Earlier in the year I spoke with Peter Mahony, who heads up our Learning Technologies area and the Museum’s Thinkspace Labs.
Much has happened in that space during the year, but as the year has been winding down, we were able to grab a few moments to reflect on the year, and have a quick peek at some new programs – especially given the new focus on electronics and the new technologies that support those efforts.
DC: Peter, the last time we discussed the holiday programs in Thinkspace we focused on Minecraft. The development of the Minecraft program continues, booking out each holiday period, but this time I’d like to discuss some of the new program offerings, especially those that focus on hands-on ‘making’ and electronics.
PM: For a couple of years now we’ve been identifying opportunities to re-focus our offer and develop visitor programming around physical computing.
We’ve been working pretty well with MIT’s Scratch, a very robust and useful first step into creative computing and coding especially designed for beginners and youngens. Dabbling with a range of hardware from Lego WeDo to Xbox Kinect, and the enthusiasm and engagement levels we have seen have been very encouraging. My attendance at the biannual Scratch conference at MIT Media Labs has been integral to my growing understanding of the real value of these practices as being about logical thinking and collaboration. Amongst the Thinkspace crew, we also feel that everyone needs to understand what code is and how it works to some degree, in order to fully participate in our modern world.
However, as we had been focussed on digital media production activities – storytelling in video formats, music and soundscapes, and the like, there were some interim steps we needed to take, particularly program formats, content development and staff training, in order to build secure foundations for this new activity stream.
DC: I know you have been getting pretty seriously into Arduino. How did you decide on the platform and develop the up-coming workshop program?
After researching and considering a range of possible platforms, then chatting with colleagues with interests from hobby to professional, we settled on Arduino as our starting point.
So using our preferred action learning approach, we committed ourselves to a basic offer for the April 2012 school holidays, bought some arduino UNO boards and a bunch of components, and plunged into the open source world. And we began making projects, teaching ourselves to code, and making choices about what might constitute a challenging and fun school holiday activity.
A colleague, Carlos, pointed us towards the lilypad protosnap board, which although specifically designed as an e-textile solution, also provided an already-made ‘project platform’ because it includes a good selection of components, such as output devices like several LED’s and a buzzer, plus a range of inputs like a switch, a button, a light and temp sensor. Because these are already wired up to the LilyPad Arduino via the circuit board, its possible to begin experimenting the components and modifying the code straight away. The idea behind the Protosnap is that once you build up your programming Skills, you can break each piece off individually and implement them into your project, however, apart from making up a couple of ‘example projects’, we’ve found them so handy for our introductory workshops that we’ve left ours intact.
After some searching, we found some great pre-existing code blocks useable on the Protosnap, such as how to compose you own melody for the buzzer to play, and how to encode a secret word on the row of LED’s, which can be read when you wave the board back and fro (ie persistence of vision).
For a first offering, the Protosnap was a great way to test some of early assumptions. Something we learnt straight away was that beginners really benefit from making a simple circuit before moving onto any kind of circuit board.
Whilst the Protosnap allowed us to leap forward, it was an expensive option at $66, pushing the total cost of the workshop beyond the reach of many potentially interested people, especially as an entry point for young people.
DC: Why has Thinkspace remained focussed on a gadget?
PM: Two reasons. Years of experience have taught me that people just love to take something tangible away from a paid workshop experience. But primarily, our interest is in opening up a creative space for young people, much more than a single experience.
Our next step was to look to take some of what the protosnap offered, and see if we could incorporate those elements into a board of our own design.
Our first home-grown gadget was very simple, featuring a single LED and a buzzer. We soldered these inexpensive kits up ourselves onto a standard small round printed circuit board, but it was a slow and fiddly process. Plus it offered only a very basic set of activities, and the biggest limitation was that to re-program it you needed to remove the microcontroller and upload the modified code using something like a redboard. For our typical beginner users, this effectively blocked further experimentation.
So although this gadget was below our expectations, we were now convinced that an arduino clone hard wired to a bunch of components should be achievable at a competitive price point.
DC: How have you been able to move so quickly toward a custom hardware solution?
PM: By walking the walk and connecting with the Arduino community.
Our next steps were to open up our conversation to a more colleagues, and the combination of a clearer design brief and wider set of skills and experience enabled us to take another leap, and the result is the Thinker1.
The Thinker1 is a much more mature product. We are describing it as a programmable electronics lab you can hold in the palm of your hand. Not only does it offer a virtually unlimited variety of activities, its endlessly re-programmable using an inexpensive USB-serial cable, plus we’ve open-ended the design by breaking out the unused inputs and outputs from the microcontroller. Plus assembly time is massively reduced because we are using a custom printed circuit board.
A number of colleagues have contributed to the design of the Thinker1. The core team has been James Oliver, and myself, although we could not have achieved it without John Hirsch’s skills and networks. Along the way, we’ve had invaluable input from Carlos Arroyo, Owen Conlan, Arturro Rivillo, Tim Wilson, Robbie Mudrazija and Kusum Normoyle.
Currently we are re-formatting our tutorial notes to specifically reference the onboard components, and running additional staff training to ensure the whole crew are across at least the core aspects of what the board can do. It’s still early days, but we’ve already identified a number of possible variation gadgets.
DC: Thanks Peter. It sounds as though there will be an interesting and challenging program ahead for the school holiday workshops. We’ll check in with you in the early part of the year for an update on Thinker1
For those interested in more details of practical electronics courses (and a range of other holiday workshops) in Thinkspace – see the new website http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/thinkspace