Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Archive for April, 2011

Robot Projects

As I said before, it is science fair season in Greenwood. After finishing up the required LEGO robot project, many of my science club members are going for their ‘independent study’ badges. This means I give them unlimited access to the bins of LEGO Mindstorms and they run with it.  Some students are coming up with their own creations but, due to limited time, most are using instructions from the internet communities that sprung up to support LEGO robotics. So far the projects are constructive (a machine that sorts bricks by color, a machine that solves the Rubik’s Cube) and destructive (voice activated catapult, machine gun rapid brick launcher) I am going another route, hoping to get the kids more into the programming side of things and exploration. I built a “rover-bot” by modifying a design I found. With the help of the students, we programmed him to explore the school, avoid objects using the distance sensors, and back away from chairs, walls, and students if he bumps into them. We then strapped a Flip camera to him to “record” his travels. My original plan was to attach a skype-equipped iPod touch to the robot and set him loose in the high school so that, like the Mars Rover, students could see a live feed of this strange new world from across town.  But, sadly, Skype is, for good reason, filtered off our network.

Here is a little video we made explaining the robot and his great journey.


What “Dream Product” Would You Like In Your Classroom?

In my last post I raved about the DIY Maker movement and how I believe it may be the future of Tech Ed programs.  I recently received an email from a group of Makers in Madison called sector67, that maintains a nonprofit workshop there where fellow Hackers are able to work on their projects.  The email went like this:

“We are currently in brainstorming mode (and on a tight time line) and hoping that your educational expertise and frustration could provide us with some inspiration. Our request is that you (and any peers you forward this too!) take a moment to share a thought or two about issues and obstacles you deal with in the classroom. Or maybe you have a dream machine you have always wanted? Perhaps you need a device that visually conveys an abstract concept? Something that helps relax the kids during reading/quiet time? A support tool that can be used with any topic? If you don’t have a particular idea, please just outline the problem with a little detail. The challenge is for us to create a solution. Really, anything is possible!”

Any ideas for a device, any device that helps in the classroom, electronic or otherwise and this group could potentially make your dreams come true.  Please comment with any ideas and I’ll pass them on.

My idea, in flowchart form, is to have a lunchbox we can take with us on field trips. Inside the lunchbox is a wirelessly enabled hard drive, a big battery and a few dozen wireless SD cards to be put into whatever digital cameras we have. Then, every time a kid takes a picture the photos are instantly put on the hard drive, in one place, ready for projects when we get back to school.


It’s science fair season in Greenwood, Wisconsin. A week ago I asked what kinds of things the generation of LEGO would create when they grew up. I think that I may have discovered what the future may hold for the amateur engineers in my classroom. Enter the world of “makers.” Often referred to as “hackers,” these are not the notorious computer criminals of my childhood. The term “hack” now refers to modifying any device, computer program, or skill to improve one’s life—basically, anything under the DIY umbrella. By this definition you may be hacking and not know it. For example, that baseball card you put in your bike spokes as a kid? Yeah, you hacked your bike.

What is interesting when cruising the sites dedicated to this new, broader vision of engineering is the creativity and technical skill of these ‘makers,’ as they call themselves. Many of the creations I found, such as the pedal-powered blender, seemed to be creation for creation’s sake. However, many seemed to have a genuinely humanitarian and educational goal.

For example, the Civilization Construction Set is basically a giant LEGO set of metal and hydraulics that, assembled in the right way, can provide a community with infrastructure. Arrange the parts one way, you have a tractor to plow a field. Rearrange the parts and you have a brick making machine or a blast furnace. The group created all the CAD drawings in their spare time and has even prototyped many of their projects. I showed this to my science club and a few of my more gearhead-oriented students, and they were ecstatic seeing how what they were learning could be applied on a larger scale. A trip to the Maker magazine website is akin to traveling through a candy store of cleverness.

MakerBot Thing-O-Matic

I believe this spirit is the future of Tech Ed programs. Give students the tools they need to solve realistic problems and the freedom to tinker. Many of the production tools that used to be solely industrial have now trickled down to the consumer and educational level. There are several microcontroller kits that allow students to create their own networked and easily programmable minicomputers that can fit inside a shoebox or Altoid tin—the same technology present in every factory’s automation line. HP now sells a 3D DesignJet printer. For a mere $18,000, a high school student can prototype anything created in CAD.


But why worry about price? Some of these same ‘Hackers’ I spoke of before created the MakerBot Thing-o-Matic, a 3-D printer that can create any 3-D object you can imagine for under $1,300. This is not for the faint of heart, because in the spirit of DIY you have to assemble the Thing-O-Matic yourself. For Tech Ed people, this tool would revolutionize the classroom. Imagine a group of kids who need a custom part for their LEGO robot, something never devised before; the Thing-O-Matic creates a prototype from scratch in about an hour. They design their very own sports car and in a few minutes they could have a scale model.  We are truly coming to a point where the technology is limited by our imaginations and not the other way around.

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