Review: LittleBits Space Kit

What am I reviewing?

littleBits Space Kit
Price: $189

Disclosure: littleBits sent me a Space Kit for free so that I could review it.

littleBits Space Kit with pen, for scale  
(The pen is for scale)

TL;DR

This is an excellent choice if you want an accessible way to:

- ease kids into creating circuits without having to do any programming.
- inspire kids (or anyone else) to really dig into all the technology that goes into space exploration and using satellites to conduct experiments.

The box says ages 14+. Depending on the child, someone as young as 10 could enjoy the simpler projects. The younger the child, the more they would need assistance and scaffolding, though.

What's included in the Space Kit

Note: A "bit" is a self-contained module that connects to other littleBits modules.

littleBits Space Kit contents

- 2 power bits
- 2 nine-volt batteries with cords to connect to the power bits
- 2 connecting-wire bits
- 1 DC motor
- 1 numerical display
- 1 LED
- 1 infrared LED
- 1 speaker
- 1 aux input cable
- 1 microphone
- 1 remote-trigger
- 1 light sensor
- 2 small, plastic screwdrivers (for adjusting sensitivity on the light sensor)
- 1 booklet full of space-related project ideas, instructions, and interesting information about real-world applications

What's not included

Most projects in the booklet require some sort of craft supply or normal household object. Projects I tried out called for things like an mp3 player, a glue gun, a tv remote, a small amount of milk, disposable dishware, tin foil, craft sticks, various sizes of boxes, and lots of cardboard and tape. If you are already well-stocked in recyclables and craft supplies, you’ll probably be fine. You’ll definitely want to read through the materials requirements for each project before you begin, though!

Because I don’t usually buy disposable dishware or craft sticks, I sometimes found myself scrambling to find alternative materials. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (here’s to problem solving and creative thinking!) but you may want to factor that into any considerations of how long a project will take you and how easy/difficult it will be to complete.

What was my experience with it?

I’m entirely new to LittleBits, so the very first thing I noticed about my littleBits Space Kit was the design. The design on everything in this kit is amazing. The booklet of instructions is attractive, well-illustrated, and informative in addition to containing step-by-step instructions for each of the suggested projects. Even the box the kit comes in feels like a luxury item.

The good design is most apparent on the bits themselves, though. Each bit is labelled as to what it does: “remote trigger,” “DC motor,” etc. That’s great for when you’re following directions for a specific project.

When you’re just messing around with the bits, though, what’s even better is that 1) you don’t have to program anything, ever, and 2) the bits are color coded. Power modules are blue, input modules are pink, output modules are green, and wires are orange. You can easily swap out modules as long as they’re the same color--which means that it is incredibly easy to move from following the directions on a project to modifying the project to do anything else that suits your fancy.

When you’re putting the littleBits together, they snap very satisfyingly into place. Because of the magnets in each bit, you literally cannot put them together incorrectly. I tested the kit out with a friend who has almost no circuit-building experience (we played with Snap Circuits together one time a few years back, and that’s it), and she especially loved that feature. It kept her from worrying about shorting anything out, and let her experiment freely with the pieces. She assembled and tested out her first circuit well under two minutes, and easily kept up with me as we played with the kit, despite the fact that I’ve been playing with circuits in the form of my Arduino for more than a year now.

photo of a circuit that interacts with my tv's remote control
lighting up an LED when any button is pressed on the tv remote

 

We worked our way through most of the simpler projects in the booklet, doing things like lighting up an LED when we pressed a button on a tv remote, and wirelessly transmitting sound from my iPod to the speaker that came in the kit. During that process, the booklet took us from explaining, “What is energy?” up to projects with lessons like, “Learn the science behind satellites and make your own parabolic reflector.” These projects (and the information in the booklet) inspired all kinds of further questions in my friend and me. For that reason, I think that this kit would be a wonderful lead-in to an independent research project.

The wireless transmission project is an example of why there are two power bits in the Space Kit: We had one circuit to do the transmitting, and a second to do the receiving. That same project is also an example of a time when some experimentation was necessary beyond the directions in the booklet, since it turned out that this project works *much* better in a dark room--which I couldn’t find anywhere in the directions.

Eventually we worked our way up to the more involved projects at the end of the booklet. These projects require more supplies, and also take much longer to complete. The big project that we focused on was making our own Mars Rover.

Making the Mars Rover

photo of our Mars Rover
Our finished product. Click through for video of the rover in action!

 

What I loved about this project:

- Building the circuit was very easy.  

- As always with littleBits, there was no programming required.  

- At the end, we really did have a little rover that we controlled with a tv remote, and that displayed what it was picking up from its light sensor as it went.

- The idea that NASA needs line of sight communication with Mars in order to control their rovers was driven home by the way our rover only moved if you hit the remote sensor with the IR from the rv remote.  

Setbacks we encountered as we worked on this project:

- I had made the mistake of taking out the recycling the day before we began this project, which greatly limited our choices of supplies.

- We had trouble figuring out things like what size box to use for the rover’s body. The box we ended up with made our lives difficult by being too small to easily arrange all the necessary parts inside.

- The booklet’s directions for an axle holder for the center wheel didn’t work for us at all.  We ended up making our own system to hold that wheel in place, using another straw and a hole in the outside of the box.

- We tried using a popsicle stick instead of a craft stick to attach to the motor and power the Rover. We never did manage to keep the popsicle stick attached to the motor for more than a few seconds of driving at a time, although judicious use of masking tape improved things considerably.

- We made some miscalculations when assembling our center wheel, and as a result our Rover went in circles.

