Laurence Molloy, Creative Smart Things

Workshopshed: Today we are chatting to Laurence Molloy, a creative technologist who specialises in STEAM Outreach. He has over 25 years experience in technology spanning research, speech and language, engineering and education. His latest project combines his passions for science and computing.

Workshopshed: Hi Laurence, thanks for being interviewed. Can you tell us what a creative technologist is?

Laurence: To me, a creative technologist is someone who is capable of delivering technology projects that meet a detailed set of requirements as well as applying knowledge and experience to make in a more experimental and inventive way. The former requires a logical way of thinking and the latter is a more creative process.

Creative technologists are often techies with creative flair or creative types with a knack for tech. They are comfortable working in either a logical or creative way, blending design, technology and strategy to deliver projects that can utilise a range of technologies and incorporate a variety of media.

Workshopshed: And what is STEAM and why is it important?

Laurence: STEAM is an acronym. It represents the combination of the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. STEAM learning integrates all these subjects, demonstrating how they can work together to produce solutions to real world problems.

The addition of Arts to STEM to create STEAM is all about incorporating creative thinking and applied arts in real situations. Art isn’t just about working in a studio. It is about discovering and creating ingenious ways of solving problems, integrating principles and presenting information.

STEAM is important because most jobs are interdisciplinary in nature, requiring a combination of STEAM skills. For instance, an architect will use a combination of science, maths, engineering, technology and art to design stunning buildings and structures.

Workshopshed: Given the current crisis, understanding science and mathematics has become key for all of us. What are the key principles to be learnt?

Laurence: It pays to have a questioning mind, a level of rigour and an attention to detail.

For instance, we are bombarded daily with statistics on the impact of the Covid-19 virus on our populations. Can we really trust the comparisons that are being drawn between our own country’s statistics and those of other countries? For instance, the UK only includes deaths registered in hospital in their Covid-19 death count graph whereas other countries also include deaths registered in the community. This makes the UK look more successful at controlling the virus than it really is in the graphs that have been presented to us. It’s healthy to be skeptical of the method of presentation and question the underlying data.

Another example is the debate surrounding the effectiveness of wearing face masks in public. People who disagree with a policy requiring the population to wear face masks in public argue that they are not effective at protecting you. However, if you question the premise of this statement you will see that it misses the point. The effect of wearing a face mask is not to protect ourselves, but to reduce the viral impact of our presence. Therefore if everyone wore a mask in public the population as a whole would be adequately protected.

Workshopshed: Also many parents are finding schooling from home a challenge. As a parent of school-aged kids yourself, how have you approached this challenge?

Laurence: I find it useful to keep in mind that I am not a teacher. I don’t hold myself up to their standards. My approach to homeschooling is loosely based around three principles: flexibility, creativity and life skills.

Flexibility

Rather than sticking to a rigid timetable, I find it helps to aim for a realistic amount of home school time with the kids every day, fitting that around other priorities in a non-disruptive manner. What constitutes “realistic” will be different for everyone. There are days when home school falls by the wayside but I don’t beat myself up about it. Tomorrow’s always a new day.

Creativity

I like to think of the materials sent home by the school as helpful guidance rather than requirements and supplement them with creative ideas of my own that play to the strengths and interests of my own kids. I try to make it fun for myself as well as the boys and encourage them to flex their creative muscles as well.

For example, if the school has asked my son to practice calculating perimeter, area and volume I might give him a measuring tape and ask him to create a floor plan of the house and calculate perimeter, area and volume for each room. If he’s interested, he can then use the measurements to recreate our house in Minecraft. My kids love that sort of thing.

Life skills

Lockdown is a rare opportunity to teach my boys some life skills. I’ve shown them how to cook a range of meals and encouraged them to practice some basic DIY skills by helping me fix stuff around the house. We’ve even done some electrical equipment tear-downs to diagnose faults. I had to learn on the job with that one. Seeing their dad learn along with them demonstrates how learning is a continuous lifelong experience.

This is what works for me. However, everyone will find their own sweet spot with this.

Workshopshed: Is there anything else that can help?

Laurence: Many parents will be working from home right now. They will be working harder than ever and won’t have sufficient spare time or head space to home school their kids. In these circumstances, having access to a variety of engaging educational projects and learning activities that have been created for kids with independent working in mind, to keep them both entertained and educated, can be a boon.

There are plenty of useful learning materials out there but identifying them in the sea of noise can be a problem. Personally, I have chosen to rely on Sean McManus books to provide my boys with fun creative coding activities (www.sean.co.uk/books) and Mark Rober Science Class live streams on YouTube to provide them with extra science teaching (www.youtube.com/results?search_query=”Mark+Rober”+”Science+Class”).

A couple of other options worthy of a special mention are BBC BiteSize Daily and Oak National Academy. Both of these learning resources have been put together at short notice as a national response to the lockdown to address the challenge of home learning.

BBC BiteSize Daily (www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize) is a series of educational programs on iPlayer that the BBC has recently started broadcasting. These have been created to cover a broad range of subjects across both primary and secondary curricula.

Oak National Academy (www.thenational.academy) is a free online classroom and resource hub created by teachers across the UK as a national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They plan to release 180 hours worth of video lessons per week, each with an accompanying quiz and worksheet, catering for both primary and secondary level subject matter.

Workshopshed: You’ve also created a STEAM project, tell us what that is and how it can help?

Laurence: Ah, yes. I’ve just published a coding project that introduces kids aged 9-13 years to data science. It walks you through the process of building a simulation to model the spread of a virus. The simulation enables you to examine how the level of social distancing being practised can affect how a virus spreads through a virtual population.

The original source of inspiration for this project was a news article explaining how social distancing affects the spread of a virus using a set of simulations (www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/corona-simulator/). Mitch Resnik was inspired enough to replicate the simulations in this article using his kids coding language, Scratch, and publish the code on Scratch Studio to encourage kids to play with it (scratch.mit.edu/projects/376656449). I realised that this code would really benefit from having a project guide written to go alongside it, so that’s what I’ve done.

I have taken Mitch Resnik’s code, broken it down into bite-sized chunks and written a set of instructions and explanations of relevant concepts to accompany each step of the build process. The project guides kids, step by step, through the process of building their own simulator from scratch and understanding the computing concepts that have been employed along the way. 

Some kids prefer to nibble away at things rather than consume whole. With this in mind, the project has been broken down into a number of stages, each of which has a testable end point. These provide the kids with regular achievement points that allow you to complete the project in small steps over a number of days rather than all at once.

Having built the basic simulator, there are many directions that more inquisitive kids can take this in to model a range of possible scenarios. To encourage them to experiment with the code I have provided a selection of ideas in the form of extension challenges. 

The core project can keep your child engaged for up to 2 hours. However, the scope for experimentation is limited only by your child’s imagination and inquiring mind.

Workshopshed: Where can people find the project?

Laurence: This project is available now in both downloadable PDF and HTML formats. You can find it on my website at creativesmartthings.com/steam-projects.

In recognition of the economic impact of Covid-19 it has been made available on a Pay What You Want basis. If you can afford to do so, please consider supporting the creation of further materials with a donation. However, if you cannot afford to donate then you are welcome to use it for free.

Workshopshed: Thanks Laurence, it sounds like a great project, now just got to get my kid off the tablet for long enough to try it. You can reach Laurence at Creative Smart Things or chat on Twitter https://twitter.com/MolloyLaurence

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