Parallax Insider News

How a Parallax “Featured Teacher” Runs an Intensive Robotics & Engineering Program

  • By: Ken Gracey Published: 25 February, 2019 0 comments

At Parallax, we have the opportunity to meet many educators who prepare students for extraordinary technical careers. Recently, Faith Caplan, a California CTE Educator and March “Featured Teacher,” brought her entire class to Parallax to take a tour and learn more about careers, programming, and commercial uses of microcontrollers—showing students real-world connections involving product development and inventions. 

Mrs. Caplan uses Boe-Bots purchased roughly 15 years ago. They’ve been upgraded, improved, and maintained methodically by her. CTE educators will be interested in some of Mrs. Caplan’s replies to my questions below. We can all learn from other classrooms through the Parallax Featured Teacher series. 

Ken Gracey, CEO

How many students / periods are you running each day?

3 periods : 24 students, 30 students & 36 students

What are your biggest rewards and challenges in your classroom?

Rewards: My best moments are when students develop incredibly creative projects that they are motivated to keep going with.  Some of my students made a "rock 'em sock 'em" robot with Vex parts and Arduino programming.  I asked them to take it apart at the end, but they wanted to keep going with it by laser cutting or 3D printing the body and base. Even if they don't make the second version, it is fun to have them excited and thinking critically

Challenges: Student perseverance and willingness to troubleshoot.  A lot of times students get an error and immediately shoot their hand up without thinking through the problem, possible solutions, or collaborating with their peers. Troubleshooting skills are definitely something that needs to be taught, and I am still working on my strategies for this. The frustrating thing is when there is an error that is extremely common that they don't think about.  For instance, picking the port on Arduino.  I joke about making a giant poster that says "TOOLS - PORT" that I can just point at, so I don't have to say it all the time. Another challenge is in mixed gender groups, the girls typically let the boys build and program. They do the "fluffy" stuff (building the portfolio, documenting, decorating). To fix this, I made girl-only groups when we started Boe-Bots. The girls couldn't escape and stepped up. It worked very well. 

Do you have a story of a student you influenced? I am sure you do.

Since I have only been in this position four years, I don't have a lot of long term success stories, but I have many small wins weekly. For example, I attended an IEP of an upperclassmen and when he reviewed his career goals he decided he wanted to be an engineer. My pathway went from less than 50% enrollment four years ago to full this year. Many students are making hard decisions in their course selections to stay in the pathway. I love it when students are here extra because they love what we're doing, have fun during class, and say this is their favorite class. 

What’s your background prior to teaching these CTE courses (you are a mechanical engineer, worked at HP, right?)

I graduated from Oregon State University in 2004 with a degree in Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. After interning at Hewlett Packard in Corvallis, I continued my employment with HP-Roseville. In 2008, I decided to take night classes at National University to complete my secondary math teaching credential. After teaching math at Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova for five years, the engineering academy position was vacated and I took it over. After adopting 20 years of engineering materials, I began the journey of figuring out how to teach and engage students in fun, engaging, rigorous, and relevant coursework. My classroom is a makerspace with 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a variety of electronics and robotics equipment. Each year I keep two units and throw out the rest in search of the perfect mixture of coursework to meet the needs of students. We have many vital and supportive partnerships including Parallax.

What’s the favorite project you’ve done with your students, using microcontrollers?

This my first year teaching primarily microcontrollers. In prior years, it was only one or two units in my year long course. I have an open-ended programming project that I have been using for two years that I keep tweaking. After going through basic sensors and actuators, students created a 3D-animated art project with maker tools, electronic kits, and the cart o' random junk. I love the open-ended aspect of this project. I got some great results including a crossing guard simulator, an automated airplane shooter, a rock 'em sock'em game, a possessed panda, a cheese ball dispenser, and several versions of candy dispensers. In the future, I plan to make more changes and have it be more related to a business problem and maybe have them exhibit their bots for the staff or a STEM fair. 

Mrs. Faith Caplan
Engineering Lead Teacher, CTE Department Chair and CPA Coordinator
Cordova High School