STEM: Design and Modeling…Just Build!

Part 2 of 2 STEM posts

In today’s fast paced and ever advancing technological world, teachers have a tough job of keeping our children engaged and interested in the classroom.  The more voice and choice offered to our learners gives them an opportunity to be vocal and responsive to their education.  One voice that learners have at our school is to pick their encore classes based on interests.  Therefore, our school has started to offer two new Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) courses to reach all interest levels.  One new encore choice for our 7th graders is a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) course called Design and Modeling (DM).


DM offers learners opportunities to apply the design process to creatively solve problems.  Learners are introduced to overall problem in the first activity and continue to make connection to the problem throughout the succeeding lessons in the course.  These problems are based around designing activities that are appropriate for helping children with Cerebral Palsy (CP), which provides learners a chance to show empathy.  Learners find out how to communicate design ideas through sketches, solid modeling, and mathematical models.  They learn how model can be simulated to represent an authentic situation.  They learn how to generate data for analysis and observation.  They learn how to work in teams, which shows them the importance of communicating effectively, meeting deadlines, and making sure everyone has a chance to give input and critical feedback.  The DM course is broken into three main lessons.

Lesson one is an introduction to design and introduces the students to the design process, types of sketches, team norms, measurement, and mechanical dissections.  Their first activity in this lesson is an instant design challenge in which students must create a foot orthosis to aid a student who has Cerebral Palsy.  The students also dissect a puzzle cube then use their experiences to modify the design to make it more desirable for a child with CP.

Lesson two is about modeling and statistics.  Students use solid modeling software to transfer their 2D images into 3D models.  One main activity in this lesson is working in teams to create a puzzle cube.  They create a solid model using computer-aided design (CAD) and fabricate their design for testing with wood blocks or by 3D-printing.  They then use a mathematics program to complete a statistical analysis test to determine if their design met the criteria and constraints.


Lesson three is the final unit design challenge where students take all the prior knowledge they have learned and apply it to develop a therapeutic toy for use by a child with CP.

This course has been a fantastic option for students who like to be creative and learn some important first steps to being a designer or engineer.  Students are excited to work and are fully engaged in their activities.  This course and all PLTW courses are an excellent way to prepare students for college, career, and real-world experiences and to enter our technological world ready to solve problems.



One goal presented to Mrs. Robel and her students is to create furniture designs for our learning spaces.  To assist this project, we have an architectural firm lead sessions for our iChoose days (combination of Genius Hour and EdCamp).  The goal is to allow our learners to drive the look and learning of our spaces at school.  You can follow Mrs. Robel on Twitter @robelclassroom.

STEM: Automation Robotics…for Middle School

Opportunities for Learners

One goal for my overall vision is to provide more STEM and STEAM offerings for our learners.  Project Lead The Way, an organization based in Indiana, provides great resources for us.  This year, we have two offerings that are STEM related with another being added next year.  Making our Automation Robotics  program even more rich is the instructor, who also oversees our Tiger Robotics programming after school.


PLTW and South Middle School

This school year Harrisburg South Middle School was fortunate enough to add two new Project Lead The Way (PLTW) classes to it extensive line up of encore choices.  Automation Robotics and Design and Modeling were added into the rotation this year in conjunction with giving Learners more voice and choice about what they wanted to learn in their encore classes.  Both classes are similar to other CTE (Career and Technical Education) classes South already offers, but both allow students to go a deeper into the content than ever before.


Automation robotics is lead by PLTW teacher Christopher Stewart, @tigerroboticssd on Twitter.  Chris has an extensive background in robotics and is the director of Tiger Robotics, a group of 15 Robotics teams based in the Harrisburg school district.

The class starts by teaching learners basic mechanical engineering where learners build several projects with mechanically complex elements that are all human powered.  As learners finish their projects they move into basic programming, where they learn to program basic movements on a test bed that has multiple motors and sensors.  Once learners are proficient in building and programming they move to the final phase where they start to develop more complex machines that are automated and can function on their own.  Learners move through each of these phases in differing groups and taking on different rolls.


The class is extremely hands on with learners showing their mastery by building projects and then explaining how they function to their classmates.  Learners and teacher alike learn from each other as innovative ideas form to solve the challenge of each new project.

