Tag Archives: circuits

Book Review :: Making Simple Robots

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

Making Simple Robots by Kathy Ceceri.

Making Simple Robots by Kathy Ceceri.

Ages: teens – adults
Ceceri, Kathy. Make: Making Simple Robots: Explore Cutting-Edge Robotics with Everyday Stuff. MakerMedia: Sebastpol, CA, 2015.

A few weeks ago, I picked up this book at the library. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much, but the author caught my interest when she mentioned that many robot books can be a let down. They are often too advanced or so simple that they don’t teach much. Those are my thoughts exactly! I was happily surprised when I started the first chapter and couldn’t put it down.

I became engrossed with the description of shape-changing robots and found myself eager to try out her simple, yet advanced project on how to demonstrate the concept. This is especially relevant for me because I am in the process of working on a ‘electronic paper’ course for this summer. Suffice it to say, I ended up reading the entire book in one day!

Table of Contents from the book, Making Simple Robots.

Table of Contents from the book, Making Simple Robots.

Ceceri’s book is well-organized and perfect for the beginner robot scientist. She clearly makes the distinction between a robot (which uses sensors and must be programmed) and a machine (which much be operated by someone else).

I especially loved her simple designs, real-world uses and accompanying explanations. This book is written for individuals who are interested in a variety of ‘robots.’ She covers topics on automated paper, BEAM robots and introduces the concept of e-textiles, which can include sewn electronics – a favorite topic of mine.  With each new piece of technology, she includes a real-life connection. Many of these research projects take place at universities and are still in the design phase, but it helps for students to make real-world connections that are so often lacking in school.

A sample robot project. Picture from Kathy Ceceri's book, Making Simple Robots.

A sample robot project using LittleBits. Picture from Kathy Ceceri’s book, Making Simple Robots. See it in action.

Since the purpose of this book is to whet your appetite for robotics, some of the projects use material short-cuts. Some of these shortcuts include using LittleBits to overcome the hurdles of having to hard-wire or hard code advanced technology such as Arduino. This can make some of the projects quite pricey, but it’s a guide for you to explore the variety of options in robotics. As for those naysayers who complain that they don’t want to purchase a 3-D printer, check out your local library or college. We are fortunate to live close to the University of Florida and the science and education libraries allow you to upload a 3-D printing file and pay to print it out – no need to purchase an entire 3-D printer.

Overall, this book is a great place to begin if you and your child aren’t sure where to start with your robotics adventure. Although the book is geared toward teens and young adults, there is no reason an adult couldn’t help a younger student with some of the projects.

In conclusion, I loved the book. It showed me a wide variety of robots – many of which I didn’t know about and would never have discovered on my own. I already have plans to incorporate some of the accentuated paper robots into my summer classes and I can’t wait to get my hands on her new book about Paper Circuits.

Accentuated Paper project.

Accentuated Paper project from Kathy Ceceri’s book, Making Simple Robots.

 

 

 

Book Review :: Batteries and Bulbs II

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published every Friday. These reviews will cover computer programming books aimed at children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

From Batteries and Bulbs II - make a street light

From Batteries and Bulbs II – make a model street light

Ages 7 and up
Education Development Center. Batteries and Bulbs II: An Electrical Gadget Suggestion Book. Elementary Science Study. McGraw Hill: New York, 1969.
This very old, musty-smelling book has been loads of fun for me these past few weeks. In fact, as I picked it up from the library (on Interlibrary Loan – which means they had to borrow it from another library), the librarians were chuckling at my gleeful gasp as I grabbed it and started looking it over.

From the late 1960s

From the late 1960s

During the first week of my Tinkering class, my kids wanted to know more about electricity and batteries and how to make more things work. And I will admit, I am not a good “discover it by accident” kind of person. I like to have some resources and I like to try it the “safe” way and then I want to get at it and tinker. I am impatient. I’m trying to fix that. Truly.

This book and its predecessor, Batteries and Bulbs, were recommended by the Exploratorium as a resource for kids who were interested in learning more about circuits. Although I didn’t get to look at Batteries and Bulbs, this second book offers some extensions to our homemade circuit blocks. And, it has some really basic designs with items that would have been found in the 1960s – like creating a connection with a cut away piece from a tin can. (Oh, the Tetanus horrors)!

Love that there is NO mention of going to RadioShack for parts!

Love that there is NO mention of going to RadioShack for parts!

