Microsoft, Minecraft, and Kids annually sponsors an Hour of Code (December 7th to the 13th will be the third one). The goal is to try to teach kids the basics of computer science in just an hour. Microsoft has announced they will team with to bring Minecraft-based lessons to this year’s hour.

It makes sense when you remember that Microsoft bought Mojang (the company behind Minecraft) last year. Users can sign up for the free Hour of Code Minecraft module and learn how to make characters adventure through a Minecraft world using programming. There are other themed modules, too, including Star Wars, Frozen, and other kid-attracting motifs. There’s also a lot of videos (like the one below) that explain why you might want to learn about computer science.

If you think Minecraft isn’t a sufficient programming language, don’t be so sure. There are many Minecraft CPUs out there as well as a (very slow) word processor. If you want real hardware, you might check out our review of Minecraft-related projects from earlier this year.

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Hacking and Kids: The One Hour Egg Drop

In the last Hacking and Kids post, I talked about an activity you can do with kids when you don’t have a lot of time or resources. The key idea was to have fun and learn a little bit about open and closed loop control. One of the things I usually briefly mention when I do that is the idea of a design trade: Why, for example, a robot might use wheels instead of legs, or treads instead of wheels.

Engineers and makers perform trades like this all the time. Suppose you are building a data logging system. You want precise samples, large storage capacity, and many channels. But you also want a low cost and low power drain. You might also want high reliability. All of these requirements will lead to different trades. A hard drive would provide a lot of space, but is more expensive, less reliable, larger, and more power hungry than, say, an SD card. So there isn’t a right choice. It depends on which of the factors are most important for this particular design. A data logger in a well-powered rack might be well served to have a terrabyte hard drive, while a battery powered logger in a matchbox that will be up on the side of a mountain might be better off with an SD card.

We can all relate to that example, but it is pretty boring to a kid. You probably can’t get them to design a data logger, anyway. But if I have about an hour and a little prep time, I have a different way to get the same point across. It is a modified version of the classic “egg drop”, but it is simple enough to do in an hour with very little preparation time.

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Kids Explore Engineering with Cartoon Tech Build

“To the Tortuga!” my husband and I heard the announcement from the backyard. Our two boys, Ben (7) and Miles (3), had become pleasantly obsessed with the coolest brothers in nature – the Kratt Brothers. From the moment that these two energetic animal-loving brothers were discovered by our kids, they’ve been huge fans. Our house has been transported to the Sonora Desert where we saved a Gila Monster, then to the Australian Outback to learn about the Thorny Devil. We even went to swing with the Spider Monkeys in South America and then back to the good ‘ole U.S. of A to harness the speed of the Roadrunner – since we are, after all, a family of runners!

Creaturepod [Source: WildKratts Wiki]
Our boys have been the Grand Brothers for months and there are no signs of it letting up. At the end of summer, I decided to reward the kids with a Creaturepod, a plastic toy meant to look like the fictional walkie talkie of the same name used on PBS Kids’ Wild Kratts program. They loved it, but soon found that it didn’t do anything on its own. They both have wild imaginations and like to bring to life most of their play, but the toy just wasn’t doing it for them. Being that Chris and Martin Kratt are brothers in real life, and Ben and Miles Grand are brothers in real life, Ben thought it would only be right to have “real life” Creaturepods. Real walkie talkies that he could use to communicate with his friends and have Wild Kratts adventures. This natural interest provided an opportunity to make learning, designing, and building a source of fun for the boys. It is an amazing way to teach that you can change the world around you by having an idea, making a plan, and gathering everyone with the skills needed to complete the project.

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Why You Should Build a Clock for Social Good this Week

We’ve seen a wide range of emotional responses regarding [Ahmed Mohamed]’s arrest this week for bringing a clock he built to school. No matter where you fall on the political scale, we can all agree that mistaking a hobby engineering project for a bomb is a problem for education. People just don’t understand that mere mortals can, and do, build electronics. We can change that, but we need your help.

Our friends at NYC Resistor came up with a great idea. Why don’t we all build a clock? I want you to take it one step further: find a non-hacker to partner with on the project. Grab a friend, relative, or acquaintance and ask them to join you in building a clock from stuff you have on hand in order to promote STEM education.

