My CMK15 Reflections

I was invited by Gary Stager to participate as a fellow at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2015 in beautiful ManchVegas, New Hampshire. This was the fourth time I attended CMK, the first as a fellow. As a fellow I was responsible for making sure participants felt supported, built skills as they became necessary during the course of their constructions, and established connections with one another to create wonderful things.

First off, I was extremely humbled to participate in CMK as a fellow. It was truly an honor and privilege, as well as a recognition of my past contributions to CMK, to be selected as a fellow. It gave me the opportunity to help others with projects, instead of focusing on my own work. The first day I felt really out of my element. Many projects seemed intent on using the Arduino, a microcontroller that I just recently started learning about. It is not that the Arduino did not interest me. I worked with elementary aged students for that past seven years, and I used technologies I felt were more accessible to them with minimal or no scaffolding, such as Logo programming, LEGO engineering, or painting with light. I was of no use troubleshooting various driver issues with the Arduinos and the participants' laptops.

However, some projects I was useful to have around to help. First, the musical loom. 

This group decided early to use heavy conductive thread, cardboard, beads, and the MaKey MaKey to create a loom that would play notes when the user used the loom to assemble a woven piece of art. At the time they used SoundPlant to record each note. I suggested they take a look at Scratch but they already had part of the SoundPlant project working so they had something with which to continue troubleshooting. Later on, however, I asked them what the screen was going to do when the loom was played. Scratch made the sounds, but what was stopping them from making the screen do something as well, so long as the laptop was sitting there? Also, they figured out it was easier to make the sounds with Scratch because of the built-in piano keyboard. We took a photo of the loom with the laptop's camera, and we discussed perhaps changing the color effect each time a note was played. They reconstructed their project in Scratch. It turned out beautifully, and it sounded great as it was used.

Another project I helped with grew from one of the project brainstorming ideas that I threw into the ring. Gary did not seem to object to a fellow offering a suggestion, so I offered the possibility of constructing a printing press. I thought recently about different printing techniques perhaps involving 3D printing, so I was intrigued with the idea of a printing press.

Yumi, Chris, and Alix all decided to work on this project. I did not want to lead the project, so I offered some initial ideas and a couple of parts. 

I provided them with an 18 inch long piece of 3/4" PVC pipe. I also gave them two 3D printed pipe "caps" that fit the inner diameter of the pipe. I threw in a welding rod that fit snuggly but loose enough to fit in the inner hole of the cap.

They ended up buying much more PVC and building a combination printing press and embosser. Different "rings" could be put on the large roller to change the pattern or print.

This ring for the large roller was 3D printed on a Form1+ SLA 3D printer.

Embossing ring and foam letters inked with a felt pen for printing.

This project was inspiring, and I plan on constructing a press based on their first iteration.

I also helped with a MaKey MaKey musical instrument project by again suggesting the screen do something when the instrument was used. 

Now, the cat announced the name of the note. The instrument gained the extra dimension of also being a musical education tool to help you associate the note's name with its place on the musical staff. 

I also had the opportunity to assist with the mechanics of a couple incredible automata. First, a chicken!

I also suggested this maker use the LEGO WeDo worm gear gearbox to power her automata because of its low gearing and unstoppable strength. This is the most beautiful automata I have ever seen in person. 

I also taught a group how to construct an air gap switch that could be stepped on to trigger a sound tour inspired by "Our Town" and programmed in Scratch, and I taught them how to use variables in Scratch to prevent Scratch from replaying the sample while the switch is stood on. 

Every project inspired me at CMK15. I was so impressed with what teachers can accomplish given the time, space, and support to play intensely. I cannot single out any one project more than another that did not impress with with its complexity, the way it engaged its users, its originality, and the personalized touches that each maker gave to the construction.

I did have a series of incredible, purpose and method affirming conversations with Brian Silverman, creator of most every major release of the Logo programming language, and his partner Artemis Papert, an amazing artist and the daughter of Seymour Papert. 

Brian patched the Linux version of TurtleArt for me to fix a bug with the SoundPulse driver (argh!: foiled yet again by SoundPulse). Artemis gave me two gifts that I will forever treasure, a set of TurtleArt coloring books and two sets of TurtleArt cards. They are beautiful math problems represented in art. 

