Massimo Banzi: How Arduino is open-sourcing imagination

Open 3D Printer

Open source 3D Printer – Photo taken from

As makers, we have the opportunity to build upon the ideas and innovations of those who came before us.  The “open” movement challenges us to consider the opportunities for innovations when ideas are not restricted or limited.   I believe that open sharing of ideas, open source hardware and open source software provide amazing opportunities for hackers, young students, and innovators.  I believe the following video by Massimo Banzi, co-creator of the Arduino,  captures the spirit of open innovation.   In my view, many of the most interesting ideas in this video were not born by established research organizations or technology firms. They were born from inspired and passionate students!

Abstract: Massimo Banzi helped invent the Arduino, a tiny, easy-to-use open-source microcontroller that’s inspired thousands of people around the world to make the coolest things they can imagine — from toys to satellite gear. Because, as he says, “You don’t need anyone’s permission to make something great.”

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  5. Jennifer Pahika challenges us to “code a better government”
  6. How might we improve the way citizens and governments interact?
  7. 10 resources inspiring improvements in education through open innovation

Being a lifelong learner

As a teacher I am surrounded by learning, or at least I hope that I am. I spend my days trying to figure out ways to help my students learn and serving as an advocate for education. As I was driving to work the other morning and thinking through the myriad of tasks on my to do list, a thought occurred to me: “What am I doing to learn?”. So much of my time is devoted to work, taking care of my kids, keeping up with household tasks, etc there isn’t much time left for me. I truly believe that in order for me to be the best teacher that I can, I need to keep learning. For one thing, I need to stay on top of the current topics in science so I can keep my classes relevant. I also need to make sure that I am fulfilling my own intellectual needs. It can be so easy to get caught up in our never ending responsibilities  and forget about investing in our own minds.

One thing that I have always admired about my husband is that he never stops learning. He is constantly reading, listening, watching. Here are some ideas I have picked up from watching him for fostering a never ending spirit of learning in your own life:

1) TED Talks. We have referred to TED Talks in several posts over the last year. These things are awesome. It is one of the wonders of the internet that you can pick just about any topic that you might be interested in and then watch a lecture from one of the foremost experts in the field. FOR FREE.

2) Audiobooks.  I spend about two hours in the car every day driving back and forth to work. Sometimes I just need that time to decompress and be alone with my thoughts, but when I don’t I can put that time to good use by listening to audiobooks. I have a subscription to Audible that allows me to download a new book each month. Sometimes it’s fiction, other times it will be nonfiction. The selection of nonfiction books is not infinite, but there’s good variety and I certainly have not exhausted the options. I’ve listened to books on effective leadership, peace building in Pakistan, education, science, etc. Each book provides a fresh perspective.

3) Documentaries. We have two young boys at home that love TV. One thing that Michael has been great about is to shift their attention from mind numbing shows like Bob the Builder, to documentaries. As a family we’ve recently watched shows on the history of the monster truck, the building of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and chimpanzees. Even after the kids go to bed, documentaries are a great way to veg out in front of the TV, while still learning something new.

4) Engaging in the local culture and opportunities. This one can be challenging for people with small kids, but, with a little planning, not impossible. We don’t live in a big city, but there are a couple of colleges nearby that offer lectures and events open to the public. As a couple, Michael and I need to be better about seeking out these opportunities more.

The important thing is to never stop learning. Make the time! Make it a priority. What are some ways that you can foster learning in your own life?

Who are your heroes?

