CS For All Teachers: Let's Get Visual

     Happy New [School] Year! I hope your school year is off to a terrific start.
     This year marks my seventeenth year as an educator and I am thrilled to be part of the CS for All Teachers community. I began my teaching career in 2001 as a fifth grade classroom teacher. Since then I have served as a teacher, coach, educational technologist, and professional development coordinator in summer programs, public schools, independent schools, and at the university level. Currently I serve as the Director of Innovative Learning at St. Catherine’s School, an all-girls school in Richmond, VA where I teach an 8th-grade creative technologies course and a high school honors-level computer science course. I also help coach our fourth grade robotics team.
    This is my fourth year of teaching an introduction to computer science course in our high school. The first day of class always felt a bit stale to me. “Here is the course syllabus, this is the homework policy...”[cue the “wah wah” teacher voice from the Peanuts cartoon]. I wanted to pique students’ interests, ignite their sense of curiosity and help them feel the joy in intellectual engagement. As lovely as the clipart in my syllabus may be, that just wasn’t cutting it. So this year I borrowed a puzzle from David Pleacher’s website called Polar Bears Around an Ice Hole for the first day of class. It involves a few dice and a lot of teamwork and guessing. It was a hit and set a great tone for the class. Pedagogue Padawan offers some great advice for connecting this activity with computer science concepts. This activity could work well with students of all ages.
     One of the many reasons I love this activity is because it encourages students to look for visual patterns. For all of the attention we give to developing programming and computational thinking skills, spatial reasoning is an important skill in computer science and STEM that can easily be overlooked. According to the National Research Council (2006): “Spatial thinking, or reasoning, involves the location and movement of objects and ourselves, either mentally or physically, in space. It is not a single ability or process but actually refers to a considerable number of concepts, tools and processes.” Research demonstrates that spatial reasoning can be taught, and spatial skills development can enhance student success in computer science.

Here are 10 of my favorite ideas for helping students of all ages develop critical spatial reasoning skills:
  1. Sprinkle in some some spatial reasoning puzzles for class warm-ups and brain breaks. Here are additional puzzles to use in class. 
  2. Have students design and make their own puzzle cubes with wooden blocks or cardboard. If your school has a 3D printer, students can create puzzles cubes in Tinkercad. Ask students to write out the solution or create videos explaining how to solve their puzzle. Keep the puzzle cubes in the classroom for other students to try and offer feedback.
  3. Design and build your own class calendar cube!
  4. Build abstract Lego structures. Ask students to write detailed algorithms for reconstructing the structure from scratch. Students can trade instructions with other groups to see if they can rebuild the sculptures using a classmate’s algorithm.
  5. Use spatial vocabulary and positional language whenever possible.
  6. Have students create engineering sketches of everyday items like hair dryers or gum ball machines, then recreate these objects in a free CAD programs like Tinkercad or SketchUp.
  7. Ask students to create, annotate, and read maps whenever possible. Here is a great resource from the National Geographic Network of Alliances for Geographic Education.
  8. Use Google Draw to bring visual elements to lessons and projects; or explore tangrams.
  9. Whenever possible, model solutions through drawings and explain your thinking process. Ask students to do the same. As a simple example, draw a box to represent a variable in programming then show the data that is stored in that variable.
  10. Make origami cards for people in your community.
What topics and ideas are you interested in exploring for future blog posts? Please feel free to message me on Twitter @JennVermillion.

Additional Sources:
National Research Council. (2006). Learning to think spatially: GIS as a support system in the K–12 curriculum. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.
Jenn Vermillion is the Director of Innovative Learning at St. Catherine’s School, an independent school for girls age 3 through grade 12 in Richmond, VA. She teaches an introduction to computer science course for students in grades 9-12 and an 8th grade Creative Technologies course. She also coaches a 4th grade Robotics team and coordinates school-wide professional development. Jenn welcomes your comments and questions at jvermillion@st.catherines.org.

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