Thursday, November 19, 2015

Turtle Blocks Club: Progressing from Bits to Atoms

The Turtle Blocks after school club students' participation fluctuates from week to week, but our first big project is coming to an end with almost everybody completing it.

This summer I was fortunate to meet Dr. Sherry Lassiter, director of the Fab Foundation, when I toured MIT's Media Lab with Constructing Modern Knowledge. 


Dr. Lassiter spoke about the establishment of Fab Labs around the world and the transformational learning that occurs at each location. She spoke of the importance of moving projects from bits, on the computer, to atoms, in the physical world, through fabrication such as 3D printing, circuitry, laser cutting, and myriad other technologies.

I was very inspired by her talk and went on to facilitate two projects about personal fabrication in workshops for students. Both workshops involved programming designs in Turtle Blocks. One workshop transformed their digital designs into 3D printed stamps for stamping Play-Doh. The other workshop's designs transitioned from bits to atoms by etching them in rubber with a laser cutter and building rubber stamps. Afterwards, I wrote a paper that was accepted and published by RED, Revista de EducaciĆ³n a Distancia, Going from Bits to Atoms: Programming in Turtle Blocks JS and Personal Fabrication in Youth Maker Projects.

I wanted to run a similar project with Turtle Blocks Club as a way of teaching these students that their designs could progress from digital to material. I chose our first fabrication project to be iron-on designs. They could be printed on the inkjet printer I owned, the paper was not too expensive for me to purchase (because teachers often buy supplies out of their own pockets), and the resulting t-shirts or sweatshirts would be walking advertisements for the students' programming prowess.

Only once the students were comfortable programming in Turtle Blocks did I announce that they could program a design to turn into an iron-on. This way they were not rushing to produce a design simply to have a design. By the time I mentioned this idea the students had each experimented with at least two designs. 

The quality of the students' designs and the time they took to refine their work was commendable.

This design was a collaborative effort. I liked the original design and remixed it. He liked my remix and wanted another smaller version in the center. He worked on it really hard and succeeded!

This student has not attended every club. However, early on he developed a vocabulary of shapes and designs that he refined into a complicated design that will look cool on a t-shirt.

This student joined on week three. He quickly caught himself up and developed this striking design.

This student does not always attend club but he "gets it." His design is incredibly complex without being messy. 

This project was a big hit with the students, who were excited to see their own artwork on clothing. People often associate "making" with expensive technology such as 3D printers or laser cutters. Sometimes, the most powerful and personal projects can grow out of a hi-low tech approach.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Testing False Theories on the Marble Machine

I have been thinking quite seriously about Papert's ideas about how children construct knowledge of the world, particularly what he calls "false theories" (132). 

Our educational system rejects the "false theories" of children, thereby rejecting the way children really learn. And it also rejects discoveries that point to the importance of the false-theory learning path. Piaget has shown that children hold false theories as a necessary part of the process of learning to think. The unorthodox theories of young children are not deficiencies or cognitive gaps, they serve as ways of flexing cognitive muscles, of developing and working through the necessary skills needed for more orthodox theorizing. Educators distort Piaget's message by seeing his contribution as revealing that children hold false beliefs, which they, the educators, must overcome. This makes Piaget-in-the-schools a Piaget backward—backward because children are being force-fed "correct" theories before they are ready to invent them. And backward because Piaget's work puts into question the idea that the "correct" theory is superior as a learning strategy (132-133).
I wish to further explore in a later post my thoughts about creating projects for learners that promote testing of false theories over working on a "uniform" and "correct" theory about how to accomplish a goal. However, I think that this evening's learning adventure with my son gave me the opportunity to start putting some of my thoughts into action, or non-action, as I will demonstrate.

First, with three exceptions my son led this learning adventure and the placement of objects on the Marble Machine. The first exception was initially helping him get the dowels inserted through both layers of the peg board. I did this to prevent frustration from ramps or tubes falling off dowels that were not level. Within a few minutes he was accomplishing this on his own. My second exception was showing him how he could hold things in place on the dowels against the Marble Machine by attaching clothes pins to the dowels.

He determined the placement of the materials. We did not dump out the box of ramps, tubes, clothes pins, tape, and other upcycled materials because it was close to his bedtime. Instead, he dug through the box, handling each piece and considering its placement on the Marble Machine. The facility of swapping out pieces contributed to the ease of iteration.

Some materials in the box became unexpected additions. This piece of trim, for example, became a pointer that he could use to draw attention to parts of the Marble Machine.

Interestingly, he found the PDF of the Exploratorium build instructions and declared that he found the "directions." He spent a minute looking through the pages (he cannot read).

After consideration of the "directions," he declared he needed a bent tube by stating he knew what part he needed and pointing to its photo. We don't have one of those, but I asked him if we could bend anything that we did have.

It took a minute and a little prompting, but he decided a foam tube had flexibility. I offered to bend it for him, my third exception to him leading the project and testing his false theories. I knew that it would take a little experimenting to get the proper amount of curve to the foam tube that still allowed the marble to pass through it and bedtime was very close, followed closely by tiredness and frustration.

I took several iterations for dad to get the foam tube bent so the marble consistently entered and exited without getting caught in the bend.

With that it was time for him to go to bed. More engineering another day!

