Exploring Possibilities with Coding

In my previous post about the Creative Coding class, I spoke about our unit on interactivity. In this unit, we explored different ways that students could interact with the programs they create. The goal was to show students that while most of the work is done sitting at a keyboard and monitor, programming is not restricted to this hardware. In addition, some interactions within programs can lead to interesting effects on the user.

With the knowledge and experience gained from the first unit, students were introduced to a variety of hardware and software they could explore using with their Processing code. This hardware included the Xbox 360 KinectLeapMotion Controller, MaKey MaKey, and Android phones. In addition, students were allowed to use a physics library called Box2D and were free to explore any other library they found that interested them.

The projects created ranged from interactive art installations with MaKey MaKey, planetary physics, collisions of 3D spheres, balancing games using the sensors of an Android phonel, and finger painting with the Kinect. One student, pictured below, used the MaKey MaKey to construct a prototype that would help her figure out the chances for a Astros win during baseball games. The “Astros Chair” contained buttons on the arm rest for various statistical record keeping such as buttons for adjusting runs for either team.

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Learning the words to type and how to create solutions to problems are important criteria for learning to code. Guiding students to explore different hardwares that interface with coding and create experiences with them helps demonstrate the huge impact programming has on the world. Now that they’ve had a chance to explore, we’ll be moving into a 3-week project-based learning unit. Stay tuned!


Student R&D Workshops

As mentioned in a previous post, one of the goals of the Student R&D Maker Task Force is to create, test, and evaluate Maker activities. On that front, this semester’s group is focusing on diversifying the types of making done in the maker space, exposing new students to making, and demonstrating ways making can lead to greater understanding. With this in mind, Student R&D has planned a variety of workshops ranging from introductions to tools in the maker space to 3-hour project builds.

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In our first workshop, held last week, the students of our Student R&D: Maker Task force invited their peers to learn more about the 3D Pens using the newest version from 3Doodler. Our Student R&D members started the workshop by guiding students to choose from a variety of stencils, followed by explaining the different buttons of the 3Doodler as well as common troubleshooting techniques. Afterwards, an exploratory session of drawing, making mistakes, and rejoicing at final projects took place.

Student R&D had a few takeaways after this workshop. Students really love the hipster glasses and lunch is a good time to hold this type of tool introduction workshop. Most of the students that attended during 1st lunch came back the minute 2nd lunch started. In addition, a few students mentioned that the video we created about 3D pens made them excited. These sorts of videos show students what they can expect and what’s possible. It also may have contributed to the hipster glasses trend.

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Posted: November 4th, 2015
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Maker Activity: Circuit Games

This video is part of a series of tutorials for integrating Maker Activities created by myself and John Kilbane at the American School of Bombay.

Add a little excitement to your day by making a circuit game! In this installment of our Maker Activity series, John teaches how to use a simple piezo buzzer circuit to create different types of games.

Posted: October 30th, 2015
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The Impacts of Exploring

Whenever I am learning a new tool or working with new materials, I usually start by looking up a tutorial. When working from a guide, I don’t have to worry so much about failing, figuring out where to start, or creating a final product. But sometimes, I find myself unknowingly relying on guides and forgetting about the possibilities that sometimes arise from just exploring.

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When we work on our maker projects, we often source our materials from different shops online and within a week or so it arrives in the maker space. I’d been told a place called Lamington Road was Mumbai’s #1 place to get electronics components. I’d always wanted to go but, it’s usually way easier and convenient to order online. It wasn’t until I had forgotten to order a component on my list that I actually visited.

When I arrived, I saw a street lined with every type of electronics component you could want, from LEDs to computer motherboards. I spent about 2 hours perusing the wares each storefront had, filling my Google Keep with project ideas and information on components I’d never even heard of!

From this, I was reminded that while It is undeniably easier and more convenient to order things from online or work from a tutorial, sometimes the biggest impacts come from discovering something through exploring. I learned of the many different types of LEDs which helped us improve our LED Constellations activity as well as inspired a new activity we’re running using LEDs in clothing.

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Learning through exploration is the main reason our school maker spaces provide access to a wide variety of tools and materials. This type of learning often leads to student projects like the robotic handsvideo games that interact with you in the physical world, and hanging ball pianos. Lastly, it helps show us in the R&D department what the impacts of our prototypes are and where they show room for improvement.

Posted: October 22nd, 2015
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Making It Matter

Maker Saturday was started with the goal of empowering students with making and tinkering. In an earlier post, we wrote how this year we are focusing specifically on developing a set of “maker skills and dispositions”. One thing we’ve noticed is that some families or children tend to develop an affinity for certain activities. As opposed to varying all of the activities each time, we’re seeing what happens when we use the same activities but alter the challenge.

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Lego Mindstorms
Building robots and tools using Lego Mindstorms is an activity both parents and students love. For the first Maker Saturday we ran an exploratory activity and encouraged free play. We noticed some new interest in Mindstorms and some experimental play from the students and parents that had used Mindstorms before. In addition, one little boy made a controller for his robot which inspired our next activity.

