wrenchey in front of poster for ISTE poster session

Genius Hour: Reflecting on a successful student-driven solution

To cap off my 2017-2018 school year, I attended ISTE in Chicago and delivered a poster session on a Genius Hour adaptation I did with my 9th grade students taking AP Computer Science Principles.  What was remarkable about that event is that I was blessed with two gifts: Microsoft Education program has an application process for events like this and my ISTE registration and travel were covered as a Microsoft Innovative Expert.  The second gift was the feedback and support I received from my students as we tried out this adventure. I was able to bring their words and activities to the conference and my poster session as I shared out with the audience.

Every year, I like to mix up content and find new ways to innovate in my classroom.  I am most invigorated when students apply what we are doing to new, personalized applications; the framing of this learning in a Genius Hour format gives structure and context to the learning. I was at Northeastern last summer at an experiential learning conference (NExT) where I began the foundations of this idea.  Collaborators helped me refine the idea and I prepared activities and resources for the Fall of 2017. I knew I wanted new students to use the tools in my lab, I also wanted to give students a personalized learning setting and encourage them to explore tools and standards while still stretching their experience.   I adapted the concept of Genius Hour to fit within my 9th grade AP Computer Science Principles classroom  so that students could still demonstrate learning and apply standards (or “Big Ideas”) of AP CS Principles to their own Genius Hour projects.    We took an average of an hour each week for 10 weeks, approximately a quarter of the school year, to provide students choices for projects to demonstrate learning.   Below is a breakdown of those activities students could choose.  We used #OneNote #ClassNoteBook to provide guided activities with links and smaller deadlines as well as a space for personal feedback for each learner.

Genius Hour Activities

Activities involved using @microbits, @raspberryiPi, @makeymakeys, or #MinecraftEducationEdition for integrated projects and some open ended community-based projects like an environmental project within an international community. Two international community members provided opportunities for students to work with international problem based learning: Koen Timmers (@zelfstudie) and his global project:climate-action.info    and Stephen Reid (@ImmersiveMind) also provided a social and emotional learning project. These different activities allowed for students to investigate different tools in our lab and demonstrate skills like collaboration, meeting deadlines and goal setting.  Students could also submit deliverables and reflect on their learning.    I used student final reflections to influence decisions for next year’s content and even turn these successes into opportunities for students to share their learning within our larger technology community.

Students articulated their experiences and I asked quite a few of them to accompany me to NCCE in Seattle in February where we first presented on our Genius Hour.   Student presentations were outstanding; they were reflective and articulate and the audience was engaged as they took the floor.   They argued for why the work was important and showed how student voice and student choice made the learning meaningful.

With this rousing success, I submitted also to @ISTE Chicago for a poster session on the same topic.   Again, I was presenting on how much we all were changed by this experience.  So many of these concepts were applicable when students were submitting digital portfolios to the College Board in May and our collective work became a foundation for Problem Based Learning and projects they would do throughout the year.  They could draw on their work for Genius Hour to create original algorithms with abstractions and articulate solutions using computational thinking.  Along this journey, I received feedback from Dr. Chris Unger who encouraged me to have students reflect on their learning and the processes they used to resolve some issues.  I used these student reflections and their finished projects to really determine that this work was a success.   The culminating event at ISTE was the poster session.  Here I am capturing the live set-up for my poster session:  https://www.facebook.com/melissa.wrenchey/posts/10155280712461205

Ultimately, the gift is knowing that, collaboratively, I worked with my students to try out something new.  We all felt it was successful and the students were appropriately challenged and also trusted to take on their own learning.  The goal of Genius Hour is to allow for people to stretch themselves as they get out of the confines of a typical setting; we achieved much of this as I learned alongside students.  Thanks goes to Microsoft Education team, Dr. Unger and the Northeastern Experiential Learning Project(NExT), and ultimately my principal, Cindy Duenas, and students as we all stretched to make this new thing possible.

painted 3D city with servo spinnig Space Needle

Arduino+Maker Project Iterations

I really had no idea how using a small Arduino Micocontroller for a Saturday workshop would be a maker epiphany for my teaching. I had attended a Saturday workshop at Microsoft labeled as “Animatronics” in 2014.  The organizer, Paul Dietz (https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulhdietz) designed the workshop based on electrical engineering and maker education using his background experience as a Microsoft Researcher and Disney designer.  Attendees were told to bring a cereal box and we had items to add to our maker project like pipe cleaners, feathers, and string. By the end of the workshop, our team had a cat with a 3D tail that moved at a 100 degree angle with a servo, and its mouth also moved up and down to quote a poem.  USB speakers were on hand to play the poem on the computer providing all of the power to the Arduino microcontroller.

