For several years, Inaf has been promoting, all over Italy, lessons and laboratories in the schools, as well as courses addressed to teachers about innovative teaching of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In particular, in the school year 2018-2019 INAF has made available, on the platform SOFIA of MIUR (Italian Ministry of Education), two training courses for teachers of primary and junior secondary schools – in the province of Bologna – concerning STEM: a course on tinkering, and one on coding and educational robotics.

The courses in Bologna were very successful, and were attended by about seventy teachers from all over Italy. Several teachers did not manage to attend, because we had already reached the highest possible number of participants. Indeed, there is a high demand on the part of teachers, since there are very few qualified institutes which can organize certified training courses. INAF is one of these few institutes, and thus provides a useful service to schools of every order and degree, in full agreement with its third mission.

Over and above all this, INAF planned and realized the interactive area “Spazio INAF” (INAF Space) at the “Festival del Gioco PLAY” in Modena (April 2019), which represented a great chance for reconsidering the role of playing in teaching Astronomy.

With these premises, some INAF researchers and technologists met in the workshop “Coding, tinkering e gaming per la didattica dell’astrofisica” (Coding, tinkering and gaming for teaching Astrophysics), held in Bologna from 14 to 16 October 2019, in order to put to the test these new methodologies, and understand how to contribute to its extension to the whole National territory, within the fields of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Here is the programme, followed by a short description:

Day 1: Coding

  • Introduction (9:00 – 10:00, Maura Sandri)
  • Coding with Scratch (10:00 – 12:00, Maura Sandri)
  • Makey Makey (12:00 – 13:30, Maura Sandri)
  • CodyMaze (14:30 – 15:30)
  • Educational Robotics (15:30 – 17:00, Luciano Nicastro and Maura Sandri)

Day 2: Tinkering

  • What is tinkering? (9:00 – 9:30, Sara Ricciardi)
  • Paper(t) circuitry (9:30 – 11:15, Angela Sofia Lombardo UniBo)
  • The sky with your fingers (11:15 – 13:30, Elena Parodi MadLab)
  • Big ideas (14:30 – 15:30, Sara Ricciardi)
  • Marble Machines & Scribbling Machines (15:30 – 17:00 Fabrizio Villa, Sara Ricciardi)

Day 3: Gaming and Roundtable

  • Energizer and presentation of the day (9:00 – 9:10, Stefano Sandrelli)
  • What can a game teach? (9:10 – 11:10, Andrea Ligabue)
  • Kerbal Space Program (11:10 – 12:10, Sandro Bardelli)
  • Roundtable (14:30 – 16:30)

As you can see from the programme, the first day was entirely devoted to coding. Maura Sandri introduced us to the marvellous world of Scratch,  a free programming environment with a graphical programming language. This language, inspired by the constructionism learning theory, has been specially designed for teaching programming. According to Mitch Resnick, its author, coding is not only a skill, but also a thought – a  computational thinking – a form of expression, a tool encouraging creativity, and the design of this language, as well as the community which makes it live, mirror the pillars of this way of understanding learning: project, peer, passion and play. In the first session of the morning, participants programmed with Scratch, thus learning to develop several programming proposals, which Maura has been carrying out in the schools for some years now. Maura also realizes these activities during the teacher training courses, aimed at learning the bases of programming.

After lunch, in the square of the Area della Ricerca di Bologna (Bologna Research Area), participants “entered” the virtual labyrinth of the amusing CodyMaze, created by Alessandro Bogliolo, full professor at the University of Urbino, and Italian ambassador of the European Code Week. CodyMaze is a virtual labyrinth in the real world, in which you move on a 5 x 5 chessboard, which contains some QRcodes, through performing a series of (increasingly difficult) codes, which are proposed to the player by a bot running on Telegram.

In the afternoon, together with Luciano Nicastro, we discussed about educational robotics, and tested the  potentials of mBot, a robot which can be programmed with mblock (a programming language based on Scratch).

In the second day, we set computers aside in order to rediscover our hands with tinkering and constructionist educational processes. According to the constructionist theory, learning is not something handed down from teacher to pupil, but rather it is actively built by the learner. Furthermore, learning is more effective if the pupil is involved in producing (real or virtual) tangible objects. In this way – both with physical objects (tinkering), or with virtual ones (coding) – knowledge and creativity in pupils, who are  playing/learning, constitute the focus of the educational action, which – rather than through a frontal lesson – takes the form of design and facilitation of educational experience. This session has also received the contribution of two professionals of constructionist practice, namely: Angela Sofia Lombardo and Elena Parodi.

In the afternoon, we focussed upon the most important ideas of constructionism, and we explained the facilitation tecniques which we had implemented in the morning. Sara Ricciardi briefly described the work of the tinkering studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a working group which produces very high-quality materials and democratically makes them available to all users through MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), artistic and pedagogical inspirations, cards of both activities and materials. Whoever wants to embark on tinkering should get to know the tinkering studio. Afterwards, Sara Ricciardi and Fabrizio Villa introduced a tinkering session, in which researchers could play with two “classical” elements of tinkering, namely: scribbling machines  and a vertical marble track.

In the third day, we addressed the issue of gaming. After an introduction by Stefano Sandrelli and Andrea Ligabue – an expert in table games – who explained what are the games, how they work, and why we should invest in games as a learning mode. After this session, Sandro Bardelli discussed the problem of including videogames in the educational path, with their potentials and challenges. In order to better illustrate a possible path, he described his experience in using Kerbal Space Program, one of the best space-science and technology games, a perfect flight-simulator, with space esploration, which allows pupils to learn the laws of Physics in the real world, as well as to develop engineering and maths skills, which are necessary for the calculation of orbits, and tocomplete a space mission. The potentials of this videogame have been explored through the project Cosmo Explorers, addressed to pupils of both junior and senior secondary schools all over Italy, supported by Miur and realized by – Planetario di Torino , in collaboration with the INAF Observatories of Brera (Milan), Bologna and Capodimonte (Naples).

At the end of this session, Giannandrea Inchingolo and Stefano Sandrelli introduced a creative workshop – planned by Sara Ricciardi – on gaming, in which they tried to map the needs of potential players, as far as game topics and mechanics are concerned. Within one hour, they gathered six good ideas about potential astrophysical games.

In conclusion, after the success of these three days, we would like to make this workshop a regular event, in which those who are involved in teaching can share and plan all together new experiences and new ways of teaching STEM. Covid-19 is now preventing us from planning new dates for a physical workshop in the Fall, but we shall certainly organize it again as soon as possible

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