Feeling clever? Here are is a collection of project ideas, documentation and reflection on teaching and learning. When we are Fussing with Stuff, we take greater control of the devices and systems in our lives.
Patrick from Buildyourcnc.com talks about making his own computer numeric controlled machines. He originally started the project to make parts for a hobby, but now uses his machine to cut parts that he sells as kits so others can make their own machines. It is the machine that can make its own replacement.
His website has lots of information for people looking to get started making machines that can be controlled by computers.
Denise is a chemistry teacher. She put on a contest for her students to design pictures for Mole Day. She brought the pictures to the nublabs FabLab where she used the vinyl cutter to make the stencils. Later that week, she printed the shirts with the students. The students then wore the shirts in schools bearing their custom designs. Limited edition ChemGeek shirts!
She used the techniques for Silkscreen Print With Vinyl described here nublabs operated the Fab Lab at Maker Faire Austin 2008
The other day I tried two different building systems in the same environment with teenagers. Geodesic Domes have long been an interest of mine, and I have successfully made a few of them with straws and attempted to use other materials. GIKs or Great Invention Kits are something of a newer building technique. When we were in South Africa, my daughter made a kit with a lot of help from one of the staffers at the Capetown Fab Lab. I have seen samples of them in all the Fab Labs I have been in.
Early in the morning I sent out an email message asking if anybody had a copy of the cutting files I would need to make my own GIKs. Later in the morning I printed up some geodesic dome strut calculations for figuring out what size and how many struts and connectors we would need. With the information, a pen, metric ruler, lots of pipe cleaners and a box of colored straws I set out to measure the struts and cut them. The information came from Desert Domes, where there are a lot of calculators for different frequency domes. Their focus is more on conduit strutted domes, but I have adapted their info to straw domes in the past.
During my process of gathering information and starting to build the geodesic dome, I was able to catch a few people to help out. It was pretty much a "Here is what you have to do, then you have to make some of these, and then some of these..." kind of experience. It was very much tied to the information that I had gotten. Too few struts, or the wrong size, and it won't work. We used a template on a piece of paper to get the sizes consistent. Each of the two sizes of struts (100 mm and 90mm) were a different color, to make identifying them easier. There were 4, 5 and 6 way connectors. Each was made with a different color pipe cleaner.
After most of the struts were complete, I left to go to the Fab Lab at the South End Technology Center. During my time away, the materials were put aside to keep them from getting mixed up. The information was out and visible, but people didn't know enough about the project to figure it out. When I returned later, I brought a sample straw dome made several years earlier and a book on Geodesic Math.
At the Fab Lab, I checked my email to see if there were any files available, but they were not. So I needed to make the files myself and then fabricate the GIK parts. During the process, I wrote up my workflow on how to design the file. The link to the process document is here.
During my session at the lab, I made a few dozen parts of two designs, square 4x4's and rectangular 4x8's. I brought them all with me back to the group, and put them out on the same table as before. This was also a drop by activity, and I did a little recruiting, but not much. I showed a little of how to combine the shapes, and one teenage girl's eyes lit up when I asked her if she would like to try them. She and a few others quickly got the idea of how to attach the tab and slot shapes, and quickly built a shape out of them. As people passed in and out of the group, they added and modified the construction.
The time shifted and people moved on to other activities. I was next in a room with a half dozen teenagers and one other adult. I brought the geodesic dome parts in with me and set out to make the shape from the parts.
In the construction of the geodesic dome, Jen, the other adult said she was "fascinated to watch how I was building this thing", but she did not get engaged enough to join in. I explained what the different coloring was, and how there were colors for the connectors. I showed the diagram used for assembly. During a half hour or so, none of the teens joined in, preferring instead to play a card game (again, it was a personal choice time for the activities). As the dome got built, I had to keep referring to the diagram, and had to make sure I was getting it 'right'. The connectors were not staying in place, and I was clearly struggling to get the whole thing to stay together. I ultimately gave up after the bottom level of triangles was complete, but I could not get the horizontal layer of struts to stay in place without pulling out many of the connectors. I put the parts back into a basket and got them ready to take them home.
During this time, I recalled trying to build a geodesic dome several years ago with my daughter and nieces, all preadolescents. That kit used plastic tubing held together with machine screws and nuts as the connectors, and wooden dowels to serve as struts. On that project, it was me who held the information and them who were serving more as helpers. We tried holding the fittings with duct tape, and even tried screwing the connectors to the dowels. As the kit failed to stay together, they lost interest in the project.
What I see from this experience is that there was only one solution to the Geodesic Dome project/activity. If the parts were the wrong size, or if the directions were not carefully followed, and if all the problems were not resolved properly, then the dome would not stand up.
