SAM labs Science Museum Inventor Kit review

I am one of those guys who signs up for all these newsletters from different companies for promotional stuff. Usually I get one a week from a provider and believe it or not, it feels like there is a new edtech resource come out every week. A lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon to create edtech resources especially in areas of Computer Science and Robotics and I guess that had to happen with the surge in demand. While schools are still catching up with the demands of the revised Digital Technology areas of the curriculum in New Zealand, teachers are keen to know whats available and could work in their classroom. I just got my hands on this little kit by SAM labs, UK and decided to have a quick play and write a few lines about it.

Technology – it uses a combination of Bluetooth 4.0 with a web based interface for coding through Blockly (open source coding blocks). Each of the (wireless) blocks charge through a Micro SD charging slot and have a soft rubber padding around the block.

4 blocks come in the inventor kit which all pair up with the computer individually.

LED lights on the blocks turn up when plugged in for charging and are also controllable from the Web based interface. A blue light comes on when pairing is achieved as well. The blocks are capable of interacting with each other and there are a range of blocks like motors, gyro, light sensor, tilt sensor (and others in the extended kit).

The (power) button is very delicate!

I couldn’t find the (android) app easily so I decided to try out the desktop web based interface. Only after searching through Google, that I realised the app is called SAM Space and is different to SAM Blockly, the web based interface. I plugged in the provided Bluetooth dongle in my computer, visited samlabs.com and found the ‘start programming’ link along with a whole bunch of activities and lessons. It seems like this module must be a dated one as there were a range of class sets available now. This came with one charging cable but no power adapter so you can plug it straight into your USB port of your computer.

A wide variety of classroom kits available (More info at www.Samlabs.com)

My first thought was ‘this is cool’. Its colourful, connects wirelessly and code compilation was instant. The first one I tested was the DC motor and I was impressed that the motor driver, battery, lights and chip are all packaged up nicely in the little module. They seem to interact with each other really well too. I managed to program when the light sensor was at a certain level or lower, to turn on the DC motor. Adding modules was really straight forward (through the connect button on the GUI which takes care of the Bluetooth pairing). I wasn’t sure how many devices can be paired at once to one computer (as the I only had 4 in the kit).

Downside – I managed to break the power button on the tilt sensor. I can assure you I wasn’t being clumsy. The unit had charged for a fairly long time and just wouldn’t turn on. After multiple attempts to press the button, I took apart the rubber casing only to realise that the power button was broken! However, in there I saw the internal components including the tiny LiPo battery which was encased well.

Battery didn’t seem to last for three quarters of an hour of bluetooth connection and use so I am struggling to see teachers keen to using it in the classroom. It will be a pain to keep charging these units (however, the classroom sets look like they have charging units so it might be slightly more convenient). Connectivity is simple and straightforward, so it should (in essence) work with Chromebooks which are the preferred devices in NZ schools these days. Learning curve for students – minimal as its aimed for primary students while the usual DT teacher, who has done some Scratch before, should find it comfortable.

All in all, it’s another neat little physical computing module for students to learn programming and interaction; however with a longer battery life it would be suitable for the primary classroom.

#ACCE2018 My thoughts

Hello Sydney. Good to be back, this time for a digital technology teachers conference called ACCE2018. I arrived in time for the registration on Tuesday night, after Google maps decided to take me the long way ( where the horses usually would enter through).  The evening kicked off with awards handed out to teachers with exceptional service in the field of digital technology education and innovative teaching practices. I also had a chance to meet some of the exhibitors as it was pretty quiet. 

Day one started with a keynote from Prof. Tim Bell (University of Canterbury, NZ). Talking about the ABC of computational thinking, he shared his CS teaching experiences with kids and the importance of ‘people focus’. A very good graphic that he presented shows the ‘ABC’ of terms used which I think could be made into a poster for your classroom! We have to remember that we don’t write programs for computers, but we write programs for people (Tim), and so when we teach kids how to write a program, we also have to focus on the analysis, design, testing and debugging along with the coding. A good stat he displayed was the use of iteration (loops) in Scratch. Most students who make projects on scratch barely use loops and variables (according to the research being done) and that demonstrates the accepted fact that kids use it mainly as an animation software to make Sprites jump around. He summed up by reiterating the importance of a people centred approach in DT education.

The next session was focused on the use of Twitter as a source of teacher PD. Brett and Zeina, who run the #aussieed chat displayed stats of how their tweets have a worldwide reach. They also set out some challenges for newbies to take on twitter for PD. I believe, there will be a time when school administrators will accept Twitter as a source of PD but its not there yet. Personally I have learnt a lot by following certain teachers / PD providers on Twitter and go on to try it in my classroom. 

My interaction with one of the exhibitors was the best experience so far. I personally believe it will be a game changer in DT education. I have been using the Arduino for a long time to teach electronic circuits and programming. A lot of schools also want to kick start an Arduino programme at year 9-10 based on projects that they could build towards a challenge, lets say Brightsparks (https://www.brightsparks.org.nz/) . This exhibitor has combined the newer version of the Arduino called the ESP32 (which is a chip with onboard wifi, traditional Arduino doesn’t have that feature). With collaborative coding features plus a combination of mixed reality features ( all you need is a decent camera phone) and it streams live data to the screen ( yes, all your usual sensors for the Arduino work with it). They are launching at the end of this year. Keep a watch! http://www.kaisclan.ai/

My next breakout session was very useful for my current role in Engineering Outreach. The session, Leading digital technologies professional learning and development by the CSER team at University of Adelaide. The presenters, Suzie and Rebecca spoke about their very successful MOOC program reaching out to 24,000 teachers with a combination of 9 outreach officers who provide ground support. This kind of proves the idea that teachers doing just an online module may not necessary be able to successfully implement what they have learnt. Outreach provides the necessary support to teachers, guiding them in their classroom to implement new concepts they have learnt. I loved their idea of the national lending library ( we have house of science) which provides resources to schools on a rotational basis. I would definitely look into starting this for Wellington region based on sponsorship availability. Creating a customised PD for teachers rather than the usual generic ones will go a long way, along with mutual industry partnerships and leveraging existing resources and opportunities. Great breakout session.

