For those of a certain vintage, no better day at school could be had than the days when the teacher decided to take it easy and put on a film. The familiar green-blue Bell+Howell 16mm projector in the center of the classroom, the dimmed lights, the chance to spend an hour doing something other than the normal drudgery — it all contributed to a palpable excitement, no matter what the content on that reel of film.
But the best days of all (at least for me) were when one of the Bell Laboratory Science Series films was queued up. The films may look a bit schlocky to the 21st-century eye, but they were groundbreaking at the time. Produced as TV specials to be aired during the “family hour,” each film is a combination of live-action for the grown-ups and animation for the kiddies that covers a specific scientific topic ranging from solar physics with the series premiere Our Mr. Sun to human psychology in Gateways to the Mind. The series even took a stab at explaining genetics with Thread of Life in 1960, an ambitious effort given that Watson and Crick had only published their model of DNA in 1953 and were still two years shy of their Nobel Prize.
Produced between 1956 and 1964, the series enlisted some really big Hollywood names. Frank Capra, director of Christmas staple It’s a Wonderful Life, helmed the first four films. The series featured exposition by “Dr. Research,” played by Dr. Frank Baxter, an English professor. His sidekick was usually referred to as “Mr. Fiction Writer” and first played by Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame. A list of voice actors and animators for the series reads like a who’s who of the golden age of animation: Daws Butler, Hans Conried, Sterling Halloway, Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, Bob McKimson, Friz Freleng, and queen and king themselves, June Foray and Mel Blanc. Later films were produced by Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Studios, with Disney starring in the final film. The combined star power really helped propel the films and help Bell Labs deliver their message.
We have fond memories of air-water rockets, which were always a dime store purchase for summertime fun in the pool. Despite strict guidance from mom to shoot them only straight up, the first target was invariably a brother or friend on the other side of the pool. No eyes were lost, and it was good clean fun that was mercifully free of educational value during summer break.
But now a teacher has gone and ruined all that by making an air-water rocket launching pad for his STEM students. Just kidding — [Robert Hart] must be the coolest teacher in Australia when Friday launch days roll around. [Mr. Hart] wanted a quick and easy way to safely launch air-water rockets and came up with a pretty clever system. The core task is to pump air into the partially filled water bottle and then release it cleanly. [Robert] uses quick-disconnect fittings, with the female coupling rigged to a motor through a bicycle brake cable. The control box has a compressor, the release motor, and a wireless alarm remote, all powered by a 12-volt battery. With the male coupling glued to the cap of a bottle acting as a nozzle and a quick, clean release, flights are pretty spectacular.
There are many ways to launch an air-water rocket, from the simple to the complex. [Robert]’s build leans toward the complex, but looks robust enough for repeated use and makes the launch process routine so the kids can concentrate on the aerodynamics. Or to just enjoy being outdoors and watching things fly.
Highly polished all-in-one gear for teaching STEM is one way to approach the problem. But for some, they can be intimidating and the up-front expenditure can be a barrier to just trying something before you’re certain you want to commit. [Miranda] is taking a different approach with the aim of making engineering education possible with junk you have around the house. The point is to play around with engineering concepts with having to worry about doing it exactly right, or with exactly the right materials. You know… hacking!
A career as a lab biologist can take many forms, but the general public seems to see it as a lone, lab-coated researcher sitting at a bench, setting up a series of in vitro experiments by hand in small tubes or streaking out a little yeast on an agar plate. That’s not inaccurate at all – all of us lab rats have done time with a manual pipettor while trying to keep track of which tube in the ice bucket gets which solution. It’s tedious stuff.
But because biology experiments generally scale well, and because more data often leads to better conclusions, life science processes can quickly grow beyond what can be handled manually. I’ve seen this time and again in my 25 years in science, from my crude grad school attempts to miniaturize my assays and automate data collection to the multi-million dollar robotic systems I built in my career in the pharmaceutical industry. Biology can get pretty big in a hurry. Continue reading “LEGO Liquid Handler and Big Biology”→
When we see a new build by [Gord] from Gord’s Garage, we never know what to expect. He seems to be pretty skilled at whatever he puts his hand to, with a great design sense and impeccable craftsmanship. You might expect him to tone it down a little for a STEM-outreach wind turbine project then, but when you get a chance to impress 28 fifth and sixth graders, you might as well go for it.
Starting with an idea from his daughter’s teacher for wind turbines each kid could make, [Gord] applied a little lean methodology so the kids would be able to complete the build in the allotted time. The design is simple – a couple of old CDs holding vertical sections of PVC tubing to catch the breeze and spin neodymium magnets over four flat coils of magnet wire. It’s enough to light a single LED and perhaps a kid’s imagination.
As simple as the turbine is, the process of building it needed to be stripped of as much unnecessary work as possible, and [Gord] really shines here. He built jigs and fixtures galore, pre-built some assemblies, and set up well-organized workstations for each step of the build. Everything was clearly labeled, adult volunteers were trained using the video after the break, and a good time was had by all.
Sometimes the hack isn’t in the product but in the process, and [Gord] managed to hack a success out a potential disaster of disappointed kids. If getting a taste of [Gord]’s style makes you want to see more, check out his guitar fretting jig or his brake rotor mancave clock.
How do you get teenagers interested in science, technology, and engineering? [Erich]’s team at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences makes them operate three robots to get a gumball. The entire demonstration was whipped together in a few days, and has been field-repaired at least once; a green-wire fix was a little heavy on the solder and would short out to a neighboring trace when mechanical force was applied.
She explains the process of dumping firmware from a Wacom tablet by hacking what the USB descriptors share. This involves altering the power rail smoothing circuit, building her own clock control board to work with the target hardware and a ChipWhisperer, then iterating the glitch until she hones in on the perfect attack.
This year we spotted [Debra Ansell] at Maker Faire, not as an exhibitor but an attendee taking her newest creation out in the wild. [Debra’s] LED matrix handbag is a marvel of fabrication — both design and execution are so great it is hard to believe this is not a commercially available product. But no, the one-of-a-kind bag uses woven leather strips spaced perfectly to leave room for WS2812 RGB LED modules to nestle perfectly. Look slike she even posted a tutorial since we last checked! If you don’t recognize her name, you might recognize her company: GeekMomProjects. She’s the person behind EtchABot, a robotic addendum to the diminutive pocket Etch a Sketch which [Debra] sells on Tindie.
Today is the second Tuesday in October — it’s Ada Lovelace day, a worldwide celebration of women in science and technology. The hackers above are some of our all-around favorites and we have featured all of their work frequently. Their impact on technology is undeniable, we give them much respect for their skills and accomplishments. We’d love to hear your own favorite examples of women who have incredible game when it comes to hardware hacking. Please let us know in the comments below.