October’s Lego Mindstorms activity involved using prebuilt robots and instead focused on creating and programming ways to control the robot. This activity had very different results. While some focused on creating a controller for their robot, most decided to use a controller that was already built to get their robot through the track. While this developed some interest in robots, it missed the mark on making an impact on maker skill development.

Moving forward, we’re looking towards printing our own manuals and build guides to increase the amount of building that happens with Lego Mindstorms.

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Ozobots
Ozobots are another crowd favorite. September’s Maker Saturday was the first time we unveiled these awesome, line-following robots. We printed out sheets for the commands, covered a big table with white paper, and placed out bins of markers letting parents and students explore. There was a lot of doodling as well as some commands being successfully issued but it needed something.

The next time we held the Ozobots activity we printed out a lot more sheets. This time we not only provided  sheets with commands but examples of racetracks, mazes, and two laptops ready for those willing to code their bots using a Scratch-like programming language. The activity had many visitors with many attempts at different types of racetracks. In addition, a handful of students and parents teamed up to program their Ozobots to move and dance.

We’d like to stress the programming of the Ozobots a little more in future activities.

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Paper Circuits
The first Paper Circuits activity was again, very exploratory. Students and parents experimented with creating circuits using the Circuit Stickers Kit. Different types of circuits were created from greeting cards to glowing robot eyes. The engagement was there but some creations were very similar. With experience running the station and a love of stars,John Kilbane had a great idea for the next iteration.

LED Constellations directed students and parents to create their favorite Astronomic images. This activity was made to show a different way of using the circuits to create things. It inspired many constellations with some students experimenting in creating tiaras. There was even a student who was so engaged they spent their entire 2 hours at the activity.

This activity is becoming a lot more popular and we’re looking into how to incorporate it into activities that help students use these circuits in more novel ways. We also think this may help generate an interest in soldering.

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Keeping Some Variety
While we varied the ways we challenged our students and parents in our other activities we still feel it is important to add new activities. We’re keen on incorporating soldering into a Maker Saturday activity as well as different activities that promote robotics, programming, engineering and so on. In addition, this past Maker Saturday had an activity encouraging the use of creativity by building with cardboard as part of The Global Cardboard Challenge.

For more information about Maker Saturday, how it is organized, and the activities we run, check out our chapter in Future Forwards Vol 3.

Posted: October 16th, 2015
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Maker Activity: LED Constellations

This video is part of a series of tutorials for integrating Maker Activities created by myself and John Kilbane at the American School of Bombay.

Looking for some fun and easy maker activities that can be done at home or school? Maker doesn’t always need to be creating robots or vehicles. Learn how to make a constellation of LEDs with this simple guide.

Posted: October 9th, 2015
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They say, “Timing is Everything”

While iterating on your prototypes is important, it’s also important to pay close attention to the timing and the space you and your team are in. This week’s Student R&D meeting was especially interesting, but first I’d like to bring you back to last semester’s Maker task force.

Spring 2015 Goals (Past)

  • Gain understanding in why Maker and Engineering are needed
  • Find and evaluate maker products that could benefit education
  • Create, test, and evaluate the usefulness of maker activities
  • Research and prototype new hands on ways to learn
  • Written evaluations and prototypes of research
  • Work with StuCo to help design and run HS Maker Challenges

Above are the goals we had for Spring 2015. We wanted to empower students by taking them through the process we use to develop maker and give them a say in what we do and how we do it. Last semester started off strong with the group designing and hosting a large maker challenge for the entire 9th and 10th grades. As we progressed, we noticed a drop in the enthusiasm of our student team. We discovered the students were more interested in making than they were in researching, planning, and running different maker activities and prototypes. We used these learnings to outline our goals for the Fall semester.

Fall 2015 Goals

  • Look at problems around ASB that can be fixed using Maker
  • Make a project prototype that attempts to solve a problem
  • Work with school administration to make the prototype real

Which brings us back to this week’s meeting. The Student R&D team sat around a table in the lower library discussing different wicked problems students face at ASB. After 30 minutes, we were getting ready to wrap up our extensive list when one student said, “I think we should have additional maker challenges outside of advisory period.” This comment unleashed a flurry of maker-related problems ranging from ways we could improve the makerspace, to events and challenges we should run. By the end of the conversation, there had been interest in every goal of last semester’s task force. Which brings us to our new, new goals for Fall 2015.

Fall 2015 Goals

  • Look at problems around ASB that can be fixed using Maker
  • Make a project prototype that attempts to solve a problem
  • Work with school administration to make the prototype real
  • Gain understanding in why Maker and Engineering are needed
  • Find and evaluate maker products that could benefit education
  • Create, test, and evaluate the usefulness of maker activities
  • Written evaluations and prototypes of research
  • Design and run HS Maker Challenges

As you can see, these are pretty much the goals of last semester’s Maker task force. I’ve spent a couple of days thinking about why and how this happened as well as speaking to colleagues about it. We’ve determined that Maker was in a different space for our students last semester; they were still exploring it and looking for more experience in making. Now that they have more experience making, they’re in a space where they want a part in owning that experience. Last semester’s goals were ahead of their time.

