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Archive for the category “Makers”

Encapsulation Injection Simulation

In a rare fit of great planning, I married an exceptional history teacher before I fell into #MakerEd. Over years of conversations, we’ve brainstormed dozens of different places where MakerEd can support/augment/extend history as an academic discipline experienced by students.

We’ve also developed a loose framework to categorize and discuss about those experiences, more as a personal shorthand than a desire to compete with SAMR, RAT or other “explain the world” acronyms. I generalize from this framework, but it’s also very tied to the specifics of 6–12 single subject history.

This isn’t a hierarchical system. I’m also going to try to use phrases like “traditional classroom learning” as neutral. Wish me luck.

Encapsulation, Injection, Simulation

Encapsulation covers any instance where the making wraps around a chunk traditional classroom learning. Students are making/building something that serves as a platform for them to present curricular content they’ve acquired.
Encapsulation is incredibly useful and versatile. Many making experiences are pretty neutral, so they’re not tied to a particular subject or concept. They also fit easily into teacher’s planning model, normally slotting in to replace some other form of summative assessment project. Susan’s great Lilypad-powered “speaking quilt” has nice resonance with us history, but is just as applicable in a math or science course. At the most basic level, an encapsulated MakerEd provides a new creative platform for students to present their academic learning.

We’ve been using injection to refer to maker experiences that don’t directly replace some part of the traditional classroom learning cycle (pre-assess, research, content delivery, formative/summative assessment). When trying to develop an injection project for history, I start by asking questions about the tools and materials. What T&M that were part of everyday lived experience in that culture? Which new or developing T&M had a dramatic effect on that experience? In nerdy, non-academic terms, I’m often simplifying actual history to Civ terms. What’s step on the tech tree enabled this cultural moment or eliminated it? For colonial history, I’m a huge fan of building some fires to explore cooking techniques with open ovens. More broadly, I want students to make something from or closely analogous to a period tool.
These projects don’t provide good opportunities for assessing the content knowledge of individual students. Instead, they do provide a robust skeleton on which students can hang their developing knowledge. In terms of classroom routine, I’m not sure there’s a better anchor and timer for a history discussion than sitting around an outdoor brick fire waiting for tea water to boil in an iron kettle. In terms of classroom time and instructional minutes, injection projects cost more. I view that cost as an investment in deeper, more lasting student understanding and connection to the material, but I admit that’s primarily belief.

We call the last category simulation, and it covers all experiences where students spend extended time trying to “live” inside the content in some way. History has a well established tradition of simulation exercises, and making/technology offers easy ways to extend those. Classroom simulations of the Constitutional convention become far more involving if all students are RP-ing particular delegates on a social media platform (our 7th grade teachers called it WhigBook last year) for the multi-week duration. For history simulations, the thing students are “making” is a compelling portrayal of an individual in a particular historical moment. There’s similar opportunities for other content areas, from predator/prey systems or fanfic extensions of literature. I think there’s an argument to be made that many challenge/experiment projects (hair-dryer cars, water bottle rockets) are essentially simulations. The made project is nice, but we’re really asking kids to inhabit the role of engineer/designer for a few weeks. History can add in CS by moving the simulation into a MOO/MUSH, where students are both creating the environment and RP-ing the personalities. I guess you could even use SecondLife, but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that even a text only MUSH looks less dated than SecondLife.

Again, these are informal, conversational, non-hierarchical categories.

When specifically talking about history, Jodi posits another category of intellectual experience that I haven’t been able to directly pull back to the physical world. She refers to this as abstraction, where students can evaluate principles/values/beliefs from one cultural period through the lens of another. In general, I want a making experience to set a goal that unavoidably routes students through the thick mud of research, cognition, and reflection. I haven’t found a generalizable idea for physical things that “force” kids to engage in that abstraction. My closest thought experiment is modifying Heather’s monument project and have students create two monuments for different “sides” of a historical event, or create a monument and the accompanying protest. Ugh. I’m not even happy with those basic examples.