There are many different reasons that people go into teaching. I am still not sure how I got here, but I do know that I am supposed to be here. I can’t really explain it, but I feel at home in the classroom. Teaching gives me a sense of purpose and I know that I have an opportunity to touch the lives of my students every day. One thing that is probably true of all teachers, no matter what grade level, is that we all have been students at one point in our lives and we all have had teachers that we admire. I think it is good to reflect on these teaching heroes every so often, because they shape the way that we teach, even if we don’t realize it. Take some time today to think about the teachers that have influenced your life. What made your favorite teachers so good? How can you learn from their example? If you can locate them, send them a little note to say thank you. Here are a couple of my teaching heroes, ironically, they are all science teachers:

  1. Ms. McAlister (9th grade chemistry) – Ms. McAlister made chemistry fun. By the time I finished her class I was an expert in stoichiometry. I could convert grams to moles in no time. I remember that she used games in the classroom to make a pretty dry topic fun. She was enthusiastic about science and I can’t remember a time when she let our teenage B.S. get in the way of learning. She was also the advisor for the science fair. I was terrible at putting together science fair projects, but she worked with me and let me make my own mistakes.  As I teach I try to bring a spirit of enthusiasm like Ms. McAlister. I also try to give my students room to succeed (or fail) on their own.
  2. Dr. Gilmer (undergraduate biochemistry) – To be honest, I have mixed emotions about Dr. Gilmer. She was one of those teachers that was very interested in alternative teaching strategies and group work. We spent a large portion of our class building websites about biochemistry topics. I left the class feeling like I learned more about HTML than biochemical reactions. On the other hand though, I have a great grounding in protein structure and I learned a ton about prions during her class. What I admired about Dr. Gilmer is that she wasn’t afraid to break free of the mold. While my friends were bored to tears in their lecture based biochem course, I was at least somewhat more engaged in the material in my non-traditional course. I think I can learn both from what I liked about her class and what I didn’t.
  3. Dr. Cole (graduate school immunology)– Dr. Cole is what students might term a hard ass. He was a no nonsense instructor. He did not accept excuses. You were either prepared for class or you weren’t. He was incredibly knowledgeable in his subject area and I learned a ton from him. His class was part lecture based and part paper review. Each week we were required to read a scientific article. We would be expected to stand up in front of the class and present a portion of the paper at random. It was terrifying, but it forced me to be disciplined about preparing for class. Sometimes I think about Dr. Cole and I worry that I am too easy on my students, it is something that I continue to work on.

These are just a few of the teachers that have influenced me. How about you? Who was your best teacher? How do these teachers still influence you today?

How might we improve the way citizens and governments interact?

If you read the news paper, it’s impossible to avoid headlines related to big issues facing our culture.   How do we value people and human life?  How do we address poverty?  How do we improve our education system to foster a culture of great teachers?   For our exceptional teachers, how do we celebrate those teachers with a great salary?   How do we stimulate the local economy to create jobs?

As common citizens, it’s easy for us to feel powerless in the face of these big problems.   We often think about government as this “big entity” that we influence by voting, writing letters, and getting involved in local councils.     Like many others from the “code for America” movement, I believe that social media and the internet give citizens a new opportunity to connect with each other and local leaders to create positive change in our neighborhoods.    Social media, however, is only a tool.   It takes great leaders, engaged communities, and a common vision to address some of the big issues facing our culture.  How do we get more of this?

Jennifer Pahlka, one of the founding leaders from Code for America, has an awesome quote about a new vision of government:  “Government is about doing together what we can’t do alone.”   Government isn’t just the people we elect to public office.   Citizens have the potential to connect to each other, self-organize, and form communities of reform. is an example of an app that can be used by citizens to identify issues in their area and encouraging citizens/government to resolve them.

I wanted to shine a light on an open innovation event sponsored by the Knight Foundation.    I believe the Knight Foundation has a very cool and important mission:  “Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.”

How might we improve the way citizens and governments interact?

They seem to have a passion for engaging citizens and solving “big problems” in novel ways.  In their current innovation challenge, they are asking citizens to address the following question: “How might we improve the way citizens and governments interact?”   You can learn more about their challenge to government and local citizens by visiting

I believe their approach to this challenge is cool since they are executing this challenge using OpenIdeo’s social innovation platform.   This platform has many of my favorite ideas:  online collaboration, gamification, and designing engagement experiences with focused missions.

