Visualizing Air Quality Data

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This semester my Ithaca College students in Make Better Stuff Studio are collaborating with Wicked Device Electronics Co., the makers of Air Quality Egg–an affordable, web-connected air quality sensor made in Ithaca, NY–to design an exhibit for EdTech Day at IC. Make Better Stuff (MBS) Studio is a pilot course in IC’s Department of Environmental Science. In the course, students learn sustainable design principles and design methodology through hands-on projects.

Last week we had one of the egg’s inventors, Vic Aprea, visit our class and help us install an egg in the lab. The students enjoyed meeting Vic and gained a sense for what it takes to get a complex product like the egg up and running and collecting data.

The question I’m asking the students to consider for the exhibit is this: How might we inspire people to engage in air-quality monitoring and activism? The students have been brainstorming, paper-prototyping, and testing creative responses to this question. Their next step is to take their ideas from prototypes to reality. To help them, they will learn to use some new tools: a laser cutter and the arduino.

For laser cutting, we are visiting Elliot Wells, a member of the local makerspace Ithaca Generator, to learn how to create 3D objects with a combination of laser cutting and good old-fashioned wood glueing and clamping. Then next week I’ll introduce the class to arduino and we’ll program color-changing lights. The laser cutter and the arduino are the two dominant tools in a discrete “box of crayons” the students have to work with for the project. These “constraints” will help make the exhibit pieces from each of the six teams display as a cohesive whole. I’m excited to see what they do with these tools and how they respond to the challenge at hand.

AQE in FastCompany

AQE facebook page

Ithaca Generator makerspace

IC EdTech Day

Arduino

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Repost: 4PS OF THE MEDIA LAB

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This post originally appeared at http://ithacagenerator.org/

Last week a fellow IG member and I went to the Scratch Conference at MIT Media Lab. Scratch is a visual programming language developed by folks in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. The goal of the project is to help kids (and adults) transform themselves from “consumers of stuff” to “makers of stuff.” (Sound familiar?)

What impressed us about the conference is that it wasn’t only focused on technology, but on the social aspects of engaging with technology. The Media Lab has four principles that guide their techno-social-creative process: PROJECTS, PEERS, PASSION, and PLAY.

PROJECTS

Makers don’t just talk about ideas. They make stuff. So PROJECTS are the physical manifestations of making. We participated in two project-oriented workshops:

1. DIY CARDBOARD INTERFACE https://vine.co/v/MVmqeOYPP6b
by https://twitter.com/adlogi
2. ARDUINO + SCRATCH https://vine.co/v/MVKUblOhZ6X by https://twitter.com/qramo

Both workshops were scaled well and effective. Something that stood out to us was how the participants, who are educators from around the globe, interacted with each other. We helped each other troubleshoot and explore. All of us seemed comfortable with rapid trial and error. Which leads to the second principle – Peers.

PEERS

In the keynotes, there was a lot of emphasis put on the role of peers when we are learning to program or make things. In the keynote on Day 2, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl https://twitter.com/ElyseEA of the National Writing Project said something that hit home. Now, her project is to transform “readers” in to “readers who write” but you can see the connection to transforming consumers to makers. Elyse pointed out that hour-long workshops have their place because they introduce people to writing. But to become a writer, one needs to engage with a community over time. They need to share their work. They need to get and give feedback. They need to mentor and be mentored. Something to think about as we look at our programming at the makerspace. How do we nurture our community so that more Ithacans can go through this transformation?

PASSION

One thing we think about at IG and in tech overall is how to foster more diversity and inclusion in our community. One way to help more kids and adults learn technology is to offer experiences that enable them to tie technology – which is new and foreign to them – to something that they are already passionate and knowledgable about. Then the technology becomes less of a scary thing that newbies can’t do and more of a new tool for expressing ourselves. This passion principle is held by Harvey Mudd College where they offer joint majors that allow people to integrate a field they are passionate about with CS. It seems to be pretty effective with women filling over ½ of their CS student slots.

PLAY

There’s a lot of talk about PLAY in the creativity space. At MIT, they make an interesting distinction between PLAYGROUND play and PLAYPEN play. The playground is a social environment where we interact with people and explore our decision making processes. In the PLAYPEN, our activity is more constrained. We don’t have the freedom to reach outside of ourselves. So when we are designing playful environments, it’s important to keep this distinction in mind.

The last session we went to at the conference was a session hosted by women who created the FAMILY CREATIVE LEARNING https://twitter.com/ricarose guide and GUERILLA POPup MAKERSPACEhttps://twitter.com/GuerrillaMakers. Both projects integrate all 4 Ps of the Media Lab. Here’s a secret they shared that we really love, “The aesthetic of these things is that it should feel like a family gathering. We always start with food.”

YOUR TURN

We welcome your insights on the 4 Ps or other principles that have captured your imagination. Share them with us in the comments or on our facebook or twitter streams.

Generative LCA for 5th graders

This time last year I did a workshop with the 5th graders at Fall Creek Elementary on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of toy design. LCA is a tool used by sustainability engineers to assess the impacts of industrial products, services, and systems on the environment and on people. Even though I don’t normally work with kids, I love working with this bunch. It’s such a great exercise to prepare content for 5th graders. It forces me to be clear and to get to the point!

