fine-motor skills, and creative energy.



“Spatial thinking is useful in everyday life but also useful in science and math,” says Nora Newcombe, an expert in cognitive development. “It launches children on a good trajectory. But it can also be improved in adults; so, if someone gets interested in engineering, say, in late high school, they needn’t say, ‘I could never do that’. Instead, they can change course.”

Nora S. Newcombe, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Temple University and principal investigator of theSpatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC), headquartered at Temple.


I have received many emails from other Library techs requesting information on how we built our Lego wall. If I can offer you one valuable piece of advice it is this; “don’t get caught up the the weeds”. It’s not how your Lego wall is built or what materials you use to build it that makes this a successful part of your Maker Space, FabLab, HackerSpace or whatever you choose to call it, it’s how you will use it. Be creative and let the students have as much input as possible. It’s not a book that is “For Reference Only”…it’s meant to be used.

Keys points on teacher collaboration between schools

I am a strong believer in teacher collaboration.  I truly believe that teacher inquiry is one of the best ways for teachers to receive effective PD.  Simply put – they are given control of their own learning, something we want our students to do.  Here are some of my thoughts on how to set up a system of teacher collaboration between schools.  This works especially well for small schools where there may only be one teacher per grade.
First, you need principals who truly believe in teacher empowerment.
The basic idea is to put teachers in charge of their own PD.  the feedback I received from teachers  is that this was the most effective PD  they received all year.  This is backed up by a number of articles in the Ontario Ministry of Education Capacity Building Series, Fullan and other authors.
The process has a number of key steps:
1.  Bonding is essential – the first time we did this we had several wine and cheese socials just to get teachers to know each other.  We did this after school and we invited our Superintendent to the first one – always a good idea..  I recommend that this be done before the end of September.   Food is the key so we try to do potlucks to keep expenses down.
2.  Patience is the key!  It can take up to a year before teacher groups really click and real inquiry happens.  The most important point for principals is to stick with it.
3.  Throw in a little PD each time teachers get together.  We started by explaining the whole process and what we were trying to achieve.  We moved on to explaining the inquiry process – the School Improvement Plan (SIP) is a perfect template for teacher inquiry.  We had to reteach this because many teachers struggled with writing inquiry questions and what monitoring looked like.
4.  Let teachers choose their own teams.  Generally, teachers form in grade-level groups, FSL teachers work together as do resource.  We do not determine the groupings and they can change over time.
5.  While we have an umbrella question (digital media), the teachers come up with their own inquiry.  This needs to be determined during the first pd session.  We usually split the staff so that only half the teachers are out at any time.
6.  Teachers are given one half day to use at their discretion.  They usually determine that date on the first day.  At the first PD day we set a final date when the inquiry needs to be done.  We try to use Board PD days if possible to cut down on using our PD budget.  During this day, groups can report on some aspect of their inquiry and use the extra time to plan a second inquiry.  Usually, we can get two inquiries during a school year.  This is usually a very busy day – some groups decide on completely new inquiries, some decide to advance and refine their first inquiry.
7.  Reporting is very important.  Principals develop a Google form or doc that must be completed before the first PD session is over.  We start by making this easy, the questions below are usually used.
I) What is your inquiry question (using proper format)
II) When and where does your group plan to meet and what is the purpose of the meeting (it is really great to have the ‘host’ principal visit with the team when they are at their school).  We then put all these dates on a special Google calendar that is shared with all staff.  We also put together a Google + Page so groups can share their material – this usually takes some time to catch on.
III)  How do they plan to monitor their students to extract some sort of data.
IV) We include space for observations and conclusions, but these sections can’t be filled out yet.
Really important – the principals review the reporting and comment where necessary.  The inquiry question for each group is then transferred to the SIP document.  Adding to the SIP continues all year.
The reporting gets much better over time, but this can take some time and some editing by the principal group.
Basically, that’s it.  This system works best for small schools where there may only be one teacher per grade.  The other essential ingredient is the principal who is responsible for keeping the process going throughout the year.

DENSI 2015 – a unique learning experience

American University-the conference site

It is not too often that a PD experience hits the mark.  The Discovery Education Summer Institute is really an exception.  Over 50 administrators spent three days together moving at a breakneck pace through a series of keynotes, workshops, tours and most importantly, networking.

I think the conference is unique because it is the result of a partnership between educators and business.  We not only had some wonderful sessions with key educators, but we also spent some very valuable time with producers from Discovery who shared their experiences in creating shows, both successful and not, for the network.

We toured the corporation headquarters which was an experience in itself.  On every floor you could see how employees fashioned creative spaces for themselves.  There was evidence everywhere of past shows, new ideas and sharks, lots of sharks.  

What happens when you take a group of 50 administrators and expose them to such a creative environment?  Lots of new energy, drive, friendships and new ideas.  Throughout out time here we were encouraged to think big, lead, create and innovate.  What an incredible boost for principals after a long hard year.

one of many examples of creation and innovation we were exposed to

There is a great deal to digest and more networking to come, but this is the kind of PD we all need – a chance to come together and really dream what education can be like when we free up our imaginations.  

The people at Discovery dream big and can really think outside of the box – now we have to bring this back to our own schools and districts and pass on this great spirit.

Thanks Discovery!

DENSI2015 – Future Ready Schools

What a great chance for learning – working with over 50 administrators from Canada and the United States as part of Discovery Education’s DENSI 2015 Conference.

Last night we started with a great keynote from Tom Murray @thomascmurray from the Alliance for Excellent Education.  He talked about Future Ready Schools and how we can be utilizing the new technology we are getting into our schools every day.

This is a key concern.  It is one thing to get your school to 1:1, but once you have achieved that what’s next?  Education will not transform overnight just because you have a chromebook on every student’s desk.  The key question is what do you want your students to do with the new technology.  It is very easy to have 21st century technology in 20th century (or 19th century) schools.

To me, the main point is that intelligent implementation of technology depends on excellent professional development – not the kind of ‘drive-by PD’ that most of us are used to.  There needs to be a plan in place to help teachers with the new technology and to give them the tools they need so that they can use these tools effectively.

Tom Murray went over a whole host of factors that need to be considered to really have a future ready school.  He showed us an amazing example of a school that is really forward-looking  – Elizabeth Forward High School

We watched a video about what is going going on there – truly amazing!

For me, the most interesting part of the video is not all the great equipment they have but the collective commitment of superintendents, school admin, teachers and students to learning in a new way.  It is truly inspirational and something we all should be striving for.

The hour with Tom Murray flew by.  I wrote as much as I could but there was a huge amount to absorb – like parking buses in poorer neighbourhoods and beaming wifi to kids’ houses, setting up free wifi maps for your community, the creation of ‘small labs’ for elementary students.

The list could go on, but I need to get to the next event.  He finished with a key point – implementation is all about relationships.  How you implement technology is the key.  Your attitude and spirit will determine how successful you will be at moving your school well into the 21st century.

Great talk, great conference.