One of my favorite things to do is visit with school kids who are interested in engineering or science. However, realistically, there is a limit to what you can do in a single class that might last 30 to 90 minutes. I recently had the chance to work with a former colleague, a schoolteacher, and The Teaching Channel to create an engineering unit for classroom use that lasts two weeks.
This new unit focuses on an egg drop. That’s not an original idea, but we did add an interesting twist: the project develops a “space capsule” to protect the egg, but also an electromagnetic drop system to test the capsules. The drop system allows for a consistent test with the egg capsule releasing cleanly from a fixed height. So in addition to the classic egg drop capsule, the kids have to build an electromagnet, a safe switching circuit, and a test structure. Better still, teams of kids can do different parts and integrate them into a final product, closely mimicking how real engineering projects work.
There are a few reasons for the complexity. First, given ten class sessions, you can do a lot more than you can in a single day. Second, I always think it is good if you can find exercises that will appeal to lots of different interests. In the past, I’ve used robots and 3D printers for that reason. Some students will be interested in the electronics, others in the mechanics, and still others will be interested in the programming. Some kids will engage in 3D modeling (robot simulation or 3D objects). The point is there is something for everyone.
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.
Bringing women into technical education at times seems to be an insurmountable challenge. As a counter, a small drawing robot created by [MakersBox] might help. The robot was used in a ChickTech workshop for teen girls.
The goals for the robot were to have an easy to build, easy to program robot that did something interesting, and was also low-cost so the workshop participants could take it home and continue to learn. These requirements led [MakersBox] to the Adafruit Pro Trinket 3V, stepper motors for accuracy, and a 3d printed chassis to allow for customization.
Another version of the Arduino should work without any problems and even possibly a Raspberry Pi, suggests [MakersBox]. With the latter’s more diverse programming environment opening up a lot of possibilities
Drawing robots like this for education are not new. [Seymour Papert] created one of the first turtle robots, seen at the left, in the 1980s. He even created the Logo programming language and adapted it for use with the turtle. An interesting similarity between [MakersBox’s] and the original turtle is the drawing pen is in the center of both.
A lot of hacker projects start with education in mind. The Raspberry Pi, for example, started with the goal of making an affordable classroom computer. The Shrimp is a UK-based bare-bones Arduino targeted at schools. We recently saw an effort to make a 3D printed robotic platform aimed at African STEM education: The Azibot.
Azibot has 3D printed treads, a simple gripper arm, and uses an Arduino combined with Scratch. Their web site has the instructions on how to put together the parts and promises to have the custom part of the software available for download soon.
I spent an evening building a clock. It’s not about keeping time, or even about the clock. This is about raising awareness that people actually build electronics as a hobby. Promoting wide understanding of this can have a profound effect on our society. On the one hand, it can avoid drama like we’ve seen with the clock incident this week at a school in Texas. The far more important result is to get more people interested in STEM fields.
If you think back to 10-20 years ago, everyone knew that “computer person” who always had interesting technology, spent tons of time on the computer, and was the go-to when people needed help. Fast forward to today and everyone is that computer geek to one extent or another. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops have been universally adopted. We need everyone today to know that “hardware person” who is building electronics in their basement, garage, or hackerspace. I don’t have any illusions that everyone will be bootstrapping a clock in 10 years. But there are enough of us out there already that raising our profile will let everyone discover they already have a hardware hacker in their social circles.
This will break down the barriers your non-hacker acquaintances have about cracking open the case on something, or about seeing a bunch of loose wires hanging off of a board. Getting our projects out into the community will help people learn that building hardware is a thing, and one that they should get their kids excited about. The more engineers we can create in middle and high school, the better our future outlook becomes.
Now, if you want to know more about my clock, check out the video after the break. I do have a project page started, with plenty more information coming later today as I find carve out some time to update it. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for your own project!
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 hackaday.io 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.
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.