How to bring tech and making into any classroom! (1/4)

Turns out Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus had it right all along! In the era of the Next Generation Science Standards, there is a great deal of evidence that experiential and project-based learning are effective approaches to education. As described in the Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences, project-based classrooms provide opportunities for students to “investigate questions, propose hypotheses and explanations, discuss their ideas, challenge the ideas of others, and try out new ideas.” All of this leads to higher test scores than in traditional classrooms.
While we educators may lack the magic necessary to shrink our bodies or travel through the solar system, technology can be an excellent, “magic-like” tool for teaching project-based learning across a wide variety of subjects. When implemented with care and intention, electronics and tech can enhance and expand the realm of possibilities, providing students with direct, hands-on experience of phenomena. A handful of carefully chosen equipment and materials provide an open-ended platform for endless variations of creativity, application, and exploration.
One of the major obstacles in getting started is figuring out what, and how much, to choose. The plethora of options can be daunting and it is not always obvious how to incorporate into a classroom. Here are four principles to help guide you as you make lesson and product choices:
1. Use what you have;
2. Let the students lead (peer-to-peer and even peer-to-teacher education);
3. Broken is better; and
4. Pass it on!
The remainder of this article will expand on the first principle: Use what you have. We will publish more in-depth articles on the remaining principles in the weeks to come, so stay tuned!
Principle 1: Use what you have.
Whether you are looking to teach history or robotics, there are many learning opportunities within everyday materials, particularly when paired with “smart” devices like computers, microcontrollers, or other Integrated Circuits (“ICs”).
Investing in an appropriate microcontroller* for your classroom gives your students more diverse options for projects and invites cross-disciplinary learning opportunities, a key foundation of NGSS. Microcontrollers can add coding to art, and art to coding. If you need some help choosing an effective microcontroller for your classroom, here’s an overview of some common, beginner-friendly microcontrollers.
Free or inexpensive components can be used in alternative ways: LEDs are also light sensors, motors generate electricity when spun, and speakers can be used as a microphone! Finding alternative uses for parts offers students a fun challenge and is a great way to explore connections across fundamental phenomena: Why is a motor also a generator? What does this tell us about how electricity and magnetism work together?
Encourage your students to ask deeper questions and look for connections.
Is there a closet full of old computers, telephones, printers, etc? Perfect! Old tech is often easier to understand because the pieces inside are larger and easier to see than in newer technology. Larger parts are also easier to harvest, or pull out for closer examination and/or use in other projects.
Guide the students in taking apart unused devices. If it’s broken, can the students figure out why? Is it possible to fix or hack it to do something different? If not, how could the students use the parts in new ways? What parts might the students harvest for other projects?
Here is a list of some parts that can be harvested without specialized tools and used in a wide variety of projects:
  • Motors
    • Motors can be used in a wide variety of projects including robotics, puppet shows, art projects, and creative music-making. This is a wonderful alternative to traditional robotics programs as it allows for a wider variety of ingenuity and a deep understanding of how motors function.
    • There are different types of motors that require different signals to turn on: DC motors, stepper motors, and servo motors are the most common. DC motors can be powered directly with a battery, while stepper motors will require a more finely tuned signal from a computer or microcontroller. Unsure what type of motor you discovered? Use three or four AA batteries or a 9V battery to touch the motor connections and explore how and when it moves.
  • Speakers
    • From special effects to science experiments, sound is exciting! Harvested speakers offer the opportunity to observe how sound waves are generated, how sound travel through different materials, and how waves move in general.