Since I wasn’t able to get Batteries and Bulbs I or II at my local library, I did pick out a few juvenile books on electricity. I found this book quite helpful. It was simple, but not boring, and nicely illustrated.

How to make a homemade bulb holder.

How to make a homemade bulb holder.

Marker Bots :: How We Did It

In case the “how to” guide from The Exploratorium (PDF or Instructables)  isn’t detailed enough, I thought I would share how I facilitated our scribble bot experience. Don’t mistake this as the only way to present this activity…just our way.

Scribble Bots - Take 2.

Scribble Bots – Take 2.

1.Gather your materials.
You want to encourage as much self-discovery and creativity as possible, so gather as many craft/office supply items as you have around the house. It doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out how they might be used, your children will surprise you.

Supplies needed:
– markers
– single AA batteries
1.5-3 V battery with wires attached*
hot glue stick, cut into various lengths**
– masking tape (or painters tape)
– thick rubber bands (that hold together broccoli)
alligator clips (in case your wires break) or for extra reach
– recycled containers, plastic cups, strawberry baskets, etc.
– twist ties, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, paper clips, clothespins, mini-cocktail umbrellas, etc.
– newspaper (or big paper, old cardboard boxes) to scribble on

* There might be other places to buy these from, but many of the electronic places (Radio Shack) sell them without the attached wires. You have to solder them on yourselves. If you aren’t up for that, order a bunch of these from Kelvin since they are so cheap, but the shipping is expensive. Plus, the wires pop off pretty easily and you might want some backups.

**We made our counterweight with a hot glue stick, but other suggestions includes balsa wood and playdough. All of these things can be stuck to the motor pretty easily by hand.

marker_bot_suppliesAt this point, you may want to make a few examples (see how to below) for the kids to understand the concept of a scribble bot. Be sure and make all sorts of different examples since the kids will often try and mimic your creations before moving onto their own designs.

Some supplies - paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

Some supplies – paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

2. Prepare your environment.
In this case, our environment was the dining room table. While the kids were playing after lunch, I cleaned off the table, laid down newspapers and butcher roll paper and brought out all of the markers, odd bits and clean recycled containers I could find. I’m not sure if this means we have a crafty household or are leaning toward pack-ratishness, but I had all of these materials on hand.

I put the smaller supplies into baskets (or bowls) that were easy for us to access. Each had a space to test their creations. There were two rolls of masking tape between the four of us. You need at least one roll for every two students.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.


3. Place a battery, motor and thick rubber band in front of each chair. Call the kids.

The first thing that you want the kids to discover is how to make the motor work with the battery. See if they can figure it out. Be patient. Very patient. Ask questions until they get it.

If they are getting frustrated, show them how to hold the wires on either side of the battery to make a compete circuit. Add the rubberband around the battery to hold the wires in place. You now have an easy way to turn your motor on and off.

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

The wires on the battery are a bit flimsy and can easily break off from the kids pulling too much or from the vibration of the motor. One option was to purchase small heat-shrink tubes (for electronics) that can be found at hardware stores and use a hair dryer or lighter to shrink them onto your wires. I used a lighter and didn’t get as close to the motor as I should so they still popped off, but a hair dryer (or heat gun) should do quite nicely. Or, get yourself some alligator clips/leads and use those when the wires snap off.

4. Show them the examples or watch a video. Or don’t.
There’s a lot of debate about whether to show examples or just hand them a motor and some markers and just suggest that they make a bot that scribbles. You decide.

My kids and I watched a video from my course and they started out copying the design of some of the kids from the Exploratorium, but then moved on and modified or made their own creations as they gained confidence. You can see what we made here and here. You can always do a web search to find more examples.

5. Add your counterweight.
The hot glue stick is meant to be the counterweight to propel the motor and thus create a scribbling bot. The kids will need to experiment with many different sizes of weights, angles of markers, etc.

Let the child decide which way to add the glue stick to the motor. Push the hot glue stick onto the motor (while it’s off). An adult’s muscle may be needed for this part.

marker_bot_motor

If the wires break off, use wired alligator clips to connect to the battery.

6. Design the bot.
Let them go and design away. Resist the urge to help them or fix it for them. If you see that something is obviously not going to work – that’s okay. Let them do it anyway. As long as they aren’t harming themselves (or the furniture), it will be a fabulous lesson in testing and re-testing…not to mention a good dose of growth mindset with regards to trial and error. Feel free to step in if you see tears on the horizon. You don’t want them to be frustrated, but you do want it to be their experience.

