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.

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

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.

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.

Every DIT teacher’s handy USB kit

The annoying thing I do now (since the advent of Google search) is Google everything. Even when I have downloaded the files recently! ( I know I have downloaded it because when the next file downloads, it shows as filename(1).fileextension) Hence the need of keeping a set of USB stick drives which have all the software, especially install files.

I have a few USB stick drives collected over time. The first one has image files (.iso files) for all operating systems that I use across the school. They are loaded on the USB using Yumi Multi-Boot software and makes life real simple to install an operating system. All you have to do is load up boot menu at the start and set USB as first choice boot and then follow instructions from there. School machines have been downgraded to Windows 7 (64bit) from stock supplied Windows 10 at this stage.

The next USB has all important software like VLC(video file player), Chrome installer, Google drive, Adobe package, Office package and all the other course related software like Eclipse ( for Java), Brackets ( for HTML/CSS), Lego Mindstorm software, etc. Google chrome webstore has some really good software for stop frame animation ( which I will talk about in the next section), storyboarding apps, project management apps and tons of easy to use apps/games for the browser. I am unsure at this stage of the effect of number of apps on the running of the browser but it’s working fine for now with about 10 apps.