Our South learners love this course and the vision of Mr. Stewart.  This is part 1 of 2 posts on STEM courses.   The next post will highlight another PLTW course related to STEM work.

Simple Is All Around Us


ELA offering for Team Innovate for personalized learning.

Too often we view innovation as major flashes or shiny tools.  I contend that innovation can be simple improvisations in an environment.  In the past few weeks my design thinking hat has noticed some interesting changes in our learning environments that come from empathizing with our learners and, what I term, ‘no box’ thinking.

Empathy in Learner Artifacts

Remember, I am talking simple pieces of innovation.   Innovation does not need to be complex.  I believe innovation is change with added value, and I have noticed that our learners have created change to improve the value of their products.  Student voice and choice is a prominent piece of this change, but it is still left to the learner to CREATE the change.  In our building every inch of space is debatable.  This is the reason we are building our own furniture, which must be multi-purpose and flexible.  Our learners in our math settings have started asking if they use a dry erase marker to solve equations on basic desks.  Instead of spending money for whiteboard paint, they have discovered that many of our ‘old’ desks can be multi-purpose.  They also have seen the value in our homemade furniture as a tool to produce artifacts.  If the information is needed as an artifact of learning, they snap a picture and airdrop it to the facilitator.


View every space with potential.


Learner working at one of our flexible furniture builds. See previous post on this build.


Student choice and voice on an ELA project to fit learning.

Freeing Facilitators

In a previous post I explained that I use the philosophy of ‘no box’ thinking.  Our facilitators (teachers) have learned how to grow their empathy for our learners.  A recent example appeared within our personalized learning cohort called Team Innovate.  As I was walking through their learning studios, I noticed that the projectors had been turned around, front to the back of the room.  My first thought – larger screen for learners to view.


Seminar offering on the pyramids of Egypt.

Later, I discovered the ‘why’.  Learners were having difficulty concentrating during seminars because the door would open, which moved their attention away from the facilitator.  Solution – turn the projector to the back of the room helping eliminate distractions in their learning.  This is simple innovation.  This is empathizing with our learners.  Now, they have become more creative in design by making the screen appear to be a phone.  Did anyone ask me to do this?  Absolutely not!  They knew what was best for their learners and have the freedom to make these choices.


Picture of Team Innovate with simple innovation

This is one of several posts on our personalized learning environment.  Follow #hsmstigers and #plinnovate if you want view more artifacts of our personalized learning program.  Follow me on Twitter, @dellwein, to connect on furniture builds and personalized learning.

Build for Learning

Stanford’s has had a major impact on how I view learning in my school.  Physical spaces are wasted in most schools.  Classrooms to hallways to little nooks are wasted opportunities for learning.  My personal goal for learning involves collaboration and flexible spaces, spaces that can be used for more than one mode of learning.


Even though my focus at the was to learn about the design thinking process (@k12lab), I used all available moments viewing and understanding the physical spaces and furniture.  Every square foot and piece of furniture had a thoughtful purpose.  After leaving Palo Alto I began my vision for spaces at my school.  This vision has morphed into a passion to build our own furniture for our learners.  Boosting my work was the advice of Scott Doorley, creative director at the

The Beginning

The first step was to evaluate every square foot of space in my building.  Result = a typical school has large amounts of wasted space.  With a plan in place to maximize hallway and classroom space, I used the design thinking framework from Stanford to gain student input.  Simply, I empathized with the users – students.  Their input was and will be crucial.  What did they want?  “Places to stand and work in the hallway…somewhere to have personal flex outside the learning studios…I want to be able to work with my friends in an upright space.”

Solution = Coffeehouse style setting.


If you are like me, I don’t have a massive budget to buy furniture from companies marketing flexible working environments.  This project will be homegrown.  I wanted parents, community partner, teachers and students involved in the process.  First, I found a few parents who prototyped the table with an industrial look.


As our work continued, I wanted a whiteboard/dry erase surface on the top.  With my community connections growing, I found a top that matched our goal.


But the real test was teacher and learner ideation.  In the first day of use in a hallway space, our learners were actively generating ideas to fit Mr. Klumper’s paleolithic/neolithic learning target.