While this year I’ve been planning through transdisciplinary themes, Encapsulation, Injection, Simulation was my framework when planning MakerEd (and tech!) integration in years past. If a teacher wanted MakerEd to fit into a specific academic unit, I almost always went with encapsulation. That way I could bring a different experience to students, provide the teacher with the opportunity to watch students learning through the design cycle, and hopefully generate some nice artifacts. Without that specific curricular tie, I could look for an injection project, knowing that I could work with the teacher to trim some content requirements and devise observation/assessment protocols.

Thematic MakerEd Planning

MakerEd through a Transdisciplinary Lens

So, heya! I’ve landed in Korea and started a new school year. I’m learning as I go, picking up great lessons on #makered process and structure from Gary Donague. I’m also learning about the Primary Years Program, which is the heart of Chadwick’s elememtary practice.

I’m in an online PYP course at the moment. That provides some great resources and opportunities for reflection, but it also resents a “top-level” view that’s similar to any other curricular program. Namely, it’s a bunch of PDFs with overly specific and dense verbiage.

Applying those PYP concepts to my #makered framework has already proven very useful. I’m going to try and capture some of that here. I use lots of the PYP terms in here, after several long talks with our PYP coordinator to help ground the vocab in examples of teaching practice. Those conversations were absolutely necessary for me. I carry my own interpretation of both classroom & PYP language, and those required time and effort to unpack. If this sounds like nothing but semantic distinctions, then it’s likely because I’m glossing over or mis-explaining some term. Please let me know how I can make this explanation more clear.

The most visible aspect of student’s #makered experience is what they build & create. Viewing #makered through this lens ties the experience to a project level. “Students create windmills and solar harvesters in the Makerspace during our Unit on Energy.” With this mindset, the making & design cycle is tied to a product, which is in turn tied to a particular bundle of school-knowledge. There are obvious benefits from this approach, starting with how current curriculum practices can adapt to new projects. Teacher’s are accustomed to sentences of the form “students will learn X by Y,” and changing Y doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Over time, this can create deep (often unstated) linkages between X and Y, to the point where the #makered experiences becomes a curricular fixed point instead of a force for change. As any tech integrator knows all too well, elementary classrooms can easily forget that project Y was an chosen to embody larger curricular/cultural values, and only remember that “3rd grade do PowerPoint for Greek myths in March.”

Our PYP coordinator suggested instead that #makered experiences should arise directly out of the transdisciplinary themes (for reference: Who we are, Where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, sharing the planet).

I had become accustomed to thinking of my role in #makered planning conversations as the person with wide vision. Teachers would describe their units and learning targets, I’d brainstorm incredible possibilities for student making, and then need to convince teachers that the (messy, complicated, risky) experience would meet their curricular goals. I’d developed a view that making experiences “contained multitudes” which meant I could find almost any marker of school-iness inside.

Thinking about #makered through the lens of the TD themes asks something very different from me and from teachers. Instead of designing a project where the topic/UOI (PYP translation: Units of Inquiry) questions are a fundamental to the domain, we need to create powerful, reusable question that chart a direction for students using the Design cycle.

I’ve tried to draw this a bit. My art skills aren’t great, but hopefully this captures my mental image of this abstract concept.

TD_hexagon

 

The TD themes form a hexagon of doors/windows around any #makered activity. Even if every first naive draft of that activity looks pretty similar, wedding the Design cycle to the TD themes ensures that each iteration will move students further away from the “just stuff” version of the project and deeper into meaningful, reflective PYP work.

The project example we used to think this through was “fashion design,” an activity with an intentionally vague and flat description. When iterating on this from a project-focused model, the primary change is students climbing ladders of material/tool/skill sophistication. It provides great differentiation and reflection on the design process, and is neutral enough to “fit” anywhere.

Considering the same activity through the TD lens, it’s clear that while it keeps those positive traits, it adds specificity and thematic consistency to the design cycle. Instead of one project that can fit anywhere, we actually have 6 very different projects that happen to share one material/skill base.