I came across two really useful tools which I plan to use in my outreach work: Metaverse (https://studio.gometa.io/  ) for creating amazing stories and Plickers for doing quick interactive surveys and quizzes.

A focus on creative problem solving was delivered by Clara Galan from Adobe. She spoke on the importance on providing those opportunities in class as students can shape their own learning.

The final day ended with an Industry panel in discussion on a range of topics. They included Ivan from Australia Signals Directorate, Emma from Cisco Australia and Matthew from Optus Business. The first area they were queried on was the area of critical skills that were expected from applicants. It was good to know that apart from technical skills, soft skills – communication, coordination, collaboration, an inquisitive mind and analytical thinking are all areas that they employers were looking in applicants. One good question asked by the audience was whether soft skills had too much importance compared to technical skills which they needed to do the job. As there are different roles to fill, technical jobs are just one area; however, core soft skills will always be key in any field. The conference wrapped up with a walk down nostalgia lane of computing and digital tools history. It was amusing.

I look forward to the next ACCE which will be held in Melbourne.

My South Island Outreach!

Nelson Inspire – an annual 2 day maker workshop in South Island NZ. 

This annual event is hosted by Ministry of Inspiration, an educational company based in the south island of New Zealand. The two day event brings over 500 students from all over the northern part of the south island. Nayland College, Nelson plays host by observing no classes for students (teacher only days) and neighboring boys college as well as Garin College provide senior students as helpers for the event which is attended by primary students.  

MOI make this fantastic STEAM Kit ( https://ministryofinspiration.org/product/steams-kit/ ) which provides atleast 10 hours worth of lessons in circuit design and programming using the Arduino. A class set is $1000 ( 20 packs) which is reasonable I thought. 

On 6 September, we (Victoria Outreach) were one of the 40 providers running sessions for the kids. We did a simple Augmented Reality activity where the students were coloring in a range of different pre-loaded sheets by QuiverVision, a company based out of Christchurch. Their support service is excellent and their website has a range of free AR activities ( http://www.quivervision.com/coloring-packs/ ) which will provide a lot of classroom opportunities to discuss AR and compare with VR. Bring in the topic of Pokemon Go, a popular AR game and students enjoy the discussion. The Educational version has a  fixed price (11.99) but comes with a large range of sheets made for the classroom. I highly recommend it. 

Since we had a 3 hour block on the second day, we decided to build a Microbit buggy and learn to program it. The construction took about an hour and a bit. The build quality is good except for calibrating the servos which can be a pain. As they come with a servo driver which also has LED lights you can program to sequence them as a separate activity. Link to the kit is here: https://learningdevelopments.co.nz/products/move-mini-buggy-kit  We managed to get the kits put together as the students worked in pairs and then towards the end, had to do a series of challenges which included automating a certain route in the classroom. Prizes were kindly donated by Victoria University Engineering. 

On our way back to the ferry at Picton, we stopped at a rural school called Canvastown school. It had two classrooms and about 25 students. We decided to run with the Augmented reality workshop for them. They kids loved the PowerRangers coloring activity. 

Augmented Reality has a big space to fill in primary education. If we can provide the right content and scaffolding, I can see AR transforming the classroom. I have already thought of a Treasure Hunt activity which I will create for a holiday programme using Unity. Using the Microbit is awesome because its durable and sturdy, and at $22 for a programming chip which has sensors and LED’s its a great buy. Email if you have any thoughts or would like ideas to use them in your 

Arduino Unit now complete! 10 plus hours of classwork on slideshows and provided code

It is finished. Well, almost I reckon. The Unit plan, Slideshows for an Arduino unit, 10 plus hours and included code all in one zipped file.
The idea is that teachers can use the Arduino to teach skills in programming and computational thinking. The best part about the Arduino is that its easy to source, cheap to replace and the language ain’t that hard. The lessons cover these topics: Servos, Motors, Sensors, LED’s (lots of exercises), Sound effects, Relays which are your basics to get a project going.

I highly recommend getting starter kits from either Trademe.co.nz or Aliexpress.com for your class. Alternatively, you could also get Sparkfun kits(https://www.sparkfun.com/products/14265) which come with their own resource book but are slightly dearer. You can make your own custom kits by getting bulk bits of Arduino units, resistors etc. by looking up the kits on Sparkfun and then buying them off Surplustronics, Jaycar or similar dealers. Look up https://learningdevelopments.co.nz/ for electronics kits as well. Troy may be able to source something for you.

Once again, thanks to John Barrow who initially compiled these together from various sources. Please email me for any clarifications as well as corrections at pravin.vaz@vuw.ac.nz as there are bound to be some. If something doesn’t work as it should, please look up forums for troubleshooting as well. There is a lot of information and support for the Arduino. Happy prototyping.
Download and Unzip