The Awesome World of Making @ Hillbrook

Stories of Making and Constructionist Learning

Computational Thinking, Robotics and Programming 6-8th Grade

Why robotics?

Robotics is a form of learning STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) that exercises several aspects of hand and brain development for a learner. Assembling a structure from LEGOs, or laser cut or 3D printed parts is step one. This part of design and engineering is obvious to most of us, but there also lies a deeper level of learning when students begin to program their own objects to perform tasks.

Hillbrook students come to middle school with a range of experiences using technology, programming and building. To level the playing field and to ensure that every middle school student has access to the benefits of robotics, design and programming, 6th grade science teacher Ilsa Dohmen spends several weeks in the spring using LEGO NXT Mindstorm kits to introduce her students to computational thinking, building and programming. Beginning with a challenge where students are given most of what they need to build a working robot except wheels, students learn the basics of [If, Then] programming. These challenges included programming the assembled robots to drive one meter forward, any distance backward, make a square, and make a circle with a large diameter.

During this unit Dohmen reports that “students encountered new concepts and tough problems, including the existence and function of an axle, the ideal amounts of friction between axle and wheel versus axle and motor, different ways to balance weight of the body on the motor arms, and how to stabilize wheels that wobble or slip on the floor. After the initial mechanical challenges, students particularly found the programming of the square hard work. Even after discovering a method for making a right angle turn, many groups found that imbalances and imperfections in the physical bot made repeating the same code for each turn insufficient; the same code repeated had reduced effects (e.g. resulting in the first turn being right angled and subsequent turns usually being not sharp enough).”

IMG_0032 (1)

5th grade projects on display in the 5/6 math room. Here students used Codeacademy to make unique art.

Thanks to new math teacher Chris Cabrera, the 5th and 6th graders were using Codeacademy in math class this fall. When the vast majority of programming jobs only require middle school level math knowledge, it is refreshing to see the use of nontraditional modes of expressing and exploring math through programming.  8th grade geometry students have also been introduced to the use of the programming language Python to create turtle art patterns which mimic fractals. These programs can then be sent to the school’s laser cutters and printed into compelling works of art.

Using math and programming to make nature inspired art.

Using math and programming to make nature inspired art.

New this fall (2015), the 7th and 8th graders were offered an elective called “Robotics and Programming” taught by mechanical engineer Shea Ellerson. Ellerson built on the work done in 6th grade by introducing Hillbrook students to more powerful microprocessors such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. In this series of quarter long courses, students were challenged to design and build their robots from scratch using the laser cutter and available materials. Programming tools used during the programming elective included Scratch, which is a learner friendly, yet powerful tool for making digital models, animations, or games and Python.

Building a Foundation for Making + Design @ Hillbrook

One aspect of Hillbrook that has not changed much in the last 80 years is the school’s dedication to the Arts and Crafts. This dedication is seen in the amount of time students are given in their schedule to make and create, and in the amount of spaces we dedicate to creativity on campus. Beginning in Junior Kindergarten,  every Hillbrook student spends several hours a week in the school’s makerspaces for wood, music, ceramic and the fine arts. Signature projects in each grade introduce students to the skills and mindsets of real artists, such as measurement, composition and material science.

The Somatosensory Hermunculus Map, showing the relative dedication to the senses in the brain.

The Somatosensory Hermunculus Map, showing the relative dedication to the senses in the brain.

Having students create art that invites questions creates a natural bridge to science/math/humanities that resides in the emotional selves of our students. Making art is a form of constructionism that communicates concepts and ideas while allowing students to use their heads, hands and hearts in novel and inspiring ways.

The construction of art, whether on paper or in 3-dimensional space acts as a valuable form of assessing student understanding,  it makes thinking visible (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison, 2011). Making is also really good for brain development at all ages . Exposure to the Arts early gives Hillbrook students more skills and tools with which to flourish in middle school. Studies on the effects of students constructing and making have shown that when students construct their own physical models, they gain access to content via multimodal (visual, kinesthetic, auditory, written) representations of that content (Jackson, et. al. 2008, Dukerich, 2015). In the book, The Hand by neurologist Frank Wilson at the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, Wilson builds an argument for why hands-on learning is so important to thinking, and understanding by referencing the somatosensory homunculus map. Models which engage the visual, auditory and tactile parts of students, therefore are more effective in aiding mathematical, scientific or artistic literacy.

Data Table of Great Scientists with an artistic hobby, data from (Root-Berstein et al., 2008)

Data Table of Great Scientists with an artistic hobby, data from (Root-Berstein et al., 2008)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of the controversial poet Lord Byron and the first computer programmer, coined the term “poetical science” to describe the fruitful merger of science, mathematics and the human inclination towards beauty, also known as art. Today we use the acronym STEAM to describe the addition of art to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields, but we have far to go before we realize Ada’s vision of seeing art as having an essential role in doing great science. Even with today’s movements to teach STEM as STEAM, the image of the artist and the scientist are mostly polarized in mainstream culture. Nevertheless, the two perspectives and practices of art and science have lived comfortably side by side throughout most of history, each informing the other symbiotically. Some have even pointed out that the greatest minds of science and those seen as successful in life in general have been polymaths, with passions and hobbies in the Arts outside of their creative genius in math, science or technology (Milgram, 1997, Root-Bernstein, 2008).