- We had to add counterweights to the back of our Rover to keep it from tipping over due to how we had to arrange the motor, the battery, and the light sensor/display part of the Rover in order to make everything fit.

photo of our rover's broken axle
the axle kept breaking

 

Now, these setbacks were sometimes frustrating.  I want to put that out there, because it’s worth keeping in mind, especially if you’re working with someone who is easily put off by setbacks.  That being said, we’re supposed to be makers, are we not?  And that’s all about realizing that something is a problem, and then trying out ways to fix that problem.  Thus, you can look at the limitations of the booklet as either a design flaw, or a feature. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think!  

Summing Up

The littleBits Space Kit is as foolproof an entree to circuit building as I can imagine. I can see this kit being a big hit with kids or adults who are just getting into circuit building, or who have any interest in space. (And really, who isn’t at least a little interested in space?)

The very minimum skills a child would need in order to use this kit are:

- Ability to manipulate relatively small pieces (without putting them in their mouth).
- Understanding that everything you make with the kit needs a power source.
- Understanding (or patience to learn) that any input will affect the outputs after it.

That said, I think a kid would get a lot more out of this, and need a lot less scaffolding and assistance, if they also had:

- Some very basic level of understanding of electricity.
- Basic knowledge about our solar system, that the moon orbits the earth, etc.

When I try to imagine where a kit like this would have been great in my own education, here’s what I come up with:

- I would have loved assembling some of the very simplest projects when I was 10 or so and was first introduced to electricity in science class--but I would have needed an adult or an older kid on hand to help and to explain things.

- I would have been able to assemble the circuits easily and focus my attention instead on the takeaway lessons if this had been included in, say, my 9th-grade earth science class. (The project about studying the atmosphere from a satellite springs to mind as one that would have fit into that class well.) This actually lines up well with the suggested minimum age of 14 that’s printed on the box.

- I actually had a lot of fun with it now, as an adult. It led me to asking some questions about satellites that I hadn’t thought to ask before.

- I’m excited to take this into work to use as part of the Tech Petting Zoo that our Emerging Technologies Librarian puts on; I fully expect this kit to be a big hit with the college students and occasional adult who attend those.

As long as you can keep track of the pieces and have enough craft supplies at hand, the kit should do well in a makerspace, classroom, or library. If you have books or other resources about energy, satellites, NASA, the solar system, etc., display those near this kit. I bet you’ll get a big boost to their use!

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PACE-ing yourself when planning maker learning

As maker learning moves from informal settings like makerspaces and libraries and into K-12 classrooms, I've found it useful to spend some time thinking about how to effectively frame that learning in the context of school. In the Michigan Makers work that we do, our primary goal is culture over tools or completed projects. If we can get the culture right, then the rest seems to flow more effectively. 

And that means that when we approach maker learning, we are taking a participant-centered approach over a manager-centered approach. If we merely bring maker tools into the classroom, but tell students the steps and procedures required to "successfully" complete the project, then we aren't creating makers. We're creating directions-followers, folks who can paint-by-number but not grow as innovativ thinkers and creators.

Now sure, there are some mini-lessons that we might impose on students in order to give them a functional toolkit with which to openly explore later. For example, having every child practice with the same soldering 101 project gives them a chance to learn from each other and for the teacher to maxmize safety and opportunities for practice. Similarly, the inital Blinking LED Arduino exercise helps introduce students to the Arduino's physical and computing environments. But if this is where maker learning ends, we're doing our students a major disservice and betraying the makerspace heritage from which the maker movement emerged.

Too many adult-prescribed activities also means students learn that success comes from doing it the teacher's way, not from following their own thinking paths. This actually minimizes experimentation and risk-taking, two key elements necessary if we say we are committed to maker learning leading to innovation in society and the workplace, as President Obama said in his proclamation at the first White House Maker Faire:

Our Nation is home to a long line of innovators who have fueled our economy and transformed our world. Through the generations, American inventors have lit our homes, propelled humanity into the skies, and helped people across the planet connect at the click of a button. American manufacturers have never stopped chasing the next big breakthrough. As a country, we respond to challenge with discovery, determined to meet our great tests while seeking out new frontiers ...

I am committed to helping Americans of all ages bring their ideas to life ..

Today, let us continue on the path of discovery, experimentation, and innovation that has been the hallmark not only of human progress, but also of our Nation's progress.  Together, let us unleash the imagination of our people, affirm that we are a Nation of makers, and ensure that the next great technological revolution happens right here in America (emphasis added).

In other words, the pathway to future success means making room for novel ideas and iteration. So we need to have maker mindset in our schools, not merely skills and tools.

In an effort to develop a shorthand with educators (and to give my own middle-aged memory a mnemonic), I ask educators to PACE themselves when planning maker learning:

P - Prioritize process 

A - Promote student agency 

C - Provide choice

E - Value experimentation 

 

Process Over Product

So much of our schools' accountability movement has focused on product: what's on the walls at parent-teacher conferences? What are the students' test scores? What's their final grade? Maker learning focuses instead on process: on slowing down, looking around at what others are doing, chatting about options, and creating and later discarding prototypes. We encourage students to be productive, yes, but we recognize that productivity works at a different rate for different students. Instead of students rushing to complete something that works right away so they get that guaranteed A, we want them to try, iterate, change, update, mock up, and revise their work, with each revision adding a layer of understanding or insight. This may mean that we do not grade maker products in school. Perhaps instead we grade maker journals, Instagram reflection timelines, or artist statements. Holding students accountable for their process-driven experiences means no more, "Well, I just liked it that way." Grading products leads to less-risky products. 

