FlowPaw, the Bear Paw of Electronics Education

If the astonishing success of littleBits is any indication, there’s a huge market for ‘intro to electronics’ products that are much more capable than the classic Radio Shack ‘springs and components stuck to cardboard’ kits or even the very successful littleBits. FlowPaw is the latest entry in this space, combining the sensor module paradigm of littleBits with a largish microcontroller, digital and analog pins, and a great programming interface.

The big innovation in the FlowPaw is the FlowStone programming language. It’s a graphical programming language that allows young creators to connect blocks, modules, and functions together with virtual wires, but also allows the editing of different modules with Ruby. Best of both worlds, there.

The FlowPaw kickstarter includes rewards for just the FlowStone software, or the FlowPaw electronics board with a bunch of modules. Already, the team has LED, relay, accelerometer, buzzer, and capacitive touch sensors, along with a Bluetooth and speech recognition module. They’re working on a few more advanced modules for GPS, pressure, DC motor control, and RFID as well.

13 thoughts on “FlowPaw, the Bear Paw of Electronics Education

  1. None of these “learn microcontroller” kits/boards seem to offer much in the way of wrong polarity protection, over current to pin protection, etc. Isn’t that exactly the type of things lay or learning operators are likely to accidentally do and fry pins or boards?

      1. As far as I’m aware (and take this with a bucketload of sodium chloride), CE markings don’t _really_ apply to things like development boards. Like you say, one of the tests involved in CE marking is electrostatic protection (others include RF emissions and immunity). The test guidelines are extremely anal about what configurations the device is tested in. Basically, you have to test it in EVERY possible INTENDED configuration. For example, suppose it’s a USB oscilloscope. You need to test it connected to a computer, with the specified cable (and length of cable), running the specified software, etc. etc.

        Since it’s impossible to say what situations a development board might be used in, as opposed to a nice “boxed” finished product, the requirements seem somewhat more relaxed. Stuff like RoHS and WEEE still apply, but that’s relatively simple (is it lead free, don’t dispose of in household waste etc).

        However don’t take any of that as solid information! CE marking is a political contrivance, more akin to a protection racket or the Mafia. Even worse actually, since at least you know the Mafia are out to screw you – CE marking services pretend they’re there to help.

        1. According to “Guide for the EMC Directive 2004/108/EC”, there is a distinction between finished appliances and “Components and sub-assemblies intended for incorporation by persons other than the end user into apparatus and/or a subsequent sub-assembly
          are not considered to be “apparatus” and are therefore not covered by the EMC Directive”

          Basically, you can make sell components and sub-assemblies without CE marking to an entity that will put those things together, and will be responsible for final CE compliancy.

          In this case, the components and sub-assemblies are sold to end-users without expertise, and as such it falls under:

 Components/sub-assemblies within scope Components or sub-assemblies on the market which are:

          – for incorporation into an apparatus by the end-user;
          – available to end-users;

          are to be considered as apparatus with regard to the application of the EMC Directive.

          So, yes, these cards need to be CE compliant if they’re going to be on sale in Europe.

    1. I tend to agree, if you are selling a boards specifically aimed at beginners and you don’t want them to brick the board on the first day, you better put in ESD and polarity protection, etc.

      It’s worth the effort.

  2. Seems that a lot of people want an all in one educational solution when electronics and software have distinct blocks or stages that need to be learned in order to understand the larger picture.

    Rather annoyingly, we’ve reached a point that it’s not strictly necessary to learn any of the blocks or stages in a particular order which creates a lot of unnecessary difficulty when one breaches disciplines.

    In other words, a kit that lends itself well to learning polarities, voltages, NPN transistors and 555 ICs does not necessarily lend itself well to learning bare metal programming. The same holds true for a kit that lends itself well to learning software, bare metal or otherwise.

  3. All right, that’s all valid criticism, but products like these are not meant to educate the interested at an entry level, but rather to impress and attract children to develop such interest. If some of them actually are curious enough to wish to scratch beneath the surface, they will admittedly need something more down to basics. This is not intended for little geek who is already bitten by a pin header and whose faith is already set to be among the damned. This is intended to lure a happy, joyful child into a life of an embedded developer, by hiding all the gory details and horrors of early prototypes debugging and agony of system integration.

    Well that was an “official” intent. Of the record, like so many other things ever since model train and Lego Technic sets, it is intended to geeky parents whose spouses don’t approve on wasting household income on their wacky hobbies. “But it’s good for kids’ intellectual development, honey!”

  4. The coding is done in FlowStone on the PC (not on the board), which is where the learning takes place. You can hack existing code from the examples and learn by doing, the main idea behind this type of board is that you get to interact with some real hardware whilst you learn to code which is more engaging for students.

    In most cases you will use the Click/Claw boards to add sensors, displays and motor drivers etc. which gives a level of protection (as they were designed to work with FlowPaw), and the input pins are all 5V tolerant.

    If you check out the FlowPaw Blog you can see how it works etc.

  5. i’ve always had, and still have a lot of mixed feelings about all these special ‘introductory’ programming methods..

    i understand the premise is to get kids involved in programming, without actually teaching them the real nitty-gritty difficulties of programming that would very likely reduce the number of kids interested in doing something with it later in life (it also has something to do with the sometimes clueless teachers that are required to teach the programming courses). what i feel is happening is that with kits like this, we teach kids ‘this is what programming is’, and then when they go out to pursue a hobby or career in programming, they quickly learn that only the most basic fundamentals that they previously learned apply, and now they must completely re-learn everything they thought they once knew to apply those fundamentals..

    i don’t really have an issue with those ‘cardboard spring clips’ learners, as those mostly teach component types and configurations, and the physical components remain mostly unchanged in alternative connection circuits, you just substitute spring clips and jumper wires with perf board and soldering the jumper wires– kits like that are somewhat why i am interested electronics.

    my issue, and where i feel there is more of a bait-and-switch tactic lies mostly in the special programming languages used to teach kids, languages that use methods specific to themselves, and not shared with other more widely-used/accepted languages out there.

    sure a lot of kids might become interested in programming because they are lead to believe it is as simple as dragging and dropping connections, but how many are going to become less interested once they learn that they need to manually type in all the things they used to drag and drop into place? i believe that second barrier to entry would lead to as many kids trying to continue programming as would normally be interested in programming as a hobby/career without the easy-learning kit..

    if i’m wrong about this, i’m open to changing my opinion, it’s just currently how i see the ‘intro-to-programming’ marketplace

    1. I agree with what you are saying but they have to start somewhere. I’ve spent a lot of time in schools and working with teachers recently and currently kids learn on things like scratch, but this soon runs out of legs when you need to do more complex tasks, or learn proper programming principals. Usually the next step is then something like Python but this is big step and they mainly resort to just modifying a few lines of code, the same with Arduino.
      The idea behind FlowStone is that you can start graphically a bit like scratch, but more formal, and then drop in to code at any point. FlowStone has the full Ruby language built inside (FlowStone won an award for this in Japan) and many of the modules you can look inside and modify the Ruby code that is there. FlowPaw is an HID device and also works with C++, Python, Ruby and Scratch so you also have options if you want to go in that direction.

      The biggest issue I see in schools if a lack of CPD for the teachers, they are often forced to teach Computer Science and have had no formal training. Using products like FlowPaw kids can learn about binary, bits and bytes, Hex, Boolean Algebra, Integers, Stings and Floats whilst having fun. If they feel they like this and want to learn more, they can progress to text based programming when they are ready, be that inside FlowStone or using other text based languages.

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