Building The Boss (Interlude): Video

My robotics club at school has been pretty busy, and I've been given the green light to plan a Design Technology elective for next year. So, in more ways than one, I've been building more than blogging. Here is a video update:


Building The Boss (Interlude): Fritzing Software

NOTE: More news on The Boss, and the Makerbeams that are making him, coming in a day or two. Sorry ... I've been busy!

Fritzing is a free, open-source tool that I have explored while developing ideas for a low-cost design technology program. It is a software application which allows designers to easily document and share their projects by dragging and dropping the parts onto a virtual breadboard.

It has libraries which include all the main Arduino boards, servos, motors, sensors and common electronic components you would find in the vast majority of classroom projects, and the ability to create custom parts if necessary. Even better: the software can automatically generate a technical schematic or a plan for a printed circuit board, based on your drag-and-drop design.

In a professional or hobby setting, it allows quick mockups to share with others- extremely useful for feedback and troubleshooting. By saving projects digitally, you can reuse your supplies of real-world parts, while still keeping a record of the projects you’ve done.

In an educational setting, I would require students to keep a digital portfolio of all the projects they accomplish - from their first “light-an-LED” program, to their major independent projects later.

Keeping a record of their projects- not just some scribbled notes but a precise technical drawing, is both useful while learning, and also an authentic skill from the professional world. From a teaching perspective, this is also extremely useful for assessment purposes.

Crucially, this software makes it easy and fast to document projects, which is important anytime you’re considering requiring something of a teenager.

If you're considering getting into Arduino yourself, or using them in the classroom, it is a must-download. Also, if you like it, consider supporting them by buying their Arduino kits, or with a donation. Support open-hardware!


Building The Boss (Part 2): Arduino, the Anchor

Check out Part 1 of this series here, if you missed it!

The first decision in both designing The Boss, the robot, and the vision for design tech that he will (hopefully) champion was to determine the basic development platform. To my mind, Arduino was the obvious choice.

Being both an open-source and robotics enthusiast, I’ve been aware of the Arduino project for some time, although I must stress that I’m a total newbie from a hands-on perspective.

 Arduino has been around since 2005, so it is a mature platform, many generations refined. Arduinos are operating on satellites and collecting data for the Large Hadron Collider. I’m certainly treading on pretty familiar ground building a simple Arduino-based robot - it’s a hobbyist staple. And there is no doubt that there are teachers in world who years ahead of me in using Arduino in the classroom.


But that’s the point, isn’t it? First of all, starting simple is smart, which is an important guiding principle for the whole project. Secondly, getting engaged with a community like the one based around the Arduino platform allows me to tap into a wealth of existing expertise and resources, including tutorials, hardware advice and sample code.

For the uninitiated, a little bit of background about the Arduino may be helpful. Arduino is basically  a generic, programmable microcontroller (yes, like a little computer <sigh>) which was basically invented to make it easier for designers, artists, hackers and students to design and build different sorts electronic devices. See the excellent TED talk by Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi for more about the philosophy behind Arduino, the open source community generally, and also to see some great Arduino projects.

 You can combine inputs, like sensors, and outputs, like movement from a motor, or a sound, or a message on a screen- to create your own interactive electronic devices.

The electronics are real, and they need to be wired together correctly, or LEDs will burn out and motors will blow. The amount of power required depends on what you hook up, and the work you are asking it to do. This is an absolutely authentic environment for learning basic electronics design.  It is basic electronics design.

Programs are coded on a computer, using open-source software, and downloaded to the Arduino. The Arduino language itself is merely a set of functions from the more robust programming language C/C++, so (as I understand it, which may be poorly) there is a direct application towards learning more advanced computer studies too.

A professional designer might mock-up a circuit design for a new product on the Arduino to incorporate it into a working prototype, or “proof of concept”. Later, a manufacturer could mass produce smaller custom electronics for the product, using the Arduino design. The hardware is also open source, and explicitly allows for this sort of use.  

Arduino’s best feature is the flexibility: it can works with standard electronic components and sensors (both analog, and digital, if you can hook it up correctly), which are mostly pretty inexpensive.

It is also well supported by a good selection of accessories designed specifically for the platform, which can add a whole range of capabilities. For example, for an advanced robot you could add a “motor shield” to add more motors, with better control. You can add a “WIFI” shield to create a device which connects to a wireless network.