 

Agency

Makers are active participants in makerspaces. While they may go through some training sessions to qualify to use certain tools in a makerspace or to learn basic skills, the makerspace imposes very few rules on how they employ those tools and skills. Open-endedness and feeling as if one is, to use an overworked cliche, in the driver's seat on one's journey are essential. We want to strengthen students' executive function: their ability to self-monitor, self-assess, and self-navigate. As John Dewey said in his essay "The School and Social Progress" in School and Society

I may have exaggerated somewhat in order to make plain the typical points of the old education:  its passivity of attitude, its mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of curriculum and method.  It may be summed up by stating that the center of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the text-book, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself.

On that basis there is not much to be said about the life of the child.  A good deal might be said about the studying of the child, but the school is not the place where the child lives.

Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized.  

If we take an example from an ideal home, where the parent is intelligent enough to recognize what is best for the child, and is able to supply what is needed, we find the child learning  through the social converse and constitution of  the family. There are certain points of interest and value to him in the conversation carried on: statements are made, inquiries arise, topics are discussed, and the child continually learns. He states his experiences, his misconceptions are corrected ...

The ideal home would naturally have a workshop where the child could work out his constructive instincts. It would have a miniature laboratory in which his inquiries could be directed. The life of the child would extend out of doors to the garden, surrounding fields, and forests. He would have his excursions, his walks and talks, in which the larger world out of doors would open to him.

Now, if we organize and generalize all of this, we have the ideal school. There is no mystery about it, no wonderful discovery of pedagogy or educational theory. It is simply a question of doing systematically and in a large, intelligent, and competent way ... The child must be brought into contact with more grown people and with more children in order that there may be the freest and richest social life. Moreover, the occupations and relationships of the home environment are not specially selected for the growth of the child; the main object is something else, and what the child can get out of them is incidental. Hence the need of a school (1900, pp. 51-53).

Dewey's century-old visioning of the dawning of a new student-centered education may still feel like an unachieved goal, but his metaphor for the "center of gravity" couldn't be more spot-on. Dewey's "center of gravity" should be evident in our students when they are making. For some schools, this concept is so contrary to the day to day realities of school (and let's be honest: reduced funding, fewer staff members, higher expectations, more diverse students, and more students overall are very real challenges we cannot brush off or ignore) that maker learning is better suited in a standalone setting: a separate course, an enrichment activity, or a lunchtime club. In that way, it can fully flourish even if the rest of school cannot take a student-centered approach.

 

Choice

If agency is the sense of oneself in the world, then choice is the ability to determine projects, project partners, desired media, and more. In maker learning, we want students to feel they have options and choices, not that they must complete a project in the same media, style, or timeline that we do. This is important for all students. Students from higher socioeconomic classes often have velvet constraints -- their school trajectory often pre-plans what courses they will take in order to get into college (which is always an assumed stage, not an optional one). Many suburban, middle-class kids are, in a parent's well-intentioned desire to expose them to many activities, shuttled from activity to activity, often with little choice in how soccer practice unfolds or which piano music they will learn. Students from lower socioeconomic communities sometimes face a paucity of choices. Their schooling, in another well-meaning gesture, may be narrowly focused on intensive drill and practice on limited subjects (primarly those measured by standardized tests). Lack of funding can mean lack of exposure to options for creative expression at home, in school course catalogs, and in after-school enrichment activities. These are broad generalizations, but the bottom line is that choices -- digital or physical LEGO? Engineering a pattern for a stuffed animal or one for a wooden treasure box? Graphic design or HTML? -- are a key factor in student satisfaction and engagement. Again, the realities of the school day may or may not be conducive to choice in materials or activities, so consider out-of-school-hours options instead if necessary.

 

Experimental

If maker learning claims to promote innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, then we need to find or save time (see earlier notes about the very real constraints of school!) for experimentation, prototyping, trial-and-error, and revision. James Dyson famously made over 5000 prototypes before mastering the world's first bag-free vacuum. Thomas Edison reportedly said, "I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work." (Imagine if we evaluted Edison solely from his dyslexia-challenged educational output.) Our educator mindsets struggle to grapple with how to teach revision in writing, yet revision is natural in making. We have a vision in our mind's eye that we want to carry out, and we're willing, much of the time anyway, to keep trying until we get closer to the outcome. Our teacher mindsets must adjust for the amount of time this takes, the amount of expertise we need in order to guide students into new paths, and the shift in mindset for our anxious, high-achieving academics in the classroom.

 

As I've said a few times in this post, some of what I'm discussing here seems to fly in the face of everything teachers are being asked to do each day. So if you have to make the choice between jamming some thin lessons into a classroom or building a new course, club, or lunch group that can do the deep dive, I vote for the depth. What about you?

- Kristin Fontichiaro

This entry was cross-posted to the Active Learning blog

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Inside the We Make Health Fest

 

For this week’s post, I spoke with Joyce Lee and Patricia Anderson, two of the organizers of the We Make Health Fest coming up on August 16th. Other organizers include Matt Kenyon, Emily Hirschfeld, Nancy Benovich Gilby, Scott Olson, Emily Puckett Rodgers, and Sean Doolan. This unique event brings together the maker movement and the world of health care, exploring ideas such as participatory medicine and patient-centered design. Read on for an exclusive look inside the event and to learn more about how these two fields intersect!

 

 

How did this idea get started? What made you want to put together an event combining the maker movement and health? Where is the overlap between the two?

