From a see-through robotic orb to the prospect of a new, mixed-reality realm of learning, our picks highlight leading trends, with an eye toward the future. Sustained interest in learning how to code has inspired the integration of programming skills into such products as the aforementioned sphere, the SPRK+, and littleBits, already a maker space staple in schools and libraries. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Learning Lab emerges as a new standard of curation, with a beautiful, image-driven interface that invites users to make meaning from a wealth of resources.
Combining STEM lessons with hands-on experiments, Ardusat is a great introduction to Arduino, according to SLJ reviewer Jennifer Hanson. Recommended for ages 12 and up by Ardusat, a Salt Lake City start-up, the Ardusat Space Kit includes an Arduino, a breadboard, and sensors to collect, analyze, and share data, from luminosity and temperature to barometric pressure. Of note are the videos, which show how to run Arduino software, “and they do a really good job explaining it,” says Hanson. “For kids with no computer science background, this is a really great start.”
ISTE 2016 crowd-pleaser Bloxels has become something of a darling among school librarians. It’s a unique platform that employs a tangible block-and-board set combined with an app for creating video games. Users craft characters and stories with the color-coded, pixel-like blocks, then snap a picture of their creations. Through the Bloxels Builder app, add hazards and levels to create a game to play and share on a phone or tablet. “With Bloxels, you won’t have to differentiate learning for your English language learners and special education students,” says Kristina Holzweiss, SLJ’s 2015 School Librarian of the Year.
Breakout EDU offers collaborative challenges to foster critical thinking—in a strongbox. Purchase the kit, which contains the physical materials for a “breakout,” including locks, hidden contraptions, and a lock box, or make your own. Games, available on the site, cover the range of curricular areas from math and science to history. “Breakout EDU can be used to introduce a new lesson or concept or at the end of a unit to reinforce learning, all in a fun way,” wrote librarian Phil Goerner in our review. Select games support the Global Read Aloud.
For enabling the convergence of book love, fun photography, and enthusiastic sharing, there’s Instagram. With recent changes, “You can now queue up posts ahead of time, saving them as drafts ready to publish at a moment’s notice,” says librarian Molly Wetta, who wrote our feature “All About Instagram.” Recommended accounts include Provo Library (provolibrary) for its high-quality pics combined with friendly, conversational captions “that still convey key information about the library,” says Wetta. Met Teens (metteens) provides a teen intern’s eye view of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hand students littleBits and they dive right in. That’s the beauty of the popular electronic building blocks. For facilitating kid-driven discovery in STEM learning, littleBits is an SLJ Top 10. Hanson called the STEAM Student Set “a great addition to libraries and classrooms” in her review. An accompanying invention guide and teacher’s guide aid classroom integration, and “open challenges” go beyond mere recipes to encourage students toward deeper problem-solving. Speaking of ingenuity, props to librarians for adapting this and a host of other tools to customize maker learning to suit the needs of their learners.
An introductory programming language designed for children aged five to seven, ScratchJr was just the ticket for Addie Matteson. Looking to introduce coding to her youngest students, the elementary school librarian adapted ScratchJr for a personal storytelling unit with first graders. Matteson’s students have also created multimedia book trailers using the app (iOS, Android), which is available in English and Spanish. A joint project of the MIT Media Lab and Tufts University, ScratchJr “allows students to stretch their creative and logical sides at once,” says Matteson.
Subject of a 5,000-word profile in The New Yorker, Sphero intrigues on many levels; on its face, appealing product design. The orb stood out among a field of robotic devices that make coding “real, relevant, and fun,” commented Matteson in our review of the Sphero SPRK+. Featuring a clear polycarbonate shell so you can see the “guts” of the robot, the SPRK+ is the first Sphero geared specifically for maker projects—on land or in water. Connect to the user community via the Lightning Lab app to take your Sphero projects to the next level.
A favorite resource, the Smithsonian Learning Lab hits a sweet spot in curation. Offering millions of digitized objects, the Learning Lab is a first-ever assembly of treasures from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and National Zoo. The image-driven interface is optimized for discovery. Rather than provide a set curriculum, the Learning Lab features educator-created collections—from “Catcher in the Rye” to “Mummy Science”—and teachers and students alike are encouraged to add their own content and annotations. Flip the learning and have students curate their own collections.
Learning to code—or gaining comprehension of how it works—has become a top priority of STEM education. Enter Swift Playgrounds . A free iOS app that teaches Apple’s programming language Swift, it’s a solid tool for student programmers, middle to high school. Modules in Swift Playgrounds feature game-like lessons that build in complexity as each level is completed. Lessons enable students to learn key computational thinking skills, not just how to code, says Hanson. A “Beyond the Basics” module differentiates Swift Playgrounds from other coding apps in teaching more in-depth skills.
With technology still in development, virtual reality and augmented reality are nevertheless finding receptivity among educators. Of 349 K–12 schools answering a June 2016 survey by Extreme Networks, more than half reported that they are actively investigating VR for classroom use. Currently, the downside is lack of VR content. But with demand, expect that to change soon. Take a look at Microsoft Hololens and Oculus Rift, both out now, and on the horizon: Magic Leap. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced a $680K competition to design VR and AR learning experiences for career and technical training.