Who we are: Build a model/outfit that depicts your friend. Each iteration will need to focus on how we identify ourselves. Since the poseable models lack body characteristics and the project spans weeks, students can’t rely on a single outfit or “blond hair” as signifying characteristics. Students’ models will develop to include signifiers of activities, hobbies, and history.

Where we are in place and time: Make a model of yourself and a grandparent at the same age (ie, when grandparent was in Xth grade). What were the major historical changes in the intervening 60 years, and how can we express those through the materials? Each iteration should explore those issue. Is it possible to show a pre-plastic world through the 3D printer and scrap nylon? What other techniques can we use/develop?

How we express ourselves: Create a model/outfit for a character from literature. Best choices are books with first person narrators, where students will focus on capturing the POV character’s world view through the materials. Iterations can include increasing specificity for the time/moment in the narrative. How would this character’s outfit/presentation change after SIGNIFICANT_PLOT_X?

How we organize ourselves: How do you make a uniform? What information do uniforms from large entities (cities, countries) need to convey through similarities and differences? Maybe small groups are developing model city-states and need to create three different uniforms for important functions within that society. Maybe different groups are exploring the symbolic expressions of hierarchy and rank, and need to create models to convey those ideas? What would uniforms look like for an organization trying to avoid those traits?

How the world works: What can clothing do? Focus on creating a single clothing item that performs an assistive function. This could be a jacket that insulates (measured by temp sensors over time) or rain gear or cycling pants or… Perhaps this is the most classically maker/design style of iteration, with lots of solid numeric data to inform each new model.

Sharing the planet: Where does our clothing come from? What resources does it consume, and how are those reflected in cost? Perhaps this theme involves creating a “raw materials” schema for makerspace materials, and each iteration attempts to lower the “resource footprint” of an outfit. Or maybe each outfit has a given materials list and the iterative challenge is to improve resiliency?

It’s still true that #makered experiences are rich, and that any given kind of making can fit within any of the TD themes. But what’s powerful about TD integration is that after a few iterations, students doing the “same project” through two different lenses will wind up with very divergent work and be able to articulate why those differences exist. Even if the dolls & outfits might look similar to a parent observed when displayed without context, as educators we can be certain that the learning experiences were specific, powerful and distinct.

Project level integration suggests that by selecting right project/task/challenge, students will produce enough observable thinking, reflection, iteration to meet any assessment criteria. TD integration, by contrast, doesn’t demand that teachers find a perfect #makered activity. Any making, fueled by questions that derive directly from the TD theme, will create substantive, unique, visible learning.

This isn’t a frosting layer, where the same learning/making experience is recontextualized by the observer. TD integration operates on the reflective/iterative axis, which fundamentally changes the course/direction of student learning.

Final Makers Inventory

I’m about to turn in my computer and walk out the door. Here’s what’s actually left in the Makers room.

 

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Electronics Kits and Bits

Kits make electronics accessible by simplifying along two distinct axis.

The first is component selection. Kits offer a cultivated garden of parts that all work properly with each other, avoiding the bewildering Digikey page or the haphazard component drawers at RadioShack. Different systems stake out different positions along this axis. Squishy Circuits (to the extent that it’s a kit at all) simply offers generic components with fat dough-friendly leads. Hummingbird Robotics boards have easy, labeled terminal blocks and come bundled with commodity parts. At the low end of the spectrum, kits include parts to indicate a stable starting place, but they don’t build fences. Systems that aim for openness create a substrate that still works with plain/“bare wire” components. This covers everything from a simple breadboard to conductive dough and the unpattentable springs of 101 Experiment kids. Forest Mims’ excellent Electronic Learning Lab offers all of these, along with integrated LEDs and potentiometers. The Electronics Learning Lab was a longtime Radioshack stalwart, but is currently, lamentably, out of print.

What restricts learners from selecting or making use of other parts is the way a kit/system decides to simplify connectivity. I suspect that this is also the major area where designers can apply trademark and patent restrictions to their systems in an attempt to prohibit “knock-off” competitors.

