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As the year winds down, I’m starting to pull out some specific ideas that I want to work on over the summer/next year.  The one that presses on me the most is “readiness.”  In other words,

  • What is absolutely non-negotiable that my students should be able to do or understand when they graduate?
  • How to I make sure they get the greatest opportunity to learn those things?
  • How do I make sure no one graduates without those things?  And most frustratingly,
  • How do I reconcile the student-directedness of inquiry learning with the requirements of my diploma?

Some people might disagree that some of these points are worth worrying about.  If you don’t teach in a trade school, these questions may be irrelevant or downright harmful.  K-12 education should not be a trade school.  Universities do not necessarily need to be trade schools (although arguably, the professional schools like medicine and law really are, and ought to be).  However, I DO teach in a trade school, so these are the questions that matter to me.

Training that intends to help you get a job is only once kind of learning, but it is a valid and important kind of learning for those who choose it.  It requires as much rigour and critical thinking as anything else, which becomes clear when we consider the faith we place in the electronics technicians who service elevators and aircraft. If my students are inadequately prepared in their basic skills, they (or someone else, or many other people) may be injured or die. Therefore, I will have no truck with the intellectual gentrification that thinks “vocational” is a dirty word. Whether students are prepared for their jobs is a question of the highest importance to me.

In that light, my questions about job-readiness have reached the point of obsession.  Being a technician is to inquire.  It is to search, to question, to notice inconsistencies, to distinguish between conditions that can and cannot possibly be the cause of particular faults.  However, teaching my students to inquire means they must inquire.  I can’t force it to happen at a particular speed (although I can cut it short, or offer fewer opportunities, etc.).  At the same time, I have given my word that if they give me two years of their time, they will have skills X, Y, and Z that are required to be ready for their jobs.  I haven’t found the balance yet.

I’ll probably write more about this as I try to figure it out.  In the meantime, Grant Wiggins is writing about a recent study that found a dramatic difference between high-school teachers’ assessment of students’ college readiness, and college profs’ assessment of the same thing.  Wiggins directs an interesting challenge to teachers: accurately assess whether students are ready for what’s next, by calibrating our judgement against the judgement of “whatever’s next.”  In other words, high school teachers should be able to predict what fraction of their students are adequately prepared for college, and that number should agree reasonably well with the number given by college profs who are asked the same question.  In my case, I should be able to predict how well prepared my students are for their jobs, and my assessment should match reasonably the judgement of their first employer.

In many ways I’m lucky: we have a Program Advisory Group made up of employer representatives who meet to let us know what they need. My colleagues and I have all worked between 15 and 25 years in our field. I send all my students on 5-week unpaid work terms.  During and after the work terms, I meet with the student and the employer, and get a chance to calibrate my judgement.  There’s no question that this is a coarse metric; the reviews are influenced by how well the student is suited to the culture of a particular employer, and their level of readiness in the telecom field might be much higher than if they worked on motor controls.  Sometimes employers’ expectations are unreasonably high (like expecting electronics techs to also be mechanics).  There are some things employers may or may not expect that I am adamant about (for example, that students have the confidence and skill to respond to sexist or racist comments).    But overall, it’s a really useful experience.

Still, I continue to wonder about the accuracy of my judgement.  I also wonder about how to open this conversation with my colleagues.  It seems like something it would be useful to work on together.  Or would it?  The comments on Wiggins’ post are almost as interesting as the post itself.

It seems relevant that most commenters are responding to the problem of students’ preparedness for college, while Wiggins is writing about a separate problem: teachers’ unfounded level of confidence about students’ preparedness for college.

The question isn’t, “why aren’t students prepared for college.”  It’s also not “are college profs’ expectations reasonable.”  It’s “why are we so mistaken about what college instructors expect?

My students, too, often miss this kind of subtle distinction.  It seems that our students aren’t the only ones who suffer from difficulty with close reading (especially when stressed and overwhelmed).

Wiggins calls on teachers to be more accurate in our assessment, and to calibrate our assessment of college-readiness against actual college requirements. I think these are fair expectations.  Unfortunately, assessment of students’ college-readiness (or job-readiness) is at least partly an assessment of ourselves and our teaching.

A similar problem is reported about college instructors.  The study was conducted by the Foundation for Critical Thinking with both education faculty and subject-matter faculty who instruct teacher candidates. They write that many profs are certain that their students are leaving with critical thinking skills, but that most of those same profs could not clearly explain what they meant by critical thinking, or give concrete examples of how they taught it.

