Category: Programming


This year’s ISTE conference in Denver was quite interesting. Norma and I spent most of our time in the HyperDuino booth showing our new CubeSat using Roger Wagner’s HyperDuino system. This CubeSat was the subject of my recent Instructable that received thousands of visits almost as soon as it was released!

The main activity at the booth, though, involved visitors learning how to use HyperDuino as a tool for student projects. After learning how to do it themselves, they were encouraged to show someone else how to do the same thing, at which point they would received a full HyperDuino kit to take home. Even though the booth location was near the back of the exhibit hall, it was packed three-deep with people most of the time.

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HyperDuino booth on a slow day

A brief tour of the hall showed that there were a few other booths (e.g., Fablevision) that were similarly packed, and a large number of booths with few attendees. The well-attended booths engaged people in learning through the building of artifacts, and the sparsely attended booths focused on telling people about a product or service.

It quickly became obvious that verbs were more important than nouns – that “doing” was more popular than “knowing.” In some ways this is reflected in the popularity of Maker Faires, and ties in with Dewey’s quote that he didn’t care what a child knew, but what he could do with what he knew. Dare I think this means we are finally ready for progressive education? I think so! The Next Generation Science Standards represent a tectonic shift in pedagogy, and – consciously or not – this year’s ISTE attendees seemed ready for it.

In the last few years, we’ve visited flagship Maker Faires in San Mateo, California and New York City where we got to hang out with over 100,000 kindred spirits for whom tinkering is a critical component of life.  While formal Maker Faires are a fairly recent phenomenon, the educational application of “making” dates back to the dawn of the previous century when John Dewey said that what a child knew was not as important as what he did with what he knew.  This perspective from the Father of Progressive Education remained central to the thinking of educational leaders like MIT Professor Seymour Papert who, in the early 1990’s, coined the word “constructionism” to describe the process of building representations of knowledge separate from the learner himself. (Papert, Seymour, and Harel, Idit. “Situating constructionism.” Constructionism 36 (1991): 1-11.)

Even libraries have joined the movement with public “makerspaces” being added to facilities previously dedicated to quiet, paper-based, research.  As Erica Compton from the Idaho Commission for Libraries has said, “Libraries need to become more like kitchens and less like grocery stores ― a place where patrons are able to construct knowledge, where they can create, build, make and be actively engaged.”

One would think that a recent surge in constructionist activities has taken the world by storm, perhaps at the expense of reflective thought or of activities of value, even if they don’t result in artifacts.  Well, as far as traditional schooling goes, the progressivist philosophy of Dewey has yet to become the norm.  To be fair, every school has students engaged in making things.  Whether it is a science fair project displayed on a tri-fold board, or more complex constructions, every teacher engages students in some sort of project that requires “making.”   But it is the rare school that embraces the “making” philosophy across the curriculum.

As a product of a progressive public high school in Chicago, my life was pretty equally split between hand-based and head-based learning.  And, it was the work we did with our hands that made what we learned with our heads “stick” and make sense.  As a result, my first year in Engineering at Northwestern University was basically a walk in the park.

While any subject at any grade can benefit from a rich “making” component, the STEM fields are clearly low hanging fruit in this regard.  There are two reasons for this:  First, the scientific method is based on the testing of conjectures through experimentation and our curricular interest in technology and “coding” (programming) feeds into “making” as well.  Second, the Next Generation Science Standards and (to a lesser extent) the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics mandate the use of inquiry and project-based learning as the vehicles through which these subjects are navigated.

And, yet, in too many schools the ground in which these forces are planted lies fallow.  The time has come to change this, and the tools needed are inexpensive and easy to get.  We’ll describe some of these tools, but first there is another topic to explore: the physical structure of school.  According to the architect Prakash Nair, too many schools are built around “bells and cells.”  Children move from place to place at fixed intervals and (especially in the upper grades) sit in rooms at desks all facing the front so they can harvest the wisdom imparted from their teacher.  It is a rare school that allows the free flow of students from place to place and lets them work on projects as long as they need to.