Has this project been easy?  I am exhausted!  But the learner response has been more than worth it, and they should be the ones to drive our result.  Can you do this?  Absolutely!  Be prepared to hear people call you ‘crazy’.  Be prepared to tackle the issue of money.  Be prepared to fight for your learners.  Our work is about connecting the dots, and this project is proof of that.  The connections I have made in the world of industry have been incredible.  Stay tuned for our next prototyping piece.  It is finished and will be mass-produced before Thanksgiving.  In all we will try to complete 5 prototypes before Christmas, each with a specific function for learning.  Follow this blog for future posts or past posts on our builds, personalized learning, and other random thoughts on education.  Direct message me on Twitter (@dellwein) if you want to chat further or need the cut dimensions of this table.  As I like to reply when people say ‘Think outside the box’…There Is No Box.


The spaces are set.  Studios are ready for learners.  Planning has taken place.  In a previous post I highlighted the learning spaces for our learners.  So what have they been ‘doing’?

Team building

A major emphasis for our personalized learning program involves team building and personality assessment to really know each learner.  With our learners we spent a majority of our first 3-4 weeks focused on who they are and how they learn.  For team building, our learning facilitators (teachers) utilized name games, marshmallow tower and other activities.  Mary Perrine of Eastern Carver ISD in Minnesota emphasizes building relationships, especially in the first 30 seconds of interaction.  We made a concerted effort to avoid ‘RULES’ and build relationships.




The other significant piece was assessing our learners and their personality traits.  This benefited learners, as well.  They were able to understand how they learn best.  When this is completed, facilitators have information that can assist in the learning process during the year.  By the way, our facilitators also did the color personality test!




Learning Spaces: Before students arrived, we decided to name our learning spaces studios with a color associated to them.  Mary would tell you that this allows the learner to feel more comfortable in a space because it is not considered ‘Mr. Ellwein’s room’.  Our three studios, purple, green, and blue also are different in what they provide to the learner.  The spaces could include Critical Thinking Circles, Coaching Workshop, Seminar, Group Flex and Personal Flex.  Norming behaviors in these spaces was completed by our learners (see pictures below).  Together, we brainstormed traits of the space, then condensed language to included 3-4 descriptors.  The descriptors are visible at each space as a collective reminder of the desired, learner behavior.


Growth Mindset

For the past three years our building has focused on growth mindset research.  Our desire is for persistence, grit and learning from failure to be engrained in our learners.  During these weeks of team building, learners engaged in discussions, videos and activities that emphasized a growth mindset.  Perseverance and grit are common language for our facilitators and learners.




Check out more of my posts regarding personalized learning, pushing education forward, genius hour and more!

The Comment Every School Should Hear

Often we hear our children say, “I love school!”  Nothing is wrong with this statement.  Most schools would be thankful for the sentiment.  But I want to challenge the relationships in your classroom and building.  How often to you hear “My school loves me!”  Some of you would say it is just semantics, but I hear powerful relationship when those words are uttered.

We are all biased with the students we have in our care.  For example I believe without a doubt that my middle school has the best learners, period.  You better feel the same about your classroom or school community.  But how are you creating and developing those relationships?

“My school loves me!” came from one of our eight grade learners.  It happened while interviewed by a local television station.  You see, Dylan has Ewing’s Sarcoma and was going to be leaving our school family to have his foot amputated.  The story (click to view) and interview was very genuine.  As I heard Dylan say this statement, I paused and realized that might be the most significant compliment we can hear as educators and facilitators.  It was a powerful and authentic student voice.


Our main goal in education should be relationships.  Relationships will power you through the grind of the year.  They bring hurt and joy.  I believe if you do this correctly, the highs are very high and the lows really hurt.  That is the game you play when you are all in.

There are special circumstances in Dylan’s story, but why can’t we hear this from every learner?  I recently tweeted a quote I created about relationships.


I believe:

Relationships unlock learning

Relationships allow for innovation

Relationships touch generations

Relationships leave legacies

I challenge you with this question: How can we move relationships beyond the talk stage?  A previous blog post I wrote this summer touches on this.  Read “Hear, Do, Be”.  Move to Be.

The Journey Begins

After two years of visits to Pioneer Ridge Middle School in Minnesota, learning by reading and doing, and allowing individual teachers to implement personalized learning, our school is ‘all in’.  Over the past two years, our building has had numerous staff pivot in their mindset on instruction, student voice/choice and learning spaces.  It has been refreshing to see people revitalize their passion for teaching.