Closed systems encapsulate individual components, which improves users’ first circuit experience and ensures that all parts are reusable. However, anyone looking ot replace a missing ingredient or add new ones are locked in to the kit vendor’s store.

Circuit Stickers from Chibitronics occupy an interesting position in this quadrant.
Individual components come on sturdy but flexible pcbs, backed by z-tape reusable adhesive. The basic kit has a wonderfully designed workbook and includes a roll of copper tape on paper, but nothing about the component design restricts how they can be used. Each tiny sticker even has wide solder pads! Chibitronics even includes a spare sheet of conductive backing for components that lose stickiness over time. Jie and Bunny’s design is a marvel of simplicity and economy. Currently, the Chibitronics website offers 24 packs of LED sticks for fifteen bucks. That’s a price lower than the horrific RadioShack markup on standard through hole 5mm LEDs, which no one should ever ever pay, but we often do. The same pricing extends across the Chibitronics line, from the programable Attiny stickers to sensors. Chibitronics offer custom components that are simple to connect without locking the user in an exorbitantly expensive walled garden.

Which brings me to LittleBits.

I’ve been deeply intrigued by and frustrated with LittleBits for about two years. At this point, I think the Reggie Watts commercial for the SynthKit does the best job of capturing the excitement “snap together amazing things!”


Stoked? Great, now look at this.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 10.53.52 PM

I’ve heard LittleBits described as a “learning electronics” kit, and never felt it was accurate. Their proprietary magnet-snap connections pushed both simplification factors so far that they seemed to rocket out of the electronics kit quadrant. Components were so simplified that few productive mistakes remained for the user. There’s nothing to observe in a LittleBits creation about how circuits are designed. Then there’s the price. A “class set” of LittleBits rings in at several thousand dollars. I’d seen students enjoy the momentary experience of playing with LittleBits, but since the high price-tag meant that all of the parts went back in the bin at the end of every class, I never saw work pass beyond the “kinda neat” stage.

With the release of the Arduino Bit, I feel like LittleBits has fully abandoned the “learn electronics!” category,or maybe they’ve just hit escape velocity. Instead of a over-engineered electronics kit, they’re offering a portal into psychical computing in a radically divergent form factor. LittleBits offers the same kit benefits (connectivity, part selection) and provides and access ramp to the Arduino “prototyping platform.” LittleBits allows users to focus on the hard fun of designing physical computing systems to make use sensor data, wether through simple logic gates or a full Arduino. Like all other micro-controllers, there’s electricity at work, but the user is hidden away from almost all of the electrical engineering.

Under the Hood

Laura is a smart cookie.  The voltage frustration that emerged from the intersection of batteries and LED series is entirely a matter of exposure.

The problems she details in this thread exist at a level of electrical detail that she’s never needed across years of learning to code, teaching CS, diving into and teaching physical computing, coaching a whole variety of robotics teams, and renovating a house! Big tools or appliances might draw to much current and blow a fuse. Robotics are designed for and often ship with specific batteries and polarized plugs. All designed, commercial systems are careful abstractions that do their best to constrain the users exposure to the confounding detail and complexity. Smart engineers have gone to incredible efforts to make the user experience feel closer to redstone than 6.002.

A major contributor to this layer of abstraction is the cheap, accessible ubiquity of micro-controllers and other discrete logic systems. This creates unified circuits that use electricity as bounded signals. In these circuits, failure occurs when signals are blocked or interrupted, but rarely every as a result of signals that fall outside a component’s expected/acceptable range.

The heart of Laura’s LED problem was a circuit that could be closed and complete, but still not function. It’s not that this is complicated, but that behavior is orthogonal to the “blink sketch” mindset.

So that’s it, right? Here’s the great example of why #makered novices need some “real” electronics knowledge.

I’m still skeptical. Clearly, there’s a good lesson lurking in here that could be packaged up neatly into a bag with LEDs of various Forward Voltages and a small pile of batteries. Blow a single LED with a 9v (actually a step in the great Make: Electronics book), have a 3v coin cell power two small red LEDs but fail with two blue ones, compare series vs parallel circuits with copper tape. I think that’s probably enough hands on experience to convince a novice to check Adafruit’s Circuit Playground app when a LED circuit doesn’t behave as expected.