7. Listen.
Listen as your child describes their bot. Ask them about their design and their thought process. “Why did you decide to add the tape there? Your marker color choices are very interesting…how did you decide on those colors?”

8. Reflect. Later.
A few days later…or the following week, casually bring up the activity and discuss ways that you might do things differently. Are there any other things in your house that you could turn into a scribble bot? How else might you use a motor and battery? How is your fan powered? Your alarm clock powered? etc. What other everyday items use batteries?

Want to try again? Do you think we could work with watercolors or oil pastels? Do you think we could make a special type of pattern? The possibilities are endless.

Daddy's scribble bot made a pretty design.

Daddy’s scribble bot made a pretty design.

The end of our second time making scribble bots - this time we experimented with crazy designs...that didn't always work.

The end of our second time making scribble bots – this time we experimented with crazy designs…that didn’t always work.

Update: For those teachers that want to incorporate more free-form activities, but aren’t sure they can justify the time, check out this middle school science teacher’s post. He has some ideas on how to encourage scientific inquiry – with a purpose.

Good luck and happy creating! If you make a bot, post a link in the comments for everyone to see…

 

Play = Healthy Brain

Playing is something that we have always encouraged our children to do – it keeps them entertained, builds social skills and promotes creativity. Although sometimes they have a hard time remembering when it is appropriate to play (ahem…grocery store),  it is one of the many reasons that we have chosen to homeschool our children. There just wasn’t enough time devoted to unstructured play and free choice.  I have encountered the concept of play quite often in the last few weeks and it’s been on my mind daily as I work through my Tinkering class.  There is also much discussion and debate on the elusive definition of play and how it contributes to success (for humans and animals).

play_Ringling

Tinkering with the playground water station at The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL.

Currently, I am reading the book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Dr. Stuart Brown. One of the studies that this medical researcher highlights was done by Dr. Marian Diamond. In the 1960s, she studied rats and found that rats who “played” more – lots of new toys and were interactive with other rats – had bigger and more complex brains. Hence, propelling the notion that babies and young children who are exposed to many different enriching experiences may become more well developed (and smarter) adults. Dr. Montessori found the same thing in the early 1900s during her observational studies.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Diamond’s research found that that this “enrichment” was equally beneficial for ALL brains, of ALL ages (which reminds me of the research on how learning a new language is beneficial for your aging brain).  Dr. Brown’s book also suggests that adults need to play as well – though, our play can look a little different – reading, knitting, watching our favorite TV show, etc. Yet, this probably explains why I have been having so much fun tinkering.

My handmade battery-powered bracelet - with wired mini-LEDs.

My handmade battery-powered bracelet – with wired mini-LEDs.

The inside of the bracelet - sewn with conductive thread and attached to a coin battery using parallel circuits.

The inside of the bracelet – sewn with conductive thread and attached to a coin battery (currently missing) using parallel circuits.

This past week, I was introduced to paper and sewn circuits. I love, love, love them. I am starting to comprehend circuitry in a way that I hadn’t with our previous experiments. I have so much more to write about using paper, fabric and conductive thread to create circuits, but I’m not done playing yet. I haven’t quite figured out how everything works and I don’t want to spend time writing about it – I want to get back and continue playing. 🙂

The bracelet is currently pinned, but I want to add metal snaps as a switch, but I need to figure that out first!

The bracelet is currently pinned, but I want to add metal snaps as a switch, but I need to figure out how to do that first!

 

 

 

 

 

Marker Bots

After working with the more “traditional” circuits, the good folks at The Exploratorium gave us our next assignment – make your own scribble bot.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

A prepared table, a short video of other kids’ bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

The kids and I ended up christening them “marker bots” as we felt that described our own creations a bit better. There’s some truth to that as many of the examples we saw used markers (since they scribble more easily), but as they tinkered, the kids began breaking out of the traditional “sample” bot and into new and uncharted territory.

My six-year-old had the most physical limitations as his dexterity isn’t nearly as well-developed as the two nine-year-olds. He had trouble getting the markers to stay and needed more help with setting up the battery. If I were to do this with lots of young students, I would do what many others have suggested and try soldering small washers onto the ends of the battery wires to make it easier to connect and disconnect in the broccoli band.

