Archive for the ‘project’ Category

Notes to New Tinkerer

A few years ago, a teacher in New York asked me to describe how I would do a simple project in a classroom setting that retained key elements (open-ended, self-directed, engagement-based) of the Tinkering School pedagogy.

Doodlebots – an exploration of kinetics

There are six important ingredients:
– batteries (AA)
– wire (almost any insulated wire will work)
– motor (http://bit.ly/amI7ik – $1.09 each if you buy 10 or more)
– duct tape (although we’ve had some good results with scotch tape)
– pens (felt-tips produce the brightest marks)
– stuff from the recycle bin (plastic tubs, cardboard, lids, etc)

You may also want some scissors, a utility knife, and some stiff wire (home improvement stores sell a soft iron wire for tying rebar together that is easy for kids to work with – we keep a couple of rolls around just because it’s so handy).

Project Stages
Remember that this is an exploration, not a series of goals per se. We want the kids to discover the properties of the materials, share their discoveries virally, and build on each other’s ideas. The adult collaborator is there to help and should only offer suggestions when specific questions are asked. Avoid getting the kids into an “ok, I did that, what next?” cycle by never directly answering the “what next?” style questions – the kids will look to each other for inspiration. Only if there is a real drop in momentum should the collaborator actively nudge the kids in a direction (and often the best way to do this is if the collaborator starts building something themselves – the kids will see what they are doing and start to emulate it, then discover a new path).

Finally, don’t reveal all of the materials at once.

Stage 0 – prep
If the kids are young (say less than 6), cut some 6 inch lengths of wire and strip the ends (you need about 1/2″ of bare wire on each end of a wire). Each kid will need two wires. If it’s bigger kids, just put the spool of wire out and give them the wire-strippers to cut and strip their own wires.

Cover the table with butcher paper to protect it from getting covered in doodles.

Stage 1 – playing with motors
Put the motors, the wire, the tape, and the batteries on the table (one motor and one battery per kid). I like to say “These are for you.” to make it clear that they each now “own” a motor and a battery. Allow the kids to discover how to get the motors going. There is no potential for disaster here and when the kids get the motors going they will revel in their success. Often there are a few kids with enough of an inkling of how motors and batteries work that they will get things going. If after 10 minutes of fooling around, no one has a motor going, the collaborator should demonstrate. Once the motors are going, let the kids play with them for a good 10-20 minutes. If there is active exploration of spinning motors, let it keep going.

Stage 2 – Vibration
All it takes create motion is some vibration. The easy way to do this is to put tape on the shaft of the motor, or tape something to the shaft of the motor. Often a hunk of tape is sufficient.

Stage 3 – Chassis
Bots need bodies. Introduce the collection of recycled materials. No two creations will be the same, and it’s not a competition (although sometimes kids will compete with each other spontaneously) so it’s not important that everyone get exactly the same materials in this stage. Just put the pile out and suggest that they might want something to attach their motors to – the kids will pick out the things that inspire them. This stage takes a while. There are an infinite number of solutions to the problem of getting the motors to move the bots, so let the kids discover these the same way they discovered how to get the motors going – let them fool around.

Stage 4 – Doodling
Bring out the pens. You hardly have to say anything, but if they get distracted decorating their machines (a perfectly acceptable behavior), select the most disengaged child and ask if you can “try something”. Add the pen to the bot in the least sophisticated way possible and set it down on the work surface to see what happens.

Lots of people have done this project in one form or another, but the Exploratorium also has a nice write-up for use in the classroom.

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Book 2.0

It took us a year to make a book, but we spent almost 8 months pitching various versions of the ideas to publishers and waiting to hear responses. This is time that is lost, never to be reclaimed, and the best I can say for that period is that we learned a lot about a business model that is stuck in a view of the world that hasn’t changed since 1950.

During this period we were forced to conceive and re-conceive our ideas so many times, that we began to see the mutability of book-ness in our modern age. Without even trying we managed to think of dozens of ways that our book could be experienced by “readers” including: paperback, hardcover, serialized in magazine, social nexus organized by topic, podcast, bookcast (episodic delivery of topics), video podcast (dramatic reading and demonstration of each topic), TV show, serialized curriculum, regionalized books with locally pertinent topics – and so forth.

Without the rigorous classic structure of a book to guide us, we had to invent a new way to create the book that would support all of these possible opportunities. Rather than re-tell it, I include here the last page of the book, which tells a condensed story of how the book was made:

How This Book Was Made
It all started with a mention in a presentation at TED 2007: Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do (http://on.ted.com/272G). The presentation was posted online where more than two million people have watched it, many of whom started asking about the book. After trying several different approaches to get it published by traditional means, we decided to do it ourselves.

We began by collecting potential topic ideas in a Google Spreadsheet. Each topic was marked with a list of possible dangers, expected duration, difficulty, and so forth. That list grew to more than 80 possible topics; from there we sifted and sorted until we had the best 50. While the list was being refined, versions of possible page designs (inspired by after-market car repair books) were generated and reviewed with friends and designers. That said, all of the poor design choices herein are the fault of our own inabilities to execute on the excellent advice and design feedback we received.

Each topic was expanded into a separate Google Document and versions were sent to volunteers to review and test. Meanwhile, illustrations were created in Adobe Illustrator. Because the topic categories (Activity, Project, Experience, and Skill) had yet to be finalized, every illustration had to be created in a way that let us pick the base color at the last moment.

As feedback came in, the topics were refined and updated. The final layout was still not quite ready, so these versions of the topics were ported to XML so that they could be ingested by Adobe InDesign. The book template was set up so content would automatically flow into whatever became the final design (made more interesting by the fact that this was the first time Julie had ever used InDesign). Perforce was used to version-track all of the XML and InDesign files and scripts (and should have been used for the illustrations as well).