My skepticism about the value of “real” electronics knowledge for novices in 2014 comes from how complex the picture becomes when we look under the hood of digital logic assumptions.

Vanishing Electronics

In this course, students discover the basics of electronics design and assembly. They use this knowledge to build their own simple flashing LED using solder-free breadboards. By diving into the assembly of these projects, students learn about impedance, resistance, conductivity, and circuit design through personal, hands-on engagement, opening up incredible possibilities for creative projects.

That was the first description I wrote for what became our Makers program. This was a perfunctory bit of text written a year before our first class, tossed onto a Google form and into oblivion. The audience was exclusively parents, crassly intended to trigger connotations of learning and complexity for an unproved course.

In that first year we did some of what that blurb promised, but it wasn’t the focus of the course at any point beyond the second week. We built Squishy circuits and made 555-based projects, but I guarantee I never used the word impedance in class.

That same year I took the first MOOC version of MIT’s 6.002. Well before we hit the midterm, I was struggling to keep up with increasingly complex circuits, dusting off my integral calc skills, and churning through paper at a fantastic rate. Coming home from teaching Makers to a new lecture or problem set triggered new waves of teacher-panic. Had I really promised to teach this material to 7th graders?

As part of the FabLearn cohort, I’m exploring broad plain of electronics with an eye on how it fits into the modern/developing #makered landscape. It’s got to be central, right? Even though we advocate for the value of cardboard prototyping and physical construction, the big name tools are all complex electronic systems.

Well, maybe not.

From the 70s into the 90s, there was a rich field of interesting projects and creative experimentation that was only open to people with a functional literacy in electronics and electrical engineering. My sense is that in the last decade, the growth of cheap, flexible, accessible micro-controllers has taken control of the sophisticated projects that used to drive students deeper into electronics. While that trend leaves the electronics domain with fewer “exclusive” projects, the hurdles facing a novice haven’t changed much. While the internet makes it easier to share schematics and video tutorials, electronics still requires parts and precision. I can download the schematics for a transistor radio or a preconfigured disk image that transforms the RaspberryPi into an FM Transmitter.

Deep electronics knowledge opens up incredible possibilities. I’ll submit as evidence any of ch00ftech’s posts or Jeri Ellsworth’s Short Circuits. But in an Arduino-rich world, there’s far fewer low-end projects that require those skills. Instead, those electronics skills become mandatory when a project needs to exceed the constraints of what’s possible with a micro-controller. When a project needs to use less power, take up less space, respond with less lag, scale out at with less cost, then you’ll need the skills to design and build complex, task-optimized circuits.

Here’s the chicken-egg of learning electronics in 2013. Every basic circuit in a Forrest Mims notebookcan be duplicated with an Arduino and a tiny selection of components, using copy-pasta code and breadboard illustrations. In that world, how much discrete electronics knowledge does a novice need?

In the months I’ve spent looking at this problem, I’ve slammed repeatedly against a cognitive wall. I examine my practice, the projects my students pursue, the projects shared throughout the wider #makered community, and I see a role for electronics that’s smaller, more constrained and highly task specific. When I interrogate those findings, I keep coming back to a enduring conflict. Are my observations accurate, or does my weak understanding of electronics obscure a larger and more complicated story?

I can’t be sure. I’ll be sharing my look into the current market of “learn electronics!” kits in a later post, along with exploring the uneasy border between circuit simulators and Minecraft. But throughout those, know that this question – am I missing the real story? – lies under every observation.

Learning Cycles

Last week, Josh Burker posted a picture of a MakeyMakey “violin” designed and built by one of his elementary students. It’s a great bit of prototyping, using stretched wire and a metal bow to trigger MakeyMakey inputs.

But this student wasn’t satisfied with a single sound per string, and Josh relayed that design challenge out to the #makered community.