In the GIK project/activity, there were many solutions. Each person would need a mininum of instruction, and would be free to create anything from imagination. As long as the parts were manufactured with pretty reasonable tolerances, the people using them would be able to get them together. From their assemblies, could come a lot of variations. They would not look exactly like "a building" or "a spaceship", but the ideas could come across in the object.
Certainly there are lots of things that people have done with geodesic domes since their invention by Buckminster Fuller. They have been used as homes, shelters, playground equipment and much more. There is, however a static way in which they must be assembled. Once that level of requirement is met, then they can be used in very creative ways. Materials can be substituted, sheathing can be added, and much more.
What I saw with my experiment trying out the two techniques out on a similar set of teenagers was that it was much more intuitive for people to get engaged with building from a kit of GIKs than from a kit of geodesic dome parts.
Desert Domes -link GIKs - link Instructions on how to make GIK files - Link
Fab Lab and Scratch Field Trip - Saturday Programming
On Saturday February 17, Tim Hovey and I took our Saturday Programming group on the road. The South End Technology Center (SETC) hosted us for the day, where we worked in the Fab Lab in the morning, then experimented with Scratch in the afternoon. We were met by Ed Baafi, who runs the Fab Lab portion of SETC. Ed introduced us to the lab and some of its possibilities. Mel King, who runs the South End Technology Center stopped by for a bit during the morning. Michael Nagle assisted the group in the Fab Lab. Amon Millner of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT worked with us on Scratch.
We ended up taking the T, but there was some kind of track repair and trains were not running on the usual tracks. Taking the train added at least 45 minutes to our travel time in. I guess that kids ride free on the train, so we actually saved a lot by not having to pay $50 for parking two cars. As it was, it ran $110 to bring the group in and feed them.
Mr. King was there for a few minutes, but I didn't get much of a chance to talk. Things were busy, kids were figuring out how to work the equipment and get what they needed. Nagle helped out with the late morning part of the day. There was a definite Creative Buzz in the room. The kids figured out their pecking order for who would cut on the laser. When Amon finished up his conference, he stopped by. When I left, Geoff and Amon were handling the lab and lockup.
The kids had a great time in the lab. They were all able to make things of their own design, starting with a cardboard product and working up to plexiglass when they had their design right. OpenOffice was new to most of them, making designs that are based on only lines was also a new concept. Kids tend to design stuff with color. The laser doesn't care about color, only line.
The scratch session was not as productive as I had hoped. They did figure out how to do a bunch of things, but we could have used about another hour to really get some product. The scratch boards don't work with the older version of the software on most of the machines. Most of the kids made accounts on the Scratch site, and saw how to find it by searching for scratch, top entry on the google search. They sounded like they would like to do some more experimentation with it. In about an hour and a half, they were getting the software to work and programming their animations to do what they needed. Alec did a demonstration on how to get the background to change. With headphones, they could hear the audio of what they were programming.
Angela tells me that the group dynamic was a bit off by her observation. She would have liked to work with more of a variety of kids. Two of them were spending too much time working together. I had to tell a some of the boys to moderate their behavior. These suburban kids really don't have their 'city faces' yet. They were excited.
On the whole, everybody agreed that it was a fun time, and they would all like to go back again. We will do some work with scratch at home and in our saturday sessions. I will also see about bringing them over to the high school to show them some of the possibilities there.
At this point, there are some parts of it that can and should be repeated with other groups: We introduced new users to the lab. We showed some of the things that other people had done in the lab, such as some furniture made on the Shopbot and prototypes made on the lasercutter. We demonstrated the software tools of open office and CAM. All the participants had enough time to design at least one thing on open office draw, make a series of cardboard tests, with the lower settings, then a finished piece with the more powerful settings to cut in plexiglass. They had to measure their piece, and place the cut on a piece of plexi that had already been cut by other users. Some of them had the opportunity to make relatively complex designs by merging shapes to remove interior lines. The older kids made more representational pieces, alien, spaceship, star in a circle, while the younger participants were active in making shapes which had their names or other words etched onto the interior. Everybody was able to make something of their own imagining that they could carry a physical representation of out the door. They were universally interested in returning to the lab to make more.
Links photos Nagle's reference to Buzzing Creativity - Link
Scratch Website - Link South End Technology Center Website - SETC Site
Facilitators: Ed Baafi runs the fab lab portion of SETC link Mel King runs the South End Technology Center - link Amon Millner works on the Fab Lab and Scratch projects at the Media Lab link Alec Resnick is a senior at MIT, helped facilitate in the lab - link Mike Nagle is an MIT grad, runs a summer camp in cambridge, will help facilitate - blog link and Camp link Chris Connors is a technology and engineering teacher at Duxbury High School and cofacilitator of the Saturday Morning Programming Group - Connecting link and blog link Tim Hovey is a programmer by profession and helped initiate the Saturday Programming group to fill an unmet need for teaching kids how to use the computer as a tool through programming.