LED Servo motors in a shoe box
an early version of our projects using servo motors, LEDs and Arduinos

The next year I adapted that same project for my students.  I used existing resources from our Physics teacher’s lab like Arduino kits and servo motors.    I walked them through small Arduino programs like lighting the Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)  and using the piezo buzzer.  I tried to emulate the same project with my students.  They brought in shoe boxes and in pairs they came up with a theme to use a servo motor.  We made full use of the 180 degree servo motors.  Every year since 2015 our project has gotten more elaborate, and all based on student feedback; they really enjoy the project and come back to me years later to tell me to do it again with each class.   In a school where students are challenged in their math, science, language arts and elective courses, doing group activities and building provides a creative outlet. This project  provides introductory skills in using micro-controllers for prototyping, students use organized sharing tools to keep track of projects, and the learning is well supported through standards. 

Some powerful things happen in a makerspace and I am committed to sharing these principles to engage in conversation and expand the scope of maker projects.  In fact, in the same way that I attended a workshop in the Spring of 2014 with no expectations, I continually increase my goals for the project and my students exceed those expectations as they apply maker principles to a Computer Science project. These are some of my greatest take-aways from the Arduino Maker project :

First maker projects are one of the most underrated social activities teachers can use to develop social skills.  Something amazing happens when teams are collaborating and doing some kind of tactile building.  They talk with each other and ask questions; students with social anxiety are engaged in casual conversation that is organic and bond-building. In a maker space, students are learning how to build their project but they are also learning how to connect with others.  Nearly every student is engaged in the classroom and teams are working towards a common goal they are personally vested in.  Sometimes we get volunteers to share out some electrical engineering skills and help make projects more elaborate.

student soldering
A volunteer helping a student solder an electrical project.

Second, I have learned so much through the process as well.  For instance, I am learning each year how to improve the project and how to adjust the workload for these emerging project managers; this year I added in small benchmarks so that I can personally follow up with each group and so they have daily goals for work time.  Ninth grade students are not ready for a large, culminating project without key deadlines. Student teams create a collaborative space to share work and their plans for building so that each person has work to complete and deadlines.  There also needs to be enough work so that all students can account for their time; for this reason I like smaller teams working hard to complete their deadlines.  Last year, 2017, I included a summative assessment where each student could show me a working microcontroller project like an ultra-sonic sensor providing a readout to a liquid Crystal display (LCD) or a student would have to show me an array of LEDs running off the timing of a relay.  In 2018, I did not include this summative assessment and I cannot guarantee that all students took responsibility for their own learning of how to problem solve Arduino micro-controllers.  I had to go back and provide that assessment after students finished the maker project.

painted 3D city with servo spinnig Space Needle
A student team proudly painted their 3D city with a servo spinning the Space Needle


Third, constructivist, personalized learning takes place in this casual, risk-free setting. Seymour Papert asserts that “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”  This last important concept in my maker space ruminations is one of the most difficult to achieve as it requires so much more work before the learning takes place.  I have four years of work leading into this culminating project.  I can show how students address key standards in a formative assessment and I can also show how we are addressing other standards through problem solving and collaboration.  What is still the most difficult is that concept that I am also the learner as well.  Each year I have to look at the project to see how I can improve it.  I used a post mortem survey so students could demonstrate addressing the key standards and they can reflect on some of their lessons learned.  I can ask them how they are using computational thinking in their project based learning and students have some spot-on answers.   For the last two years, I also incorporated video for student to reflect on their work and provide a both a snapshot of accomplishments but I will also use these videos as examples for next year’s Arduino maker project; students also have a sample of their work to share with other periods throughout the day.  Some statistics include a 4.5 rating this year for all students as their favorite project.  I am excited to see those statistics but it means infinitely more when my students see me the next year and follow up and tell me how much they enjoyed the collaborative project.  Their feedback that follows months and years later means that much more.

Watch the Facebook Live video and hear students describe their projects.


Guest Blogger: Anne Lee

Anne Lee wrote the post below before she knew her team’s work would be featured on HuffingtonPost:

“We can’t vote, but we can have an impact”, 2/22/17

She has a sincere desire to improve the world in which she lives.  These are her words:


A polar bear cub. Stranded on an Arctic raft of ice. He probes the water with his paw. To a poor-sighted mammal, safety looks to be an unchallenging strait of water away.

The cub struggles to keep from drowning. Everything is black.

I wake up— cold sweat drenching my body. Flashbacks to my second-grade climate change unit. I know they show us these graphics to force us into transient pity, but this doesn’t lessen the impact. I focus on his eyes; inches above the water, they are filled with fear.