(This post is a reflection about learning cycles and MakerEd. If you want to see the prototypes, read this instead.)

On one level, this call hits at the heart of why MakerEd has blossomed along with the growth of global learning communities. With cardboard, write and a $40 toy, an elementary student can move an idea out of her “invention journal” and into the real world. This means she can be simultaneously thrilled at her tangible accomplishment, and frustrated by the numerous limitations and compromises she’s made along the way. To iterate on that first object, she’ll need to incorporate some wholly new ideas into her intellectual framework. To complicate matters for the “just Google it” generation, she also lacks the language to describe or discover those new ideas.

Josh doesn’t have an academic background in electronics. However, he does have extensive experience taking on projects for which he doesn’t have a academic background. Josh knows that being a “life long learner” means also being a “life long beginner,” and has developed toolsets that help him address the common problems of beginning. One of tools is an expansive network of friends, colleagues and mentors.

I have a very poor academic background in electronics. However, I have experience working within a small corner of electronics problems and exposure to the wider field. Even when I can’t provide solutions, I can often help rephrase questions in language that will produce solutions.

This is the way that beginners learn, how they move into a new discipline and become novices, and then amateurs, and so on.

What starts to transform this student’s problem from a brick wall into an opportunity is her teachers’ skills and experience as a learner.

I think of this as a tide of questions flowing out. There’s another important set of skills that govern how the information flows back in.

There is an academic answer to this question. “You need to look at the board’s schematic and build or extend a voltage divider for each input.”

That should clear everything up

That should clear everything up

Depending on length, replies like this range from “look up these terms in the textbook” to “here’s the textbook on these terms.” But in no way to they offer a direct bridge to help the student move forward with their idea. I’ve made this mistake too many times with students, in math and Makers, where I’ve asserted the existence of firewood instead of starting a flame.

Growing up with cooking shows, I know there’s a trap at the other end of the helpfulness spectrum. “Mr. Pepin, I was wondering what I could cook with all these rutabagas?” “Well,I happen to have this tray of roasted rutabagas and porkbelly in the oven now!” Which is great if you’re hungry, but doesn’t actually help the person with a wheelbarrow full of rutabagas. Even providing a recipe can send the incorrect message. “I guess vegetarians can’t eat rutabagas.” When teachers do this in math or CS, we insist that students can learn by dissection, carefully examining this particular solution for tools and techniques that will suggest general principles. But when you’re a beginner, you often lack enough domain specific context to determine which ideas are load-bearing and which are ornamental.

While there’s satisfaction in executing a recipe or assembling a kit, it’s fundamentally different from building and improving your own design.

I don’t think there’s a universally appropriate midpoint between these two extremes. The teacher’s role is to use the information flowing in to craft the best solution for this beginner and this domain. Teachers get better at reading the needs of a learners over time, as well as building up a wider range of domain knowledge. Over time, learners get better at recognizing when they need more support or when the instruction becomes overbearing.

For the three of us dancing around this Scratch dobro, I’m finding the limitations of Twitter, Vine and WordPress to be helpful fences. Even in the rough prototype I built, there’s so many design choices! I keep my work ugly, so that no one can mistake it for a finished product. I know Josh will ask when he has a new batch of questions.

Violins and Voltage Dividers

This is a quick project sketch, building on a conversation with Josh Burker. It’s a reference, not a tutorial.

This is probably possible using the MakeyMakey’s analog input ports, but the Picoboard’s resistance sensors are a better and more direct choice.

This was my first prototype. Apologies for the sideways video.

This just uses a few resistors in series along a span of copper tape. After checking that the values were distinct enough, I had the Scratch instrument play the resistance value as the note. This is probably a bad plan for actual music. :)

Josh asked for a string that could be fingered to change pitch, while the “bow” played in the same place.

violin string

This is random wire, wrapped around popsicle sticks at either end of the cardboard tube and taped in place. The kinks and bends in the wire are no good, but the concept is sound.

