Constraints on creativity

Much has been written this week about a squeezed creative curriculum in our schools, including a perceived emphasis of teaching children to code to the detriment of other subjects in a timetable.

Two points close to my heart and, for me, very much linked to curriculum and a wider perspective.  Also highlighted through conflict coming out of research into digital making (and creativity) in the formal curriculum and reasons towards my commitment to the Foundation for Digital Creativity CIC.

As I contributed to the start of the Leeds Digital Festival by talking about bridging the digital skills divide, then curriculum and conflict rear their heads.

So two questions to think about when we talk about balancing the curriculum and ideas for change:

  1. Are we equipping all young people with the knowledge and skills needed to prepare for a digital future through a broad and rich curriculum?
  2. If not, why not?

And straight away my focus comes back to the support needed to ensure that curriculum achieves it’s fundamental aim.

Nothing new, for anybody remembering the challenges that school leadership teams faced when implementing the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. Priorities, pressures and support mechanisms (or not).

Understanding the priorities placed on targets for particular subjects and the shift in how schools are supported (does freedom and autonomy for schools facilitate this?) to offer a broad and rich curriculum ought to go some way towards an emphatic approach of opinions and support.

At this point we could go down the ‘community and parental viewpoints about a shift in league tables’ route, but let’s leave that for another day.  They are interlinked, though.

I live in hope that curriculum research and noise from Ofsted is the catalyst needed for every child to learn from a broad curriculum, and be equipped at the end of it with a balanced range of knowledge and skills.  To give them choice and options for a future digital life ahead.

Until that day, will we continue to hear more about exam hot houses, 2 year KS3 programmes and a narrowed primary curriculum?

Until that day, will we also continue to hear opinions and suggestions from inside and outside of the education landscape about including more creative and/or STEAM based curricula?

I hope so, but under the umbrella of a broad and balanced curriculum.  We see STEM and STEAM acronyms talked about more now and when related to formal education I think in pedagogical and support terms.  And I do consider the support and national network of STEM learning, so don’t hold it against me if I slip from using the STEAM acronym when you think I ought not to.

I’ve got a fit for purpose curriculum on my mind and look towards wider participation programmes to encourage particular groups of students into STEM subjects from the school curriculum.  Perhaps girls into Computing at KS4 or looking to the work that the Institute of Physics have conducted on gender balance over the last few years.

Let us not forget that our students make selections for KS4 from the disciplines included in STEM or STEAM, not as a subject, as options to individualise their broad and rich curriculum. Consider the constraints on those choices, through curriculum options or wider considerations, and then we recognise the difficulties in offering a STEAM approach for those who wish to pursue one.

We’ll also continue to hear more about an emphasis on teaching kids to code and forgetting about the whole computing curriculum. See, I’m education focused again and thinking about the different support mechanisms that have been in place since before September 2014 , the start of the computing curriculum and still now we hear a lot more about the CS element.  Again, another and separate conversation about supporting/developing teachers and leadership teams, but a similar theme.  The ‘T’ in STEM or STEAM within the curriculum can be broadly technological and with digital literacy linked across every subject but the foundation subject is computing.

So until the day when we see that broad and rich curriculum for every child, throughout the academic year, please stop yourself and ask ‘where and how’.  How can all schools be supported and it be reported on holistically rather than core subjects prioritised even during inspection? *

Something I question as a parent and an educator.

*I’ll leave reporting (or not) on foundation subjects to another post.


Leaf Spotting: Citizen Science with Foldscope

Spent Earth Day getting the kids actively involved in conversations about a proposed Clean Air Zone in Leeds.

What does, and should, it mean to them if they’re living and walking to school within the Zone?

We took the chance to get hands-on with Foldscope and explore issues, opinions and facts currently being talked about.

STEM fitted snugly into Sunday plans as Foldscope travelled with us as we walked inside and outside of the Zone.

What did we hope for?

  1. To get as much fresh air as possible
  2. To see science as an accessible conversation starter
  3. To think about visual signs for the impact of air pollution
  4. To try out suggestions coming from conversations that I’m having with collaborators at the Fdn for Digital Creativity.
  5. To experience environmental science on a practical level, to engage young people about issues ‘in their own back yard’ and start to understand wider implications, and policy making
  6. To undertake citizen science activities and recognise the value, and concerns about inaccuracies, of such projects

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Foldscope as an origami pocket microscope was built within 10 minutes using the the video tutorials – no adults involved.

The kids tested the setup, with a leaf taken from the garden, and connected the microscope to a mobile phone for digital access and recordings of images.  There, all ready to capture the life of a roadside leaf.

Walking routes shown below in North Leeds and the perimeter of Harewood House.  The first image a particular talking point during the local elections with changing road layouts.

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Today it was ease of everything (and great suggestions) that steered us towards a leaf’s perspective.  Predictions based on research already carried out by scientists, what they look for  and how they understand impact of air pollution, but for us on a very local level.