I want to stress: Arduino is not confined to amateur robotics, it can provide the basis for all sorts of design-build projects. One good example is a version of the Arduino called the Lilypad, which is designed to drive wearable electronics and e-textiles.

A few final pragmatic benefits: Arduinos are easily, affordably, and locally available.

Conveniently, there are a good selection of decent “Arduino starter kits” available which include enough electronic components to complete some basic training and simple projects.

They usually start at around €40 - €80 per kit, including an Arduino board. These kits are probably a long way from all that would be needed for proper projects. You would almost always be better off buying bulk components and creating your own “kits”. But that gives you some idea of the modest startup cost of the learning the Arduino platform, and an easy way to get started.

It should be mentioned that there are other similar tools in this vein, notably the Raspberry Pi, that would likely work as well. Arduino, by far, comes with the most well-established community. I wouldn't be against students exploring other platforms, but Arduino would be a great stepping-stone in any event.

So, Arduino will be “brains” of my robot, and form the foundation of the affordable prototyping platform I am designing. The next step will be to choose the “bones” - some sort of flexible structure that can support (quite literally) a wide variety of student projects.

Next time: Introducing Makerbeam



Building The Boss (Part 1): A New Vision for Design Technology


At the tender age of 38, I am building my first real robot.

In some ways it is a bit of a surprise that it has taken me this long - I have been tinkering with robots since my uncle brought me home a slightly used Omnibot at some point in the mid-eighties.

My technology-focused teaching career has included plenty of robotics: I’ve run Lego Mindstorms robotics programs in practically every school I’ve worked, using all three generations from RCX to NXT to EV3, coaching several FIRST Lego teams along the way.

But I’ve never seemed to have the time, inclination, or inspiration to build my own, more-or-less from scratch.

Why now?

Lately, I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with my role as a “technology integrationist” or “Digital Learning Specialist”.  An important role, to be sure, but one that has lead me further away from working as directly with students than I would like.

My primary function notwithstanding, my school is a very supportive and nurturing environment, and I’ve been given quite a lot of freedom to pursue my own personal interests and professional goals, as long it also demonstrably serves the learning. But it seemed more like an accident when the Makerbot Replicator 2 was delivered - I didn’t even know it had been ordered.

After only a couple of months of experimentation, it became apparent that the ease and simplicity of 3D printing was perhaps slightly oversold. The learning curve was treacherous. Not insurmountable, but there was learning to do: tutorials to watch, upgrades to make, and hours and hours worth of failed prints to scrape off the plexiglass.

Learning the nuances of Makerbot operation was going to require a significant investment in time by somebody, if anybody was going to be able to take advantage use it. Significant enough that it would be a lot to ask of any classroom teacher. And that is just making the damn thing work properly - there was also the unanswered question of how it was going to serve student learning. A champion was needed. And so it came to be that I was allowed to adopt the Makerbot. I would go first, and learn the skills and make the mistakes and pass those lessons down the line to enable other learners to take full advantage.


And so I have. I’ve been training teachers, helping art students print parts for their sculptures, props for the school play, parts for the robotics team and lots more. It been an unqualified success: excitement around the school,  a fun and interesting angle to my professional practice, increasing my job satisfaction and overall level of personal happiness.

Except now, I am faced with the growing sense that the real action  in technology education is happening elsewhere - specifically in the area of Design Technology.

Recent advances in computer assisted design and manufacturing, like 3D printing, are making authentic design and prototyping tools more affordable, accessible and easier to use than they ever have been. That’s a good thing, because all over the world, schools with dedicated “shops” have become a rarity. Traditionally it was an expensive proposition: materials, facilities, equipment, specialist staff, safety and insurance concerns.


I recently had the pleasure to visit an international school with an intact design technology shop - including both traditional wood and metalworking equipment, and also CAD design, 3D printing and laser-cutting capabilities.This school also had amazing food technology and sprawling visual arts facilities as well. All over the school, in addition to (and integrated with)  their normal studies, kids were making things - and not just recipes and plans from books: things that they designed, or invented, and there was a palatable energy that left a deep impression on me.

It was the same sort of feeling I get when I’m being creative: Building something, or writing, or making music, or designing and printing something on the 3D printer. And I know there are papers and formal pedagogy that agree, but truthfully I don’t even care much about that, I just  feel that it is important, and mostly missing from modern schools. And I don’t think I am going to be happy, in the long term, until it is the focus of my career rather than just an angle.

