MakerFaire Wellington and why we need more MakerFaire’s

Sunday 4 November 2018 was officially the first MakerFaire in Wellington. Since I have a subscription with the Make Magazine for a few years now,  I have always been keen to visit one of the bigger MakerFaire’s (NY or SanFran). The MakerFaire, I believe, is where you get to network best with the inventor. You meet interesting people; people who design amazing stuff in their garages while having a full time desk job as well as professionals who do this  for a living. The News coverage covers some aspects of the maker event. As the event gets bigger, we will hopefully have a wider range of makers. 

As part of Outreach, we decided to run a Robot fighting event called Robowars:Code to fight. Unfortunately due to the sheer volume of people expected, we couldn’t teach coding as part of the activity but decided to go for simple controls for the robots which will interest everyone coming. We had Vex IQ robots with a flipper functionality (made by Parvesh), Lego NXT2.0 kits controlled by a Scratch plugin (made for an assessment task by Sanjay), Custom made Arduino robots at University (Courtesty Jason and Arthur) with XBee shields so the robots could be controlled over ‘WASD’ keys, a few ESP32 robots made by the amazing Jack Penman from Paraparaumu College and a free play lego ‘design and build your own battle’ bot area.

We had over 600 visitors to our session and a lot of curious children/parents who wanted to know more about how to code them and starting something similar at their local schools. It was good to share that knowledge with a wider group.

As this event gives opportunities for a very good interaction between Makers and community, I can see the potential for school students to get into ‘making’ which is not usually a part of their regular assessments at school. Students will also learn from makers other than their teachers who are technically proficient in an area of expertise. This could also be a way to build the ‘maker spirit’ in young adults who might be disengaged in education.

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!