The scariest part is that this is not a unique incident. According to the New York Times, the temperature in the Arctic oceans has risen by 7 degrees, and the Arctic air by 18 degrees. National Geographic covered a study predicting that we will have our first ice-free summer in the Arctic as early as 2040. The distance between bodies of ice grows, polar bears are swept further away from life-giving stability, eventually forced into death by drowning. As a second grader absolutely infatuated with anything describable as furry, I was heartbroken upon learning this information. I had my fair share of nightmares those nights. There, I, 8-years-old and clearly ready to change the world, vowed that I would devote anything— even my stuffed Border-Collie Fuddles— to restoring harmony to these animals.

Fast forward 8 years— I still want to fight climate change. Older, however, I realized that polar bears are not the only ones being harmed; changes to our atmosphere are one of the biggest human rights violations in history. Even though developed countries, including the United States, emit the most greenhouse gases, developing countries pay the price. Droughts in Madagascar & South Africa, typhoons in the Philippines, and climate refugees in Bangladesh have all been linked to climate change. Worse, these countries don’t have the resources to mitigate the impacts caused by these disasters. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 250,000 people will die to climate change related issues between 2030 and 2050 – the majority of whom are children.

Last year, the world finally came together to take action. Almost 200 countries signed the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent average global temperatures from rising above 2°C in comparison to pre-industrial levels. The significance of 2°C? Scientists have concluded that if we are unable to stop average temperatures from rising by 2°C, longer droughts, more intense heat waves, disruptions in food supply, stronger hurricanes, and rising sea levels will be inevitable. Raising global temperatures by 2°C passes a danger point, in which the consequences of climate change will be disastrous and irreversible. To prevent this, the United States set the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28%, in comparison with 2005 levels.

Unfortunately, our new administration has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord Already, many have taken to challenge this action— through marches and other protests. However, my team and I, at Tesla STEM High School, have taken a different approach; regardless of whether or not the new administration decides to follow through with the Paris Accord, we have lead Tesla STEM High School into pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels to those of the Paris Climate Accord. We also launched an organization, Schools Under 2C, to challenge other schools around the nation to do the same. Through simple educational programs, we have been igniting behavioral changes throughout our school, and aim to set a precedent for other schools across the nation.

On February 1st, we initiated our compost program. We also began monitoring and reducing lighting usage within each classroom, and are on set to meet our goal to meet standards stated by the Paris Climate Accord by the end of the month. We are currently on track to reduce our school’s carbon footprint by a one and a half tons each month. In doing so, we are proving that you can reduce your carbon footprint through simple behavioral changes. Climate change isn’t impossible to fight – we already have the technology to do so. We just need to take action. Even if our administration is willing to deny this problem, we can’t.

Now, are challenging other schools to follow this example and reduce their carbon footprint as well. Visit our website, http://www.schoolsunder2c.org, to learn more. Whether you are a student, teacher, school official, or anyone else who wants to get involved, sign a pledge on our website to reduce your school’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we will get in touch with you to help you take action in your community.

Please join us. The time to act is now. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our generation. We need to take action before it is too late.

Virtual Reality Applications

I was watching an application, Tilt Brush with HTC Vive from Immersive Minds: “Theater Scene with Tilt Brush”.  I was thinking about some real applications for Virtual Reality in classrooms, especially upper elementary and middle school.

Watch the video see what you think. You are watching Stephen Reid, of http://www.immersiveminds.com/,  design a story using tools with TiltBrush(https://www.tiltbrush.com/) software and an HTC Vive Virtual Reality headset.   In a classroom, a teacher could design the setting for the story, real-time or film the video ahead of time and play it during class. Students could create their own stories from this surreal prompt as they are watching the video generated like Reid’s sample.  It would be fascinating to see students use this prompt to make their own creative writings.  I would love to be a fly on the wall and watch students brainstorming topics as they are writing.

Additional applications could include a sort of “Yes, and…..” from improvisation activities.  Teachers could give students opportunity to feed the “beast” for a creative writing prompt.

“Give me a character name.”

“What does the character look like?”

“When does this story take place?”

A teacher could create the setting based on these prompts for students to generate stories. I could see this as a super engaging activity for a classroom, maybe even use it as a reward; story starters and student read aloud activities could be really engaging for the class.   Although, even as I am saying this, I am thinking really the power would be putting the tools into students hands.  Students could design stories for each other or use the tool to make their stories come to life.

What if teachers used these prompts for at home writing?  There is not enough time in the day to add on one more thing.  Instead, creative writing could supplement work at home or it could turn into a family project; students could watch the video and then write at home.