    • Connect a 9V battery to the speaker terminals to move and “beep” it, or use the speaker with a microcontroller and/or other amplifier circuit to create instruments, sound effects, and music. Speakers can also be used as an input when connected to an audio amplification circuit.
  • Electromechanical parts like switches, pushbuttons, relays, and connectors
    • Switches and buttons provide a way for us to interact with circuits and electronics. They can be used to explore analog and digital signals, build logic gates, create cause-and-effect machines, and design communication systems, as well as many other possibilities.
    • A relay is an electronic switch for two separate circuits that make a “click” sound when activated. Relays are one way to control motors with a lower-power circuit.
    • Electrical connectors come in an astounding variety of types, shapes, mechanical and electrical connection mechanisms. They help make the electronics sturdier and easier to store, transport, and modify. And of course, they can be used to add flair to projects sans electricity!
  • Sensors
    • Many electronics have infrared (IR) transmitters and/or receivers, which can be hacked to build remote controls for robots and other projects. Solar path lights and CD/DVD drives contain light sensors, security lights have passive IR sensors, and many printers have optical encoders!
  • Transistors
    • If you have tech that qualifies as antique, you may be able to find transistors that can be reused (in newer tech, they are so small that they are invisible to the human eye). Observing transistors in older tech is an excellent pathway through computer history, design, and hardware function.
    • If observation of transistors isn’t the educational opportunity you need, they can be used to add autonomy and logic to circuits, or can act as a controller for output devices like lights, speakers, or low-power motors.
  • Mechanical parts like springs, gears, drive shafts, etc.
    • One of the main challenges in doing engineering projects is having make functional gears. Avoid all of that by taking apart a printer and pulling out the mechanical components. Electronic toys that move are another good source for gears and mechanical mechanisms, and can be hacked or “mashed” together in combinations that span delightful and eerie.
A quick note on safety when doing take-aparts:
  • Unplug the electronics and leave unplugged for a minimum of two (2) weeks.
  • Avoid large appliances, microwaves, and ink-jet printers (or just take out the ink cartridges)
  • Always wash hands afterwards. Students should keep food and drink in closed containers and off the tables.
  • Do not force anything open or closed. The biggest hazard with take-apart activities are sharps caused by broken parts when someone tries to pull a case open without properly removing all the screws.
Even without harvesting parts, seeing the inside of electronics is an effective and memorable way to explore how these devices are made and how they function. Once students see the insides of a few different devices, they will quickly identify connections across all electronics and have a better understanding of the “magic” behind the tech.
Aside from electronics, there are tons of useful and versatile materials all around us! Cardboard, paper, plastic containers, pipe cleaners, brads, clothespins, and office supplies are incredibly versatile. Use these materials in conjunction with the tech you have available, or as stand-alone project-based lessons in science, math, history, and other subjects. How might your students explore various ways to build moving mechanisms with cardboard and paper brads? How might your students use colored paper to explore how light is absorbed and reflected? How might your students explore and visualize sound?
Often, the key to incorporating project-based learning is providing the appropriate challenge. The best challenges allow for a wide variety of creations, are accessible and relevant to the students’ lives, and are as fun to mess up as they are to achieve! Challenges do not need to be binary or only one goal or path-oriented. The most effective challenges are those with the most room for surprises and “broken” rules.
With all of that said (well, written), the only thing you really need to remember is that you can do a lot, including incorporating and meeting NGSS, with what you already have. Look around, look inside, and look for connections!
Please reach out if you have any questions about this principle or if you’re looking for ideas in getting started. Happy learning!
* Wait wait wait… what is a microcontroller? Excellent question! A microcontroller is a “simple computer” that runs one program at a time. Examples of microcontrollers are Internet routers, TV remotes, and video game controllers.