While Gever was at a conference in Qatar, Julie threw together a cover design in Adobe Photoshop and an alpha test print of the book was produced to check colors and margins. Little did we know, her Photoshop project would take on a life of its own and be the on-going hiccup in our otherwise orderly Illustrator/XML/InDesign-based workflow. Third-draft versions of the topics were updated in XML to fit into the latest, and near-final, version of the page layout. These were sent to a smaller group of dedicated testers. Colors for the topics were chosen and two copies of a beta-version of the book were printed. During this review (which included extensive fact-checking), hazard icons were created, the book front and back cover designs were refined, and the front-matter (foreword, introduction, table of contents, etc.) was finalized as well. Final feedback was integrated and the last tweaks were made in InDesign. This page was written, and then the book was rendered as a PDF and sent to the CreateSpace print-on-demand facility.

Total elapsed time: three months of continuous effort while laundry and email piled up. Because of the process and the tools we are using, this book can easily be rendered to different page sizes and different output media. Every bit of this book was made by Julie and Gever, but we couldn’t have done it without all the help from family and friends. Your suggestions and feedback will help us improve future efforts: gever@fiftydangerousthings.com
gever & julie, december 2009

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Hex-tree GPS Encoding

I had the pleasure of attending PyWebSF and struck up a conversation with my old friend Tadhg about the idea of creating a web service (a’la http://bit.ly) that would provide a unique short GPS “tag” for any arbitrary GPS location. You can read Tadhg’s excellent accounting of the discussion here.

I didn’t write any code (yet) but I did have an idea that is a variation on the QuadTree solution that I proposed during the conversation. I call it Hex-tree and have no idea if it’s already been done, but I think it will create very short location identifiers algorithmically.

zoom level 0

zoom level 0At zoom level zero (on a standard Mercator-projection of the globe), we see that every place on earth can be crudely described by the numbers 0-F (hexidecimal). Suppose we are interested in specifying the precise location of San Francisco, CA. It’s in tile 4, so our address is going to start with a “4”. Already we can see that the first digit of a HexGPS coordinate contains enough lat/lon information to know what continent we are referring to.

zoom level 1

zoom level 1Zooming in to tile 4, we see the eastern pacific tile is now recursively subdivided, and that our target is in tile 6. The address so far is “46”.

zoom level 2

zoom level 2Zooming in again (and wishing I had used a higher-res map to begin with), we see that San Francisco is in tile 5. Our address is now “465”. The notion in this system is that you can visually determine if two addresses are nearby by just looking at the initial similarities of the two strings. Two addresses that started with “465…” would be known to be within 100 miles of each other (approximately). If you compare “465…” with “46E…” you can tell that they are within 500 miles of each other.

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The response to this little doodle that I did with my nephew Mori has been amazing. Can a doodle spark a revolution? Is there a little Giraffstronaut in all of us trying to get out?

Get your t-shirt at the Pivotorium (kids, men’s and women’s sizes/shapes).

Can anyone recommend a better place to make one-off t-shirts than Cafepress? Just wondering…

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The Experiment that Started the Experiment

The Experiment that Started the ExperimentHolding a piece of scrap-paper in one hand, the ball resting on a table, and snapping a picture I suddenly become interested in spherical lenses. I remember that some of the earliest microscopes (from the 1600’s, I think) were made with polished balls of glass.

I decide not to look anything up on the internet until after I try building a camera using this ball as a lens.

First Sketch

First SketchBall, box, viewscreen, and a hole to put the camera lens through.

Second Sketch

Second SketchPutting the parts in relation to each other helps me think through the construction and builds a more detailed model in my head.

Precision Layout

Precision LayoutI mark and cut crude holes on both ends of the box. Later I will put more precisely cut pieces of cardboard over these holes.

Making the Imaging Screen

Making the Imaging ScreenAfter trying various materials readily at hand, I settle on tissue-paper (which keeps the Christmas theme going). The cardboard frame is cut slightly wider than the box so that it will make a gentle arc when it presses against the sides – this will (hopefully) more closely match the focal arc of the ball and keep the screen in place.


AssemblagePutting all the parts together (using mostly gravity), the camera starts to take shape. The ball is so much heavier than the box, I had to hot-glue a piece of plywood to the box to create a sturdy support.

First Image

First ImageI neglected to account for the minimum focal distance of the camera, as a result the camera must be outside the box in order to actually focus. But, as we can see from the upside-down image of my yard, the ball is working as a lens.

Notes for next iteration: longer box, put the ball inside the box to reduce intrusion of light from the sides, different viewscreen material (possibly sanded plastic from discarded packaging).

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I am making a card (yes, it’s late), using the laser-cutter of course, and stepped away from the computer for a moment. When I sat back down I had a sudden appreciation for the composition of this random moment in Illustrator.

Work in Progress - Holiday Card

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The Scientific Method

Earlier today I was bailing out the hot-tub for it’s regular cleaning. As I tossed the water over the railing one scoop at a time, I soon became entranced with the shapes that the water formed in mid-air just prior to exploding into a fine mist of drops.

Julie and I spent the better part of an hour trying different techniques, shutter speeds, and containers to try and catch the precise moment where the water spreads out and forms a thin membrane.

Shutter too slow, focus wrong.
slow shutter, wrong focus #1

slow shutter, wrong focus #2

fast shutter, poor timing

fast shutter, good timing, complicated background

fast shutter, good timing, better background, unaesthetic container

fast shutter, good timing, better background, good container

new container, better volume

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