At the time of the writing, the challenge event has collected 109 innovation ideas.    In the spirit of previous Knight Foundation challenges, they hope to financially support some of the top ideas.

  • What one idea would you want to share?  What’s important to you?
  • From a project based learning perspective, can we use these open innovation challenges to create “mini-challenges” that can be shared with students?
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Flipping Update #3: Making Progress

I am well into the second month of flipping my microbiology class. The first exam did not go well and I had to make some adjustments to my approach (see this post) We had our second exam this week and I am much happier with the results. Here are the things that I think worked well:

1) Course schedule- I often make the rookie mistake of trying to cover too much material in too short of an amount of time. Bearing this in mind, I removed a chapter from this unit and focused instead on slowly working through the material making sure that my students have the opportunity to truly understand it rather than just memorizing it. Covering less material gives me the freedom to work in more active learning activities and spend more time reviewing concepts before the exam.

2) Learning outcomes- There is so much that I want to share with my students, but a single semester is simply not enough time to make my students experts in microbiology. I have to remind myself that expert is not my goal. They don’t need to know the intricate details of genetic recombination, they DO need to understand what recombination is and how it relates to the ability of a microorganism to develop virulence or antibiotic resistance. Using some recently acquired knowledge on course design (see this post), I spent a substantial amount of time reworking my “study guide”. Instead of a detailed list of questions that my students often find overwhelming, I made a list of clearly achievable learning outcomes, keeping in mind the overall goal of preparing my students for careers in healthcare. I used these learning outcomes to guide my lectures and assignments. I certainly need to continue working on this approach, but I think it is already making a difference in the way that I teach and the students seemed to receive it well.

3) Online quizzes- No matter how hard I try, some students just aren’t going to look at the material before they come to class. By requiring quizzes after each online lecture I am forcing them to pick up their textbooks or at least watch the videos carefully. It is simply a tool in my toolbox that helps keep my students from getting distracted by their other course/obligations until right before the test day. It also helps my students to be more prepared for in class activities making them go more smoothly.

All in all, I am feeling better about this flipping thing, but I do have to say that I am finding the work completely overwhelming. I am barely keep up with this class in addition to my other traditional course and my various faculty responsibilities. I just have to keep reminding myself to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Here’s an App to Teach Strategy and How a Disease Spreads


On a Sunday drive with my wife, Sarah talked about how she will be teaching on public health and epidemics in her microbiology classes soon. For as long as I have known Sarah, she gets REALLY excited about epidemiology. She gets excited in the same way that a four year old boy gets “giddy” to go on a shopping spree in “Toys R Us” with grandma. She’s just really passionate about this topic.  With this in mind, I did a little bit of game hunting for my wife.

Through one of my work buddies, I heard about this game called “Plague” that relates exactly to this topic. In the game, the player gains a better sense of why some illnesses are transmitted more than others, the formal names and characteristics of various symptoms, and how world governments and media might react to an outbreak.

For a quick introduction to the story of the game, I would invite you to check out the video below:

I have to admit the game is kind of morbid. As a player, your objective is to destroy the whole world with your disease. (bacteria, virus, fungus, etc.) You take on the evil role of infecting and dominating the whole world. In this game of strategy, you start by selecting the country where your disease starts. (usually a poor country) The app simulates aspects of people traveling from one country to the next and “country to country” trade. If your disease has high infectivity and becomes lethal too quickly, countries start to isolate themselves from the infected countries. You receive feedback about the progress of the game by reading news headlines and listening to the various sounds. (coughing, sneezing, etc.) In this game, your enemies are those who are making a cure for your disease. You especially need to outwit the richer nations who have well funded medical research. As your disease spreads, you earn DNA points. You exchange DNA points for the opportunity to evolve your illness. During the simulation, you influence how your disease gets transmitted, disease symptoms, drug resistance, and other abilities. To win, you have to find the right timing and balance between infectivity, disease severity, and lethality.

