Tie And Jeans

Archive for the tag “projects”

Beginnings and Plans

As I’ve mentioned this in our (now weekly) #makered chats, I’m working out of a new room this year. Let’s be clear, the stunning news is that there is a, singular and exclusive, classroom, not closet or forgotten corner, for middle school Makers at Flint Hill this year. This is phenomenal.

My MakerEd world is filled with people and schools building incredible spaces. Just check out Vinnie Vrotny’s photos and tweets about their new Innovation Lab, or Hillbrook or Neuva or Abermarle, and you’ll see a bevy of casters, concrete floors and open space.

While my heart says we’ll get there, that’s not where we’re starting. As giddy as I get thinking about those transformed spaces, I have to fight back against my stuff-focused Grinch self. Those rooms will be wonderful learning spaces, but they’ll also be a message to your colleagues and other schools: “To transform learning spaces, first you must call the contractors.”

No. To transform learning, first you have to open the door to students.

One experiment I’m trying this year is starting off with fewer tables and seats than we’ll need. Especially on the first few days, I want students up! Moving, thinking, noisy and active, exploring all the unformed corners of the space.

My dream follow up for this start is to only allow “built” seats in the MakerSpace. This could include student sewn pillows and cushions for milk crates, shaped and stabilized cardboard boxes, one-plank chairs, one-sheet chairs, one-day chairs, or wikiseats.

I decided I needed to build my own before school started.

It’s worth restating at this point that I didn’t thrive in shop class. I didn’t major in EE, and I don’t have a thriving robot factory at home. My investment in the skills and crafts that constitute my corner of #makered  comes from my experience as an adult novice, not a lifetime of honed expertise. I have enough experience to use a woodshop safely, but not enough to complete any project with fewer than three trips for materials.

When I start a project, I don’t have an unconscious process that scouts ahead for common mistakes. In this case, I found a neat design on Thingiverse and charged ahead. A more careful Maker would have looked at the brief instructions, looked at the plans, and wondered what might need to change when using different sized plywood.

This is where I started wondering about that.

This does not look comfy.

If the material had matched the plans, these slots would mesh and form a stable, smooth exterior.  This monstrosity doesn’t do that, since I’m trying to shove 3mm plywood into 2.3mm slots.  It looks like a Westerosi portapotty.

After a frustrating evening, and some napkin estimates of how long it would take me to widen each slot with a Dremel, I started over from scratch. Illustrator to laser cutter to assembly. All told, the  project and false starts burned through much of a weekend.  While this fulfills the original objectives, giving me a stool to sit on, it’s a confusing artifact


Here’s a physical object that serves as an object lesson for the unimportance of stuff for #makered. Everyone at school is going to see the stool, maybe hear the story, and think about “that class where kids make the stuff.” Very few people from inside those walls will see my remixed project on Thingiverse, where I uploaded my modified Illustrator files with the incrementally wider gaps. No one will see the shift in kids’ perceptions as they realize that there are plans for all the things in their world.

Well, no one will notice… up to the point where we build the GyroGlider!

Plans available!


Makers, Week 2 Outline

Once again, I’m posting my bulk email to the Makers class here. This is mainly for my record keeping, but I welcome any conversation about the material, especially from other dedicated Scratch teachers.


Hey Makers-

For the start of this week, let’s try laying a few different challenges out on the table. As with everything in Makers, you can approach these as something to tinker with by yourself or with a group, or back and forth between the two. This isn’t a competition between teams, but a challenge to make awesome stuff. Any work that pushes us towards more awesome counts as a win.


Extend the “drive train” of the carousel automata. C_2 alread won (yay!) the find-a-flaw challenge by doubling and tripling the length of the main axel. What we’re looking for now is ways to transfer the power that can cope with different physical constraints, like different turns, rotations and elevations.