 

[Patricia]

Barbara Stripling, the ALA President, came to Hatcher Library to talk in April, and one of the things she talked about was the White House doing their first Maker Faire. She said anyone who thinks they have information to contribute, come talk to me afterwards. I talked to her about all the exciting things going on with 3D printing and health care, and that I really wanted them to include health in the White House Maker Faire. She said, “That’s great, you have too many ideas, pick three and email me.”

 

I went off and brainstormed exciting maker-y types of things going on with health, and my list just kept getting longer and longer instead of shorter and shorter. I pulled in Kate Saylor, who works with health fairs, and we were talking about it, and I said, “I don’t think there’s been a health maker faire anywhere.” So Kate and I then both started looking; neither one of us could find one. We turned and looked at each other and said, “Oh, we have to make this happen.” That was two days after Barbara Stripling’s talk. Within a week after that, we had 70-90 people around campus collaborating and brainstorming.

 

[Joyce]

Patricia is part of this core group of people that received a Global Challenges Grant from the Provost to think about integrating technology and health. The maker movement is such a great paradigm for thinking about participatory medicine. I just don’t think that we as a health care system, or that we as paternalistic health care providers, really provide a space or encourage this notion of patients at the core of designing anything--whether it’s how your hospital should run, how your clinic should run, how you should be designing educational materials. A lot of times we talk with the patient outside of the room, and we think we know what they need, but we don’t engage them as partners in co-design of things that promote health. So, I think this whole notion that the technology is getting easier and cheaper, people can make really simple prototypes that aren’t that hard to do, and they can be very effective--possibly more effective than what you get from some big production company that charges a lot of money.

 

 

You mentioned participatory medicine. Can you talk more about what that is and why it’s important?

 

[Patricia]

(talking about the book Reverse Innovation by Vinjay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble) This is the idea of sustainable innovation coming from the “little people” in the third world countries, and being more sustainable than the same solution being addressed in first world countries--that the “have-nots” have the actual sustainable inventions. Their primo example is that Gatorade came from India as a diarrhea cure.

 

 

[Joyce]

It’s just trying to bring up this notion of patients as partners, not as objects, not as expendable people we can leave out of the room, but as essential people we need to create health, even in hierarchical systems of care. My son and I, we did this YouTube video on food allergies. If you go to http://ihavefoodallergies.tumblr.com, my little boy has this whole website of videos we made together focused on teaching his caregivers how to take care of his food allergies. I just did it sort of out of desperation, and it was funny because I sent it to some friends who are interested in health or technology, and it got a lot more response than I expected. This is sort of a personal story that’s a metaphor for this much larger idea, which is--hey, anyone can and should design, how do we get people to use technology to be able to do this. In the University [of Michigan] community, it’s also that we should be thinking about this as staff, as faculty. We think we can’t create but in fact there are people on campus who can help us create, but we haven’t found those people. So, how do you create these networks, these collaborations?

 

I’m not saying that health care providers are like, “Oh great, you’re making your health, so I don’t have to worry about that!” That’s not the point--the point is thoughts like, “Oh, I should include you in the design for our new health system” or, “I should pay you for your time” instead of saying, “Come work for me for free.” I’m not saying the health care system should be shirking its responsibility for developing things.

 

 

So, you’re saying the health care system should be inclusionary, but not that they should be shifting responsibility.

 

[Joyce]

Exactly.

 

 

Since Health Design By Us is a very big part of this event, can you tell me more about what that is?

 

[Joyce]

We do a lot of activities focused on patient-centered design. We’ve got patient-centered workshops focused on identifying problems with communication in clinical care. We did a “Design My Diabetes” technology workshop, where we had a group of patients or caregivers as the clients and then we had a group of designers, academics, business people trying to come up with creative solutions for managing diabetes. We created a website called Health Design Cupid which was this idea of designers signing up and finding health partners to collaborate in creating.

 


Health Design Cupid Logo

 

There’s a whole bunch of stuff we’ve been working on. I would say this event is probably the biggest outreach that we’ve done so far, and I think it’s been very effective for reaching out. There are so many people we’ve met that we never would have met if we hadn’t been holding this event. One big goal of this is to get everyone together, to understand that there is a larger community, and to use this as a starting point to think about what the next steps are.

 

[Patricia]

It’s about boundary-span. Get people out of their little bubbles, out of their little corners, and help them discover each other.

 

 

Maker festivals and makerspaces usually reflect the community they’re based in. What do you think makes Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan a good location for this event?

 

[Joyce]

I think it’s amazing what a small town we live in, and how many people have come out of the woodwork to support this event. I think there’s just a really interesting kind of density of people in town who are creating and making, which I think is really unique given the small size of this town.

 

[Patricia]

The maker passion score.

 

[Joyce]

Yes! At UM, there’s a tendency to have our five glossy speakers, they’re all going to speak--they’re all dressed nicely, we choose them--and then everyone goes home, and we had a great successful event. But we think that it’s really cool that this is a participatory event. Please join us, please invite yourself to speak. I think that’s kind of a different model than I’m used to working with, where we have our preordained people that we think are important and we invite them. I just really love this notion of participatory design, and I think UM has a lot of talented, interesting people, but this bottom-up approach is a really novel approach that I think needs to be incorporated more in the organization that we work in.

 

[Patricia]

For me, part of it was that we started out brainstorming this long list of technologies and innovations that seemed to be at the intersection of the maker movement and participatory health care. For each of those, I went and started looking who on campus was working in that space. Most of the time, I found people on campus, but I’m guessing most of them don’t know about each other. I also looked at the local maker sources and Josh Walker’s master list, and I thought wow, if we took this big long list of the maker/hacker/code-a-thon community in the southeast Michigan area, and this list of people at the university working in DIY, robotics, participatory healthcare, personal genomics, 3D printing, and so on--magic could happen.