The following video shows how the game is played:


On the easiest mode, it took three or four trials before I started to understand the basic dynamics of creating a plague. While the game is a very morbid simulation, I can see that students would have fun designing their illnesses while getting a gentle introduction to the basic vocabulary of public health.

If you’re a biology teacher looking for a fun and meaningful way to introduce epidemiology or you’re looking for a new strategy game, check out Plague. You can find it on the Android and iOS app stores.


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Benefits of Teaching Kids To Code That No One Is Talking About

Scratch - Teaching kids to code

In previous blog posts, we have discussed the necessity to encourage science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) especially in the United States. As our culture has become increasingly digital, we have coined this term of “digital natives” to describe the current generation of kids who grow up playing with IPads, cell phones and computers.

In conversations I have had with advocates of STEM education, some believe it’s important to get kids interested in learning about STEM topics before the 4th of 5th grade. Why? Around middle school, children start to form opinions about what is “cool” or “not cool.” Most kids put things like math, science and computer science into the “un-cool” category.

Mitch Resnick of the MIT media lab and his team of researchers have taken up the challenge of teaching kids to become fluent with technology. While we commonly call kids “digital natives,” Mitch challenges us to take students to the next level. Students should not be passive consumers of knowledge and entertainment. In Mr. Resnick’s view, digital natives should have the ability to make and create technology. In an increasingly digital world, he suggests that students should develop a basic fluency in computer programming and gain a sense of how software works.

I really admire the work he and his team have done on Scratch, a computer programming environment created for kids. It’s designed to be very fun and interactive. Using Scratch, students can create very dynamic interactive experiences and games by simply connecting puzzle pieces together. Many of these student experiences are not trivial to code using traditional programming tools. In the following TED talk, Mr. Resnick describes his passion for teaching kids to appreciate computer programming and how Scratch works.

I really appreciate that Scratch helps kids to have fun with math. Without a doubt, tools like Scratch are encouraging students to become creative. Creativity is such a precious skill that we need to promote to our students. With tools like Scratch, students are getting a fun introduction to design thinking and systems thinking.
Things don’t always work out well when you’re programming in Scratch or any other programming environment. You have to learn how to work through bugs and imperfections. Mr. Resnick suggests that students who use Scratch learn a sense of persistence. Since students engaged in getting their game or their creative project working, they naturally start asking questions, find answers, and learn to work through problems.

I love Mr. Resnick’s closing idea. Teaching kids to code is not about programming itself. It’s about promoting creativity, curiosity, teaching persistence, and giving young people a sense of how they can create technology. All of these fluencies are needed in our rapidly changing world.

Related Links:

Please visit the following links to learn more about Mitch Resnick and his research.   I have also included other links related to teaching computer programming to kids and teens.

“Inventors Workshop” series at the Museum of Aviation

In 2017, Check out the “Inventors Workshop” series at the Museum of Aviation.  We’ve designed these workshops to introduce young makers to engineering and tinkering with code, digital fabrication, and robotics.   Through making and tinkering, participants will learn S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills using their hands, grow their creativity and become more curious about their world and test the limits of what is possible.

Learn more here.


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Course Design: You might be doing it wrong

When I started teaching college classes last year I had very little preparation. I just kind of jumped, head first, into the deep end. I was handed a set of textbooks and a course description and sent on my way. Now I was pretty comfortable with teaching microbiology. It is a subject that I love and I’m very knowledgeable in it. General biology, on the other hand, was intimidating. I was going to have to teach on the subject of cell biology, no problem, I can handle that. I also had to teach photosynthesis and evolution. I hadn’t really studied those topics since I left undergraduate school over ten years ago. So I did what seemed reasonable and I designed my courses around my textbooks, using all of the resources provided by the publishers.