Last year I started the workshop with a belief I have: I believe that kids can make better toys than the ones they can buy in stores.

I made three discoveries during this workshop that confirmed my belief. I’ll list them here, then flesh them out below:

1. All of the students picked up LCA quickly

2. At least half of the students knew what a 3D printer was

3. One of the students made an amazing insight about USE phase of LCA

1. INTUITING LCA.  To teach LCA to this group, I held up a plastic french fries toy and asked “How did this come to be in the world?” Their answers sounded a lot like the phases of LCA: Design, Pre-production, Manufacturing, Sales, Distribution, Use, Durability, End-of-Life (EOL). Of course I had to give them prompts every once in a while, but overall, it came from them intuitively. All they needed was to be asked the right question.

2. 3D PRINTERS. You may wonder what 3D printers have to do with kids making toys. Well, up until very recently, if you wanted to manufacture something, you needed millions of dollars and connections to all kinds of equipment and services that were hard to access. Plus, even if you made something, you had no way of selling or distributing it to the people who wanted it. Enter the desktop manufacturing revolution. Today kids have access to the tools of production and distribution. And many of them know it. They expect to be able to come up with an idea on the computer and manufacture it on a machine in their garage, online service bureau, or local maker space. So not only can kids come up with better ideas for toys, they can actually manufacture and sell them. Incredible.

3. USE PHASE of LCA. So the use phase of LCA looks at the energy or resources that a product uses while in the hands of the consumer. A great example is a washing machine. If you are assessing a washing machine, yes, all of the other phases of LCA are important, but “use” is huge because the machine is used daily for many years. Thus, we want to know how much energy and water is used in each wash. But with a plastic french fries toy, it’s hard to assess the use phase. Except for one student who said, “What about the message that the toy conveys while in the hands of the user?” I almost fell over. Yes, plastic french fries promote values about nutrition, don’t they? The values that an object conveys while in use is huge and I’m going to cover this explicitly in this upcoming workshop.

All of that said, when I asked them to come up with an idea for a new toy using at least one phase of LCA as inspiration, that connection didn’t happen for a lot of them (at least not during the 50 minute session I was working with them). And I get that, it’s a lot to synthesize in a short amount of time. So this year I might prepare a pair of worksheets to help them synthesize more quickly. One worksheet for the plastic french fries (the before) and another worksheet for their toy invention (the after). I’ll ask them to highlight the LCA phases they took inspiration from on the “after” worksheet. A lot to pack in to a 50 minute session. But they are young and full of creativity. I think they’ll do great.

related:

LCA on EPA.gov

online 3D printing service

Marketing fast food to kids

Beginner’s Mind and Clarity

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There’s a concept in Buddhism that’s often borrowed by folks who teach creativity. It’s called “The Beginner’s Mind.” Adopting a beginner’s mind about a subject or project is supposed to allow us to be open to many more possibilities than if we approach the project as an expert.

This past week I found another great use for beginner’s mind. I was at Ed Tech Day at Ithaca College sharing the work I am doing with my students in the Department of Environmental Science there. The exhibit was titled “Arduino in the Classroom” and folks really enjoyed talking with me about it.

Part of what made the conversation so engaging, I realized, is that when it comes to Arduino, I am a beginner. Thus, when talking about Arduino I was much more clear about it than I am with what I have expertise in, such as design.

I found it easy to talk about the Arduino and what it means in the world. Most people think it’s something for kids, but I was there in part to correct that assumption. Arduino is the stuff that’s hidden inside of most of the products we use every day, but because it’s hidden inside folks don’t relate.

Which is why people are so easily excited about 3D printers. The stuff that comes off a 3D printer looks like something they might own or see in a store because 3D printing provides the skin of a product. Arduino is the guts. And it’s much easier for average folks to identify a person by their skin than by their guts, right?

Once I got them looking at the guts, I explained with a very simple example (servo sweep), how hardware and software work together to make our stuff do stuff. And then I explained how what we prototype on an Arduino can be made into a circuit board diagram and manufactured in USA, in a batch as small as three boards! And that was it. People got it. And they were amazed. As they should be. The democratization of this type of technology is amazing.

Thank you, beginner’s mind, for helping me tell that story.

Build to Learn revisited

lamps

Recently I’ve been working on some lamp projects with a friend of mine. It’s a funny project for me because I’ve been known to say in the past that it’s unfortunate how designers spend so much of their creative energy on making chairs and lamps. A visit to design week in New York will confirm this fetish that designers have. You’ll see more chairs and lamps than anything else. But I’ve come to appreciate designing lamps as an exercise in the exploration of tools and materials.

This past weekend I visited World Maker Faire in NYC. The makers at the fair aren’t into chairs and lamps per se but they have their own fetishes: LEDs, microcontrollers, 3D printers. They get teased in the press because the things that they make seem silly. But what the journos may not understand is that these makers are building to learn. They are exploring new tools and materials to see what they can do. Just as an artist might do color studies with paint or form studies with clay, the makers are exploring the possibilities and limits of their medium. The point isn’t to make something useful or functional; the point is to build to learn — to explore and discover what the tools want to do and what the materials want to be. Tim O’Reilly once wrote that the way we play with new technologies is like how babies play with blocks. They start by putting them in their mouths. Only after months or years of exploration do they build anything meaningful. Continue reading “Build to Learn revisited”