Keep the Learning Going All Summer Long

3d design arduino atari block-based coding circuit coding computer programming computer science coordinate plane cross-curricular connections electronics geometry javascript learning micro:bit mit physics programming language project management project-based learning python scratch solid geometry stem summer text-based coding tinkercad transferable skills trigonometry Jun 24, 2024
Students learning over summer break

Summer!  A time for beach vacations, sports tournaments, and long days at the pool.  Traditionally, school is off-limits and our kids’ brains take a break.  Beware, though.  A summer full of endless fun may have academic consequences.

According to the Brookings Institute, students regress academically over the summer months.  Learning requires reinforcement, and we lose skills and knowledge if we go long periods of time without re-exposure.  Think of all the classes you took in high school that you don’t use regularly - foreign language, advanced math or science, etc.  The mantra “Use it or lose it!” certainly holds true.

A Change of Pace

Does this mean that students should continue with the regular daily rigors of intensive study throughout the summer?  No!  Just as employers encourage their employees to take vacations to prevent burn-out, students deserve a brain break.  They need the change of pace to recharge and be fresh and ready to start again in the fall.  Therefore, rather than traditional lessons and time-boxed learning sessions, consider fun and engaging project-based activities that require your students to apply skills, knowledge, and concepts they studied during the prior school year.

For example, let’s say your student has been learning concepts from two-dimensional plane geometry - graphing points on an x-y coordinate plane in more simple terms.  You can give them the chance to apply this knowledge while also exploring the world of computer programming with Scratch, a blocks-based programming environment developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to make programming more accessible and easier to learn.  Scratch programs run on what’s called the Stage, and the Stage is really an x-y coordinate plane with the origin in the center. 

While it is graphical, colorful, and cartoony, Scratch introduces students to the same five foundational concepts from Computer Science that are found in virtually every programming language:

  • Variables
  • Conditional statements
  • Loops
  • Functions
  • Events and event handlers 

Further, it requires students to position and move the various characters (called sprites) using geometry.  While not described as such in Scratch, students will be using translations, rotations, and scaling operations.

Using Scratch with Older Students

Despite its obvious appeal with younger students, Scratch can be used with high schoolers as well.  Consider a program to play a video game like Atari’s classic Asteroids™.  In such a game, the rocket ship keeps track of the direction it’s facing and the speed at which it is traveling.  You might remember from physics that a direction and a speed form a vector.  Video games are really just a series of still images called frames that change so quickly they look like they are moving.  In each frame, the ship must move some distance on both the x- and the y-axis.  To get these values, the program must decompose the vector into its x- and y-components, an operation that requires the cosine and sine ratios from trigonometry.  Even though this program can be written in Scratch, it requires the student to apply information from high school math and physics.

Tinkercad - Three Cool Tools in One!

Tinkercad is another tool that is great for summer learning through project-based activities.  Tinkercad is really multiple tools in one.  First and foremost, it is a 3D modeling platform.  Students use primitive 3D shapes like spheres, cubes, and cylinders to make more complex designs through a process called compositing.  They can create their own toys like race cars or rocket ships or more practical creations like a new phone case.  What’s more, if you have access to a 3D printer, Tinkercad designs may be exported and printed, bringing the student’s vision to life.

In addition to drag-and-drop 3D modeling, Tinkercad has a coding mode where students write programs in a Scratch-like language to manipulate 3D shapes.  Here, they’re using an x-y-z coordinate system to position and move elements in space to create designs or simulations.  Are you starting to see how much opportunity there is for application and even overlap of various concepts?

Finally, Tinkercad has a mode where students construct virtual electronics circuits using components like LEDs, resistors, buzzers, and buttons.  There are even virtual versions of the micro:bit and Arduino microcontrollers.  This is a great way to apply concepts introduced in physical science where students have learned about voltage, current, and resistance.  Further, the microcontrollers can be programmed using a blocks-based language based on Scratch.


For students who already know a programming language, summer is a great time to challenge them to create a new application.  Have them go through the entire process of writing out a description of their program, drawing a mock-up of the user interface, then coding and testing.  This helps them to develop skills in project management that can be applied later in both technical and non-technical contexts.  Maybe they could work on this project with a friend, thus teaching them about collaboration and the division of labor in team-based work.

Becoming a Polyglot

Alternatively, students could be encouraged to learn an entirely new programming language.  Are they comfortable in Scratch already?  Push them to learn Python!  Or have them build a website using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.  There are numerous tutorials and other free resources that serve to guide students through their first efforts in a new language.  Learning an additional language allows them to compare and contrast the way a similar task is accomplished in a different context.  For example, Scratch has a “repeat until a condition is true” loop, while most other languages use “while a condition is true”.  Think about the subtle difference between these two instructions.

Application Leads to Appreciation

Keeping the brain engaged in mentally-stimulating activities that require students to apply skills, concepts, and knowledge they have learned in their more traditional lessons will help diminish the effects of the academic summer slide.  They will also gain a deeper appreciation for what and how much they have already learned when they see so many ways to use that information.  

This article has presented a number of free tools and resources, but if you want a bit more structure and guidance, you might consider a subscription to the Excalibur Solutions STEM Academy.  This program is full of self-paced video lessons grouped into fun and engaging projects that teach computer programming, electronics, 3D modeling, and other concepts from technology and engineering.  The self-paced format is perfect for even the busiest of summer schedules!

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