 

 

What can someone expect to do and see when visiting We Make Health Fest? What are some of the highlights of the event?

 

[Patricia]

There will be booths and there will be the speaker room. At the booths, we’re strongly encouraging everyone to have make and takes--to have something you can come and do interactively with them. Some of them will be doing demos, and some of them will be doing hands-on things, some of them will be giving out instructions you can go home with--things like that. Most of the people in the booths are not going to be there the entire day; who is in the booths is going to ebb and flow throughout the entire day. We have people talking about autism, we have people with booths on 3D printing, on diabetes, urban foraging, sustainable gardening, DIY this and that. As for the speaker list, every five minutes is filled the entire day, from 10:30 to 4pm. We’re showing a movie in the middle of the day; this will be the first screening in the area of Maker, the movie.

 

 

 

What is the number one thing you want people to know about the Make Health Fest?

 

[Patricia]

I like what Andrew Maynard says in his video: hack your world, make it safer. Everybody knows somebody who has some sort of health challenge: a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, a coworker. When you get involved and take control of that and collaborate to identify your problems and find solutions, you help shape the result. For me personally, that went from being sick for 20 years, from two grocery bags of prescription meds to none and a gym membership. I don’t know that that can happen for everybody, but if nothing else, I feel more in control of what’s happening. I don’t feel like it’s being done to me; I feel like I’m part of it.

 

You can hack your life and make it better, and you can do it with the help of other people.

 
 
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The App Factory: An Experiment in Game Creation

Today's guest post is written by Adrienne Matteson, a librarian at White River Elementary School in Indiana. Read on for her discussion of the App Factory, a experimental club she created to explore game design and creation with elementary school students using Gamestar Mechanic. 

 

I first encountered Gamestar Mechanic as a University of Michigan School of Information graduate student. It was woven into the “Video Games and Learning” course, taught by Barry Fishman. We were exploring the effects of teaching students how to create video games - which is exactly what Gamestar Mechanic is created to do. As described on the Gamestar Mechanic website, it is “a game and community that teaches kids how to design their own games.” Kids play through a series of quests that break down game design into various elements (such as space, rules, and goals) and challenges players to analyze how elements work together, and to fix “broken” games. After completing the first challenge, kids can then use what they’ve learned, and tools they’ve earned along the way, to create games of their own and publish them to the Gamestar Mechanic Game Alley. In our class, we were asked to play through some of the first (free) quest. I played it nonstop until I’d completed the quest - and I couldn’t wait to try it with my future students.
 


Image Credit: Gamestar Mechanic Learning Guide
 

The App Factory is Born

Fast forward three years. There are a LOT of video game aficionados in my elementary school. They pour over the Minecraft handbooks at lunch, and have their noses buried in a Nintendo DS before they even get on the bus at the end of the day. This past school year, I finally had the perfect opportunity to experiment with Gamestar Mechanic, and harness all of that video game love (which I share) by creating a before school club. The results were both predictable and amazing. We called it The App Factory. 

The main goal of The App Factory was to create an online “gallery” of games to share with the rest of the school. The plan was to use Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) to dabble in the coding, and Gamestar Mechanic (gamestarmechanic.com) to learn about how game elements work together. I limited the club to 3rd,  4th, and 5th graders, and to the number of computers in our lab - 30. I ended up with 22 creative, boisterous, hilarious, gamers. 

 

Sidebar - Scratch

If you haven’t used Scratch before: Scratch is a computer programming language developed by MIT specifically to teach kids how to write computer code. It’s also an online community in which members can share their creations, get feedback, and experiment in remixing each others’ programs. 

The App Factory met twelve times - every Wednesday morning before school from mid-February to the last week of school. I quickly realized that there wasn’t enough time to learn both Scratch and Gamestar Mechanic, so we focused on Gamestar Mechanic, and let those who were drawn to Scratch do their own thing. 

Each week, we began with a group discussion. Discussion questions focused on thinking critically about games and why we like them: 

  • What makes a bad game bad? 
  • How would you fix a game you think is bad? 
  • What makes a game a game
  • What kind of games do you like, and why? 
  • What does it mean when you say a game is “fun”? 

 

The discussions began as a way to get everyone focused for the morning, but they ended up being a really valuable piece of the whole experience. Every week they surprised me with how insightful and articulate they could be. As a group, we came to a few key conclusions:

  • A good game has to be just hard enough - games that are too easy are just as bad as games that are too difficult. 
  • A game needs to be “winnable” - if there is no goal, there is no point. 
  • “Fun” means something a little different to everyone.
  • Sometimes, playing a game is really hard work.

 

Over the course of twelve weeks, everyone played through the first quest at their own speed. Some kids worked on it at home, and I would log in on a Sunday night to find a half dozen new games published. Our little club became a community. Experts emerged for both Gamestar Mechanic and Scratch.  They cheered each other on through the levels that were particularly difficult. When they realized that Gamestar Mechanic is set up for members to rate and review published games, they jumped on board, and began sharing their games asking each other for feedback. 
 


Image Credit: Gamer by Amanda Tipton

 

By the end of the school year, everyone had published at least one game, one student has over 12 published games! For me, the big win came in our final discussion. Everyone agreed that they think about games differently now when they are playing at home. And they couldn’t wait to continue playing and making games over the summer. At my last count, they’ve published a dozen more games since the summer break began! 