This one might take a while. Same eight P&tB messages, sent between the 4th floor stairwell (by English) and the 1st floor. This means that the both locations need to be able to send and receive. If an observer standing inside the 3rd floor hallway can write down the message, then it counts as intercepted.

That’s my way of saying that yelling really loud is right out.


aka “Oh, I wanted a different house.”

The LOGO houses were awesome. If you’re looking for some “why?” to that project, consider this a challenge: How long would it take you to make the same house with four windows (ie. clearly 2 floors)? How about changing it into a set of 4 row-houses (door with a single window above, but all stacked together)?

Drawing a house is a nice start, but if all your work is in one giant stack, then changing the shape or scale of the house essentially means building it all over again from Move/Turn blocks. If you compartmentalize different parts of the house with broadcasts for primitives like sq100, sq25, and others for structures like window or door, then it’s a lot easier to plan out and make the necessary changes.

This is the step that I glossed over in my enthusiasm for BYOB/Snap! It’s really difficult to think about a program that will draw a house at any scale unless you’ve separated out how to draw each part.


Because Scratch is awesome, here’s an extra.

As soon as anyone draws a square in LOGO, they love to repeat that action over and over and over. If you put a little TURN in there, you’ll get the classic square-flower (does it have a real name?)

Your art-challenge is to create a program that makes a recognizable piece of art, but one that’s slightly different each time you run it. Look for some examples here or here.  Here’s my short, very INCOMPLETE, list of things you can modify while drawing:

Pen Thickness
Pen Color
Pen Shade
Turn (degrees)
Steps (segment length)
absolute position (go to x: y: )
Anything that uses a number can also take another numeric value as input. So you could could Move (Pen Thickness) Steps, or Turn (Y position) Degrees.

Randomness can help, but randomness by itself rarely produces art.


A Week in Makers

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t found a collaboration tool that works for my group of middle school Makers.  I’ll keep looking, but for the timebeing I fall back on email.  More for my records, here’s the week one wrap up I sent to the group.


Hey Makers!

We’ve done a lot of different stuff during our first “week.” To ensure we can spend our time building, designing and programing, I’m going to recap our projects and try to stick some questions in your brain.

These aren’t quiz questions or a review sheet. These are big questions that don’t have single, simple answers. These are questions that should bug you.


Our first cardboard automota was a “simple” carousel, taking rotation from the side of the box (a crank) and transfering it to the top of the box (spinning disc). [We’ve grown up around a world filled with “perfect” solutions, so many groups started off looking for neatly meshing, perfectly calibrated gears.] C_1 and C_2, who had the benefit of an extra day with their group intact, added an extra “bounce” to their ride by using a non-circular cam. In the end, both carousels turned just fine, but each fought with friction and alingment at several different points.

Without retreating to manufactured solutions like K’Nex or Lego gears, what could you do reduce that problem? While “turn faster” is a reasonable solution for shoebox carousels, can you imagine a construction that would **require** less friction to operate?


Both the light and color based systems for sending Pinky & The Brain messages down the hallways proved remarkably resiliant. Not only did the messages arrive intact and inorder, they did so despite the interfereance of 5th graders heading to recess. You discussed several ways that increasing visibility would improve both those system, and ways to refine the way you send messages (nerd phrase: message PROTOCOL) to make beginings and endings more clear.

While increasing the height of the sending station seems sensible, I’d push you to think about what you GIVE UP with that solution as much as what you gain. Sure, being taller than C_1’s little brother would be really useful, but would it be more difficult to set up in the hallway? Is there a downside to mounting the colored flags on tall sticks?
In the coming weeks, we’ll go through a series of message tests that will seem increasingly unfair. To start your brains whirring, remember that there are over 150 different “I think so Brain…” jokes from P&tB. Can your codebooks expand to cover all of those? What about any single line from any Shel Silverstein poem? What happens if the hallway is empty but the lights are off? Or if the sender is on the JK blacktop and the message needs to reach the front of Miller House? Could you send a silent message from the top of the 4th floor stairwell to the very bottom?