While the incorporation of makerspaces in traditional schools is possible, there is a long way to go if the goal is deep pedagogical change.  In some cases, schools have a STEM lab where groups of kids work on a variety of projects with the freedom to move from place to place as needed.  Except for the burden of bells, such environments can be quite productive ― functioning more like studios than classrooms.  For many, this is a great first step, but it carries the risk that it will be isolated in fear that the practices there would infect other rooms.  As Professor Papert asked on numerous occasions, “What would be the impact of the pencil on education if you had to go to the pencil lab to use one?”

On the classroom computer front, it might appear ― at first glance ― that recent trends are moving us further away from supporting a culture of making.  The reason I say this is because Chromebooks are now the number-one computing platform in America’s schools.  Since Chromebooks rely on cloud-based applications, traditional software is no longer supported, leaving users at the mercy of those developers willing and eager to create applications that can be run over the Internet.  Also, it was not clear at the start how Chromebooks would accommodate maker hardware like 3D printers, and robotics control devices like the popular Arduino board.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.28.56 PMIt turns out these fears are unfounded.  In the domain of student programming, for example, everything from MIT’s Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) to Terrapin Logo has (or will soon have) versions that work splendidly on Chromebooks  This helps move the Chromebook from a content delivery platform to one that supports unbridled student creativity.

With the current interest in students learning to program (coding) these developments are welcome.  In some ways this harkens back to the early days of personal computing when there was little commercial software, and students had to learn to write programs themselves.  Of course, the programming world has changed a lot since the early 1980’s with construction block languages like Scratch coexisting with text-based programming languages like Logo and Python.

Of course, with programming languages, the results reside on the computer screen.  With peripherals like the Arduino, computer programs can interact with remote sensors and output devices like lhyperduinoamps and motors.  Using tools like HyperDuino for Chrome (www.hyperduino.com) students can build projects that bridge the virtual and physical worlds.

A popular starting point for HyperDuino is the making of interactive tri-fold displays where, by touching certain areas of the display, the computer might play a video and lights on the physical display turn on to show the area being explored at that time..

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.47.09 PMMore elaborate constructions can be made using the Fab@School Maker Studio software (www.fablevisionlearning.com) that cuts out elaborate paper shapes designed by students using the Silhouette computer controlled paper cutter.

Even 3D printers have joined the cloud, making them work perfectly with Chromebooks as powerful tools for making.  Two companies with excellent cloud-based printers are Polar3D (www.polar3d.com), and New Matter (newmatter.com).

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.51.38 PMWhile cloud-based design tools for 3D printing have been around for awhile (e.g., Tinkercad), new and more powerful tools have arrived, such as BlocksCAD (blockscad.einsteinsworkshop.com).  This tool uses Scratch-like programming to design 3D shapes of amazing richness and complexity.

My point is that the maker movement in education is supported on many levels ― from the new standards to the new technologies and beyond.  It is time for heads and hands to be unified in support of learning across all grades and subjects.

Meet the author

Dr. Thornburg and his colleagues conduct workshops on maker technologies ranging from 3D printing to using the HyperDuino technology with Chrome.  He can be reached at david@tcse-k12.org.

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As I returned from the MakerFaire in San Mateo, California a few weeks ago, I was amazed at how this movement had grown to attract 150,000 people to one place for a weekend of “the greatest show and tell on earth. ” With all this enthusiasm, one can be forgiven for thinking that this is a new movement when, in fact, it has roots running back quite a few years. A quick search on Google Trends shows nothing before 2007, but this is simply not true.

After writing earlier books on Logo for the MSX computers in the 1980’s, the Brazilian educational leader, Norma Godoy, decided , in 1992, to raise the bar on student programming by incorporating robotics into her currculum. Rather than just connect Logo to simple floor “turtles” that would move along based on Logo commands, she thought that the world of robotics was completely open, and that students should be allowed to build and program anything they wanted. Now before you say “Lego Mindstorms,” you need to know that product didn’t become available until 1998. And even if it had been available in Brazil, the high cost of Lego bricks meant that, once a project was completed, it had to be taken apart so others could use the bricks in their own designs.

predioRather than work with scarce and expensive materials, Norma decided to build her program around recycled materials – plastic soda bottles, cardboard, and other easily found items which were then assembled into projects containing motors and lights so they could be programmed by the student’s computer. This required a hardware interface to control these motors and lights. The interface she inspired engineers, (one at ORT and one at ARS Consult both in Brazil) to create, was connected to the parallel port (remember those?) of the computer with signals then sent to various outputs.

