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]!

Try Not To Fall Off The Backwards Brain Bike

[Destin] of SmarterEveryDay fame has a challenge for your brain : a bicycle where the handlebars turn the front wheel in the opposite direction of a typical bike (YouTube link). For example, turning the handlebars left turns the wheel right and vice versa. He warns you it’s harder than it looks.

The hack that pulls this off is a simple one compared to bike hacks we’ve previously covered. Gears on the head tube make this possible. It was built by his welder friends who challenged him to ride it. He couldn’t at first; determined to overwrite his brain’s memory of bike riding, he practiced until he finally succeeded. It took him eight months. When it was time to ride an old-fashioned bike, it only took him about twenty minutes to “un-learn” the Backwards Brain Bike. [Destin’s] biking illustrates neuroplasticity, memory, and learning in a fun way (fun for us; no doubt frustrating for him).

As a testament to the sponge-like brains of youth, [Destin’s] son learned to ride the Backwards Brain Bike in only two weeks.

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Hacking Education; Project-Based Learning Trumps the Ivory Tower

Project-based learning, hackathons, and final projects for college courses are fulfilling a demand for hands-on technical learning that had previously fallen by the wayside during the internet/multi-media computer euphoria of the late 90’s. By getting back to building actual hardware yourself, Hackers are influencing the direction of education. In this post we will review some of this progress and seek your input for where we go next.

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RFID emulator card includes a learning mode


This RFID card has a lot of nice features. But the one that stands out the most is the ability to learn the code from anther RFID tag or card.

You can see that the board includes an etched coil to interact with an RFID reader. This is the sole source of power for the device, letting it pick up enough induced current from the reader to power the PIC 12F683 seen on the upper left of the board. The underside of the PCB hosts just three components: an LED and two switches. One of the switches puts the device in learning mode. Just hold down that button as you move the board into the magnetic field of the reader. While in learning mode a second RFID tag is held up to the reader. It will identify itself and the emulator will capture the code sent during that interaction. This is all shown of in the video after the break. We wonder how hard it would be to make a version that can store several different codes selected by holding down a different button as the emulator is held up to the reader?

If you want to build your own card reader too here’s a project that does it from scratch.

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Programming Tetris by first building a logic gate, then a computer, then…

Hone your fundamental understanding of computer systems by completing this online course called NAND to Tetris. The idea is to develop each fundamental unit that goes into making computer programs a reality. This starts with logic gates, which are put together into modules that eventually become a functioning computer. From there you need an operating system,  a compiler, and eventually you’ll be playing a game of Tetris which you programmed yourself.

It’s certainly not an easy journey, but if you have a computer at your disposal you should be able to make it all the way through the course. There’s a software suite which includes a hardware simulator so that the computer you’re building can be assembled using HDL instead physical components.

The concept is discussed in this TED talk given by [Shimon Schocken]. It is also embedded after the break and in addition to the NAND to Tetris project he shows off some self learning software on the iPad. To us it seems very much like the learning software [Neal Stephenson] envisions in the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer from his Diamond Age novel.

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Flexible web interface makes the universal remote nearly perfect

[Fall Deaf] built an Arduino based universal remote control system. It uses a shield which has both an IR receiver and transmitter. This gives it the tools to learn codes from your existing remotes and play them back in order to control the devices. This functionality is really nothing new, but we think the user interface he developed for the system is absolutely fantastic!

Software is web-based. You can simply point a remote at the Arduino and push a button. The receiver will store the code which can later be assigned to a virtual button. The image above shows the channel-up option being created; it will be added to the list once confirmed. From there any web enabled device – smart phone, tablet, netbook, etc – can be used as the remote for the system. The only feature we think is missing is the ability to alter the layout of the buttons, with larger areas for the most frequently used commands.

After the break you can see a demonstration of this system, as well as the one extra feature we haven’t touched on yet. [Fall Deaf] included a Piezo element in the hardware design which lets him knock on his coffee table to use the remote if a smart-device isn’t close at hand.

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Enhancing simple circuit kits with microcontrollers


[manuka], aka [Stan Swan] is a teacher in New Zealand who enjoys enlightening his students on the wonders of electrical circuits. He primarily uses “snap connector” circuit kits, sold under the BrainBox name in NZ, for his interactive labs as they can be easily manipulated by pupils of all ages.

While the kits are great, he says that the range of experiments they provide can be a bit limited, so he decided to swap out the kit’s sound module for something far more useful – a PICAXE-08M. The space left by removing the sound module was pretty small, but [Stan] got everything to fit without too much hassle. His modification allows his students to program the PICAXE, as well as utilize four of the uC’s output pins.

Needless to say, the addition of the PICAXE module was a huge hit with his students, allowing them to create far more exciting circuits. [Stan] has been revising his system over the years, adding extra output pins, enabling lamp and motor control, as well as tweaking his setup to respond to IR commands.

We think [Stan’s] work is pretty awesome, and we’re still wondering how this flew under our radar for so long. He says that his students vary from preschool kids to centenarians, so if you’ve got someone that you would like to introduce to the fun world of electronics, we suggest picking up one of these kits and getting to work.

[Thanks Haku]