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.

Lesson 1 – Intro to Arduino – Year 10 Programme

PS: Download link is now updated with the fixed PowerPoint! Thanks for letting me know.

Trying to continue what my predecessor(John Barrow) started with Arduino! A complete junior programme that teachers in schools can pick up and run in class. All you will need is an Arduino kit ( Probably don’t need to buy a complete kit but customise one as per requirements). Kits are readily available on NZ sites like Surplustronics, Jaycar NZ and Trademe; however, if you would like something cheaper (and in bulk quantity) then Aliexpress would be the way to go. Bear in mind, sometimes it can be painfully long for those goods to arrive from overseas! So if you need it urgently, I do not recommend it.

Starter kit as found on www.ebay.com

I have attached what I think is a simple introductory PowerPoint lesson to the Arduino. It starts off with what and why, followed by practical uses before getting into setting up and running the blink example. Most of the images used are from copyright free sources and I have done my best to reference them. There is no commercial benefit from this PowerPoint! I have also attached a Unit Plan for the Arduino. Feel free to modify as per requirement. The objectives and outcomes are slated for a year 9 / 10 class to get into electronics rather than learning it for an assessment.

Lesson-01-(updated)Introduction-to-Arduino

Book review of Invent to learn – Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager

Seven years ago, I was teaching Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint to my Year 11 Digital Technology students. It was an important skill (I believed) which could be used across all subjects. While recently clearing my old resources, I took a moment to ponder on how far we have come with learning and teaching Technology and what will it be like in the future! This book, Invent to Learn by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager just gives you the perfect insight into teaching Technology for the future.

I came across this book last year while looking up good reading on making and tinkering in the classroom. While the sub title is self-explanatory, the book also provides software and hardware solutions for teaching technology in the classroom. Quite often, teachers are afraid to take on the challenges that come with upgrading technology, especially new equipment and software. This adds to the already existing stress of marking and reports. The book provides easy alternatives for planting the seed of the ‘maker spirit’ in the kids while reinforcing the concept.

While ‘making’ is not really a new concept, introducing it in schools has predominantly been difficult. The authors provide a healthy background on learning theories covering Piaget, Dewey and the lot which I recall reading about, in my teaching degree course. Most of the conclusions led to the importance of learning by doing! Seymour Papert, who has had a special influence on this book, asked why were computers being used in schools in unimaginative ways. The words, “Making lets you take control of your life, be more active, and be responsible for your own learning” (quoted from page 29), made a significant dent in my thought process towards teaching technology and I have bookmarked it as an inspirational quote!

The authors further go on to elaborate the difference between Making, Tinkering and Engineering. As teachers, we are familiar with using the computer as a tutor(computer displaying instruction and conducts assessment), tool (computer allowing students to perform tasks) and a tutee (as we learn by programming the computer) (Quoted from page 34). With STEM becoming a key focus in schools ( even in New Zealand), Technology is not just using computers to find and report information but utilizing given tools to imagine, create and publish content. Computational thinking is a hot topic in NZ education with the curriculum undergoing drastic upgrades by implementing a ‘Digital Technologies curriculum’ from Year 1 – Year 10 starting Jan 2018. The best way to get prepared is through a design thinking mindset which the authors have covered in chapter 3 and provide a range of design thinking models for teachers to use. In the next chapter, they discuss elements of a good project. Ever wondered what makes a good prompt? Make sure you don’t miss this chapter!

Often as a teacher, I end up talking too much! Class time should be more about the students being creative and less of teacher talk. By providing a range of opportunities to explore their creativity, we can achieve learning to the fullest. These opportunities can come via the provision of fabrication, physical computing, and programming tools. With a wide variety of low-cost tools in the market and a lot of documentation available through community forums, Teachers and Management can set up this gear within no time. If you are a teacher interested in using Arduino and Raspberry Pi, then the best way to get into it is to buy one yourself! They are low-cost single board computers with a range of different functionalities that can be used for prototyping. Just jump into it and you will learn a lot by tinkering. YouTube is your best friend. You will be surprised to know how many variants of those boards exist and most of them are easy to setup and use. The best place to know more about them is the Make website and magazine. The book also covers choice of programming languages. This can often be an issue as we usually have a range of learning needs in class. Students at a low level of coding and can use ‘drag and drop’ based languages like Scratch and Blockly whereas some advanced users could already be programming in Python. Be open and let them choose their platform.

One of my favorite things to do on weekends is going through community stores like Saint Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army, looking for stuff! This stuff is my resource for technology. It includes broken toys, motors, speakers, lego bits, etc. This provides a collection of items that students can use for their projects. A well-stocked stationery cupboard also helps to complete projects. The book emphasizes the importance of student ownership and parental/community involvement through Maker days and CodeClubs. The teacher’s role is now more of a facilitator, ensuring safety, providing opportunities and coordinating events for their ‘show and tell’ of projects.