Here are my observations on this learning adventure:

  • He chose to take on this learning adventure, so he had personal investment in the challenge.
  • I have yet to offer any challenge. He seems to think that the marble should be traveling from the top of the peg board to the bottom on a series of ramps and tubes, but I have not stated any goal.
  • "Limiting" the choices of materials by keeping them in their storage box encouraged him to consciously choose different objects after consideration. Instead of an overwhelming collection, he handled each object he experimented with using in his Marble Machine. Handling the objects increases fluency of use.
  • Offering very few suggestions encouraged him to iterate more than if I offered suggestions, as in previous projects. Perhaps suggestions are interpreted as the "correct" way to do something? Maybe the suggestions are too difficult for him to understand or build on his own?
  • Knowing when to intervene, as in the case of leveling the dowels early in the build (a skill he quickly picked up) or bending the foam tube, helped keep his momentum and allowed him to continue iterating the design of other parts of the Marble Machine that he was more comfortable or able to work on.
How do you help learners test their false theories?

Works Cited: 

Papert, Seymour (1993). Mindstorms Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Drawdio Container Garden

Jaymes Dec did me a favor and laser cut me a Drawdio Holder, which helps protect the Drawdio board since you do not have to strap the board itself to your wand, pencil, or jacket

Lately my four year old son and I have been working on short projects that help him express himself through media as well as to test his theories of how the world works. We might use Play-Doh one day to stamp designs and shapes. Another day we might use his easel and a roll of paper with crayons, aluminum foil, conductive copper tape, and glue, along with Scratch and his XO laptop, to capture his observations and the sounds he heard on his first field trip.

As our container garden shuts down for the winter, I got an idea for a project to turn the container garden into an instrument using Jay Silver's Drawdio. I wondered if connecting the Drawdio directly to the soil would then let me play the plants?

Short pieces of wire were put in the soil about an inch deep. The other end of the wire was connected to an alligator clip. The three alligator clips, one for each container within the container garden, were in turn clipped to a longer wire that led to the Drawdio. A second set of alligator clips was connected to the other end of the Drawdio for the musicians to hold.

The Drawdio holder worked particularly well because the alligator clips could connect to the paper clips instead of the Drawdio board.

The most difficult part for these young musicians was making sure they were holding on to the metal part of the alligator clip. This was simplified by sliding the silicon cover back from the clip to expose more metal.

When our friends came over my son taught them how to play plant music, too.

Although they are too young to realize it, these boys are testing their theories about conductivity, resistance, pressure, and sound.

This project helped crystalize my understanding of Jay Silver's concept of the world as a construction set. By using his Drawdio, we were able to "hack" the container garden to play music in a way simple enough for three and four year olds to quickly understand. Different plants made different pitched sounds. Squeezing harder raised the tone. I particularly loved the stems from the pepper plants and basil I already cut down: touching them is like touching a button which produces a crazy sound! We entered into a different relationship with the container and the garden, which provided a home for the plants that nourished it, by performing a requiem, as it were, on the remaining plants. Touching the herbs, my son noted, released wonderful scents, adding to the sensory experience lacking from tapping on a glass screen. 

Get outside before it is too cold, hack your world and make it do whimsical, beautiful things!

Monday, October 26, 2015

"Cheating," Piracy and Invention

My mom mentioned a post on Facebook about the Turtle Blocks after school club and a student who was hiding his iPhone during club. I half expected that he was off task: he was new to the club on week three and was not engaged with the other two new students to learn some basics. As I approached him he tried to hide what he was looking at, which further piqued my interest. It turns out he googled Turtle Blocks and ended up on the project's github page, then tracked down a graphic of a couple of procedures.

His clubmates erupted in shaming him for getting caught. 

I told him a couple of things. 
  • It wasn't copying, it was remixing.
  • He was clever for finding this information, but I worried he was jumping really far ahead without understanding the blocks (he asked where the "pop" block was, for example).
  • I hoped that as he assembled the procedures he would be able to explain to me at some point why the procedure does what it does.
The students all immediately grasped the idea of remixing: the student who was "caught" was proud he was remixing what he hoped (but had no idea) would be a cool procedure that would put his clubmates to shame. 

Here is Young Guru from PopTech 2012, which I fortunately attended, addressing hip-hop culture, constructing instruments when you do not have the money to buy your own or take music lessons, "Piracy and Invention."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

3D Printed Sugar Skull Stamp

Twitter is great at providing collaborative possibilities. After @zackboston and I collaborated around a LEGO WeDo SpinArt 'Bot design, I jumped at the chance to work with her again.

I wanted to play with Tom Burtonwood's idea of 3D printed Play-Doh stamps and the Sugar Skull. I downloaded a good Sugar Skull from Thingiverse and made a prototype stamp. ZackBoston sent me the graphic she uses in her events and I went to work.

First, I created a mask of the skull shape by editing the graphic in Paintbrush and coloring it entirely black.

The mask was easily converted to an SVG with Online-Convert

I tried to be clever and invert the skull design in Online-Convert but the conversion lost details. I reverted to doing the work manually with a combination of Inkscape and Tinkercad

I wanted the black parts of the drawing to be what gets depressed by the stamp. When I finished my work I had a really awesome looking sugar skull design ready for download.

I downloaded the model and scaled it slightly to fill the bed of my Thing-O-Matic.

The details looked awesome as the first layer was 3D printed.

The finished model printed beautifully.

I put together a roller with a piece of PVC tubing, a welding rod, and 3D printed end caps.

The stamp made an excellent impression.

Try riffing on somebody's idea and remixing it: you both might be surprised by where you end up!

Update: Right after I posted, ZackBoston remixed the design further, using it as a stamp on paper and fabric!

How will you remix the project?