But the truth is, those schools are few and far between. There are a few which are way ahead of the curve, and a few relics holding on from the last time practical / vocational / industrial training was in vogue. In both cases, it is unlikely that those teaching positions are going be available very often. So the most likely route to finding a design technology position is to convince someone, somewhere, to create it.  

In all schools there are ongoing tensions between various priorities and programs competing for time, space, and funding. It is difficult to imagine convincing any school, these days, to invest in the specialized facilities and equipment to start a full-blown design technology program.

So, my mission - and the subject of this series of posts is to explore another vision for design technology - one that is deep in learning, but modest in terms of the overall initial investment - one I might reasonably expect to be able to convince a school to pilot.

I would never ask a student (let alone a school) to embark down a road down which I fear to tread. So, I am building a robot. I’ve named him, “The Boss”. The how, and the what, and why of his design and construction will be a specific exercise in exploring potential tools, software and strategies for a low-cost, high-impact design technology program.

Essential Goals

The basic aim of this investigation is simple. Investigate how we can leverage the latest tools, equipment, and software which may make it possible to have a rich, authentic design technology program with a modest initial investment.

Affordability: Affordability is the first essential characteristic.  Selfishly, this makes it more likely I will be able to convince a school to try it out - making it more likely that I can achieve my own goal of transitioning to a design technology career. Obviously affordability has other, more important, implications - starting with the potential for these ideas to have an impact outside of the relatively affluent sphere of the international school world. Design technology ought not, these days, be a luxury frill reserved for private schools.

Indeed, the democratization of design technology is one of the fundamental premises behind both the open source and maker movements, a philosophy I enthusiastically endorse.

Flexibility and Expandability: I am looking to design an effective starting point for a design technology program - a toolbox which can be immediately useful, but also compatible with future expansion.

This is one of the major issues with Lego Robotics or other varieties of self-contained design “kits” - although they can be hacked, and you can theoretically add custom elements, they are essentially proprietary in nature.

The design possibilities are limited by the composition of the kit itself. Also, once you begin build a program around them, you are basically limited to that “food chain” for future expansion.  Replacing broken parts or expanding the program can be expensive in this context.

Simple electronic components, however, are widely and cheaply available, making it relatively easy and affordable to keep a supply those sort of items in stock, replacing them as needed.

So, insofar as is possible, this project will try to avoid proprietary design “toys”, in favor of “real” materials, tools and equipment that can be used for a wide range of activities and applications.

Another aspect of flexibility is the space required. Inevitably, Design Technology will require some basic storage for materials, projects and tools. Beyond that however, I will be focusing on technology that does not require special facilities (like special ventilation, for example).

Authenticity: Using real stuff is better, in any event. While Lego robotics is great for teaching some fundamentals, mastering it doesn’t really put you in a position to build a real, non-Lego robot. Every effort ought to be made to use basically the same type of tools and equipment used by professionals, albeit with simpler tasks designed for learning. By using authentic tools and equipment, the knowledge and skills are directly transferrable.

Ownership:  This approach facilitates ownership in a couple of different senses.  On the more basic level, if parts are easily priced-out and replaced, students can be offered the choice of keeping their completed projects when the course is over, by buying their own parts or paying the replacement cost for parts taken from “stock”.

This is one of the great strengths of using “authentic” generic parts, rather than Lego robotics-style kits - kids can really own the project - literally, and also the “own” process of choosing materials and parts, even ordering their own speciality parts - and producing something that is truly unique.

Safety: The idea of safety is a perceived to be an obstacle to implementing a Design Technology. The idea of students working with power tools is enough to give any administrator pause. Personally, I still believe that these sorts of programs are extremely valuable. In a perfect world, all design technology programs would have the full range of equipment available to students, including both traditional metal and woodworking as well as computer aided design and manufacturing.

But the reality is that shops like these require special facilities, special training and special safety considerations. These are programs that years in the making. Even schools that might consider going down that road would probably need a more modest starting point. So, for the purposes of this project, I want to explore options with no chance of students losing digits or limbs.


In upcoming posts, I will describe some of the affordable supplies, modest tools, and free software that I’m using to build The Boss. I plan on paying particular attention to the Maker and Open Source movements for inspiration. At each stage I will consider not only the mere building of the thing, but how this might work in the context of student design-build projects.  

In the end, I’m hoping to build not merely a simple robot, but a new vision for making authentic Design Technology available to more schools and students.

