March 8, 2017
A middle school teacher for 13 years, Todd Leff knows that the best time to get kids interested in science and robotics is in the early elementary grades, before other interests take hold. When it’s still “cool.”
“The younger you can start kids building and the younger you can start them programming and learning, that’s when you get them. If they’re not a builder by the time they get to middle school, or if they don’t know robotics by the time they get here, they’re not going to do it.
“Kids want to do cool things like play soccer and basketball and things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if I can get a kid in second grade before they’ve formed ideas of what they should be doing and have them thinking, ‘Robotics is awesome; construction is awesome. I can solve these problems and change the world,’ then we can really make a difference and carry that from elementary school up into middle and high school.”
Leff holds a bachelor’s degree in literature and elementary education, a master’s in special education and a certification in technology education. At Kingsview, he teaches Introduction to Computers, where students learn the basics of coding; Critical Thinking with Applied Technology, an elective he came up with; and Computer Applications, where students learn higher-level things like Photoshop, Illustrator, CAD and coding. In that class, they also create their own video game.
He’s also the sponsor and coach of the school’s Robotics Team, which meets after school and has grown from one team to four. Most of the club activities are focused on participation in the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, which challenges students to design, build and program a robot to play a floor game against other teams’ creations.
“The Robotics Club is all about the competition; they build Lego robots to run a course and they have challenges they have to meet,” says Leff, who adds that students also have to do research presentations during the contest.
“Last year, we made it to the state competition and it was very cool. They had a DJ with flashing lights and smoke machines and a huge cheering crowd in a gym; it was like an athletic event. They really try to make it fun.
“If we want kids to get jobs that raise their socioeconomic level, we have got to model that at very young ages so they form their identities with that in there. I think for a lot of families, it’s ‘We’re so proud of you,’ and then running them off to sports and things. But when do your kids see you read? When do you talk about science? If we’re not doing these things, we’re going to get exactly what we’re modeling.”
When were you first hired at MCPS and what job were you hired for?
I finished school in New Jersey and my wife was going to grad school in Wisconsin, so we lived there for three years.
When we got here, I got a job at Tilden Middle School teaching 7th grade English; the next year, I switched to 6th grade reading. I was there for three years.
When I first came to Kingsview, I did reading intervention for six to eight years. I was here for a year and the county started the Read 180 [reading intervention] program, which was very intensive. It was a steep learning curve with lots of technology, so I did that and enjoyed it. Then, they wanted to switch me to English. I didn’t want to go back to teaching English. With Read 180, sometimes I had a class of four. I had these tiny classes that were very intensive. To think about the workload going from 35 kids in total to 150 was scary. I did find that switching, while always hard, revitalizes you. After the first year, I was very happy that I switched to English.
How did your interest in robotics come up?
As a kid, I always wanted to know how things worked. I was always trying stuff. That’s what I want the kids to get the opportunity to do. The more you can do, the more you want to do.
My mom modeled that big time with me. She changed the oil and fixed our car; she fixed the carburetor once. When I was 5 or so, she finished our basement; she put up paneling and did the electricity and the plumbing. I love watching This Old House and seeing how things are built. I try to look for kids in my classes who I think can use it the most.
I really like the Makerspace movement; we need to give kids opportunities to create. I don’t want to say, ‘Here’s how you do it.’ They have got to figure out how to do it. By the time we’re done [studying] mechanics, most of my kids can explain how the moving parts on a car work.
I couldn’t dream of a better situation than this. I get to work with the stuff I like, the computers and the technology. I’ve always liked to build things. As long as I am challenging the kids and covering the points the state wants us to cover, I can choose what activities we do. I look for things that are real world; I look for things kids are going to want to do.
This year, we’re doing rockets. We made paper rockets and launched them. We had a 300-foot tape and a kid standing out in the field collecting the data of everybody’s flight. We wrote down all the data and then listed the characteristics of the top five flights. Then I had them do a redesign of their rockets. And then I make them do them all over again. Which is something we rarely get to do in school. I make them do a second rocket and, to hopefully, make it better than the first one. We launched them again to see the improvement. Normally, the first rockets make it 100, 150 feet. The second time, we have some going 300 feet.
So, that led you to eventually create a new elective. Tell me about that.
If you’re not a kid who takes band and foreign language, what are you going to do? We wanted something to keep kids interested in school. Another teacher started a journalism class, which was popular. I started a Critical Thinking with Applied Technology class, where we would do some things on the computer and some mechanical things.
I try to get the kids’ hands into stuff. They do the robotics in that class. I start off there with problem solving skills and working in a group. We just finished a challenge. There’s a Home Depot near here that has major backups every day. I gave them a map of the area and asked them to solve the traffic problems—they had to explain how to solve the problem, the time outlook for completing the project, the cost and why it’s better than other solutions.
Then, we go into learning about programming, then use what they learn in programming to build the robots. We have boxes of Lego mechanical pieces and a list of 20 real-world devices they have to learn to build and use. My favorite one is a windshield wiper. It’s a challenge; they have to learn how to turn the crank in one direction, meanwhile their windshield wiper goes back and forth. How do you get it to go in two different directions?
I have a ramp and they have to build a car that can jump from one table to another table without breaking and roll off the end without veering to the side. That’s more challenging because these kids are used to building things at home and they shatter. They have to build it strong enough so it doesn’t break and make it so it can be steered with a steering wheel. Then they have to add suspension and make it rubber-band powered.
I’ve been doing that class for about three years. I created the challenges and I didn’t know how they would be accomplished, but I knew there must be a way to do it. I would leave the kids to figure it out.
You recently received a $5,000 Makerspace grant. Tell me your plan for the money.
I’m trying to start a Makerspace at the school, a place where kids can bring their ideas, they can come create things and bring them to fruition.
In the fall, I got a $5,000 grant to buy equipment, so we bought two 3D printers, a C&C machine, which cuts things out of wood, and a bunch of tools and drills. We set up in the old wood shop, which has been here since the school was built but has never been used.
We got a good deal on the printers, but we bought them in kit form so we are putting them together. Our media specialist is working on one, and I’m working on the other. I’m almost there; I’ve been working on it for two months.
Then we have to get the IT guy here just to make sure everything works. I just had them install new electrical switches. We ran new network cables.
Hopefully by next fall, if a student has an idea or a product they’d like to make, this is a place where they can come in, design it and do it.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I created a wood shop in the garage. I’ve collected things and tools over the years. I have a great 1961 band saw. I build things.
We have a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old. I had one starting high school and one starting kindergarten this year. My wife does remote sensing; she working with satellites and analyzes the weather, things like that. She works for a company in Tysons Corner that makes mapping software. She travels to cool places, like Dubai and Alaska. Right now, she’s on an Indian reservation in North Dakota.
We’re big into rock climbing; it’s a family thing for us. We go to a rock climbing gym probably three times a week. Climbing is a cool thing, but everybody thinks it’s crazy. I’ve been [at Kingsview] 10 years and I’ve gotten three teachers to try climbing. We’re also big paddlers, boaters and sailors. Before the kids were born, my wife and I were cavers.
I didn’t grow up watching a lot of things on TV, so I’ve never had the patience to sit and watch. I’ve played football, lacrosse, basketball and ran track. I like the activity.
A kid once asked me if I had to do it over again, ‘Would you still be a teacher?’ I said no. I already know how this turns out. I love working with kids. I would want to make a different choice. I’d like to know, would I have been a good architect? Should I have learned how to be a programmer? I would definitely try something else, just for the point of trying something else.