Laura Blankenship: Computer Science Coordinator

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Laura Blankenship and I am the Computer Science Coordinator at The Baldwin School, an all girls pre-K-12 independent school in the Philadelphia suburbs.  I teach technology and computer science in grades 6-12.  I also coordinate faculty development in technology, working with them on student projects or helping them brainstorm about using technology in their courses.  I also work with many colleagues in the library and lower school to create a vision for technology in our school.

What hardware are you using?

I use a variety of hardware.  I’m currently typing this on my trusty MacBook, which I’ve had for a few years. It’s still my go-to computer for work on the go.  However, our school started an iPad initiative this year, and I received one as part of that.  At first, I couldn’t figure out how to fit it into my work flow, but over the summer, I’ve become attached to it, using it to check email, read blogs, even write.  I am also attached to my Android phone, a Samsung Galaxy S II.  I keep my to-do list on it (Any.do) and check and respond to email on the go, and sometimes even make phone calls!

At school, I have mostly PCs.  My lab is a PC lab, and I have a cart of PCs for use in my classroom.  I also have access to Mac laptops if I need them and there’s a Mac mini on my desk.  I also have a SmartBoard in both my lab and classroom, though I admit that I don’t use them that much except as a projector.

As the Computer Science teacher, I get to have robots and stuff as well, so the vast majority of my hardware is actual hardware.  I have Scribbler robots with an attached usb-based fluke that has sensors and a camera on it.  My students program them to run around and go through mazes and stuff.  I have an Arduino and several Arduino components, which I haven’t gotten to work with that much, but am hoping to use in a class next year (more on that later).  I also have about 10 Pico Boards which have sensors and buttons and joysticks, which are fun to play with.  I have a goo gob of Legos and old school handyboards for connecting to the Legos to make them do things.  And I have a giant rack of metal parts for use in VEX Robotics, a competition we participate in at both the middle and high school level.  I have nuts and bolts and wrenches and all kinds of tools to build with.  There’s nothing better than building stuff to get your head out of the computer for a while.

And what software?

Software-wise, I rely a lot on Google for general productivity.  I use Google Drive to create and store my documents and embed them on my teacher web page.  I use the Calendar for my own calendar and to share with my family, and I pull in the school’s master calendar so I know exactly where I need to be.

In my computer science classes, I use Calico, a development environment developed by my husband and five other computer science professors specifically for teaching.  I teach mostly the Python programming language, but using the same environment I could teach Scheme, Ruby, or Jigsaw (a Scratch-like language).  It’s free and my students usually download it on their own computers.

In middle school, I use Google primarily for creating web sites, documents and even graphs, but I also use Photoshop, iMovie, and Audacity for multimedia projects. I also use Scratch, created by MIT’s Media Lab, for teaching programming in 7th grade.
In general, I try to use Open Source software whenever I can while recognizing that students need to be familiar with software that’s “out there” in industry use.  So I try to strike a balance.

I also like to automate as much as possible, which I’ve been doing through ifttt (if this then that), so that I can star a Google Reader item or favorite a Tweet and it automatically appears elsewhere in my workflow, for use on my blog or embedded in a page I’ve created for teachers.  On my iPad, my favorite apps are Flipboard, WordPress, and Flickr Stacker.  

I’m really only scratching the surface here as I’m always using different things, looking for just the right tool to get the job done.

What would your dream set up be?

My dream set up changes all the time.  I’m always seeking the perfect workflow, where it doesn’t matter what device I have with me, I can do whatever it is I need to do, whether that be to write a blog post or hack together some code and post it to the web.  I’m not there yet.  I can’t code on my phone or iPad, and making a movie on those two devices is possible, but hard.  I wish devices talked to each other better.  I wish there was a protocol whereby I could send a photo from my phone to my MacBook wirelessly, even remotely, without having to use a web site intermediary.  

At school, my lab got an overhaul, so it’s pretty dreamy.  But I’d really like to create Fab Lab/Maker Lab out of my classroom.  I already have a lot of the equipment for that, but I don’t have the workflow/storage worked out well.  I have racks and carts that have to be rolled out, and it’s always hard to find tools and whatnot.  I’d love to see that come together better.