Self-assessment is surprisingly intractable; it can be uncomfortable and can elicit self-doubt and anxiety.  My students, when I expect them to assess their work against specific criteria, exhibit all the same anger, defensiveness, and desire to change the subject as seen in the comments.  Most of them literally can’t do it at first.  It takes several drafts and lots of trust that they will not be “punished” for admitting to imperfection.  Carol Dweck’s work on “growth mindset” comes to mind here… is our collective fear of admitting that we have room to grow a consequence of “fixed mindset”?  If so, what is contributing to it? In that light, the punitive aspects of NCLB (in the US) or similar systemic teacher blaming, isolation, and lack of integrated professional development may in fact be contributing to the mis-assessment reported in the study, simply by creating lots of fear and few “sandboxes” of opportunity for development and low-risk failure.  As for the question of whether education schools are providing enough access to those experiences, it’s worth taking a look at David Labaree’s “The Trouble with Ed School.”

One way to increase our resilience during self-assessment is to do it with the support of a trusted community — something many teachers don’t have.  For those of us who don’t, let’s brainstorm about how we can get it, or what else might help.  Inaccurate self-assessment is understandable but not something we can afford to give up trying to improve.

I’m interested in commenter I Hodge’s point about the survey questions.  The reading comprehension question allowed teachers to respond that “about half,” “more than half,” or “all, or nearly all” of their students had an adequate level of reading comprehension.  In contrast, the college-readiness question seems to have required a teacher to select whether their students were “well,” “very well,” “poorly,” or “very poorly” prepared.  This question has no reasonable answer, even if teachers are only considering the fraction of students who actually do make it to college.  I wonder why they posed those two questions so differently?

Last but not least, I was surprised that some people blamed college admissions departments for the admission of underprepared students.  Maybe it’s different in the US, but my experience here in Canada is that admission is based on having graduated high school, or having gotten a particular score in certain high school courses.  Whether under-prepared students got those scores because teachers under-estimated the level of preparation needed for college, or because of rigid standards or standardized tests or other systemic problems, I don’t see how colleges can fix, other than by administering an entrance test.  Maybe that’s more common than I know, but neither the school at which I teach nor the well-reputed university that I (briefly) attended had one.  Maybe using a high school diploma as the entrance exam for college/university puts conflicting requirements on the K-12 system?  I really don’t know the answer to this.

Wiggins recommends regularly bringing together high-school and college faculty to discuss these issues.  I know I’d be all for it.  There is surely some skill-sharing that could go back and forth, as well as discussions of what would help students succeed in college.  Are we ready for this?

International Space Station, courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve had mixed feelings about some engineering curricula designed for the under-12 set.  There are an awful lot of lesson plans available on-line that have big ideas (space exploration, zero-gravity adaptation) and big words (ecliptic, aphelion) but when you get right down to it, the students aren’t building space suits or improving solar panels; they’re measuring evaporation in a tin pan (I made this example up to protect the hard-working institutions that also sometimes turn out great materials).  Besides the feeling of “bait and switch,” this is also disappointing because it fails to help students or teachers make sense of what engineering is, and why it’s not the same as science.

So I was intrigued to find a link to Engineering is Elementary recommended by Mark Guzdial in response to the post “Teaching Engineering Thinking” at Gas Station Without Pumps.  The contexts are smaller (design an alarm circuit, design a bridge) but in those lessons, students are going to design and build and alarm circuit or a bridge.  They’re also going to assess their creations and improve them based on the assessment.  The language is simple and every lesson’s title start with “Designing a …”, except the ones that start with “Making a …” or “Improving a …”.  There’s a table-top mag-lev system in there.  I don’t know anything about these products — cost or effectiveness or ease of use.  But when some projects for elementary school students make me think “Oh, I want to do that one,” it makes me curious.

If you’ve used them, what are they like?  Could I use them with a Brownie troop (6-8 year olds)?  Could I use them for my adult students when we need something light as a break?  If you try them out, please let me know how it goes.

[Update, June 6, 2012: Want to try making play-doh circuits at home?  Read the Squishy Circuits official site first!]

A caterpillar named Earl

I don’t remember who pointed me to this TED talk about making working circuits with play-dough, but I found the idea compelling.  When a local Brownie troop called my school and asked if the girls could visit the campus to learn about one of our trades programs, it seemed like a good fit for this activity. I figured I had found an opportunity to do something fun and expose some kids to what’s available at a trades/tech school.  I didn’t anticipate that by the end of the evening, 20 kids would be jumping up and down with excitement, proclaiming the incredible coolness of building electronics, refusing to be torn from their creations until they could be demonstrated to volunteers and parents, and vowing to go home and take apart their vacuum cleaners.

Last Tuesday evening, twenty or so girls between 5 and 8 years old arrived at the campus.  The “squishy circuits,” as developers from University of St. Thomas call them, were a huge hit.  Compared to other electronic projects such as soldering kits or robot-building, this was by comparison inexpensive, easy to set up, and required relatively little technical expertise from the volunteers.  Here’s what we did.