My brain started swimming with possibilities with using VR in elementary and middle school classrooms, even with only one unit;  I think that is the point of acquiring new technology.  You get excited about the possibilities and if you can find an application, you realize you have an tool to inspire students. A tool like this does have a steep price point and an even steeper learning curve.  However, when you start embracing technology in the classroom, it is hard to stop with one new tool.  Teachers look for more tools to engage learners in creative activities.  Sometimes, bringing the tools into the classroom and having a lesson plan or unit well thought out means students will  extend the learning even beyond your intent and that is the best outcome for any lesson.


Here is another application for spatial learning:

The HTC Vive uses .obj files and so does a 3D printer.  What if students imported their 3D print file into the HTC VR software to actually visualize the object they are printing?  Imagine a student stepping inside their designed object.  Students then exercise spatial reasoning as they are experiencing and object they have created.   I have had many students 3D print something without realizing the scope or size of the object.  Imagine stepping inside that object to see how it would print?

So here goes: I have built on Stephen Reid’s example.  Please, please add your input  and let’s start some conversations around some more innovations in the classroom.


Collaborating and Building a Better Beast

My first love has always been teaching students to be better humans.  We create projects to be inclusive and we actively seek ways to bring more voices to the table; I am passionate when underrepresented people become part of the landscape of STEM jobs.

My second love is working with people and making something I am proud of.  I completed a certificate from the University of Washington in Game Design with the goal of bringing gaming and education into the classroom.  Through the program, I joined a collective team that has become an intellectual property management team.  We are two graphic artists, an author, a small business owner and an educator: CreativeJuggernaut. We Skype weekly and share our projects and discuss new ventures as well as ideas to bring to market as role playing games, card games, novels, and apps.

Proudly, our first product to hit the market is timely, well designed, and truly a team

Our work centers on meeting virtually every week to share

effort.  Creative Juggernaut has published a card game for Election 2016.  This does not have to be a drinking game but it does beg to be played while watching the debates as a community, a family. The game features original art by one of our graphic artists and game mechanics and card labels developed by the team.  The project was also developed by a team with enough diversity that we allow for all voices in this debate.  Our team even has disparate political stances but we collaborated to make this project to provide something for everyone.

We are excited about this effort and proud that this will be the first of a few different projects to come to fruition in the new future.   I can only speak for myself but this creative outlet is invigorating and challenging and inspiring.

Please download the cards and play with friends and family Sunday night. http://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/10465/Shock-Monkey-Games

#2 – Darrington-STEM: From a STEM Student’s Eyes

Marshmallows flew everywhere. Mini rockets soared across the room. I was handing out gumdrops, straws, and toothpicks. Yes, this was for the engineering program of the Darrington-STEM partnership. And yes, I swear this was educational.

Today was the day the Darrington kids got to come over to Tesla STEM High School. Last time, the STEM kids went up to Darrington and had the chance to witness the beautiful White Horse Mountain and surrounding scenery. This time, the Darrington kids would get to see some of the cool gadgets STEM has.

Neha and I got the opportunity to run an engineering workshop for the students. Over the course of the past year, we started STEMcademy, an organization dedicated to providing students with STEM enrichment through project based learning. In our local community, we host monthly workshops and competitions for elementary and middle school students. Today, we got to share some of our favorite activities with the kids from Darrington.

In the morning, when Congresswoman Delbene was giving an introduction, I saw some familiar faces from my last workshop in Darrington, but some new faces as well. It was exciting to see them here at STEM.

We started off the day with icebreakers to get to know each other. “Your name’s Kale? Like the vegetable!?!” I asked. Kale nodded his head, and exclaimed, “Everyone asks me that!” Another girl pointed out that the dark green outfit he was wearing reflected his name perfectly.

Then, we started constructing catapults. Typically, I would demonstrate how to make a catapult and let the kids follow along. Today, I gave the students the challenge of just simply handing out the materials, and giving them 20 minutes to make any kind of projectile machine. At first when I handed out 7 skewers, 4 marshmallows, a rubber band, and a spoon to each student, they looked at me like, “How the heck am I supposed to make a catapult out of this?” After giving out some hints, the kids started building impressive-looking structures and soon began shooting marshmallows and gumdrops all over the place. It appears that they were already budding engineers. When I told the students I had a candy prize for whoever hit the target first, the rapid fire launching began.

Next, we had a few structural building contests and challenged students to make the strongest structure out of gumdrops and toothpicks. When I told the kids to build a structure to carry the weight of a textbook out of the materials given, they thought it would be impossible. After some deep thought and multiple trials of testing, a couple structures were already withstanding the weight of the book!