 

What I learned from the App Factory

  • I definitely plan to host this club again, it was a huge hit. But I learned a lot from this first group:
  • Gamestar Mechanic is listed for 4th grade and up - for a reason. My 3rd graders, while enthusiastic, didn’t quite have the focus to read through the important text that is a part of the Gamestar Mechanic program. And they struggled with some of the trouble-shooting and systems thinking that goes into creating a game. 
  • Video games naturally foster collaboration. It seems like games would be isolating, because the program is essentially an individual challenge. But my students were constantly moving around the room, working together, asking for help and giving it. I had a few students who worked better on their own, but most had an intrinsic need to share the experience. 
  • Creativity inspires creativity. My students used each others’ games, and those they found in Game Alley as inspiration to make their own. Many times they created games similar to one in the Gamestar Mechanic quest, with their own variations. 
  • The club gave some unexpected kids a chance to really shine. We had some surprising leaders emerge over the course of the club.
  • Finally, I learned that beating a tough game level in front of a group of students will win you a lot of brownie points. I highly recommend it! 

 

Links and Examples of Student Work:

White River App Factory Gallery

 

Scratch Projects:

Car Car Car - by smileyfacesarah

Draw Something! -- by indyballer and smileyfacesarah

My Class - by rainboluvr

 

Resources:

Scratch-Ed

Gamestar Mechanic Teachers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LEGO To Release Female Scientist Minifigs Next Month

You've read -- here and elsewhere -- about how some influential folks in maker publications have focused much of their attention on the work of males, particularly white males. And this has been a big concern for us here at MakerBridge, because we think that making is for everyone and that those of us who work with makers have both a duty and an opportunity to welcome everyone. I tend to phrase it as, "If a family comes to my makerspace, I want every member to feel like they belong."

You may have read the gone-viral letter from an elementary girl to the LEGO corporation. She told the corporation of her visit to the LEGO aisle, where all the girl-oriented toys were pink, and the ones for boys, blue. Worse, she picked up on a theme of what male and female LEGO characters did in the kits pitched at both genders, writing:

[A]ll the girls did was sit at home, got to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs, but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs.

If you look at the Toys R Us LEGO Friends page, you can see that she's pretty much correct. (Who says seven year-olds can't synthesize?) The pink and purple Friends series generally does feature domestic scenes, the beach, and shopping. (An exception is a theatre kit.) 

Thankfully, someone at LEGO was listening. Mental Floss ran a story last month that LEGO is going to be rolling out three -- (is that three, THREE!, or THREE? you decide) -- minifigs who are female scientists. LEGO girls go to work at last, as a chemist, an astronomer, and as a paleontologist (complete with really cool dino skeleton). The kits should be available in August.

 

http://mentalfloss.com/article/57127/lego-release-female-scientist-figurines

LEGO To Release Female Scientist Figurines | Mental Floss via kwout

 

Some questions for you:

  • How real/important/relevant is this issue for you and the young girls in your community?
  • What female minifig would you like to see next?
  • What setting for a female minifig would you like to see LEGO develop?
  • Do you find it interesting that all three of these minifigs have brown hair?

 

- Kristin Fontichiaro

Cross-posted to the Active Learning blog

 

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An Arduino-powered instrument

This afternoon I celebrated the last day of my long weekend by making a light theremin.  “A light theremin?” you ask, “What’s that?”  I’m so glad you asked!

man playing a theremin
Metrix X. (2011). "Thereminvox / Theremin Musical Instrument [photo]." Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/metrix_feet/5964085902 July 6, 2014. CC-BY-NC-ND.

A theremin is that electronic instrument that old horror movies used to make those spooky ooo-ooooo-ooooooo noises. It's also a really cool instrument to watch and listen to someone play. Here’s a TED Talk in which Pamelia Kurstin performs some songs on theremin and talks a bit about the instrument’s history (the history bit is around 10:46).  And here’s another interesting factoid about the theremin that I can’t leave out, band geek that I am: Shostakovich wrote for the theremin! Who knew? Check out this clip from the score of Odna.  

A light theremin is a theremin controlled by a photoresistor, instead of the musician’s proximity to two antennas.  It’s one of the projects whose pieces and directions came in my Arduino Starter Kit, and it is possibly my favorite project yet. Because there's only one controller, my light theremin doesn't have volume control the way a real theremin does. That sounds like a project for another day! Until then, check out some video of my theremin, with my apologies for giving you virtuoso theremin performances in the earlier links and then my own unmusical playing here. 

This was a pretty easy Arduino project to set up. It’s not much more than a photoresistor to let me control things by moving my hand, and a piezo to make the noise. That being said, there’s plenty going on here that could be fun to unpack in a classroom. There are the obvious things: Is your class learning about circuits? About pitch and frequency? About computer programming? There’s also at least one less obvious thing: Is your class learning about ratios? There’s a mapping function involved in the programming that lets you calibrate your theremin so that you can produce the range of sounds you want to produce, even if you’re playing your theremin in a brighter or darker space.  

And how about combining some of those subject areas? Tie in a history of music lesson with what was going on in the world of science by talking about how Shostakovich was an early adopter of the recently invented theremin. Tie in some Cold War history by talking about how Theremin (the inventor) worked for the KGB, at first involuntarily, and ended up also inventing a listening device that effectively bugged a U.S. embassy for years. Spies make every history lesson more fun, and you have to admit that the gadgets are often the coolest part.

I wish the various places I learned history had tied things together that way; I still have trouble figuring out where different periods of literary history that I learned in English class map to the stuff I learned in history class! It just sort of all slides around loose in my head, with nothing to anchor it to any particular context. Not to mention, as a recent NPR story puts it, “Without some form of emotional involvement, the past is a snore.”