Screen-shot-2010-11-22-at-7.57.41-PMAt Hillbrook, the emphasis on the Arts in lower school builds an important foundation for middle school students as they are able to apply the skills and tools they learn to their academic subjects and beyond. Confidence using tools, materials and ones own creativity are super powers that all Hillbrook students are fortunate enough to be asked to share and celebrate on a daily basis. 




1st graders make musical instruments in the iLab, where messes are part of work.


During our hour of code, some students opted to work with paper, copper tape, glue, pens and LEDs to create light-up holiday creations.


Basic drawing skills come in handy in every class. Here a science student uses drawing to model his understanding of the layers of the biosphere on Hillbrook’s campus.


Here a 4th grader applies clay sculpting skills with his digital making skills to make a stop motion animation for A.C.E. hour.


Here a second grader uses her paper programming (origami) skills to show her classmates, “what else can a paper bag be” during one I.C.E. time, an hour that honors the maker and individual in all students.




A kindergartener hard at work at his classroom wood working station. While wood working is a traditional craft, it is also an essential mode for learning mathematics, reason and design.










5th grade students often identify with their artist self in other classes. Here students paint the back drop for their museum installation to celebrate astronaut Christa Mcauliffe.

Students often identify with their artist self in other classes. Here 5th grade science students paint the back drop for their museum installation to celebrate astronaut Christa Mcauliffe.

1st Grade Observation Cube Project

On the Hillbrook School campus in Los Gatos California several 3 dimensional cubes were built by faculty and staff out of PVC pipe and installed in various locations. Inspired by the “One Small Square” children’s non-fiction book series by Donald Silver, National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden walk and the photographic work of David Liittschwager artfully shared in the book “A World in One Cubic Foot” this project blended the skills of real field biologists and making to engage students in authentic inquiry and documentation. This art, science and first grade homeroom collaboration turned the campus into an outdoor art museum and taught first grade students about techniques of real field biologists, empathy for animals species and their needs, and the importance of slow looking.


During the summer of 2015, lower school science teacher Lara Blom, lower school homeroom teachers Laura Nielson, resident teacher Whitney Infelise and Barbara Johnson, technology integration specialist Kelly Scholten and lower school music teacher Kristin Engineer used a summer fellowship to design a new interdisciplinary unit for Hillbrook School first graders. This project evolved out several inspirations that were going on in the first grade at the same time including Project Zero philosophies on making student thinking visible and the science and art of David Liittschwager’s book “A World in One Cubic Foot.” Part one of this project was to build several cubes of various size ranging from two cubic meters to one cubic foot out of PVC pipe and install these geometric sculptures around the campus without any explanation. This installation was designed at first to spark student curiosity and give a sense of dimension and size.

“These cubes will eventually act as a metaphor for deep observation of the world, as well as an avenue for students to make inferences, make connections and ask meaningful questions,” explains Blom.

After initial engagement with the cubes in the form of open play and exploration was encouraged, lower school science teacher Lara Blom then extended the use of the cubes to focus on population of native species on the campus through a series of activities. Lara Blom presented her students with the question “How can we use a cube to observe what lives and moves through a space?” which led to discussions and various experiments to lure animals into the square to be documented. Students had to observe what needs campus animals had in order to design lures to get them into the cubes to be photographed. Students built wooden houses and nectar dispensers to install inside of the cubes and filled them with food they predicted would be of interest to native species. Once the lures were built by students, image capturing of the animals was left to technology integration specialist Kelly Scholten, who experimented with time-lapse cameras, iPad cameras and then finally settled on a trophy trail camera with a larger memory card and infrared motion detection.

Thanks to the more efficient capturing of images, students now had evidence of who occupied their cubes not only during the school day, but at night as well. Images captured were then organized by students in an open species categorization technique where students used their own ideas of how to classify the different kinds of animals they were noticing. Students noticed there were animals, that ran, flew, crawled. Animals that were small, medium and large and animals with fur, feathers and exoskeletons. After digging down about a foot into the dirt, students discovered and sorted the smallest life forms that occupied their cubes. Thanks to a parent who lent the class a powerful microscope, students were even able to see moving bacterium in their soil sample. After students were allowed to use their own ideas of how to categorized the different species they Explored a simple phylogenetic flowchart helping them sort their animals like scientists do, from living/non-living and kingdom to general phyla such as mammals. Experts were invited into the classroom to deepen their understanding of differences between “crawlers” such as insects, worms and millipedes. The Youth Science Institute brought living examples of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, Tarantulas and others into the classroom for added visualization of species differentiation. A bird expert came in to instruct on common bird species identification.

Documentation of student learning took place in various forms. Blom used a large portfolio to record the inventions students made for luring animals into the cube as well as general class observations and questions. Due to the range of student writing ability, students were asked to record their own ideas on iPads by vocally answering prompts inspired by Project Zero’s Visible Thinking routines, “I observe, I think, I wonder” about their daily work with the cubes. Finally, students also keep individual science notebooks where they keep their slow looking observational drawings, ideas about classification and other ponderings about their work. The culminating documentation that students will all contribute to is a student generated field guide to the animals found in their cube to be shared with the wider community.
The learning goals of this project included: Observation with set parameters, Question formation, Experimental Design, Animal lure design and building, Classification of species. 

Faculty Maker Meetings at Hillbrook

« Older posts