To explore the principles of aerodynamics and flight, we instructed the kids to design and construct a rocket. With just a straw, a rubber band, some paper triangles, and a few other simple materials, students were able to build their own launchable mini-slingshot rockets. We even went outside to launch the rockets, and a couple rockets would fly across the parking lot everytime!

At the very end, once we set up the MakeyMakey circuit boards, the kids got really excited. MakeyMakeys allow you to easily create a circuit to send commands to the computer. By just pressing a piece of playdoh connected to the board, a command would be sent to the computer to press the space key or arrow key. I saw faces light up as they pressed a piece of playdoh and the space key would go off. Everyone immediately wanted to make their own. All the students quickly caught on and made game pads out of playdoh or other materials, and they didn’t want to leave at the end. “Let me press it one more time! I promise I’ll leave after!” one student said. They thought MakeyMakeys were the coolest thing ever, and asked where they could get their own. They also asked if I could bring the MakeyMakeys next time we headed up to Darrington. The next day, Mrs. Wrenchey gave me the idea of learning how to make inexpensive MakeyMakeys out of wires and circuit boards as a future project idea to bring to Darrington.

In just two hours, we did so many cool activities. But out of all of the fun things we got to do, I think one of my favorite parts of the Darrington-STEM partnership is just being able to sit down and talk with the kids from Darrington. I always get to learn about how different our lives are in some aspects, but also how similar we are at the same time.

Earlier, I asked the students what they liked doing outside of school. Simultaneously, they exclaimed, “Sports!” From basketball to football, the kids just loved going outside. When I said our school didn’t have sports, I saw a couple jaws drop to the floor. One girl wouldn’t believe me. “What do you guys do outside of school then?!” she asked.

Later, we talked about our pets. I got so excited when I learned that every single student at my table had a Golden Retriever. That was probably the highlight of my day (Sorry to all you cat-lovers, but I’m a huge dog person).

Hopefully next time when I visit Darrington, I can bring my ginormous Golden Retriever, Maggie. I bet my dog can become good buddies with the dogs in Darrington, just like how I became good friends with the kids from Darrington.


Anne Lee

Sophomore at Tesla STEM High School

From a STEM Student’s Eyes: Darrington-STEM

Guest blogger: As I look outside the bus window in the morning, the scenery flies by. We pass by more industrialized cities with Targets, Boeing plants, and large stadiums. Soon, the landscape morphs into gorgeous views as we drive by flowing rivers and giant Douglas fir, and even spot two bald eagles. This is how I know we’re close to our destination, Darrington, Washington.
It’s Monday morning. I’m not at school. I’m pretty excited about that. But I’m even more excited for our first Darrington – STEM partnership trip, where high school students from Tesla STEM help to increase interest in STEM fields for students down in Darrington, Washington.

When we finally arrive at Darrington’s only school, I head off the bus, and see younger kids eagerly smiling and waving through the windows. It was easy to tell that they were just as excited as I was for our activity today, Future City. Future City is a project-based learning contest where students design and build their own city on computers. We decided to take a twist on the project and hold a competition in March at STEM high school, with various prizes as awards. Students are to design a structure on Tinkercad (an online version of CAD) of a building which they would like to see in Darrington.

To begin the day, my group and I had the students brainstorm what they liked in a city, and what they didn’t like. It soon became apparent why these kids loved the small town of Darrington; they simply loved being outdoors in nature. Every single student gave some variation of an answer similar to, “Seattle’s too crowded. There are so many cars and pollution. I love how when you look outside the window in Darrington, you see the beautiful White Horse Mountain. I like the giant trees and rivers too.”

When it was time to design buildings students wanted to see in Darrington, I heard a wide variety of brainstorm ideas. A few kids started designing structures shaped like chickens, while others took a more serious approach and made giant hospitals. The imagination and creativity in the room far surpassed my expectations. Each structure was unique and was something that I would have never thought of myself. One group even came up with a sustainable way to operate a city, by turning chicken grease into biofuels. I was so impressed!

To my surprise, other students started designing a movie theater, ice cream store, a sports stadium, or other buildings that I often pass by. Some students explained to me that Darrington didn’t have these places that I drive by every day, all of which I took for granted. One girl told me it took over half an hour to drive to the nearest movie theater!

However, I was super happy to hear the students’ voices. I love how they know what they would like to add to their environment. In order to make a difference, I think it’s important to know what changes you would like to see. I can’t wait to see these budding engineers in March, the cool buildings that they designed, and of course, I definitely can’t wait to see what impacts these students will make in the future.

Anne Lee
Sophomore at Tesla STEM High School