Category: Robotics

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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 (, and New Matter (

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 (  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


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 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

Today marks the start of a new era – the development of commercial space flight going as far as the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX Dragon approaches ISS

While this video clip shows the SpaceX Dragon from about a mile out, the docking went smoothly and history was made.  As we continue to think about the skills that young people need to develop, the world of space exploration is as alive as ever, even as NASA has slowed down its own construction of spacecraft.

It is worth thinking about what it took to make this all happen.  In terms of educational domains, creativity, engineering, science, math and technology all rank highly.  We can count ourselves lucky that the talent needed to do this incredible task was available.  What is of concern is what the future holds.  Nothing involved with the design, launch, and success of this complex mission fits within the domain of our test-driven mind-set still dominant in US education.

We’ve entered a new era.  Will education for all change as well?

One of my major concerns with all the current interest in STEM education is that the bulk of the efforts I’ve seen are focused on the Science and Math parts of the topic, with Technology and Engineering taking a back seat to everything else. To me, Technology goes way beyond using computers to create documents, but includes the ability to build one’s own programs from scratch. On the engineering side, my feeling is that kids need more opportunities to invent and build things with their hands – engaging in the kind of tinkering most engineers get to do. There are, of course, many schools that do offer a balanced approach to STEM, and they are to be applauded. But there are many more who do not offer the richness that hands-on construction affords. We have libraries to enrich kids heads. Does your school have workshops where they can enrich their hands and minds together?

The situation is made even worse for many kids who are having trouble in school, since they are often funneled into even more draconian rote-learning environments rather than being given the chance to explore learning in ways that might well be more natural to them.

My bias is home grown. I’ve been an electronics tinkerer since I was a little kid. I used to find old radios that I would take apart for their parts, some of which ended up in projects of my own design. I had no teachers helping me – I just figured things out for myself, with the support of my folks who helped provide me with the tools of construction, some of which I still use today. Of course my tinkering took place decades before personal computers were invented. Programming was replaced by building. And, yes, I made plenty of mistakes and did some stupid things – but, through it all I learned a lot.

By the time I got my PhD and started working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, I had developed both my hands and my mind. Since (among other things) I have degrees in engineering, both of these domains got a good workout. For example, one design methodology I learned (once the personal computer came into existence) was that there was a decision one made as a designer as to which tasks were better done in software, and which ones were best done with hardware. Since I worked in both fields, this kind of thinking made great sense to me.

But this trip down memory lane has a point – simply that far too many young people would have no idea what I’m talking about. But this can change, almost for free. Furthermore, it can change in ways that are appropriate for young children as well as for adults – all using the same tools.

First, on the programming front, the Scratch language from MIT  is accessible to all and, through its construction-set metaphors, builds good programming habits if students decide to learn more traditional languages later. This free tool can address a lot of the missing materials on the Technology side of STEM.

On the Engineering side of STEM, one amazing and inexpensive tool is the Arduino programmable controller. This open source piece of hardware acts as the interface between the computer and (for example) a robot built by a student with a few parts and recycled materials.

Basically, you create a program for the Arduino that will sense inputs of various types (light, sound, physical pressure, temperature, etc.)and then, based on your program design, run motors, control lamps, and do myriad things limited only by your imagination. While you are free to build your own Arduino system from scratch, most choose to purchase a fully assembled board (shown above) for about $30, or $TB 0.1 (one tenth the cost of a traditional textbook) from vendors like Sparkfun whose catalog also includes all the other electrical components you might need for your projects. Even RadioShack has jumped on the Arduino bandwagon!

As for programming the Arduino, the free software from the Arduino site contains all you need to create programs to be downloaded to your board. But, the language in which these programs are written is not as easy to master as languages like Scratch.

Not to worry – there is a special version of Scratch for the Arduino device (Scratch for Arduino). By connecting your Arduino to the USB port of your computer and creating programs in this version of Scratch, you’ve opened the door for Technology and Engineering education in some pretty powerful ways.

The screen above shows a couple of programs that cause lights to blink in sequence, and to plot the level of light hitting a photocell used to turn the lights off. I could have just as easily created a Scratch program to run an electric car that follows an arbitrary line drawn on the floor – or to have a robot solve a maze – or just about anything else. Now while the Arduino does not have enough power to run most motors directly, motor driver circuits can be built using about a quarter’s worth of parts.

Once kids get started with the Arduino, they suddenly develop an interest in learning to use multimeters, oscilloscopes, and a bunch of other tools (including soldering irons.) They start to view the world of the made through new eyes once they have learned to make things themselves.

So, when it comes to STEM education, I think we should get serious or go home. The tools are there along with amazingly rich libraries of support materials. It is beyond time for us to realize that Science and Math alone do not a STEM curriculum make.