Like I said, increasingly unfair.


I love LOGO, and I loved your Scratch houses. Please share those to the Scratch website (scratch.mit.edu) and send me the link. We’ll use Scratch and Scratch-like tools extensivley throughout the course, and it will form our first bridge between the physical and programable world. Remember, the true power of a computer comes when a task seems tedious, time consuming and dull. Programing is a direct tool to think hard and clearly about something once, and then avoid spending time or brainpower on it in the future.

Consider this small chain. There’s a small jump from a program that draws a house in Scratch to one that draws a house with 3D rectangles. If you have a file of 3D rectangles, then you can print it out in plastic using a printer like this:

The hard work of programming is describing, clearly and in exact detail, the entirety of a process.  The power of programing is that this hard work can make us exempt from the hard work of Exacto knives and Model Magic for huge chunks of our lives.


Intro to Makers: Communication Challenge

The most important thing I’ve learned in 15 years of teaching is that the calendar lies. November 12th doesn’t look that close to January 15th, but then the alarm goes off and somehow the year reads 2013 and everything falls off the rails. Or maybe I’ve just learned that concrete planning for the next terms is one productive way to deal with my November funk.

In the second semester I’ll have a new batch of 7th grade students entering the Makerspace for the first time.  One of the great scheduling idiosyncrasies of this weird class is we rolled from a spring 7th grade elective into a fall 8th grade class. While there have been some real benefits to that continuity, I’m excited about presenting an explicit Intro to Maker Culture sequence for these new students. I’ve thought at length about design thinking, read pedagogy about project designs that encourage rather than restrict student creativity. I’m a year older, and while that’s not much in fraction terms, this has been my first orbit in a Maker-Teacher mindset.

In the spirit of Gary Stager’s Good Projects and the Maker’s Grimore, here’s the first in a non-sequential run of “opening” projects for spring Makers. The content here steals extensively from the first few chapters of James Glick’s Information– which is a great book and an AMAZING audio book.


Communication challenge

I envision this a a series of running projects, based on the fundamental historic challenge of communicating a message further and faster than a human can run. This is an attempt to motivate a constructivist playground of communication technologies, rather than trying to teach about serial protocols, morse code or semaphore. Ideally this will work like Cardboard Automata for communications protocols, where students start with the most basic materials to accomplish a relatively simple task, and then adapt as the challenge escalates.

The physical locations will drive changes to the technological solutions. For the first round we’ll stand at the end of our academic hallways, with full visibility and just out of auditory range. The next challenge will be between two non-adjacent classrooms, then from non-line of sight sections of the fields, then… who knows. Great solutions that rely on specific properties of one location will struggle in the next.

The structure of the messages will change each time as well, quietly pushing students deeper into information theory. Maybe the first week will just have a list of 5 simple and distinct phrases. One group could do really well by choosing a simple set of 5 gestures as an elementary phrase book. That technique would be difficult to implement for an arbitrary phrase from a 20 word vocabulary and more so for a message that involved arbitrary numeric values.

In each challenge, there will be some third-rail of “WHOOPS!” that designs need to avoid.  During the first week, it will be causing any disturbance to classrooms on that hallway. On others, there might be members of other groups stationed in specific positions as interceptors. Hitting the “WHOOPS!” rail doesn’t invalidate the communication, but it’s a clear way to constrain the design space.

How far could this project go? I honestly have no idea, and that accounts for much of my enthusiasm.  If the initial challenges are kept small, then at the very least it will provide students with a great opportunity to complete a design cycle. As soon as one group succeeds by emulating some historic communication system, be it talking drums or the Clacks, then I think we’ll be off to the races. I’m not looking for them to recreate the entire history of telecommunication in a few weeks, but this seems like it will provide enough concrete experience to being discussion of message density, signal vs noise, and yes serial communication protocols. Which is great, because I have a pile of nerdy ASCII jokes just waiting for an audience.

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