Anti-Facial Recognition Wearable No. 1

Every time we leave our homes, we are photographed and videotaped in public and private spaces. Facial recognition software identifies our unique facial features and can be used to tag us in photos that are taken with or without our consent. This tutorial is about exerting our right to control our personal privacy. It is our choice and our right to decide if we want to be identified by cameras that photograph us in public and private spaces.

There are many approaches to anti-facial recognition makeup/wearables. This is my first approach based on some background research, chatting with fashion-minded friends, and my own personal artistic and electronic interests.

The purpose of this project is to make it more normal (& fun!) to wear privacy enhancing fashion so that if/when it is needed, folks who are using it for legitimate protection are not targets.

Follow along or use this as inspiration for your own anti-facial recognition wearables! If you design your own, pleasepleaseplease share it in the comments so other folks can learn from and be inspired by you!

Difficulty: Easy

Build Time: 1 – 2 hours (+2 hours for glove controller)

Cost: < $15

Quick Overview of Facial Recognition Software

Computer Vision, or “CV” for short, is a software method that breaks down images into a series of black and white pixels, and then attempts to extract meaning from patterns in the pixels. Since human faces have the same characteristics (two eyes, nose, mouth, & chin), these characteristics can be broken down into patterns that a software program can look for.

For example, pupillary distance, or the distance between the pupils of each eye, varies from about 54 to 68 mm for adults – a CV program would look for black pixels separated by that distance range and log those as one layer. There are tons of patterns that a CV program can search for and locate, then go back and analyze the layers together to ensure they match up. All of these values are stored as variables that can be used for comparison with other images.

The more images a CV program analyzes, the better it gets. By comparing CV-found patterns to patterns in existing photos tagged on social media, CV programs may also tag an individual regardless of where that photo was obtained. CV programs are incredibly accurate, can select a face from multiple angles and backgrounds, and can identify a person’s emotions.

Check out CV Dazzle to learn more about anti-facial recognition makeup and other styles!

 

Materials & Tools

Materials

Optional glove controller:

Tools

  • Liquid Latex
  • Scissors
  • Wire Strippers
  • Soldering Iron (recommended for glove controller)
  • Hot glue gun (or other fabric-safe glue)

 

Step 1: Attaching the Flowers

Use the flowers to cover up distinguishing facial features. Eyes, eyebrows, and nose bridge are three primary regions of the face that are used by facial recognition software to identify and tag a face.

1. Cut flower stems off (unless you want ’em on for aesthetic purposes).

2. Pour a small amount of liquid latex into a container.

3. Figure out where you want to put the flower, then dab the base of the flower into the liquid latex. Let it dry for a few seconds, until it feels sticky and less liquid.

Be sparring with this stuff, it can be kinda painful to peel off, especially after 30 flowers.

4. Attach the flower to your skin. BUT FOR REAL THOUGH avoid your hair!! It is a huuuge pain (literally) to get out.

5. Repeat 2 & 3 until your face is adequately covered.

You can check your progress using a Snapchat or Instagram filter: If the filter can’t find your face or looks wonky (like sunglasses on your forehead instead of your eyes) then you’re all set!

 

Step 2: Adding LEDs!

To add freestanding LEDs, grab a coin cell, and push the two LED legs over the coin cell battery sides (longer LED leg on the positive battery side). Dip one side in the liquid latex, let dry for a few seconds, and then smoosh onto your skin just like with the flowers (again, avoiding precious and sensitive hair).

If you’re using the glove controller (see next step), run the LED wires up your arm to behind your ear, holding them in place with rubber bands or hair bands. Arrange how you want the LEDs to point, then pin the wires in place with bobby pins. That should be sufficient to hold them, if not add some liquid latex to the ends of the LEDs.

The LED + coin cell combo should last ~ 12 hrs.

 

Step 3 (Optional): Make a Glove Controller

This is a good option if you want to save battery life or to be able to turn on/off the LEDs. The thumb is the battery case, with conductive thread on the top as the positive connection. The fingers are the positive connections for the LEDs.

This takes ~ 2 – 3 hours to build.

1. Attach wires to the LED(s).

Measure out two (2) wires per LED to span from your head, down your neck, and to your wrist. Add 3″ to this measurement to allow for movement. Cut wires and strip both ends.

Mark the positive side of the LED with a pen, then twist one end of each wire around the LED leads. Solder the LED leads to the wire. Use a red wire, or mark the positive wire with a pen.

If available, use heat shrink tube to make a poke-less connection. Or just coat it in epoxy or hot glue or some other liquid adhesive.

Repeat for each LED you want to add to the glove.

2. Using conductive thread, make the negative side of the circuit: a negative connection for the coin cell and a “ground bar” for the LEDs.

Put on the glove, and mark where the center of the battery will go. Sew about 10 layers of conductive thread over your mark — this is the ground connection for the coin cell battery.

With the thread still attached, sew down to the base of the glove and stitch back and forth until there are a few layers of conductive thread in a line — this is the negative connection for the LED connections.

3. Make a coin cell battery case on the thumb of the glove.

Cut out 1 square of regular fabric, and 1 square of conductive fabric.