With our new(ish?) goals in place, we’re ready to move forward in making meaningful activities, deepening understanding of Maker, and improving the maker experiences for everyone. Stay tuned for updates.

Posted: October 9th, 2015
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An Update from the Creative Coding Class

Today marks the start of a new unit in Creative Coding in which we explore a variety of different ways that programming can interact both inside and outside of the computer. An example of a project that would fit into this unit comes from last year’s Making the Future class. A student created a game in which the player is being interrogated and upon answering questions incorrectly the player would be “zapped” through a bracelet.

A game project that a student created, using his favorite game as inspiration.
A game project that a student created, using his favorite game as inspiration.

In the previous unit, the students learned the basics of programming and used their knowledge to create projects they were interested in. We saw a variety of projects including a video game in which the player controlled a broom and had to sweep up as much dirt as possible. One student, worked on creating a simulation of a solar system with controls to allow many different planets and even give them their own moons! Other projects ranged from implementations of John Conway’s Game of Life to an elevator simulator to a project showcasing the flags of different countries.

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Student’s Game titled, “Wizard Battle”, inspired by her love of the Harry Potter books.

Being able to pick their own projects has not only helped intrinsically motivate the students, but has led to projects they have invested countless hours in perfecting while learning and applying concepts from Math, Science, and Art. As we move into the new unit, some students are already expressing how much they want to create a program using the Xbox Kinect after being inspired by this youtube video. In addition, this semester’s students have been challenged to make interactions that people have never seen before.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more updates!


Creating Successful Challenges in Making

A few weeks ago, we started hosting this year’s Maker Challenges during a 30-minute block of time in our high school student’s schedules. Upon preparing, we asked ourselves, “What makes a great maker challenge?” We came to the conclusion that to have a successful challenge in such a short amount of time, the activity should fit the following criteria:

  • Everyone can contribute by sharing in the thinking and making
  • The challenge enables students to succeed quickly.
  • There is not just one right answer.
  • It applies something “complicated” in a simple way.

Circuit Games Challenge
Last week, we ran a challenge designed around these criteria. The challenge was to “Create a game that makes a sound using the buzzer when a player wins or loses.” The inclusion of a piezo buzzer means the students will not only have to assemble a circuit but they must create it in such a way that it completes upon a game’s win or lose condition. The students were shown an example of a game that fulfills the challenge’s requirements, which assisted in removing some knowledge barriers (i.e. how to connect a circuit).

A two player Soccer shootout game created during the challenge.
A two player Soccer shootout game created during the challenge.

When we ran this activity, we noticed that students were engaged, collaborating, and excited about the prototypes they were creating. As we viewed students working, one group was figuring out how to create a moveable goalie, another worked on making a shoe that can complete a circuit, and a group of girls wondered how to make their maze more exciting. We’ve seen examples of whack a mole, fishing, field goal kicking, soccer, and ring toss.  Our favorite creation this time came from a group that attached one side of the circuit to a conductive hopscotch board with the other side to the player’s shoe. If the player touched the lines everyone would hear the piezo buzzing.

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Students analyze their hopscotch game minutes before judging begins.

This challenge has had full engagement, collaboration, and excitement each time we’ve run it. It has set the bar for what we expect all of our maker challenges to look like. We’re now focused on finding more ways to apply some of the  “complicated” concepts students learn in simple ways. In addition, we hope to refine the criteria that we believe makes a perfect challenge. Stay tuned.

If you’re interested in making your own circuit game with a buzzer you can find a great how to from Instructables here and here.

Posted: September 17th, 2015
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Drawing Life with Programming

The word artificial intelligence often prompts images of robots, self driving cars, or maybe even IBM’s Watson computer. These are all great instances of really complex AI but, there is also a version of AI referred to as “dumb” or simple AI that often goes unnoticed.

Cellular automaton simulation programmed using John Conway’s Game of Life rules. (Wikipedia)

In our Creative Coding class, a group of students are investigating cellular automata (CA), one example of a model that uses simple AI. Natural cellular automata create the patterns seen on some seashells; a pattern that can be resembled using a CA with a simple set of rules. Upon hearing this information, one student exclaimed, “YOU CAN DO THIS WITH PROGRAMMING?!?!” The class continued talking aloud about how cool programming is because it can connect to so many of the topics they learn about in other classes. But hold on, what exactly is a cellular automaton?

A cellular automaton is a model of “cells”. Each of the cells lives on a grid, has a state, and has neighboring cells around them. The easiest way to visualize this is by imagining graph paper. The squares represent a cell, whether the square is filled with pencil or not represents its state, and its surrounding squares are neighbors. A rule or set of rules is then applied to each cell and its’ neighbors to produce a new set of cells with states derived from those rules. The result often times is a program that “lives”. The most famous example, comes from mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life, which he explains in the video below.

You can learn more about about the applications of cellular automata to Science from Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science and creating cellular automata in Processing from The Nature of Code.