To start 2016, I mentioned we are ‘all in’.  What does this mean?  We are implementing a model of instruction with ELA, Science and Social Studies dovetailing their standards to personalize learning for a group of our sixth grade students.  During each school day they have a block of time where the environment is personalized for them.  Before school began, these three teachers through out their curriculum and are now building it…together!  I believe there will be great power in this collaboration.  But we also have several teachers who are implementing personalized learning on an individual basis, which also has a power to it.

One area we could plan before students arrived involved learning spaces.  In sixth grade each of the three teachers moved their teacher desk to one room, which created a shared office.  Next, we renamed each classroom with a color and called them studios.  This was based on advice from Mary Perrine in Minnesota.  Through this whole process, we have come to believe in her work and advice.  Studios now reflect the learning that will take place in the space.  They will reflect the amount of collaboration and style of instruction instruction required for learning.


Group Flex Space


Gathering space where daily offerings are provided to learners

As noted in the picture above, the open space is the beginning of a learner’s day.  In this studio they have a choice of what they learn and when they learn it.  The organizational piece is a software called Kairos; I will discuss it in another blog post.  The software allows them choose voice and choice, while providing us the knowledge which studios have particular learners.


Each of these learning environments will challenge the learners to make choices related to their progress.  How they advocate for their learning will be important.  Isn’t this what we want for our kiddos?  To be able to speak of your need and control a path has great power for future learning.  These spaces didn’t stay empty for long.  They have been occupied for just over a week, and there are great stories happening already.


Path of Your Vision

Listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Inside Quest, Tom Bilyeu had a dynamic guest, Lisa Nichols, on the show.  Every episode I watch or listen to builds a fire for my work in education.

“Hurt people hurt.  Sad people make others sad.” was just one of her quotes, but her inspiring message brought an image of where I want education to go.  She challenged listeners to ‘Fly’ in this must-see this episode.

Picture a person walking down a street.  The person has a vision for the future.  In my case it is a vision for a better educational environment for our students that promotes learning in this day and age.  As I allowed this image to be real in my mind, it hit me…Don’t Look Ahead!  Something screamed at me not to keep looking ahead.  Then, the crystal-clear moment arrived.  It made sense.  If I continue to seek my vision straight ahead/to project it in a direction from where I came, I am not changing anything.  I must walk and gain a vision and path I cannot see.  Where is it?  Around the corner of an intersection.  So you say, “But you can’t see around the corner?”  Exactly.


Those that dream big dreams cannot see every piece of woven fabric that embodies the vision.  We continue with the process because we believe the unknown can be better than the present.  It forces you and I to wrestle with the question, ‘What do we do with an obsolete educational model?’  There is a strand of leaders in education working to make this turn, but more educators need to test the establishment for the sake our learners today.  My moonshot for education will be a series of reflections from this blog.

Because of One Picture

What’s the connection between a middle school in South Dakota and a school in Bergen, Norway?  Learning!  

The power of Twitter has been documented in education.  But in this case, a literal ‘one picture’ has created multiple opportunities for learning, even though the schools are seven hours apart.  It has also allowed me to have a great friend across the Atlantic.

It all started in May of 2015.  My building, Harrisburg South Middle School in South Dakota, was planning a Teach Like A Pirate Day for the the final full day of school.  I was planning on doing a drone class and took a picture of a student flying a drone before school began that day.  In the tweet I used #drones, which gained a response from Terje Pedersen (@terjepe) in Norway.  He responded by sending an engaging video of his students working with technology, including drones.  His colleague, Anne-Marit, had used drones in math lessons.

With both of us having a summer break, we started connecting our ideas and teachers using social media platforms in August of 2015.  When school resumed for both of us in August, we collaborated with a plan to connect teachers, students and relevant topics in our curriculums.  We both were driven to produce authentic learning outcomes.  That is when things blew up!

Terje and I connected via video chats to set the framework, and then brought interested teachers into the mix.  We started with English/Language Arts (ELA).  First, we wanted our students to critique each other’s writing.  We did this through Google Apps, but then, wanted a personal piece added.  During the year, students engaged in video chats, thanks to Norwegian students staying longer during their school day.  At first we used Google hangouts, but switched to to facilitate these discussions.