So anyway--the light theremin! Gateway to discussions of circuits, pitch and frequency, music history, and spies. Has anyone ever played an actual theremin? I'm kind of itching to get my hands on one, now.

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One Thing to Enhance Maker Diversity

This week, we have another post from our Fifth Monday series, in which the MakerBridge bloggers write on the same topic. In this post, we answer the question, "What is one thing you'd like the maker community to do or focus on in order to enhance diversity?"

Emily

I’d like to see everyone--myself included--start questioning the maker activities we attend or hear about that don’t promote diversity. And I don’t just mean making sure that everyone says, “Yay, diversity!” at least once during every talk or article, or that every panel discussion has a token minority representative on it. I mean that we should be making noise every time we see a maker panel that doesn’t feature multiple types of diversity. We should be full on getting ourselves in the news with the noise we’re making. 

 Look at the splash #WeNeedDiverseBooks made earlier this month. Did they solve the problem of the all-white, mostly male panel headlining BookCon?  No, but they did get another panel created that focused on diversity, and they got so much publicity that I will be surprised if next year’s BookCon doesn’t go out of its way to be more inclusive with its main lineup.  

Makers need to be doing that, too. We need to be so vocal that people can’t help but to hear that we need to highlight diverse makers. 

To do that, we also need to recognize those diverse makers when we see them. I know a lot of people have said this before, but it bears repeating: Not every maker will be messing with electronics and using a 3D printer!  I mentioned in a previous post how much I loved Leah Buechley’s message here, part of which is that we’ll find much more diverse makers if we remind ourselves of how many diverse types of making there are. Makers are already diverse. We need to make it clear that the Maker Movement welcomes and celebrates that diversity. And one way to do that is to make lots of noise when we see places we need to improve. 

Diversity quilt by Flickr user oregondot

Kristin

My advice is to populate your makerspace with multiple types of activities that send welcoming cues to multiple types of people. For example, try planning a robotics work time at the same time as a floral arranging class -- they'll draw in two different kinds of people, and there could be some interesting (and literal?) cross-pollination. I've noticed this in our own maker work and also heard about this from maker participants. Recently, a woman told me a story about going to her library makerspace. She looked in the room and saw a bunch of wires and components. "Oh, that's scary. That's not for me," she said, turning to leave. Then she saw a pincushion and a pair of scissors sitting on the table. "Wait a minute. I could do that," she said. And she stayed ... and even dabbled with the circuits! 

 

Sharona

One thing I would really love to see to help increase diversity would be clear codes of conduct/anti-harassment policies for makerspaces, maker faires, workshops, and any other space or event where makers gather. This has been a big topic recently in the world of comic/sci fi/general geek conventions, and author John Scalzi has made a point to speak on it. It is an unfortunate truth that minorities (women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc.) face harassment, sexism, racism, homophobia, and other situations that introduce fear or danger into otherwise pleasant activities. Developing and publicizing policies to combat these issues can help makers who fall into these groups to feel safe, respected, and accepted by the community as a whole. This can go a long way to improving and encouraging diversity in the maker movement. It is especially helpful to post these policies on websites, promotional materials, and so on, allowing potential makerspace members or maker faire attendees to know beforehand they will be entering a safe space.

Although you may feel it is obvious you won't tolerate attacks on minorities, it's important to set down clearly what constitues as inappropriate behavior and what the consequences will be in the event of a policy violation. A written policy can be enormously reassuring and welcoming to new makers. For some good resources and examples of how to devise this type of policy, check out Geek Feminism Wiki's page on Conference anti-harassment, the Lone Star 3 convention's Code of Conduct, and the Wikimedia Foundation's Friendly Space Policy.

 

Do you have a different answer to this question? Want to add someting we didn't think of? Let us know in the comments or tweet at us!

 

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MakerBridge in Publishers Weekly

This week, MakerBridge was featured in Publishers Weekly as part of their coverage of the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 conference, upcoming at the end of the month. Since makerspaces in libraries are on the rise and will be discussed at various sessions during the conference, Shannon Maughan (a librarian and Publishers Weekly contributor) was interested in finding out more about the place of maker culture in libraries.


The ALA Annual Conference will be in Las Vegas this year--are you attending?

 

We at MakerBridge are always excited to see librarians’ growing interest in the maker movement. If you’re just finding this site as a result of the Publishers Weekly article, I just want to say welcome! You may want to take a look at this blog post that answers some basic questions about the community.If you’re looking for ways to get involved, please follow us on Twitter and/or grab the RSS feed for our blog, which updates weekly.

 

Expanding on what I said in the article, I believe makerspaces and maker culture fit really well into libraries because libraries already exist as spaces of access, sharing, and learning. Although 3D printers tend to be the poster child for the maker movement, they aren’t required in order to have a makerspace; libraries can participate inexpensively and easily just by offering a place for creative, hands-on projects that stress collaboration and the DIY spirit.
 

makerspace at Baltimore County Public Library
Image Credit: Innovate @ Your Library - BCPL | BCPL Photo

Makerism isn’t technically new, as a whole and in libraries specifically. People have been using specialized skills to create and explore for a long time, and the library has always served patrons in their efforts to refine these skills. With the recent focus on STEM/STEAM development, however, and as a reaction to disposable consumerist culture, the maker movement has taken hold. As libraries continually look for ways to serve their communities and to correct the public perception of the library as a book warehouse, it makes sense to delve into makerspaces as a way of expanding--rather than replacing--the library’s existing functions.

 

Anyway, if you’re just joining us, we’re happy to have you! And if you’ve already been part of the MakerBridge community, we’re so glad you’re here. What do makerspaces mean to you? Why do you think it’s important for libraries to be involved with maker culture? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet them to us @makerbridge!

