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The SAM Blog

Why Physical Connections Create Learning Success in K-12 Education

Why Physical Connections Create Learning Success in K-12 Education

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.” — Josh Waitzkin

It’s always a great learning experience to meet a teacher who has work experience in the subject area they now teach in, especially for the benefit of the students. John Nguyen, who teaches computer science at St. Charles Borromeo, Washington, previously worked with a team of talented engineers and computer scientists at a technology startup before moving into K-12 teaching. This allows him to draw from real-world working experiences and set the context for his STEAM classroom environment. And by nature, he can bridge the gap between K-12 education and the working world.

What John particularly enjoys about STEAM learning is the ability to use groups to collaborate on projects to maximise the capacity for greater learning experiences and project delivery. He has already seen for himself that even when an innovative individual has an amazing idea, it takes a combination of expertise to make it possible, and that makes the process all the more enjoyable.

In our previous blog interview with Paula Perryman, she spoke about getting students to recognise where they are already applying STEAM in their existing classes creates an incentive to get better at using those STEAM values again. This week is a little different as we speak to John, who explains how the ability to show students the physical connection between the hardware-software solution took away the abstractness of established K-12 tools and unleashed new learning opportunities not just for younger students, but for those less engaged with just the coding aspect of computer science.

Here is what he had to say.

Editor’s notes

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If you would like to find out more about the power of STEM and STEAM and how to start your own program, here is a selection of handy resources for you to use:



Niall: Could you tell us about yourself and your teaching background?

John: My teaching career started when I taught English as as a Second Language in South Korea. I did that for three years and during the end of my time there, I had an opportunity to study for my masters degree. I came back to the US and was introduced to a tech startup in Bellevue, where Microsoft and Amazon people are at. At the time I couldn’t remember how to code since I was in college 10 years ago – a lot had changed. I got accepted and I started teaching coding to elementary kids using Scratch. Because of that job, I learnt how to do a lot of different coding languages and activities. So I moved down to Seattle because part of being in a company is that you have a process to follow and sometimes things don’t work out, for example, with lessons or curriculum. If I felt there were supposed to be improvements, I could make them for the benefit of the students. I decided to come down to St. Charles Borromeo to start my own tech program and it’s really easy to make adjustments. For example, if something isn’t working out, I can make adjustments immediately or the next day, which is a great thing. This is my fourth year here and so far so good!

“Some students just want to do the software or pure coding part. For others, coding is so abstract for them, they want to see the effect of coding on something physical… Differentiating instructions for different learners and giving them a choice is really important.”

Niall: Talk us through your journey from your first days using STEAM in the classroom to where you are today?

John: The first day I started doing STEAM related things was heavily focused on coding games and soft skills, such as using computers to create programs, video games or programs that relate to the lesson. But where I am now is more physically interactive, meaning we are able to create something with software and connect it with a physical component or hardware. I think the most important thing is being able to differentiate for students. Some students just want to do the software/pure coding part, for others, coding is so abstract for them, they want to see the effect of coding on something physical. Using SAM Labs has helped in that department in differentiating instructions for different learners and giving them a choice is really important.

Check out these free STEAM standards aligned lesson packs

“Students created a musical instrument, an airplane, and many more inventions you wouldn’t think a fifth grader was capable of creating.”


Niall: How do you think STEAM has improved student learning and do you have any interesting stories you could share about using STEAM in the classroom?

John: One of my biggest successes last year was working in the inventors unit with fifth graders. It started out with small group learning that led them to teach other fifth graders how to teach SAM Labs and having students be able to choose what it is they want to do/learn or how they want to learn it is really really important. Because no single solution can fit all students. When they are inventing, they get to collaborate with each other, and get to talk through their ideas and get to teach something. For example, I get a lot of excitement and I often overhear students say, “I can help you with that” or “let me show you how to do this”, or “I agree and disagree with you about certain ideas”. That project really stood out to me and the result was really unique. Students created a musical instrument, an airplane, and many more inventions you wouldn’t think a fifth grader was capable of creating. But definitely with SAM Labs they provided them with tools to make their ideas come true.

Learn about the true definitions of STEM and STEAM in this blog post

Niall: In what ways have your students been able to improve soft skills like collaboration, leadership and problem solving through using the SAM Labs curriculum?

John: For a lot of students, coding is such an abstract concept, and they can only see what it’s like in the computer they can’t touch. Through SAM Labs you’re able to code something and see the result of the code through the physical interaction, like a light turning on or when you press a button, it reacts to something physical. I think that’s really special for kids who need that kind of validation for something that is software based.


Niall: Why did you choose the SAM Labs solution over others in the education technology market?

