Case Study: St. Gabriel’s Catholic School

January 6, 2016

Meet Patrick Benfield. After graduating from Texas State University in 2006, Patrick began his career as a classroom teacher at an Austin-area public school district. He spent the next several years exploring ways of integrating science, math, and the arts in an effort to create authentic learning experiences for his students. His “discovery” of the Maker Movement was the catalyst for finally realizing this goal and led to his current role as STEAM Director for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School. Don’t miss his blog, STEAM By Design.

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By: Patrick Benfield

Title: STEAM Director

Organization: St. Gabriel’s Catholic School, Austin, TX

Age Levels: 8th grade

littleBits Products Used: Base Kits, Deluxe Kits, Synthesizer Kit

Since accepting this position in 2014, Patrick has been developing STEAM by Design, an approach to maker‐centered education that encourages students to make their thinking visible, learn collaboratively, and foster a sensitivity to design. He has worked extensively with teachers across his PreK‐8 campus to bring tinkering and engineering into the classroom and will soon be managing the school’s new learning space, the d.Lab for Making. littleBits, combined with powerful ideas of constructionism, play a key part in his mission of promoting invention literacy for every student at St. Gabriel’s.

HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT LITTLEBITS AND WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO IMPLEMENT THEM INTO YOUR PROGRAM/CLASS?

My first experience with littleBits was at the beginning of last year’s fall semester. I was part of the first EdExchange cohort, a fellowship program created by the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, Texas. Its goal was to bring together a diverse group of maker educators from the area to collaborate and implement maker-centered activities in the classroom. During one of these sessions, the museum staff provided us time with their collection of Bits to experiment and play with. I immediately loved how approachable the Bits were—how they they could be quickly assembled to make something simple, yet were also able to combined in complex ways, limited only by one’s imagination.

EXPLAIN HOW YOU INCORPORATED LITTLEBITS INTO YOUR PROGRAM/CLASS? DO YOU HAVE AN OUTLINE OF YOUR PROCESS?

The project, called Faito! Wabi Sabi—which, when loosely translated from Japanese means “Do your best: finding the beauty in imperfection”—was a chance for my class of 12 middle school students to apply iterative design around the prompt, “make a robot that moves—without using wheels.” At the end of the design process, students would have their robots face off, Sumo style, leaving one winner.

St. Gabriel’s is a high-achieving school and I wanted to do a project that gave kids the permission to fail, where there was no right answer, and multiple paths to follow. I didn’t want them to get wrapped up in the robot being perfect, so I kept it simple.

In the first session, we examined the Bits so that each student knew what they were. I handed out several Bits for them to explore as well as some copies I had made of the module card. This class time was spent seeing how things work, and experimenting with what different Bits could do.

In the second session, we watched an excerpt of Japanese robot fighting from Hebocon, which was the initial inspiration for the project. It was all in Japanese so there was still an air of mystery to the project. The students only knew was that there were several robots involved, all of which were made out of scrounged parts and the participants were having a blast.

I then divided the students into groups of three and provided them with leftover craft materials like tissue boxes, paper, popsicle sticks, and tape. Two students weren’t into the competitive nature of the robot ring, so instead they used the Synth Kit to write a musical score for the battles. They had to figure out what components they needed, what the musical genre would be, and formulate different loops that would fit the mood.

Throughout the second class, students had to take stock of the materials they had and find ways to make them work together with the littleBits. A large portion of class was spent experimenting with materials and going through the design process: think about the goal, create a prototype, see if it works, make improvements.

I would offer feedback on their designs, and we would have discussions about how they could improve their robots, considering what they wanted their robots to do—and what their strategy was for knocking the other robot off the table.

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Once they did that, they used the third session to assemble and test their robots. I would allow them to bring something simple from home like a paper clip—nothing fancy.

We spent the last class class battling our robots while our musicians provided background music with the Synth kit, We used a small table as the fighting ring. Whoever could knock the other robot off the table would be the winner. And that was their final!

Afterwords, we held an informal discussion that served as a quick assessment. We talked about what surprised them, what feedback they had for other students’ designs, and what their intention and vision was vs. what their robot actually did.

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WHAT WORKED WELL?

Having that one musical group that didn’t have an interest in the competitive aspect do something related, but not entirely different, helped to make them more comfortable with using littleBits. And it allowed me to personalize the class.

Giving students a set of constraints, like time, prevented them from getting mired in details. It was more student-centered, with a focus on what they needed to complete the project rather than having to show me something.

The whole process helped them learn about the iterative nature of design, how some materials are better suited for certain purposes over others. And they certainly had to build teamwork skills, and perseverance and grit.

When you consider the meaning of Faito and Wabi Sabi, I think both of these terms capture the spirit of the project. From my perspective, “failed” projects are rarely exhibited or found on magazine covers, which could send the message that a “perfect” artifact is all that matters.

Also, the competitive nature of some robotics programs can be a potential barrier for some students, so this was also a way to introduce basic robotics & design concepts without that pressure.

In other words, this project was a whimsical way to emphasize collaboration, play, encouragement, and the iterative design process.

Overall, providing a sense of play while they were learning and offering some flexibility made it easy for them to see that if something didn’t work, then they’d try something different.

WHAT WAS A CHALLENGE?

For them to enjoy the process of collaboration and design without giving them too much information or resources, or grades or pressure. I had to figure out how to have them forget about the school part and focus on the process. We also had occasional issues with Wi-Fi.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE RESPONSE OF YOUR STUDENTS/COMMUNITY?

I think a lot of Maker education is naturally fun, so there’s a natural parent skepticism about how much learning is involved. On the teacher side, it’s up to us to inform parents about what we are learning WHILE having fun. We had a “Bits and Bites night” for parents to show them what STEAM on our campus looks like and to let parents play with a variety of things, including littleBits.

Our fourth and fifth grade teachers want to use some of the littleBits sensors for data collections, like hooking up sound and light sensors to number counters in order to get some actual data for their science experiments.

HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARIZE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED IN IMPLEMENTING YOUR LITTLEBITS CLASS?

I learned to step back. The traditional teacher experience is one of overteaching, and I could have focused more on every Bit and what each one does, but I made an effort to take myself a lesser part of the equation and let them discover and excel on their own. In this case, moving away from the content delivery and not having a scripted lesson was effective.

WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS FOR LITTLEBITS USE?

We are gearing up for next semester when our makerspace will be open. I’d love to have lessons around littleBits for the teachers so they can think of ways to apply it in their classrooms and see how kids can benefit from them across disciplines. Once our makerspace is open, I want it to be a place where students can use littleBits to see, quickly, if their project idea makes sense through quick prototyping.