Cut a small hole in the regular fabric and then stitch the conductive fabric square over the hole (with regular thread). Run over this a few times since the conductive fabric tends to fray.

Using normal thread, sew 3 of the 4 sides of the regular fabric over the negative connection for the battery, so that it makes a lil’ pouch for the coin cell. (You might want to sew down the 4th side a bit to hold in the battery, or use a safety pin).

4. Attach the positive side of one LED to a glove finger and make a conductive pad.

Sew the positive LED wire onto the glove (regular thread)

Still using regular thread, sew a square of conductive fabric over the stripped end of the wire.

5. Attach the negative side of the LED to the glove ground pad.

Wrap the stripped end of the wire to the conductive thread ground pad and/or use conductive thread to secure it.

6. Repeat 4 & 5 for all LEDs.. or until you run out of fingers.

7. Epoxy or use fabric glue to adhere all of the connections.

 

Step 5: Test & Deploy!

Test your privacy enhancing getup by opening Snapchat or another filter app and check that it can’t identify that there is a face in the image. At the very least, if it does identify a face, be sure that the filter it adds is hilariously broken.

If you want to get real serious, you can download the OpenCV library and test it against your wearable — this is my long-term goal, but for now I’m happy with sticking flowers and LEDs on my face for V1.0.

Stay tuned for more of these anti-facial recognition wearables and please share your awesome creations!

Make a Light-Up Holiday Card!

Light-up cards incorporate two of the best worlds of making (electronics and crafts) with the added bonus of making somebody smile. Heck yes!

Here’s my approach to light-up cards and my favorite recent discoveries: pop-ups and cotton balls.

Read time: ~ 5 min.

Build time: ~ 30 min -1 hr (mostly crafting the card)

Cost: < $5

 

Materials!

Gather up the following materials:

  • One or more LEDs!
  • Copper tape (~ 20″)
  • One coin cell
  • One paper clip
  • One pushpin
  • Colored paper
  • & any other craft materials your creative heart desires!

 

Build the Circuit!

 

 

1. Cut out a pocket for the coin cell.

 

 

 

2. Add copper tape to cardstock!

Stick 2″ of copper tape just above the battery pocket, so that the bottom of the battery rests on top of it. This is the negative (-) side of the circuit.

Stick another 2″ piece of copper tape on the underside of the pocket, so that it touches the top of the battery. This is the positive (+) side of the circuit.

 

3. Add a switch!

Cut a small line at the end of the copper tape, push paper fastener through the slit and hook the paperclip under the paper fastener (it might also help to add copper tape to the end of the paperclip). This makes an “on/off” switch!

 

 

4. Connect the LED!

The longer LED leg connects to the positive side of the circuit. The shorter leg connects to the negative side of the circuit. Be sure that these two sides of the circuit do not cross, or it “shorts” the LED and drains the battery.

 

 

Design & Make the Card!

1. Plan out where the light is going to go!

This is super crucial if you want the light to be in a specific spot, like the top of a tree, as a nose, etc. It’s helpful to make a super simple drawing of what you want before you try, or at least have extra materials on-hand for second (or possibly third) versions. Check all the things before you glue stuff down.

2. Craft the card!

Since it’s the December holiday season, I’m making a bunch of holidays cards for friends, woo! I like incorporating re-used (or upcycled) materials, so for this card I cut out the cover of an old calendar and folded the edges under to make it 3D (oooohhh now we’re gettin’ fancy!).

Another fun option are pop-ups! Cut out thin strips (~ 1/2 inch) and fold them accordion-style, then use ’em to prop up your cutouts and drawings!

3. Add in the LED!

You can either hide the circuit under the cover, or inside the card. For this card, the circuit slips under the cut-out, and the LED, covered by a lot of cotton balls, sticks out the top to light up the clouds!

 

 

Final Touches & Beyond!

Close the switch to the LED and stand in awe at your awesome creation! Write a heart-felt note on the inside and give it to your favorite family member/friend/coworker/neighbor/etc!!

There are tons of other ways to make the LED circuit! The photo to the left shows a method using magnets (ohhhh magnets!). What other ways can you come up with to make the circuit? Post your creations in the comments below!! 😀