Those predictions, about why a future Leeds can be different, were based on the map included in the FAQs for the proposed Clean Air Zone.  But for more significant learning, mapped onto what the kids see on a day to day basis. Traffic congestion every weekday morning and afternoon, with an understanding of how significant citizen science can be.

And finally, their images and predictions annotated and layered onto a Google map and shared amongst themselves.  That bit’s not included here……would be good to talk about scale.

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So what do scientists look for when reporting on air pollution and how can their findings help our community if and when positive changes happen?  Today was a springboard for conversation and an opportunity to be curious with Foldscope.

Keen to read more?  We found this report worth the read:


Starting the new year with a STEM role model focus

This year has given me many opportunities to embrace change and direct more of my time into areas of passion and importance.

Alongside establishing programmes with the Foundation for Digital Creativity, we’ve been working with the STEM Ambassador Hub Trans Pennine to include opportunities to inspire young people exploring STEM futures by including the support of STEM Ambassadors.

As capable and realistic role models, we know that their input will positively impact on the perception of STEM futures for some students and equip them for possible roles in the digital and STEM world.


From the recent #ThisGirlCodes Project (click image for more info)

I’m so excited by the opportunities this will give for young people to make connections with their own lives and consider real world environmental solutions as the programmes enrich learning.   

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Image taken by @BloodyNoraDJ at Make Believe in Leeds, April 2017 (click image for more info)

Moreover, it’s also my time to commit time as an Ambassador and share my passion for STEM to a younger generation. 

Induction was delayed until January, so that’s a perfect STEM start to 2018 😀

Foldscope: Unlocking the wonders of STEM with more origami.

Grasping the opportunity to attend Fablearn ’15 offered me THE best CPD for MakerED. It also introduced me to another network and through that came an awareness and excitement surrounding this Foldscope project.

More details on the link about the inspiring work by Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski at Stanford University.  If you’re not aware of Foldscope as ‘the pencil of microscopy’, then take a couple of minutes to view the TED talk below:


Fast forward to today and my set of Foldscope packs from the Kickstarter campaign has arrived. They’ll be built at a later date as a collaborative project.

But first to build and test our own pocket microscope for family adventures.

Definitely the origami microscope, no glue required and the only tech we needed was to recap with video tutorials!

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Fifteen minutes later and we’ve added a leaf to the first slide for closer inspection, heard the first ‘wow’ and ideas are starting to emerge.

What you do and don’t want to see in your own the kitchen 😫

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Next steps are further explorations and then we’ll consider curriculum tie in.

For the time being, though, we’re concentrating on more ‘wow’ moments through STEM.  And enjoying them.

Just as a side note, how funny to witness the younger investigators realising that putting a lens over your eye doesn’t automatically take you into a VR world.  Real world Science in your own surroundings, at that exact time, is definitely wow 🙌

Flying Ninja Catapult and other simple machines

We’ve been connecting ideas with straws to understand what a simple machine is and using design thinking to develop complex skills.

With a maker kit of Strawbees to support innovations to solve real world problems, we first looked at creating a claw machine.


That meant exploring perceptions about the fairness of arcade claws and how building, testing and refining a design could alter effectiveness.

With that came various iterations and changes to the purpose of the claw, particularly after strength testing with raids on the biscuit tin.

Thankfully failure to pick up at this point did strengthen problem solving, and embrace F.A.I.L. as a positive step to finding creative solutions, rather than lighten the cookie load.

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And then next steps in designing new solutions took a ninja twist, with peer challenges, after viewing catapult examples in the Strawbee guide.

Testing times ahead : )

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STEM to STEAM with a Paint-off Challenge

Think I might’ve sounded a little grumpy lately. Waiting expectantly for a Watercolorbot is one thing but tackling the delivery service encountering comms barriers is another *.

Continually looking for approaches and resources to support the Research and Play, I thought this could be a project to explore areas for inclusive computing opportunities and the ease of transition from STEM to STEAM.

And in terms of raising aspirations and introducing more role models it seemed like an ideal opportunity.


Click to launch video clip

Ease of use?  Wow – out of the box, software installed and first artwork created and printed in under 20 minutes.

What happened then?  That was the Sunday Paint-off; hand over to the under-10s and see what they discover.  Plug and go then reflect and plan.  And they discover that they can build on skills using Scratch to create!

Next steps?  

  • Evaluation of impact through enrichment and/or formal curriculum activities.
  • Secondary phase evaluation to include mainstream and special schools.
  • Hack opportunities if a Raspberry Pi powered the board and then which areas of the curriculum could it support?
  • Used as a visualisation tool how could current data projects be incorporated?

Now some teachers have used the littleBits resource boxes in Hull to support STEM clubs and a Raspberry Pi Club.   Wonder if we’ll go retro with a Raspberry Pi powered Etch A Sketch?   I certainly hope so 🙂


* At one point the parcel looked to be heading straight back to California on a flight. Those similarities of location from a regular commute past the Humber Bridge kept frustrations at the forefront of my mind, and from where #BoomerangArt was born…