The authors, Sylvia and Gary are highly knowledgeable and experienced in their fields of product development and educational leadership respectively. They provide a lot of resources through web links and reading material. The book has assisted me in building on my teaching experiences and fine tune the way I teach Technology. I highly recommend this book as a must read for all teachers who wish to change their teaching style to incorporate and teach technology skills through a range of tools.

Testing the Edison v2.0, Lego Mindstorm EV3 and the mBot

Teaching students the basics of coding using modular components which are relatively easy to ‘put together’(in a lesson) as well as ‘put away’ (tidily in a box) is a daunting task at times for a teacher of Digital Technology. Over the last couple of years, I have been able to test a few of these kit sets and hope to assist people in making an informed choice before buying class sets of these kits. The three that I will review are Edison, Lego Mindstorm EV3 and the mBot.

Firstly, the Edison. I have never used the Edison v1. The first model was launched on Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding website where they grossed over $100k in 2014. The model did have limited memory and connectivity issues according to the discussion on their blog (however, the company relates it to adjusting sound levels to ‘high’ and removing sound enhancements from your Windows sound function).
The new version is bright orange ( “Edison is bright orange because this colour stimulates enthusiasm and creativity.” – from the Kickstarter blog) and stands out in terms of attention as you can see its motherboard and LED. It runs on 4 AAA batteries and connects via the sound port (3.5mm jack). The packaging is smart and for the very economical price ($70 NZ) I think they have done a good job (Designed in Australia and Made in China).
Connectivity issues were still prevalent when I tried to hook it up for the first time with my Windows 10 computer. I boosted the sound levels up, turned off audio enhancements and it was a while before I actually got it going. Nevertheless, it works!

The device uses Python to run an alternative software IDE as well as a ‘drag and drop’ Chrome extension. The Python version is a good alternative for students who want a challenge while learning basics of programming using Python. It also comes with some templates like Obstacle avoidance and Line follower programs. Personally, I think it’s good value for money considering if comes with a Lego compatibility which is perfect for students who want to build on top of the Edison. However, I am unsure of the connectivity issues(due to the funny sound port connection) and possibly a better design solution incorporating a micro/mini USB port could make this a worthwhile resource.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFWqxyvgzho

Lego Mindstorm EV3

This is the third in line of the educational kit sets from Lego following on from RCX and NXT. It is definitely an improvement in terms of its processing power as it uses an ARM9 running Linux. The screen pixels have improved along with the ‘drag and drop’ interface for programming the block. There are two versions: the home set and the educational core set. The software provides templates for building certain robots which are interestingly named (R3PTAR, GRIPP3R and so on). Since I had a class set of NXT’s, I decided to buy a couple of the EV3 sets looking at a possible future upgrade. My main concerns were compatibility with NXT kits. So it works out that the sensors are backwards compatible (NXT sensors work with EV3). EV3 sensors don’t work with NXT 2.0 but the motors do. With the programming interface, there are additional blocks like the Ultrasonic sensor which you need to download in order to program the NXT sensors with EV3 software. A bit of messing around before you can basically get both units working in tandem in your class. However, I am enjoying the battery power as it lasts quite a while. Plus the addition of an USB and SD card slot for programs, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity makes it a very attractive option.

While looking through software interface options for the EV3, I came across LeJOS and Open Roberta Lab(found the links on Wikipedia). I might need to have a play with those interfaces to give students some additional challenges rather than a purely drag and drop interface. LeJOS overrides the firmware to run a Java-based interface on the NXT kit. This ‘flashing’ may cause permanent damage to the unit essentially bricking the device so I would recommend it only for people who have experience in jailbreaking and using other hacking tools. Open Roberta lab ran off the browser but at the time of writing this article, was playing up.
Overall, at $600 NZD ($350USD) at the time of writing this article, I feel the EV3 has its benefits but with a hefty price tag for a learning resource (especially when you need a class set). The sensors and motors are expensive by itself to replace.

mBot
I was highly impressed when I read about the mBot on the Mindkits store (www.mindkits.co.nz for New Zealand buyers). With options of either 2.4G or Bluetooth connectivity, the mBot comes in a blue or pink chassis. Based on the Arduino, the mBot has easy connections to the drive motors straight to the main board (assuming the motor shield is embedded in the design), along with 4 RJ25 connections to sensors. With the base kit, which I got, you can make a line sensor or obstacle detection robot within a couple of minutes. The code was preloaded and it surprised me on how accurately it worked. The Bluetooth version connected seamlessly with devices and works with Apple devices as well, which rarely happens 🙂
The mBlock software which is a drag and drop interface based off Scratch 2.0 is a good starting software for junior students while the senior students who are confident in C could get programming using the Arduino IDE. By selecting the Arduino mode you can instantly see the code in C, and modify it using the Edit with Arduino IDE selection. Very impressive!