John: There’s a lot of companies out there like SAM Labs that delivers physical components with coding. But the reason I chose SAM Labs is that it is heavily focused on coding concepts. I’m really passionate about computer science and the whole curriculum in my school is focused on computer science and I want to build their computer science knowledge regardless of what we do. SAM Labs definitely fits that profile and the pathways to learning computer science is really great. It’s not an afterthought. The most important reason is pricing. We all struggle with budgets in education. SAM Labs hit that spot where it’s not that expensive to get a classroom kit or get started with 25-30 students. So budget-wise it was really the right fit for us. In terms of product design, I have not had a component break and that’s really impressive. To have fourth and fifth graders hold a component, drop a component or do something I don’t see them do. But the components are surviving pretty well given the usage of kits. The interface is also really awesome. Overall the logistics of connecting a wireless component is pretty easy. Once you teach the kids how to do it, they know how to do it after and it works pretty consistently. I haven’t had any connection issues where you can’t find the components. SAM Labs is a really good fit compared to products that are similar.

Screenshot 2020-03-05 at 12.01.44

Niall: What kinds of issues/frustrations were your school having before STEAM was introduced to the curriculum, and how do you think the SAM Labs solution fit in terms of meeting those needs?

John: Before I came to this school, they had purchased a bunch of Arduino, Raspberry Pi and motors which look raw, in other words, not a finished product for kits. When you want to get the motor to spin, for example, you need to connect it to the Arduino with the right pins and you need to write the coding for it then hook up the Arduino to the computer. So it wasn’t age appropriate for what I wanted it to do for elementary school age. Maybe I can do it for seventh and eighth graders, but for the average student, it’s definitely not appropriate in terms of their learning level. We needed something to physically connect with the coding but we didn’t have any product for them to use and because we had the budget at the time we went with SAM Labs. SAM Labs created the bridge on software and hardware and it really brings the abstractness of software to something more concrete for kids to be able to see, touch, hear and feel in real life.

For more on why physical kits are improving learning, check out this blog.


Niall: Did you encounter any challenges implementing our solution, and how did you overcome those challenges?

John: Whenever you use a product that’s new and you have a new classroom, it’s difficult to roll it out for a lot of students. I had thought of all these ideas around preparing e.g. taking pictures of every single small step, but it is always chaotic trying to get students to learn something new, or a new system, especially something with a physical aspect. The other challenging thing I had to deal with was how excited they were. It’s not a bad thing but at the same time it’s challenging when they’re so excited about something, they want to be able to use that new product that’s in front of them. It’s like they are opening a present at Christmas, and they can’t stand for this toy not to work immediately or not having the instruction to play with this toy. To solve it was to use smaller groups, like I said before, being able to teach a few kids, assigning them as leaders and having those leaders teach other kids, peer learning essentially. I think that’s what helps to introduce SAM Labs to a large number of students.

Screenshot 2020-03-05 at 12.02.23

Niall: In terms of more concrete learning outcomes like teaching functions, variables, conditionals. Is this something you’ve been able to use as a testing system in your classes to show parents there’s real learning outcomes from these classes?

John: Getting students to say verbally that this is for example a conditional or a variable, they know that but they know how to use it better than explain it, especially at a younger age like fourth and fifth graders. But definitely when I use SAM Labs with seventh or eighth graders, they can tell me what a variable or conditional is because they’ve been learning about that by taking notes and working on Python for example. They’re exposed to on a daily basis versus the younger kids who might say they know how to use an ‘if’ statement but don’t know that it’s called a conditional, and they care more about what they’re doing and the result of what they’re doing. If you assess them, they might be able to identify what a conditional is, rather than if you put them on the spot and ask them what it is. SAM Labs definitely helps with that process, because I don’t think it’s one big process. Some kids by third grade can tell me what a conditional is, or by seventh grade they can tell me what a conditional is out of the blue.

For me the culture here is an ongoing process for mastering computer science. It starts in first grade and works it way all the way up to eighth grade. With different learning levels, some students get faster than others. They can be more independent and work on their own projects, create their own prototypes. If they need more help they can follow the projects I have mapped out from there.

We would like to thank John for giving his time to us!

Have you or your students created something to inspire new users of SAM Labs’ STEAM kit? Share your ideas with us by tweeting at @SAMLabs.

About John Nguyen

John Nguyen has been designing a computer science curriculum at St. Charles Borromeo for the past three years. Having previously worked as an ESL Teacher in South Korea and a tech startup in Bellevue, he is passionate about helping K-12 students master computer science and using this experience to better prepare them for the future workforce.