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.

Micro:bit and Kitronik Buggy kit – User review

At $22 for a Micro:bit which has a Bluetooth, Accelerometer and capacitive touch sensors, I wouldn’t, for a moment, doubt its usefulness in a class as a learning resource. The web-based OS isn’t too bad either as you can program using the block based system or using JavaScript. As it’s a web-based OS, you need to create the program, download it to your computer and then transfer it to the Micro:bit, which shows up as a folder in your My Computer panel (Windows). The short USB micro cable can be a pain if all your front ports are in use but you can get USB extension cables for that purpose.

The assembled Buggy kit with Micro:Bit
The assembled Buggy kit with Micro:Bit

As a practical activity to go alongside the programming, I decided to get the Kitronik buggy kits. These kits are available via Learning Developments NZ for $44.95 NZD (please check latest pricing for correct guide). They are laser cut acrylic pieces that come along with a servo shield and 2 continuous rotation servos. The servos do need to be calibrated prior to installation and can sometimes behave erratically, which means you have to unscrew a few bits before you can reach them.

It took me just under 1.5 hrs to complete the construction ( using the manual and all its practical examples prior to the build, but I was probably slow as I was analyzing it too much and wasting time on YouTube as usual). It probably, in reality, takes about 20-30 mins to put the kit together. Apart from a few cons, I think it’s a good little buggy to have in the class. If you are teaching programming, you could have a number of challenges especially using the onboard arrays. We created a simple obstacle course in class that had student chairs and desks as obstacles and the robots had to make their way around it. Combine with creating an algorithm and flowchart and you can extend their computational thinking skills.

Cons: 1) Nuts are too small to handle and they don’t come with a screwdriver. So, if construction is the intended activity, please ensure you have a bunch of small magnetic Philips head screwdrivers (and possibly a small flat head as well to hold the nut in place, if your fingers are big). I wouldn’t recommend the construction activity with smaller kids.

2) Fine tuning the servo calibration can sometimes be required after assembly so be prepared to pull it apart after installation.

3) Phone app isn’t the most user friendly yet. A lot of bugs especially connecting to the device. Alternatively, there might be other developers who have made apps for the Microbit.

On the whole, I feel they are a good little kit to have in class. Aimed mainly at your primary and intermediate students, and as an introduction to computational thinking course, these nifty little buggies’ can do the job.

Outeach Coordinator role begins!

And so its official! The school holidays, which is a period of rest for most teachers (well, atleast some of it) was my official start to my new role at Victoria University, Wellington as the Outeach Coordinator for School of Computer Science and Engineering. My first assignment was in Samoa, a beautiful island nation in the Pacific. A country with a population of about 190,000 and with the addition of a recently connected Pacific submarine fibre cable, Samoa has a strong scope for developing its younger generation in the field of computing. A lack of existing infrastructure meant that we had to run a lot of programmes offline. Luckily, with the exception of batteries(which we preordered in an electrical shop in Samoa), we were prepared with the gear for the job.

The team comprised of five staff from Victoria, of which 3 were directly involved in setting up a wireless network at the National University of Samoa. Myself and Sue, Manager of the Engineering department were running the outreach. Prior to arrival, schools were notified to send teachers to the University where we were running the Outreach programme. We had a range of activities setup in a computer lab. Scratch was installed to run in offline mode. We had sessions to create basic movements using the drag and drop blocks and then went to some advanced lessons involving loops and variables. The teachers were amazed, especially the ones who haven’t used computers before, with the learning curve of scratch. The second activity was making some bristlebots, an easy offline activity with toothbrushes and motors. We had some issues with the high humidity when using tape as well as some batteries just wouldn’t work. The broaches using the led and coin battery provided the teachers with some food for thought to implement it in their classrooms when teaching about circuits. The MAKE Easy Electronics kit was a success too!
Next week, we went out to different schools to run the same activities with students. We soon realised how under resourced they were, with some schools having just two computers for staff to access. Teaching them about Scratch would be absolutely useless if they cannot access it once we were gone! So once again, we decided to run unplugged activities.
These two weeks have been significant in my teaching practice. I have an personal challenge for myself to be able to come up with a ‘Learning Package’ for the island of Samoa (possibly some other neighbouring islands too) which would assist teachers to get going with using the concept of unplugged activities to get into Engineering and CS.