Automated Aquaponics Greenhouse: a Student Project

I have a project that might be interesting to you. I am hoping to make a bold request. I hope it will be useful to our current students, but also to show what school could be in the future. Let me give you some rational.

Too many students do not have any idea what they want to do after high school. Many have heard of engineering, but have no idea what it is. Many students believe that subjects are isolated and so you do not need to know science if you are in business, nor do you need language for comp sci. etc… The community generally thinks that school should be the way it was when they went to school and are pretty disconnected from the school. Students do not see much of a connection between school and real life. Students need more connections to universities so that they make this important decision based on experience rather than a picture on a brochure or where their friends are going.

I would like to create a project that would blur the lines between the courses, allow the community into school, show the connection between school and real life and give students a good idea of “engineering thinking”.

I would like for the science 12 class to engineer an automated aquaponics green house at RHS. Our green house suffers terribly during the holidays because no one is around to tend it. I would like to use cafeteria food to feed some fish, have the fish process the food, move their waste to feed the plants in soil-less containers and use the food for the breakfast club or the local food bank.

I would like my students to build sensors and pumps that would monitor water flow, temperature, pH, nitrates etc… And then make adjustments as required. If the water level got too low, a pump would turn on. If the temperature got to high, a window would open. If the PH got to high, a bit of acid would drip in. Alerts could be sent to smartphones that a person needs to attend to it. A web cam could monitor the situation.

Posters outside would show the chemistry and biology. An economics study could show if this is reasonable vs traditional gardening. We would want to publicize this to the papers, TV and community.

We need biology, chemistry, environmental science, and river experts.

I do not know how to do any of this, which means there is a wonderful opportunity to have community mentors. I also have no budget for this. I would love to have small groups of students work on different aspects of this project. I would like there to be mentors available so that students could tweet, email, Skype or phone experts in the various fields. We will need to design and build the stands, write the codes, build the pump automation, and deal with the sensors. We will need app creation, web space etc…

I would like to present it to the students in a big light. Suppose we were to colonize the moon. We would need food while we were there. But we will want to expend our energy doing other things than growing our food. It could also be attached to the school project we are doing around a natural disaster. Suppose Riverview were cut off from the rest of the world. How would we survive. A big piece of this is growing food.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine created a video to show how school could be different. There is a second video that shows a person doing something similar on the aquaponics tech . I wonder how close we can come to these two videos??

We can create a world winning education project right here at RHS. More importantly, it could be a project that helps inspire students for their futures and shows what school could/should look like to teachers and schools around the world

I hope you are interested. Perhaps we could chat?


4th Annual Ed Tech Summit: Moving Beyond Innovation


Robert Martellacci from Mindshare Learning asked me to give a 5 min Skype State of the Union Address about the challenges of innovation in education and how to move beyond pockets of innovation.

I thought about this for a while and had a couple of possible paths. It is interesting that we are currently trying to ponder how school would be different , the electronic devices policy and BYOD. I think that there is common ground here.

It might be useful to look at a case study to learn about some pitfalls. A number of years ago, the UK had a mass adoption of SMARTBoards at considerable expense. Although I applaud their attempt to be innovative, there was no clear vision of how students would learn differently. There was not enough time for the early adopters to figure out best practices before the masses received the new kit. As a result, teachers transferred all their overheads to PowerPoint or Notebook files and felt proud that they entered the digital age. Upon review, the pedagogy had not changed significantly. So much money and little change. They became a TPR – a Traditional Pedagogy Replicator.

Meanwhile, however, K-2 classes had already figured out that classes should be stations with organized student centered chaos. When SMARTBoards came in, they became just another station in the arsenal of stations. They were powerful in the hands of kids and transformational. The key is that they figured out the pedagogy before the kit arrived and had a vision of what could be.

As we look forward to these new technologies moving from innovative to mainstream, we need to present teachers with a vision of what could be different BEFORE the kit is introduced. We want them to reconsider teaching practices first. If we do not, the tendency will be to simply do what we always did with new kit.

“most agree that education needs to change. Some believe that it needs to be better, others think it needs to change”-Dean Shareski.

As tech arrives, it is a safer step to replicate old ways with new tech with the real danger of becoming entrenched. We encourage our students to take risks, but I wonder if our system encourages risk taking in our teachers. We are so worried about ruining kids that perhaps we suffer from analysis paralysis. At some point in time we need to ‘just do it’ with a vision of what could be. The teachers are typically too busy getting from day to day. Wonderful things can happen when a leader with a vision arrives who makes it ok to make responsible mistakes.

Do we have the courage to do more than make education better or consider how education can be different? The role of tech will move from pockets of innovation to mainstream naturally once we figure out the new pedagogy.


Meshed conversations and work: A new work dynamic in Math from SMARTBoards

During the lunch on Monday with the Preston Middle contingent, Ryan pipes up. I have quickly come to appreciate that he is absorbing, processing and slow to response. When he speaks,…listen. It will probably be insightful , deep and hilarious.