Two weeks ahead

Recruited some volunteers.  We had one adult for every four kids: some were students in my program, others were Brownie leaders who may or may not have had any background with electricity.  Volunteers did things like encourage kids, take pictures, fetch extra supplies, make sure no one got hurt, and occasionally make suggestions of things to try when someone got stuck. We probably could have gotten away with half the number of adults.  But I found that the kids really wanted to show us their triumphs — it helped to have a surfeit of “witnesses,” as well as several cameras.

Assembled supplies.  For electronic supplies, we ordered from Digikey — they have reasonable prices and they ship overnight.  For craft supplies, we hit the dollar store.

The trickiest thing was to find safety glasses that won’t fall off the kids’ faces.  An LED can explode into tiny bits of plastic shrapnel if connected directly to a 9V battery, so safety glasses are definitely necessary. I visited a local industrial-supply store and bought a model designed for women.  They sold them to me in boxes of 10, and they fit the kids fine. UST has suggestions about what to buy and where to find it, including inexpensive mail-order safety glasses in kids’ sizes.

One week ahead

Dough starts liquid, then clumps like ruined gravy, and finally stiffens into a ball

Made the dough.  Recipes are here.  I planned one batch of conductive dough and half a batch of insulating dough for every three kids, which was a generous amount.  I used a teaspoon of grocery-store-grade food colouring for every batch.  The recipe can be multiplied, but it’s very stiff to stir at the end.  I was stirring by hand, and a double batch was the most I was physically able to work with.  The dough keeps well for over a week if kept at room temperature in a sealed plastic bag.

Gave the volunteers a chance to experiment with the dough, and briefed them about how the workshop would go.

Crimped terminal lugs onto the ends of anything with wires.  The helpful folks at UST say that it’s recommended, not required.  We didn’t have time to add lugs onto everything, and circuits work without them.  But we found that kids who had terminal lugs were able to bring their imagined creations to life, such as Earl the caterpillar, above; kids who didn’t have terminal lugs were able to make lights and buzzers turn on, but got frustrated trying to make it look like the butterfly, elephant, or “spider-cat” they imagined, because the wires kept slipping out of the dough.  UST also recommends soldering the lugs; I’m not sure that’s a big advantage, and it significantly increases the skill needed to prepare.  I used fork lugs (sometimes called spade lugs or Sta-kons); if you can find the type with a hooked end, it’ll work even better for grabbing on to the dough. The lugs and the tool for attaching (aka crimping) them are available from the automotive section of a hardware store.

Day Of

Figured out seating and logistics.  We had tables of four: three kids and an adult.  I didn’t want the supplies on the table when we started, because I needed the undivided attention of the kids while I talked about safety, so I made a bag of supplies for each table but left them at the side of the room: one motor, two batteries, one buzzer, a handful of popsicle sticks, one batch of conductive dough, half a batch of insulating dough, etc.

Workshop Agenda

As people were arriving, they took a seat at a table that had pencils, markers, nametags, and blank paper.  We encouraged them to draw the animal (real or imagined) that they would like to make tonight.

This is me, doing the initial demo

15 min: When everyone was seated, I introduced myself and introduced the play-dough.  I asked everyone to put on their safety glasses.  I demo’ed three circuits: an LED circuit in conductive dough (which I showed with the LED in forward and reverse bias), an LED circuit in non-conductive dough, and a short circuit with an LED.  We had a brief conversation about the idea that “electricity has to go through things” in order to make them work.

Safety briefing: there are two rules.

  1. Batteries must always be connected to dough, not directly to other components.
  2. Wear your safety glasses.

15 min: First mission: figure out how the components work.  I showed them the buzzer, button, and motor, and asked them to hook them up to test them.

45 min: Once kids were getting confident about making lights light up and buzzers buzz, I got their attention and asked them what they wanted to build.  Was it an animal whose eyes lit up, or a monster that made noise when you pressed a button?  I solicited ideas from each table, mostly so that any kids who were at a loss about what was possible could hear a few different ideas.  Then I let them go at it, and circulated with the volunteers.

15 min: When the evening was almost over, we brought the kids together and walked to the electronics shop, where we demonstrated some considerably larger lights and motors, and talked a bit about what it means to do this for a living.  Many of them had questions about motors (like in ceiling fans and vacuum cleaners) as well as sensors (like in the drinking fountains we had passed or in auto-flushing toilets), so we talked about that for a bit.

I didn’t really have a good way to end the workshop.  I would have liked to spend a little time having them think about what they noticed, or what they might like to build next, but couldn’t really clear up in my head what I was aiming for.  So, I thanked them and told them they could take their creations home (except for batteries and motors).  We headed back to the activity room, where many of the kids would have happily gone back to making stuff if the arrival of their parents hadn’t interfered.