Since cheap LEDs were not available at the time, small bulbs from Christmas lights were used. The most expensive parts were the stepper motors taken from dead hard drives, or purchased for a few dollars.

Armed with this arsenal of tools, the key element was the creativity of the students who built amazing things. For example, one ROB1student built a model of a garage door opener that worked by flashing the car lights into a photosensor that then told the Logo program to open the door. The garage itself was made from a cardboard box, and a jar lid was used at the pivot for the door to open.

One can only imagine what students would do today with inexpensive 3D printers being used to make custom gears and other parts that are hard to make from recycled materials!

At one time, many thousands of students were using these materials throughout Brazil. and Norma started presenting her work at international conferences, such as the 1997 CUE conference in California. One of the teachers Norma taught led a team of students into the prize winning round of the First Robotics competition a few years ago.

Now that companies are entering the educational robotics arena with kits that take advantage of recyced matrials, it is important to reflect on this rich history today. It is interesting to see the attention these new comanies get at educational conferences from teachers, some of whom were in school themselves when this robotics movement was started.

When we look at these products, it gives us a chance to reflect on how student robotics is far from a new idea!

In the spirit of full disclusre, Norma Godoy has been known as Norma Thornburg since 2000 and she and I are actively engaged in everything from 3D printing in the classroom http://amzn.to/1pyeaqk and soft circuits.

Well, this is my current attempt to distill some of the core ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in the form of an infographic.  Let me know if you find it interesting or useful.

I used Inkscape to create the graphic over a period of a few weeks as we were preparing for one of our NGSS workshops.

ngss infographic

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know some Flash programmers who have mastered an arcane art:  How to use a tool so cumbersome that it provides full employment on projects that could be done in a fraction of the time in Hyperstudio and then exported to HTML5.

This all came home to me when I was asked to help edit some e-books using Adobe Flash Pro.  Those of you who remember Macromind Director, and the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, can imagine what the interface looks like.  You have libraries of resources that you import to either frames or libraries (and be sure you never get them confused).  Animations made from still frames can be made in only five times the time it takes to do this in Quicktime.  But the real time sink comes when attaching everything together.  Heaven forbid you need to duplicate a frame without duplicating the frame’s inheritance since once you edit the “new” frame it will replace the contents of the one you copied it from as well.  Of course this is all fixable by a series of crafty maneuvers that only take a half-hour to learn.  Next comes the linking of sounds to images, but I’ve made my point.  Once you have your e-book project finished in a month or so you then need to compile it for every platform on which you want it to run.  “Voila!” (which is French for “my wrist hurts,”) you are done at last.  See, full employment for even the simplest of projects!

Hyperstudio, on the other hand, handles the same project this way.  First, create a background screen with the major navigation buttons and a text frame.  Make as many cards with this background as you need (this takes 20 minutes, if you include a 15 minute coffee break.)  Next, and this is the tricky part – drag and drop the images and text for each page onto each card.  If your images are movies, then drag and drop works just as well. Of course, if you are in a hurry, all you need to do is create the original template card with the navigation buttons and the text object marked as group objects, you can then do one “New Group Card” action (Edit menu) to start a group, and then just drag and drop the entire folder of images on to the HyperStudio icon in the dock.  This will instantly create as many additional group cards as you have images in this folder.  This skips the many steps of dragging and dropping each image individually on to each new group card as you make it.  What makes this step tricky is how you create the illusion that it takes days, not minutes, to assemble these pages.  Next, attach sounds as needed so that when (for example) you click on some text, the narration plays.  Finally, there is the matter of exporting to HTML5 which is done by choosing Export and HTML5 from the menu.  The result plays on virtually anything.  Put a fork in it, you are done.

Now how you explain the next 29 days of R&R is up to you.