Creating Star Charts with LittleBits

Star Charts (13)

Last week, Mr. Coleman, 4th grade teacher, asked me if I had any extension lessons to support 4th grade’s study of stars and constellations.  Specifically, their standard is:

S4E1. Students will compare and contrast the physical attributes of stars, star patterns, and

I suddenly remembered that a part of he littleBits workshop kit that I purchased this summer was a free space module.  As I flipped through the book, I saw that you could use littleBits to make a start chart.  This was the perfect opportunity for students to explore littleBits in a standards-based lesson with enough structure to give them a goal but still have an opportunity to do a bit of tinkering.

Star Charts (1)

Because some of the steps involved using a box cutter to cut holes in a cup and a cardboard circle, I did a few steps ahead of time for them.  On a large piece of cardboard, I gathered materials for each group:

  • a ziploc bag of the littleBits needed, including the battery
  • a littleBits screwdriver
  • scissors
  • tape
  • a toothpick
  • a pen
  • a cone made out of construction paper (many thanks to Gretchen Thomas for helping me figure out how to make a cone!)
  • a plastic cup with the bottom cut out
  • a cardboard circle the size of the mouth of the cup
  • a strip of cardboard
  • a set of instructions
  • a copy of a star chart

We started the lesson together on the carpet.  We watched a short intro video:

I told them that our goal was to make a device that lit up when it was in a dark room and projected stars onto the ceiling.

Star Charts (6)

We talked about failure.  I emphasized that this class was the first class in the school to use littleBits.  We talked about failing, taking a deep breath, backing up, and trying again when something didn’t work.  I also talked about teamwork and time management.  This was to emphasize that the more they worked together and didn’t give up the more likely they were to be successful in making their chart.

I also made suggestions about how teams might think about dividing up the work load.  For example,

  • 1 person might try step #7 and prepare the star chart
  • 1 or 2 people might try step #1 to assemble the bits
  • 1 or 2 people might try steps #3, 5, and 8 to create the cone
  • 1 or 2 people might try step #4 & 6 to attach the bits and test the device

This was only a suggestions.  Teams were welcome to do every step together or divide the work up in other ways.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about explaining littleBits, what each bit was called, what their function was, or how to put them together.  I knew that the kids were perfectly capable of figuring this out on their own, and they proved me right.

Mr. Coleman helped divide the students into groups and they got right to work.  I was amazed by how the groups took time in the beginning to assign roles before working.  It was a rare moment to look at a table and not see someone working on some aspect of the star chart.

Star Charts (8)

Mr. Coleman and I walked around and encouraged groups to read directions, try new things, work together, and gave a few helpful nudges as needed.  However, we did not create the star charts for any group because we wanted students to experience tinkering, failure, and the power of reading and following directions.

Star Charts (7)

There was a definite energy in the room and it was by no means quiet.  Each time something started working, the energy level increased.  Groups started taking their devices into our makerspace and equipment room so that they could turn off the light and test their invention.  As pieces worked, they screamed with excitement, but as they failed they hurried out, disassemble their work, and started over.

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Once again, I was amazed by how no students stopped working and no students reached a point of frustration where they shut down.

We even had a group who were still working when we were debriefing the whole experience because they wanted to make their star chart work.  They didn’t give up for a second.

Star Charts (11) Star Charts (12)

When the charts worked, students spent a bit of time looking at their constellations on the wall and ceiling.

During our debrief, we talked about what we learned about littleBits as well as what next steps students might take to learn about constellations.  I encouraged them to learn some of the stories of the constellations and to actually look for them in the night sky.

For the littleBits, students figured out that you could adjust the sensitivity of the light sensor to come on when it was light or dark.  This was a point of failure for some groups.  Others talked about reading the words on the bit including the power bit that says “on” or “off”.  Missing that one simple word “on” could be the difference between failure and success, and many groups forgot to turn their power on before testing their device.

Before students left, I told them that this was only a small taste of what littleBits can do, and I encouraged them to think about other inventions they might create during the year and to come and explore the other bits and their possibilities.

Exploring the Solar System

Right now our 4th grade is working on the Georgia Performance Standards dealing with the solar system and stars.  They kicked off their unit of study in class with a KWL chart.  With that knowledge named and questions formed, they came to the library for an exploratory lesson to further expand their knowledge and spark additional questions before they continue their unit of study in the classroom.

We began our time together as a whole group.  I sparked their interest with my own research of the end of the shuttle program, the price tag for a seat on a Russian shuttle, and updates on the Mars Rover.  Next, students got to choose from two books to read aloud:  You Are the First Kid On Mars by Patrick O’Brien and The Planet Hunter: The Story Behind What Happened to Pluto by Elizabeth Rusch.  I was actually surprised that they picked The Planet Hunter because we had talked so much about the Mars rover and they were excited about it.  Nevertheless, we read the story and they were amazed to learn that scientists could change the definition of what a planet is and things we once called planets are now called something different. They wondered if there would ever be a day that Earth would not be a planet anymore.

After our book exploration, students split into 2 groups.  One group went to the desktop computers and used a pathfinder created with Sqworl to explore YouTube videos and interactive sites.  The other group used our 10 iPads to explore a variety of free solar system and constellation apps such as Distant Suns, Moon, Solar System, NASA Viz, Stellarium, GoSkyWatch, and Planets.  Groups switched halfway through our time so that they went to both centers.

The students left with excitement about the solar system.  They left with questions and a desire to continue learning.  When one student discovered something in an app, video, or interactive site, they immediately wanted to share it with other students in the class.  Without any prompting, they were teaching one another how to use the tools.  The teacher and I served as facilitators in both groups.  One student even said he wanted to go build a model rocket after watching one of the YouTube videos.  They will carry this new knowledge and energy back into their classroom to continue their unit of study on the solar system.

In total, this took about 45-60 minutes, but I feel like the energy that was created in the students at the front end of their unit will be well worth the time and exploration.


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