Total workshop time: 1h 30 min.


The room was, predictably, a wreck.  We spent an hour wiping dough off of tables, sweeping it off the floor, etc.  Any component that had been in the salt dough had its leads corroded beyond use.  The instructions from UST suggest wiping down the component leads with fresh water, which might have been worth it if we had any components that weren’t hideously disfigured.  Instead, we just clipped all the terminal lugs off.  We’ll crimp new ones on next time.

The other thing I would do next time is get cheap picnic tablecloths from the dollar store, to help contain the mess.

How kids were thinking about electricity

Many kids figured out that any place you connected one LED, you could connect a second one (a parallel circuit).  But most had trouble imagining a circuit with more than 2 nodes (a series circuit), and consequently had trouble making their designs a reality.  It made me wonder if I should demonstrate both ideas at the beginning.

Consequently, we had a number of kids using the pushbuttons to short out a light.  This worked fine and is not dangerous, as long as the battery terminals are connected to dough: the conductive dough has about 10KOhms of resistance in a finger-sized piece.

Many kids had trouble distinguishing the pushbutton from the devices it was supposed to control.  For example, one girl wanted her circuit to make noise, and was frustrated that it wasn’t working.  She had wired a button into the circuit — apparently visualizing the button itself as the buzzer.  It made me wonder if next time, I might not hand out the buttons until the kids had explored the other components.

One student discovered that even the non-conductive dough would allow an LED to light up, if you didn’t use very much of it.  She was very excited about this and came over to let me know that I had been mistaken… which naturally I was also very excited about.

Notes for next time

For making creatures or other representational art, it works best to connect and test all the active elements first, then embed them in conductive dough.  For example, to make a pig with glowing eyes and a rotating tail, connect a battery, 2 LEDs, and a motor.  Once they are all working, build the pig around them.

Many of the kids were talking about wanting to continue to experiment at home.  I wish I had had some kind of handout or recipe card with more information about electronics for kids, and links like the ones below.

I had two batteries for each table of 3-4 kids.  Some kids clearly preferred working together, but others didn’t.  In retrospect, it would have been better to have a battery for each child.

Where to Buy

UST has lists of parts available from Radio Shack / The Source / Circuit City (name varies by location, it’s all the same store).

You can also get reasonable prices for small quantities by mail order from Newark or Digikey; I find their websites easier to navigate than some other online retailers.

Finally, there’s the Squishy Circuits Store.  They sell a kit of components appropriate for one child.  More expensive than ordering in bulk from a distributor, but more convenient too — especially if you’re not familiar enough with the components to know what to buy.

Supply list

  • Conductive dough: 1 batch per 4 people.  I prefer plain conductive dough and coloured insulating dough, since people want the pretty colours on the outside of their creations.
  • Insulating dough: 1 batch per 4 people.
  • Batteries and holders for all participants (such as one 9V battery and terminal snap per person)
  • Small motors: ideally, rated for 3V, less than 30 mA, and the lowest rpm you can find (motors that spin too fast are hard to see).  We used a 7V motor rated for 7000 rpm.  It didn’t start reliably, and when it did, it was often too fast to see, or would throw off the piece of dough stuck to the shaft.
  • Buzzers: buzzers are rated by volume and pitch.  Choose lower-pitched buzzers to prevent insanity.  We used these 400 Hz buzzers.
  • Pushbuttons and/or potentiometers, if desired
  • Extra flour (the dough gets sticky over time) (1 pile at each station)
  • Terminal lugs and crimp tool (1 tool per station)
  • Wire strippers (1 per station)
  • Decorating supplies (straws, popsicle sticks, etc.  No pipecleaners — the metal rod in the center could short out the battery)
  • Lots of LEDs: I had standard 5mm LEDs, but I love the visibility and ease of handling of the giant 10mm LEDs that UST recommends from Evil Mad Science. Different colours and sizes are nice, as are LEDs with both coloured and clear cases.
  • Safety glasses — one pair per person, especially the kind that fit over prescription glasses
  • Pencils, markers
  • Paper
  • Name tags
  • Zip lock bags
  • Bucket of soapy water, dishcloths, dishtowels (for cleanup afterwards)
  • Table cloths (and floor covering?)
  • Info to send them home with participants (i.e. where to get supplies, how to make dough)


If you’re thinking of trying this activity either at home or with a group, and you have any questions at all about choosing components, tools, etc., please don’t hesitate to let me know.  It’s quite appropriate for the electronics novice, and I’m happy to help out.

More information

Looking for more kid-friendly science and engineering projects?  Try these:

Squishy Circuits Home Page

Make Magazine


“Notes for Family Science Night” by Gas Station Without Pumps