The module is very responsive and works instantly and no connectivity issues faced. The only annoying thing I faced was the access to the batteries. Once dead, you have to remove the four hex screws to access the compartment below which isn’t a big issue in the grand scheme of things but surely a design improvement to consider for the next model. However, they have a choice of rechargeable battery which may be the answer to my problem 🙂

I am thinking of using these mBots for entering the Football competition at our local RoboCup challenge(www.robocupjunior.org.nz) coming up. The solid frame and very responsive Arduino model make it an ideal choice for seniors who want to learn to code using C as well as compete in RoboCup.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hQtdYd5i-Y

Overall the most attractive option I found was the mBot and will also be keen to look into the mRanger (more expensive but more ports). http://www.makeblock.com/mbot-ranger/
Alternatively, you could also look at combining a 3D prototyping unit with Robotics as there are Arduino kits available on eBay(http://www.ebay.com/itm/4WD-Robot-Car-Kit-UNO-Bluetooth-IR-Obstacle-Avoid-Line-Follow-L298N-for-Arduino-/162302756306) which you could possibly modify the chassis by creating your own and this kit would be competitively priced with an opportunity to create and modify design.

With Digital Technology becoming an integral strand in New Zealand curriculum from 2018, kit sets will be a highly valuable resource to teach programming. Looking forward to further development in this area!

Stop Motion / Time Lapse Movie Making Activity ( Juniors)

Stop motion animation is one of my favorite topics to teach at year 9. It gives students a lot of freedom to imagine and storytell along with learning technicalities in basic movie making.

 

I have an interesting way to setup the stop motion theme. I picked up a box of assorted toys on TradeMe for $20 ( and keep adding to that box as and when I pick more toys up from various opshops) .

box of toys

 

Students are divided into groups on a random basis ( or using a random name generator available freely on the internet).

 

Each member of the group picks one toy from the toy box ( random order, maybe by keeping their eyes closed). From the toys they have picked, the next stage is to write out a script using those characters. The script will then be looked over by their English teacher for improvisations and errors ( Cross curricular opportunity ). Once the script is approved, they then create the storyboard.

 

To reiterate the importance of storyboarding I show the students this video from the making of Toy Story. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOeaC8kcxH0) ( 8:51 long) Students get a gist of the importance but may still need explanation of how much depth to go into. I usually have a collection of exemplars made by past students which I would use at this stage. They clearly show how much detail is expected.storyboard Sample Alternatively you could show pictures of storyboards made by students/professionals depending on how much detail you expect from them.

Next is filming. To understand filming ( in a short period of time) I split it up into Analysing and Practice. In the analysis, I show them video clips of movies with different camera angles. Each camera angle has its own advantage and can be used effectively at the right times. In the second part students use the camera to take a few shots of themselves and demonstrate their understanding of camera angles.

When they are confident of demonstrating understanding of camera angles, they can start working on their props. As my classroom is tiny with computers all around, there isn’t much of table space left. This makes the need for props to be compact if possible. Some students used office storage plastic containers (the ones available in Warehouse Stationery for $10 approx) to create their scenes which worked fine.

 

What camera to use? Through experience I have finally settled on something reliable and cheap ( not necessarily the most effective yet). I started stop motion using Sony Flip Cams(Bloggie). They take pictures at 12M @ 4:3, 8M @ 16:9 and 2M @ 16:9. They also come with a tripod mount which is highly essential for stop motion as you need to keep your camera steady. I next moved to some chunky DSLR’s because I needed manual focus for stop motion. But it wasn’t cost effective. I kept looking for handheld camera’s which had a manual focus feature but found just one ( was a Canon I reckon @ $400NZD).

My IT guy at school suggested to look at webcams and I came across a Logitech C920 which records HD and has a manual focus feature in its software. It also has a tripod mount screw which is perfect. Except for the fact that every picture has a countdown operating on the software which means a loss of valuable time. But nevertheless, it builds patience in the students 🙂

 

Editing software: Students use Windows MovieMaker at Year 9 which is ideal as it has a small learning curve. Accessibility of software and ease of use makes it ideal for this project. Students add filters of their choice to enhance their movies. Subtitles and credits are added to complete the movie. Stop Motion Animator, a Google chrome extension is also really good for making simple stop motion movies using webcams.

 

Advanced group: There will always be students who are more able than the others and it’s good to give them a challenge. In the areas of editing, students could try software like Adobe Premiere Pro ( you will need a license for it, but i highly recommend the student version as the Adobe bunch has some fantastic software which syncs up with Creative Cloud). Students can also try green screening their backgrounds as an advanced feature. Composition of music ( Cross curricular) to customize their movies using Sibelius or Garageband ( or tons of other free software on the internet) would be the next step.
Students can finally publish them to a channel they have made for this purpose or a class blog or a channel on Vimeo/Youtube/Schooltube etc. Make sure security settings are appropriately chosen based on what the expectations of the school are.