Six-year-old's beginnings

Six-year-old’s beginnings…yes, that’s a partial hot glue stick sticking out of the motor…used to propel the bot.

My sons’ friend was at our house and participated in our “maker” afternoon. I think he enjoyed himself and really learned to apply some growth mindset to his creation. Initially, he had a tough time deciding how to design his bot, but he eventually modified his design and took away the markers and created a moving robot. Success!

My nine-year-old jumped right in and loved that he could make a bot almost exactly like the same one we saw in the course video (strawberry baskets). After figuring that out, he went on to modify his creation and created a ledge for his bot to hold the marker caps.

All told, we spent a good hour and a half tinkering with our creations. A few days later, we revisited the single battery and motor combination and I tried to make a Lego car move (unsuccessfully) and my six-year-old, inspired by his friend’s creation, decided to make an airplane. Although his plane didn’t move he made multiple modifications and we did all sorts of battery and motor tests. Funny enough, everyone single boy who has come over has glanced at it with a “whoa…cool, dude” sort of look.  Needless to say, he is quite happy with it.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

This assignment was one of the easiest to attempt and to complete. The entry materials are low — a 3V motor, a single AA battery and whatever craft supplies you have in the house. And, if you need more assistance, check out the Exploratorium’s online guide.

The end of our first work session.

The end of our first work session.

 

Tinkering – more than trial and error

As part of my Tinkering Class, the facilitators host a Google Hangout each week. Today, I finally had a chance to watch last week’s video. Wow.

This week’s guest was Edith Ackermann and I thoroughly enjoyed her insights and her enthusiasm for one of her topics of expertise – play. Ackermann* works at MIT and has studied under Piaget and Seymour Papert. Although this is a poor explanation, one could say that both of these theorists place a lot of value on hands-on activities and self-exploration.

Anyone who has studied the field of education has heard of Piaget, although it is much lesser known that he was first a follower of Dr. Montessori’s. (As a Montessorian…it has to be said)!  I have read a few of Papert’s papers on computers and children because of the work I do with Scratch. In fact, I was heavily influenced by this paper during the initial development of Code Camp’s structure and activity design (though I really need to read it again and tweak the class a bit more).

Regardless, I came away from the video reaffirming my idea that a “growth mindset” is important to success, but realized that I strongly agreed with Ackermann’s vision that tinkering should be more than just trial and error. Her point being that tinkering should encourage a person to view the problem and/or the solution from a different perspective.

Talk about an abstract concept to quantify and pin down. It reminded me of something I was told by a local French teacher. She was talking about the value of watching French Disney movies  – and obviously from the look on my face I wasn’t buying the initial educational usefulness.  Instead, she mentioned that it was another way to for them to “get it in their fingertips.”

As my educator husband and I have used that phrase many times over the years to describe really knowing something, I have just realized that this is probably what Ackermann is referring to when she mentions being able to see something from a different perspective. Only by being able to use/hear/encounter the French word in a different context are you truly going to be able to understand the problem and secure it in your long-term memory. Only by being able to see the problem/solution/object from a different perspective will you truly be able to understand it and then be able to change it and use it for something else entirely.

Maybe.

Or, maybe that’s what I “thought” I saw. Within psychology there doesn’t always seem to be a clear answer – most likely it’s purposely vague! Either way, it has me thinking and making small changes in the way I approach learning with my students. And, that’s a good thing.

IMG_0744

* I can’t even begin to tell you how many papers and books that I have marked to read, suggestions from this course. Ackermann’s paper on “teachers as designers” is next on my list. As a Montessori-trained educator, I firmly believe in a prepared environment and I’m looking forward to seeing how she defines lesson design.

Tinkering, Creativity & New Ideas

I’m a bit behind in my Tinkering class. First, we were at the beach. The waves, boogie boarding and sand castles took up all of my attention. And, rightly so!

Second, the circuit board components took me a lot longer to craft. As in — many, many days of testing, stripping wires, running out to the hardware store, sanding blocks of wood, stripping more wires, being patient as the youngest child was too rough with the delicate wires, running back to the hardware store for another hot glue gun since ours chose that moment to break…and on and on and on. It was quite a process that I had to go through to end up with a small offering of circuitry. And, the silly part is that there’s so much more we want to add to our collection. We definitely aren’t finished with parts yet, but in the meantime, we’ve (mostly) figured out how everything works.