Now, a year and a half later I’m finding out that I’m doing it all wrong. I am taking part in an awesome fellowship program with the American Society of Microbiology designed to prepare young faculty and graduate students for careers in undergraduate teaching. Last week we had a webinar on course design. In an ideal world, course design should begin with the end in mind. You should first ask yourself what you want your students to learn in the course, then build it around those learning objectives. This process can be used for the whole course and for each individual assignment. This can be particularly helpful for project based learning. We don’t do assignments and projects just for the sake of it. Instead we should have clearly written outcomes for each on. This should guide our design and our assessment.  It is definitely food for thought and I am going to spend some time re-working my courses for the next few semesters using this principle.

I am finding that there is so much for me to learn about teaching and course design. These resources were shared during the webinar and I thought they would be useful for our readers:

Daniel Pratt, Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education.

Grant Wiggins and Jan McTighe, Understanding by Design.

Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers

John Bean, Engaging Ideas:The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom.

Using Game Segments to Engage Students in Computer Science Education

The Matrix

Teachers of computer science, like many STEM teachers, desire to find ways to engage students in the craft.   How do we make learning computer programming fun?   How do we empower students to be creative?

As a computer science graduate myself, I have to confess that we cover some pretty dry material at times.   I can always say that I found internal motivation to fight through difficult classes by seeing how those concepts related to creating video games and 3D simulations.   This was a small mental trick that worked for me.   Can it work for others?

Over the weekend, I discovered a pretty cool paper entitled “Using XNA-GSE game segments to Engage Students in Advanced Computer Science Education.”   The author, G. Michael Youngblood a professor at University of North Carolina, shares his experiences of engaging students in the study of artificial intelligence using a technique he calls “game segments.”    This work was shared by Microsoft Research at “Microsoft Academic Days on Gaming 2007.”   “Game segments” is a project based learning technique where students practice the implementation of various algorithms in AI in the context of a realistic video game scenario.    You might think of a game segment as a “fill in the blank” computer science programming activity.   The segment has most of the game mechanics implemented.   The student can focus on implementing the “brains” of the software and applying a specific model of artificial intelligence.     In other words, most of the game context is coded and completed.    The student is tasked with understanding, designing, and coding the “computer intelligence” components.

The full paper from Microsoft Research can be found here:

The author felt that students became engaged in the activity because they had creative freedom to customize their game creations.   They were empowered to change the artwork of the game and experiment with various aspects and behaviors in the games.    Since all the game segments were designed with Microsoft XNA game studio, students could also enjoy playing their game creations on their Xbox if they desired.   I thought it was cool that students would often hold informal competitions among themselves.

Some of the scenarios covered in his class include the following:

  • Chat bot: Students practice techniques for creating their own “Siri” like agent that can have a conversation with a player.  In this context, the player needs to discover a secret known by a agent in the game.    The students got to play with AIML and related algorithms.
  • Motion planning: In this scenario, a student needs to implement algorithms so that a character can navigate through an environment, cross a bridge, and capture a prize.
  • Adversarial search:  This game segment enables students to learn how to implement the search and attack algorithms that you might find in a game like Minecraft.   In Minecraft, zombies and spiders come out at night and try to attack players.   Students need to learn to use sensors, search and planning algorithms, and get the agent to move intelligently avoiding road blocks.

In the context of his class, the students worked with five game segments.   Mr. Youngblood shared some guiding principles he used in constructing the activity.

  • Design Principle 1: The areas where students are to modify, incorporate their code, or examine for debugging should be very clear in the game segment. “
  • Design Principle 2: Allow the student to easily change the cosmetics and/or behavior of the game so they can customize it and take ownership”
  • Design Principle 3: Always leave an element of the base code that the students would like to change but is not required to be changed.”
  • Design Principle 4: Document all of the game segment source code well. It serves as an example student will refer to for additional learning.”
  • Design Principle 5: Keep the game segment simple by testing only one major application of a learned technique at a time with the addition of at most one minor applied technique.”
  • Design Principle 6: The game segment should encourage the desired proper coding style and paradigm (e.g., object-oriented).”
  • Design Principle 7: Design for competitions or diversity to help show off the student’s work in class incorporating it back into the lessons.”

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