I attached one clip form the Picoboard to the bow, and one to the copper tape + resistor strand. The key is that the wire/string doesn’t touch the copper tape at all. If you touch the bow to the string, you don’t complete the circuit.

In order to get any reading (ie, resistance less than 100 in Scratch), you need to pinch the string to the resistor+tape.

photo 2 (1)
You need a multimeter for this. The Adafruit Circuit Playground app would also be a helpful, between checking resistor codes and calculating the voltageOut.

Making this into a stable instrument is hard work. What voltage range can the PicoBoard sense? How do those values map to Scratch’s 0-100? How do those 0-100 values turn into pitch? What size resistor makes a good step? How many “frets” can you fit on the neck of your instrument? How close together do you fit the strings? Does fingering a chord produce a clean combination of tones or something else? Do you keep the fingers on your chord-ing hand electrically isolated? Does the bow need to be isolated?

Those aren’t facts to discover, but choices that will shape design. You could give that framework to 50 kids and wind up with an orchestra of different instruments.

photo 3

photo 2 (2)

photo 4

Hunting Microworlds

One of the most difficult part of reading Mindstorms in 2014 is pacing yourself through the long sections where it seems like Papert is simply explaining LOGO to an audience that has never owned a computer. There’s a natural tendency to skim at these parts. We may not have wound up with the powerful computing future that Papert envisioned, but many of us went to school through the LOGO boom and have taught using Scratch, Turtle Art and MicroWorlds for a decade or more.

This time through, I tired to read those sections more carefully. While the physics Turtle and Geometry Turtle examples were still very familiar, I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t think of a huge collection of other software microworlds.

Prompted in large part by my work with FabLearn, and my own late start with electronics, I’ve been trying to imagine what a true Papertian microworld for EE would look like.

I’ve seen a number of circuit simulation tools used over the years. I remember using Circuit Construction Kit with students in my first tech+teaching job, but there are plenty of others. However, this reread of Mindstorms has overturned my assumed relationship between simulations and Micoroworlds. In my cursory review of simulation tools, I didn’t see anything that offered the richness that Papert asks of “idiosyncratic microworlds.” Simulating circuits requires less physical dexterity, eliminates the cost and hassle of procuring parts, and allow fantastic “point-wise” inspection of elaborate systems. But they all fundamentally present an idealized form of the physical world. When used in context with circuit simulators, the world “simple” refers only to the number and function of individual components, not to the underlying principles that govern the simulation.

Then there’s Redstone.

Redstone is the building material for electrical analogs in Minecraft. I recorded that video in the summer of ’12 (aka ds106 SummerCamp!), and you can hear my apprehension in the first 30 seconds. Here’s this thing that’s kind of like electricity, which means you can build things that are kind of like circuits…. but they’re not real!
I couch my discomfort as teacher-fear, of not wanting to push my students down an “incorrect” path. In reality, that discomfort is coming from the friction between my own hastily and poorly constructed microworld of electronics understanding and the structure/function of the redstone. I didn’t have a deep and nuanced body of EECS knowledge that I was disappointed to see unrepresented in Minecraft. Instead, I had a half dozen beliefs that I had hung into a loose scaffolding, but individual components were flimsy and couldn’t bear my weight.

Does Redstone constitute a learning microworld for electronics? As a brief overview, the Redstone “circuits” offer a purely digital system, where a wires and component can only be powered or unpowered[0]. There’s no analog for voltage or amperage, which means that there’s no equivalent for capacitors, resistors or transistors. Redstone signals propagate in neat 1/10 second hops. In short, there’s a robust system that can produce wonders, but a student who only studies Redstone will fail a 3rd grade multiple choice quiz about electricity.

Papert’s microworlds aren’t judged by the richness or complexity of the objects that can be produced within. It’s lovely that the Geometry turtle can create wonderful art, but the value of the microworld isn’t dependent on whether the learner created the AlHambra or a box house. In a sense, the Papertian value of a microworld comes from how it can evolve in response to the learner.