I joined Brian, Artemis, and their daughter Jasmine while they ate breakfast the last morning of CMK for a conversation about programming; Brian's future plans for Logo programming; my pedagogy; and my TurtleArt Islamic Tile project as a fine example of a math problem, not a programming problem. I was blown away by his respect for what I am trying to do with education; his inclusion of me in a group of people doing meaningful, exciting work with Logo; and his willingness to share with me a couple of exciting Logo projects I will write about in future posts.

There is one issue with the Maker movement that I saw at CMK15 that I would like to address. Many of the skills being explored and built in schools, libraries, homes, and maker spaces involve hardware. Some is pedestrian, like cardboard, aluminum foil, fabric. The complexity quickly ramps up to programmable LEGO, microcontrollers, robots, 3D printers, scanners, body recognition. It is amazing, off the shelf consumer to prosumer grade hardware that people are able to learn to use at a level fast approaching mastery in a short, intense period of time. It blew my mind in more than one way.

However, I noted a lack of desire to explore some pretty amazing software that was on offer. Notably, TurtleArt got very little notice even though the programmer and the most amazing artist who uses the software were there all four days! Additionally, Dr. Cynthia Soloman, one of the inventors of Logo, also was there to provide opportunities to use Logo to learn about learning. Brian Silverman offered me the following nuggets of wisdom. Learning to program in Logo is not about learning to code, which is the hot term and pursuit nowadays in educational technology. Learning to program in Logo is about learning to think algorithmically. Learning to think algorithmically is learning how to express a sequence of things that express over time.

Mind literally blown.

I believe that some people think that if they amass a collection of hardware they have a makerspace: a 3D printer, perhaps a laser cutter, drawers of Arduino and shields. You cannot buy a makerspace. A makerspace grows out of the talents and passions of individuals who congregate to share their skills and labor to create wonderful, imaginative things. There exists powerful and inexpensive to free software that allow children and adults to think about thinking, Papert's original intent with Logo. To skip software like TurtleArt and believe you need to have an expensive collection of hardware tools that you might not necessarily know how you are going to use misses a great opportunity to provide equitable learning opportunities. Remember the disparity that exists in the maker community about which Dr. Leah Beuchley spoke.

I am so excited by the prospect of exploring Logo in a new way that Brian shared with me at CMK. I am waiting for some parts to arrive to construct my own, but I have to share with you photos of Brian's Light Ring on an Arudino, and a laptop running a version of Logo called LightLogo. The turtle is one, or all, of those programmable neopixels. A MicroWorld that lets us get back to text programming, Brian tells me.

Here is the turtle when it first enters the MicroWorld.

Forward 5. Change color blue. Forward 5.

Dots demo. The pattern changes over time.

This is the most exciting, powerful software idea in a long time. I am so excited to be a part of it.

Well, those are my 2 cents on Constructing Modern Knowledge. Again, it was an honor to be selected as a fellow this year and I thank Gary (and Sylvia) for the opportunity and privilege. If you are serious about changing the paradigm of your teaching, consider applying for next year's Constructing Modern Knowledge institute.


Erik N. said…
Josh I was surprised to hear you say you were humbled when you told me. My thought was, "how is that possible, such a talented, accomplished, and knowledgeable person?" I understand the Arduino thing. It is one tool among many, albeit one people think they should be using when something simpler would suffice. I was thinking about it long after. I think you have a special and important approach to making, in that you find reasons to make things sparked of pure human interest in history, science, math and culture, an approach that often lies outside the classroom but shouldn't, that recognizes learning is not just about how to do something but why you would do it, why did other people do it, what connects you to them? Your scratch record player, dream machine, 3d printed shells, crystal radio, all of it allowing you and others to make those connections with the natural and human world. And it sounds like you were able to bring that holistic thinking to groups as you helped them with their projects. I hope this makes sense. It's allowing rich connections to be made through the act of making that is such a great thing you bring to it, Arduino or no!
Josh Burker said…
Thanks, Erik, for your thoughtful response.