He come up with the idea that in a math class, the group work typically looks different. A student puts their head down, does some solitary work, does the thinking and comes up with an answer. Then there will be a conversation with a neighbor, followed by more individual head down work. The problem solving is done as an individual and then the successful solution is shared with the group. The group members who did not get the solution copy the right answer.

However, with a group around a SMARTBOARD, the work and conversation is “meshed-together” and the group finds a solution. The individuals are all participants in discovering the solution. This feels very different. Then the individual can attempt a new but similar problem as he practices the new group thinking.

We think this is different and better.

Feels like a research project to me!!

Group Lab Reports with a Wired Keyboard and SMARTBOards

While the Preston Middle School guys were here, I learned something very important that my previous intern teacher had discovered last year.

When students are at laptops working on a lab, they tend to divide on conqueor or funnel through a gate keeper. When they are at a SMARTBoard, they tend to all work on the same sentence at the same time. This is the dynamic that I want. I want all students working on the same piece at the same time IF THE CONTENT IS ESSENTIAL like writing. There are certainly other situations where I am flexible, but not on crucial content.

The problem with using the SMARTBoard is that the typing is more problematic. Last lab, both groups (groups using laptops and groups using SMARTBoards) finished their labs in the same number of days, so it cannot be too much slower using the onscreen virtual keyboard, but it is more frustrating. There was a compromise.

They moved the keyboard from the PC to the end of the SMARTBoard. So students could stand in front of the smartboard and use the keyboard. I was worried that it would be only slightly better than sharing a laptop. It turns out that it was the best of both worlds. One person would do much of the typing and it as efficient, but the other group members were moving the cursor with the SMARTBoard, which was enough to keep them focused as a group on the task at hand. This was an unexpected dynamic.

Preston Middle School Visits NB

A few years ago, I had the privilege of co-presenting with teacher, Media-Specialist extrodinaire, Tracey Winey from Preston Middle School. Later, She invited me to Keynote at their STEM Educator Symposium. During a quick conversation on the stair well on the last day, their Principal Scott and her made quick comment along the lines of, “we are coming to visit you in Canada.” I thought it was flippant and the normal polite thing to say in conversation. Little did I know….

This weekend, Tracey, Scott, Mary, Ryan and Monique all arrived in sunny New Brunswick to visit. It is odd how some relationships form quickly and strongly despite long distances and infrequent encounters. While I waited in the airport, it felt very similar to that feeling I get when my University buddies get together. It is as if no time has pasted at all and we are good to go in moments despite years in between. How is it that I feel this way from only a webinar, and a symposium with a handful of tweets in between?  I think it has something to do with all of us being in mutual admiration of the other. I think that they rock. The funny thing is, they think I rock and were willing to pay more than the polite lip service, they spent time and ALOT of money to come and see me.

So we spent a day at the Hopewell Rocks, Cape Enrage and Alma. We got some lobsters. Tracey said she was a vegetarian who loved seafood. She wanted lobster. We went to Collins where there was an open tank of maybe a 100 live lobsters. She had a tough time. Just because you like steak, does not mean you want to go to a butchers to get it.

On Sunday Night, Riva opened her house to us and 12 other NB teachers. It was 2 hours of informal talking. I had invited specific teachers to come. I knew some of the needs that the Colorado people had that we could fill and I knew some of our issues that perhaps the Coloradoans could address. At each conversation, it was a 3 min introduction and then it quickly turned to shop talk. No agenda, no reporting, just good chat.

It is funny how “out-of-town” people bring a level of interest. Two weeks before, I had invited staff to come to a DEN conference. Only a hand full showed up. But because they were from away, lots of people showed up. It was very exciting to me.

I think it marked a change in how I interact with RHS Staff. For a long time, I have been giving talks and pondering what school could look like, but I have been isolated and unknown to the staff. This may have been a bit of a wake up, that 5 people from Colorado spent a significant amount of money to come see Ian. I was able to have talks with people I have never really spoken to before. I like it.

On Monday they visited my class. Marcel Leblanc and Cathy Duff from DO also came to visit. They saw Cynthia’s class peer edit on the SMARTBoards. Period 2, was my physics class where they also watched them work together on the boards. the cool thing was that the students came in, they started working without me talking to them and they were productive right away. I had to interrupt their work flow to introduce the guests and give the expectations of the day’s class. P-3 was similar, but they were working on a Phet sim. The class did very well considering it was their first time using a sim. I would circulate, ask vague questions, and leave. After about 15 min, I would circulate again and ask more questions. Teach more by speaking less.

We went to lunch at the HOMESTEAD. Scott was very happy with the large meat portions. Monique eat a piece of chocolate cake with boiled icing that was bigger than her head.

Monday night, we had them over to our house for sea food Chowder. Very fun. Later I went to their hotel where we talked about their Summer Symposium. I thought that their real power and hwo they are different than other symposiums is that they have a whole school solution, where math and english and sciences are not divided into silos, but rather mixed together. I also think it is powerful that you can talk the talk and then go downstairs and see that they are walking it.

Tuesday they went to the Miramichi. I am glad they went. There are lots of pockets of cool around our province, BUT the Miramichi has a whole district from K-12 of cool. They needed to see it.