There's a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these! But, the process and the experience was well worth it.

There’s a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these!

There was also no “one-way” set of instructions for each component…and that was done on purpose by the course designers…I think. The short “how to” video from the course made everything look so easy, and while it wasn’t hard, it was time consuming. It was tinkering.

It’s not easy to create an online class that encompasses the very type of learning that they are discussing – constructivist. An impressive, yet frustrating feat. The value of having a hands-on facilitator nearby is fairly obvious.

But, rather than dwell on how long the process took, I would rather think about how much I’ve grown – not as a competent wire stripper or soldering iron expert. Most definitely not…I still need to practice and once the soldering iron did come out, the husband suddenly became very interested in “my” tinkering work!

IMG_0905
My goal with this course was to become more comfortable with electricity – to allow my children and my summer camp students a chance to learn about circuits and batteries and bulbs with a hands-on approach. As a Montessori-trained educator and project-based homeschool user, I am quite used to being a facilitator rather than a director. There is a lot of time devoted to tinkering and exploring in my camps (and definitely at home).

Even so, I am still impressed with how much more I am able to look at things in a new way. As we were making room in the garage for the soldering iron set-up, I found the ceiling fan that my husband replaced last month. Rather than look at it and push it back into the corner, I gleefully grabbed it and wondered what sort of wires I could harvest from it. The boys were so excited that they could dismantle it, they grabbed their tool boxes and got to work.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

I think a key part of tinkering is that it has the potential to lead to creativity. I like the idea that you are looking at something differently. That’s being creative – thinking about using something in a new way. It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea…just new to you.

 

Tinkering, Making and Being Inspired

Tinkering with alligator clips, a battery pack and a 3 V motor.

Tinkering with alligator clips, a battery pack and a 3 V motor.

As we continue with our second week of Tinkering Class, the boys and I dived head first into circuits. We watched the explanatory videos and then my kids ran and pulled out all of the components and started to try and make things work.

The 9-year-old decides to see how many items he can successfully connect at once.

The 9-year-old decides to see how many items he can successfully connect at once.

I love having this time with them and watching them get excited about learning. It was so much fun! The “old” me would have wanted to build every component just the way it was in the introductory video before bringing it out to them. Instead, we tested it out together and realized we needed a few more pieces to make it as easy-going as in the videos.  We’ll be building more parts as a team, thus deepening the learning and exploring.

Apparently, we had a “maker” kind of day going on. Once the boys realized we needed a few more parts before we could continue with the circuit boards, they decided to finally get down to making a tin-can telephone. This is something my oldest had read about and wanted to try, but hadn’t quite found the concentration to put it into action.

Six years-old and hammering...with sandals on. Eek!

Six years-old and hammering…with sandals on. Eek!

The 9-year-old has cut his toe on a saw (while wearing sandals). You'll notice he is wearing his sneakers.

The 9-year-old has cut his toe on a saw (while wearing sandals). You’ll notice he is wearing his sneakers.

They found a web site on how to construct a tin-can telephone and other than some assistance with reaching the tools (oh, the garage) and some knot tying…this was a project that they completed all on their own.

They even experimented (and became frustrated) as they figured out how to make it work the best. Tight string and in the same room?  Yes. Around a corner or with closed doors? Not so much.

IMG_0891

A great day for learning, doing and exploring. We don’t always have those sorts of days, so it’s nice to be able to look back on them and remember!

 

 

 

Tinkering & STEM

My "Tinkering" tool box

My “Tinkering” tool box

Last week I began the Coursera course, Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning. This free MOOC, taught by the folks at The Exploratorium in San Fransisco, has been on my radar for many months. This past week laid the foundation for the concept of tinkering, and whetted our appetites for some of the upcoming hands-on projects.

This Wednesday, we start building. I’m ready. The kids are ready. I’m going to try and post some of our projects to the blog as we go…even some of our failures. The course focuses on circuits and I’m looking forward to becoming more comfortable with allowing the kids to mess around with electricity. I’m also taking notes for next year’s camp. I really like the idea of a “maker” camp in the near future.

The MOOC course provided a list of materials that we needed to purchase...thank goodness because I'm not quite sure what all of this stuff does!

The MOOC course provided a list of materials that we needed to purchase…thank goodness because I’m not quite sure what all of this stuff does! The Makey Makey doesn’t count…we cracked that open as soon as it arrived!