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Making as a Family: Two New Reads and a Classic

 

Earlier today, I was handed a battered copy of Brandenberg and ALIKI's What Can You Make of It?  This 1977 Greenwillow "Read-Alone" book tells the story of a family of mice. What the father mouse considers junk (empty egg cartons, juice cans, milk cartons, toilet paper tubes, spools, old magazines), other family members insist upon keeping. And so it takes extra moving vans to get all of their trash-or-treasures to their new house, upon which they fill the garage and -- bonus! -- now have a bunch of must-keep packing boxes. Long story short, the "rubbish" becomes the materials a crazy day of making. Spoiler alert: the family uses their new creations to put on a circus, complete with monkeys made of spools, oatmeal canister monkeys, and lots of boxes for stage decor. It's a joyous book about the pleasures of using what we already have to create what we want, and then to pool those creations into something that brings community pleasure and enjoyment. It also epitomizes a belief about makerspaces that has crystallized for me during the past year, when I have found myself saying often, "I want our makerspace to be a place where all members of the family feel welcome." (Hmmm ... did read What Can You Make of It? in 1977 and store up this idea all this time?) If someone had visited my family home in 1977, they would have seen a lot of this kind of making going on.

Sound like fun? Two new books can help establish this idea of a family of makers, either at home or in a school, library, or community center setting.

 

Mark Frauenfelder may be best known as a founder of Boing Boing and editor in chief of MAKE magazine, but kids may soon know him as the author of Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter Projectsa collection of guided projects designed for a parent and child of any gender to do together. The projects are a bit difficult for a kid below the age of 9 to do independently, so they're perfect for lazy Saturday afternoons spent pooling a parent's skills with a kid's ambition. But you could end up with a handmake rocking chair, a new skateboard, or a musical instrument.

 

 

 

Families with children under 5 might prefer Rachel Doorley's Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors, based on the blog of the same name. Doorley, an art educator, has turned her family's dining room into a studio for her two young children. Her book talks about great materials to have on hand, what to put within arm's reach of a child (and what to do with your child instead), and art and science concepts that can be explored via "provocations" (interesting objects and materials left out) and household ingredients. While Maker Dad will guide families through the creation of projects designed by the author, Tinkerlab is more focused on creating space, culture, and climate for child-centered creating. Scattered throughout the book are interviews and influences from Doorley's Palo Alto community, including interviews with staff from Stanford's well-known Bing Preschool, its d.school (of which her husband is a leading figure), and excerpts from the work of renowned arts educator Eliot Eisner. If you're a member of NetGalley's digital galley service, Tinkerlab is still available for request!

What other books have been influential in your family's making?

- Kristin Fontichiaro

Cross posted to the Active Learning blog

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Emily Makes Stuff: Sparkle Squid Edition

Hello world, and greetings from New York City!  I've been here on a brief vacation, and while that *has* involved normal(ish) New York City vacation things, it has also involved the penultimate step in a project that I began almost a year ago: the Sparkle Squid.  This is a project that began with me crocheting a hooded scarf with tentacles, based on Rhea Richardson's Kraken of the Sea Scoofie, for a friend's birthday.  Homemade gifts--always the best!

The project continued with that friend's winter-holiday gift: All the pieces necessary to make Adafruit's Sparkle Skirt.  Yep, that's right, the completed gift was to be a hooded kraken scarf that lights up and responds to the movement of its wearer.  Awesome!

It should probably be noted at this point that although I have played a little bit with Arduino since last I posted about what I'm making, I haven't exactly done *much* with Arduino, and I don't think I've touched it at all in the past six months.  Since my knowledge of electrical circuits still leaves a lot to be desired, this was something of an aspirational project... and that probably explains much of why it has been going the way it's been going.

You see, this is the second time I've come to New York City to spend a weekend visiting my friend and working on the Sparkle Squid, and it's only today that I have anything to show for it.  The first time I was here, I learned two valuable lessons that I should have already known, but apparently had forgotten:  1) READ THE DIRECTIONS.  Read ALL the directions.  Read them closely, including the "For more information" bits that you might think you can skip.  Also, 2) Never, ever begin a project at the high end of your skillset when you are exhausted.  

If you haven't guessed it already... I spent much of that weekend agonizing over stitching in circuits and LEDs, only to rip it all right back out again and start over.  And over.  And over.  On the bright side, I stopped worrying so much that I was going to fry the FLORA that runs the Sparkle Squid.  If that were going to happen, I'm reasonably certain it would have happened very early on.  Being relieved of that worry freed me up to mess around more and see what (if anything) worked.  Unfortunately, at the end of the first weekend, what worked could be summed up like this: Nothing (except maybe the FLORA drivers we installed on my friend's computer--but we weren't actually sure about that).  

This weekend, I returned to NYC and the completely non-functional Sparkle Squid.  The making festivities began with some brief attempts to salvage the work of the first weekend, before ripping it all out so that we could start over.  This time, we payed attention to things like, "You should check your work with a multimeter as you go."  That's actually a third thing I've used on this project: 3) Checking continuity and voltage with my handy, new multimeter.  

using a multimeter
using the multimeter

We also did a much better job this weekend with reading the directions (although one not-reading-enough incident led to further ripping out that set us back an hour or two).  

The end result?  The Sparkle Squid does not yet have the accelerometer attached to it, but the circuit works, the LEDs light up, and I am entirely too excited about this thing.  Take a look at some video of it in action!

me with the semi-completed Sparkle Squid

 

 

 

 

 

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