Clocks have long been one of my favorite projects, and like the one shown above, most of my builds didn’t look anything like traditional clocks. Once you start getting into how clocks are built, you’ll be amazed at how accurate dirt-cheap clocks are and how difficult it can be to replicate that accuracy. Pass this knowledge on to your teammates. Teach them how to solder, or how to draw a schematic, or just how to open the case on some electronics without fear.

Post your project on and we’ll add it to the Clocks for Social Good list (message me with the link). If you decide to document it elsewhere just leave a link in the comments below. We’ll post a roundup of all these builds next week. I plan to repurpose the soldering workshop board I populated last week as the display for my clock. I’ll be helping a friend of mine learn to solder as part of the build!

Happy hacking, and thanks for helping to dispel fear and teach others about awesome engineering.

Need some inspiration to get going? You can always chat with others about it in the Hacker Channel. If you have an Arduino and some LED strips you can do something like this. Here’s a binary clock built with just a few LEDs. Or if you have a laser cutter at your disposal you can make a unique display with just a pair of motors.

BlocksCAD is Browser-Based 3D Modeling that Teaches You CAD

Considering all of the projects the Raspberry Pi is used for now, the fact that it was originally envisioned to be an educational tool is sometimes forgotten. One of the tools commonly available with it is Scratch, a programming language that is easy to learn and can be seen as a gateway into other computer science realms. Building on this principle, MIT has come up with a new block-based educational tool called BlocksCAD.

BlocksCAD is essentially Scratch combined with OpenSCAD and allows the user to use blocks (similar to Scratch) to build a 3D model. The interface is fairly intuitive, and with some practice even complex shapes can be created using the tools available. Also, everything runs in a browser like the 3D modeling tool we featured a few days ago, so there isn’t anything to download or install.

The key to this project (like the key to Scratch) is that the user isn’t bogged down by syntax, which is often one of the largest hurdles for anyone who is just starting to learn to program. Since it’s possible to avoid syntax but still develop 3D models, this new tool should help anyone interested in the field of 3D modeling or CAD get a start without getting scared away too easily. Of course, if you do end up deep in the field of computer science and want to learn more about this project, the developers have opened up the source code as well.

Thanks for the tip, [Matt]!

Kids and Hacking: Blind Robotics

If you are a Hackaday reader, it is a good bet that when you were a kid there was some adult who infected you with the madness you have for science, engineering, tinkering, or whatever it is that brings you here. Maybe it was a parent or a teacher. For many of us, it was a local ham radio operator. But it was probably someone who had the passion for this kind of thing and you caught it.

Paying that debt forward can be very rewarding. Schools and youth organizations are always looking for people to share their passions with kids and at the right age and the right school, you could be that one push that moves a kid off a bad path.

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Learning From Transparent Microchips

Microchips and integrated circuits are usually treated as black boxes; a signal goes in, and a signal goes out, and everything between those two events can be predicted and accurately modeled from a datasheet. Of course, the reality is much more complex, as any picture of a decapped IC will tell you.

[Jim Conner] got his hands on a set of four ‘teaching’ microchips made by Motorola in 1992 that elucidates the complexities of integrated circuitry perfectly: instead of being clad in opaque epoxy, these chips are encased in transparent plastic.

The four transparent chips are beautiful works of engineering art, with the chip carriers, the bond wires, and the tiny square of silicon all visible to the naked eye. The educational set covers everything from resistors, n-channel and p-channel MOSFETS, diodes, and a ring oscillator circuit.

[Jim] has the chips and the datasheets, but doesn’t have the teaching materials and lab books that also came as a kit. In lieu of proper pedagogical technique, [Jim] ended up doing what any of us would: looking at it with a microscope and poking it with a multimeter and oscilloscope.

While the video below only goes over the first chip packed full of resistors, there are some interesting tidbits. One of the last experiments for this chip includes a hall effect sensor, in this case just a large, square resistor with multiple contacts around the perimeter. When a magnetic field is applied, some of the electrons are deflected, and with a careful experimental setup this magnetic field can be detected on an oscilloscope.

[Jim]’s video is a wonderful introduction to the black box of integrated circuits, but the existence of clear ICs leaves us wondering why these aren’t being made now. It’s too much to ask for Motorola to do a new run of these extremely educational chips, but why these chips are relegated to a closet in an engineering lab or the rare eBay auction is anyone’s guess.