There’s certainly a thriving world of Minecraft extensions, many of which extend the redstone system or build up alternative signaling/power system within the same blocky world. But the tools used to create those mods are wholly distinct from the in-world construction tools. Minecraft utterly fails the challenge offered by LOGO, LISP, and Squeak, and offers no path from being creating within the game to creating/modifying the game.[0]

The other criteria for evaluating an microwold is how it exposes learners to “powerful ideas” and if those insights/experiences can transfer to other microworlds or other learning domains. This forces me to realize that I’m not sure what the powerful ideas at the heart of “electronics” are! My list looks similar to the Nell’s insights from Castle Turing throughout King Coyote’s realm in Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Complex systems are often simple systems in aggregate. Careful design makes powerful tools from tedious processes. There’s nothing on my list that looks like a learning objective from 6.002.

My stance is that powerful microworlds don’t have to teach Ohm’s Law, but prepare students to seek out and make use of Ohm-like Laws.

[0]Or maybe not! Since the last time I build redstone circuits, Minecraft has added power levels to Redstone, including components that respond to those power levels and direct comparators

[0] There are some confusing edge cases to this. The RaspberyPi edition of Minecraft exposed an early API, with Javascript and Python libraries, so that players could write/run code that would affect the Minecraft world. There’s great examples of this tool bridging the digital/physical divide, making a light switch in Minecraft that triggers a set of LEDs in the real world. Scriptcraft goes a slightly different direction and exposes the Minecraft API to Javascript commands typed directly from the in-game console. Not that the console line is a pleasant text editor, but it does close the loop and allow for modifications to the game system from within the game itself.

Launching Makers: Students

I spent most of my time at NAIS with a great team of Maker-minded educators, each of whom has great stories about the growth and accomplishments of their program.

When I watched the faces of other teachers and school leaders in those conversations, I could see the analytic processes running very close to the surface. They were listening to these (hopefully) inspiring and entertaining stories, but only because we were too stingy or too dense to simply explain how to launch their own #makered program!

After retelling my story from Flint Hill, and listening to Jaymes, Lindsey and Vinnie retell their origin stories, here’s the Cliff Notes for launching a K12 Makers program.

These are the three resources you absolutely [1] need in order to launch a #makered program:, students, faculty, and space. The precise mixture and composition of those components will dictate the starting boundaries and possibly the focus of your program.

Students are the most difficult component. Not because individual students lack interest, but because of how schools limit their options and constrain their choices.

Most K12 schools wrap all student and teacher activities around a carefully managed framework of classes, breaks, passing periods and coverage. From one viewpoint, a school’s primary resource is student hours, and the whole edifice exists to portion out students and move them smoothly from place to place. In the vast schedules that constitute those systems, very few cells are dedicated to “you know … whatever seems cool.”

Student contact hours are often set up as a zero-sum game, where established players (rightly!) view new programs as immediate opponents that could develop into existential threats. New programs don’t bluff their way through the curriculum and schedule gatekeepers with a gameplan of “just start!”

But while most schools have a carefully managed schedule, almost all of them are held together with some kludge. If you’re looking to launch a Makers program “Monday, not someday” then look for these areas. At Flint Hill we started with middle school study hall, a weird schedule-filling block that didn’t serve an academic purpose beyond “kids go here.” This year, we’ve seen great uptake Makerspace use from middle school students who are dismissed at 3p but have to wait for the 3:50p bus routes. Every school is different, but I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have some pockets of time where the primary mandate is “have an adult in proximity to kids.” Not only are those times fundamentally unclaimed by the faculty structure, they’re often a real drag for kids as well! Providing a Makerspace alternative to those “holding pen” moments is pure upside for the students and the school.

When you’re looking to launch a K12 Makers program, start with finding a time that students can make. If you can’t find a window for it now, then you’re facing a problem that no capital campaign or architectural design team can solve.

[1] I’m on record as a“just start” absolutist. This list, like any attempt to three-ring binder and package the #makered process, is a compromise from that position. Please imagine that every noun and most adjectives that follow have invisible asterisks, footnotes and disclaimers.

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