NEXT: Building The Boss: Part 2: Arduino, The Anchor



MIA at ISTE: Critical conversations


There is something missing from my first ISTE experience. Something of such profound importance that I feel a responsibility as an educator to try and start the conversation. A crucial, and a critical conversation.

Based on what I can see, ITSE desperately needs more critical analysis of technology generally,  and also about the sort of conference this has become. Are the priorities in order? Are these sorts of events really the best approach to train educators, to share what we know about teaching with technology, and to choose the products we will use in our classrooms?

Overwhelmingly, the attitude I hear from teachers in attendance is unflinchingly positive, effusive even, with nary a critical comment to be heard. This event is it for I.T. - the Woodstock of education technology. If you're not here, or tweeting about how much you wish you were here, you aren't anywhere.

To a certain extent, I understand the enthusiasm.  Teachers are generally positive and optimistic by nature - they need to be to survive.

Beyond that, this conference does offer exciting opportunities. There are lots of people here I admire and respect, whom I've never had the chance to meet in person.  I've had interesting chats and seen great presentations from working educators I would never had encountered anywhere else. Ideas are exchanged, teachers are energized. With luck, education progresses. There is, without question, good stuff happening here.

But I can't be the only one who feels a great sense of discomfort with the extent of the corporate presence here. Or with herds of educators with their bags overflowing with sales material and swag, cheerleading for their favourite products with buttons and shirts and pens and sunglasses.

I'm uncomfortable with the massive amounts of money being spent to convince teachers to use one product or another.  The buffets, drink tickets, and raffles. I don't like pitches by paid consultants pushing a particular product, masquerading as professional development and teacher training. Free Surface tablets for everyone!

In my opinion, the goals of educators and our corporate "partners" are not necessarily aligned. Sometimes they are totally at odds.

Technology companies, like all other private businesses, have one essential, all-consuming goal - making money. Selling stuff - whether or not we need it, or want it, or can afford it. This isn't a problem - it is their basic nature. They have their own sets of responsibilities - to their bottom line, their employees, their shareholders.

I'm no radical leftist. It is good and right that businesses should protect these interests, sell their products, and try to turn a profit. It is the basis of the comfortable lifestyle we all enjoy. I recognize, also, that these companies often employ honest and well-meaning people, who try to produce products with real merit for teaching and learning. After all, quality products are usually easier to sell. But make no mistake about it - education isn't their primary goal, their raison d'être. Nor should we expect it to be.

Education is our responsibility. We are the gatekeepers who ultimately decide what makes it into the classroom.  We need to take that responsibility seriously, and teach our students to apply similar critical thinking skills towards their own use of technology.

We can't merely teach technology - how to use this gadget, or that piece of software - how to code, or build robots, or curate content. Those things are "cool", interesting and even important. But we must also teach our students about technology, including the trade-offs and possible negative consequences.

We must model how to approach technology critically, and how to look past the marketing to choose the best tool for the job. When is it appropriate to put away the technology? What are the implications of signing up for a "free" Google account, let alone signing up your whole school or district?  How is our personal information is collected, and bought, and sold? What are the conditions in the sweatshops and factories that produce our gadgets, and what are the environmental consequences of mining the necessary materials and disposing of the waste?  Where should technology funding fit in the grander scheme of education budgets?

Technology generally, and its role in education specifically, raises a miriad of critical and challenging questions. I don't claim to have the answers, but the importance of the conversation is beyond question.

So where are these critical conversations at ISTE?  They are surely happening, somewhere. There are too many intelligent, progressive people here for it not to be occuring.

Likely, you could hear them in hushed tones over beers, perhaps in an isolated Ignite session, or a Tweet or two. But in the 21st century they ought to be front and center, on the main stage.

When compared to the thousands and thousands of square feet devoted to sales, and the countless millions spent on various sorts of marketing, the priorities of this conference couldn't be more clear.  And education, sadly, doesn't seem to be at the top of the list.

The essential character of this event is corporate: more trade show more than teacher training.

We wax poetic about teaching our students digital citizenship, but what are our responsibilities as educator-citizens?  And more to the point, can we live up to those responsibilities while accepting the swag, buffets, and cheerleading for profit-driven interests.

The private sector has an essential role in education. Educators can't be expected to manufacture their own computers or write their own software, or run the cafeteria, or drive the buses.

But education is too important to hold ourselves to anything but the highest standards as critical consumers. I look around San Antonio, and I'm not certain that it is happening. You're entitled to disagree. I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.

We can start by having critical conversations.