Second, Terje wanted our students to mentor Bergen students regarding the use of the English language.  Using Google docs and hangouts, the students critiqued spoken and written language components.

Before Christmas Terje created a private Facebook group for our students to discuss Native American topics and stereotypes.  Since South Dakota has several Native American reservations, this was a great fit for our students and our state history.  This expanded to include another one of our South Middle School ELA classes.  Students arrived early to school and implemented a Padlet discussion board on the same topic.  Padlet provided a medium for real-time discussion and questioning.

Then, our South students assisted me in connecting with Troy Worley and Marlys Big Eagle.  Mr. Worley works with the U.S Department of Justice as an attorney for Native American issues.  Ms. Big Eagle also works for the U.S. Department of Justice as a Victim Witness Coordinator.  We also did a private video chat with our students, along with Troy and Marlys, and sent it to Terje’s students.    Another class video chat took place with Bergen and Harrisburg students to discuss Native American dress and culture.

Learning in math was also influenced from this teacher collaboration.  Thanks to Terje’s colleague, Anne-Marit, we created a lesson to use our Jumping Sumo drones to explain the pythagorean theorem.  We also used Parrot’s quadcopter and Sphero’s for coordinate plane learning.  This could be another blog post by itself.


With the school year behind us, Terje and I are not resting with this experience only.  2016-2017 will take learning to a higher level.  One of our state senators in South Dakota, John Thune, will be at our school to engage in a video discussion in the fall about the United States presidential race and process.  This will be with our learners in Bergen, Norway.  In September of 2016 Terje and I will embark on a global project that will bring schools from New Dehli into our discussions.  Terje had a connection with an educator in India, and now our learners will work collaboratively on the topic of migration.  If this comes to fruition, we will have moved learning not just beyond walls, but oceans and continents.

Terje will tell you that using Hangouts or Appear between teachers has established a better understanding of what both parties are looking for in this cooperation.  It also means that a certain Norwegian teacher has improved his English (his words, not mine)!  Follow us, @terjepe and @dellwein, to see where learning takes us this year.   

Hear, Do, Be

Summer, in most states, can be a time to refresh and energize your passions.  It provides the opportunity to reflect on practices or the end.  This summer I have been reflecting with the end in mind.  Although I am decades from retirement, I have been viewing the end.  Will my time in education be student-centered enough to create a better system for our learners?  By design I was listening to one of my ‘go to’ podcasts, Living on the Edge with Chip Ingram.  Which of the three areas do you want to be listed under or trademarked?


In education there are trends competing with our attention on a consistent basis.  Not only trends, but policies, social media, and other outside voices compete for our ears.  We hear ideas that are exciting and fresh, but do we give root to the idea or vet the idea for our learners?  We can become thin in our beliefs when all we do is hear.  Where do you rest in this area?  I challenge you to do more for our learners.


This is where many of us reside.  We rely on accomplishments and believe that we have status because we ‘do’.  Doers, and I am one of them in many areas professionally, are more excited about completing lists and drinking the kool-aid that production equals success.  My fear is when we ‘do’ our work, we lose focus on our main purpose in education…our learners.


To take this to another level, I want you to really focus on ‘be’.  What do you want to BE in your role at your school?  ‘Be’ is hearing  the trend, ‘doing’ the work (and moving from it), and allowing the learner to control the wheel of their education.  Listen to their feedback.  This summer, take time to reflect on what you want to be for your students.  I don’t want to be known as someone who ‘did’.  I want to be the change for my learners and facilitators.  There is a grassroots movement to change our system.  Is it broke?  No, I believe it is obsolete.

ObsoleteTake the photo of the payphone.  When I attended the at Stanford in May to learn about design thinking, I was able to visit Muir Woods National Monument.  As I was walking, I noticed this payphone.  It’s not broken, but it is obsolete.  Many visitors walking by commented on its lack of usefulness.  Many laughed at its purpose as they took picture with their cell phones.  I will let you draw parallels with our educational system today, but our learners deserve more from us individually and collectively.  Instead of teaching with a ‘payphone’, we need to teach with their voice in mind.

My hope is that this post resonates with many of you.  What I want to be is a champion for a change that meets the needs of our learners.  How about you?