Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pop Up Thinglab 30: MAKE ROBOT ... But Where Are Our Flying Cars?

Pop Up Thinglab 30  was a MAKE:ROBOT Mindstorms Thinglab for children 9 to 14 years of age in the new Lab Central at Redbridge Central Library.

We started with an introduction to robots - their past, present and future, their place in popular culture and their impact on work and our world. We spoke about technology development over the years ... how some of the things imagined in science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s have become real and common place, how many things we have today could have been science fiction in the past but weren't even imagined. Today we have flat screen TVs and not just mobile phones but smartphones and the Internet. Today we have self driving robot cars but where are the flying cars that were predicted? 

The idea of flying cars really got the children engaged .. we had an incredibly long, detailed and knowledgeable discussion about transport - electric cars, self driving cars, flying cars, public transport, economics, society, infrastructure and the environment. The children showed a natural awareness of broader issues related to technology ... we could have talked all day about whether technology makes our lives better or not, about fairness and equality, about pollution and about how technology is connected and dependent on so many other things. The children spoke about how you can't just have electric cars but need a supporting infrastructure to charge them. The children spoke about and how you can't have flying cars but need a supporting infrastructure of health and safety rules and regulations. A major concern the children had was about the pollution and environmental impact of technology and they spoke about how unfair it is that someone can use a flying car for their own advantage but leave pollution for everyone.

We spoke about how the car shaped and polluted the environment in 20th century and about how it can be regarded as a symbol of the industrial age. We spoke about how cars shaped our built environment and how we built our environment around them ... we spoke particularly about city congestion, noise, pollution and the number of cars parked unused everyday cluttering up our streets. We spoke about how electric driverless cars might become a symbol of the information age and how they might shape our future environment - imagining that our streets can be quieter and more peaceful places for people again and that you don't need to own a car ... you can just summon it when needed and so our streets can become safer and open again.

We spoke about the origins of the word robot - how Karel ńĆapek used the word to describe manufactured factory workers in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) and how the it comes from from Slavic languages with the meaning labourer, worker and figuratively drudgery or hard work (robota, roboti). 

The origin of the word robot comes from work and we had a very meaningful discussion about the impact of robots on work in the future. While robots have until now relieved us of many dangerous, boring and repetitive jobs it looks likely that robots and artificial intelligence will start to 'relieve us' of more "intellectual" jobs and skills - especially those with which are process and rule based with known and measurable outputs. In the information age it looks likely that it will be information processing jobs that might be automated - many of the jobs which are regarded as professional, middle class and well paid - jobs in finance, law and insurance for example. 

We had a discussion about what things might be difficult to automate and the type of skills that would be valuable for people to have in the future and what might be worth investing in today. The children could see that robots were best at repetitive things that can be programmed, that robots have no imagination and how being imaginative and creative would be important skills for people in a future full of robots.

We had a look at examples of machine learning ... how robots can learn without programming but by trial and error ... much like people can and finished the discussion talking about the risks and benefits of this and just who would be responsible for a robots actions if the robot had learned to carry out those actions by itself.

The future is their life ... the children were naturally super interested in topics about the future.

For people of such a young age they weren't just accepting of new technology but were able to engage critically with not just the tech but the broader social, ethical, environmental, economical and philosophical issues.

We then turned to practical issues ..  making and programming robots.

Teams go head to head in a MAKE:ROBOT race
People learn in different ways - some of the children wanted to work together through a guided robot build while others wanted to jump in and free-style - working out how to make the robot from the "Ikea" style diagrams. The robot model we were using is very quick and easy to make and our racing teams both made the robot in exactly the same time - 6.59 minutes from scratch ... opening the robot kit, laying and ordering the parts and making sense of the diagram.

Programming a robot to draw is the most popular activity in our robot workshops - our tangible programming app together with our 3D printed pen attachment means that children can make a robot, have it move about and draw in as little as 10 minutes.

Look at what we programmed our robot to draw

We programmed our robot to draw a square
We programmed our robot to draw a rectangle
 We programmed our robots to have a drawing duel 
So far the children had been programming robot actions ... robot outputs, so we introduced some robot sensors so that the children could consider robot inputs. The most popular sensor was the infrared sensor (radar) that the children could use to make their robots detect distance and program their robots responses e.g. how far away to detect an object, to move away or towards an object and how fast to move. 

Here's looking at you .. the infra-red sensors were very popular

We finished with robot wars - the mobile whiteboard we had been using for drawing became a battlebot arena for the children's robots to do battle in two, three and four way battle fests.

Four-Way Battlefest
Our roboteers

See all the photos from Pop Up Thinglab 30 here

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Pop Up Thinglab 29: On Your Marks, Get Set ... MAKE:ROBOT

Pop Up Thinglab 29 was the first workshop in the new Lab Central at Redbridge Central Library - it was a MAKE:ROBOT Mindstorms Thinglab for children 9 to 14 years of age.

We started with an introduction to robots - their past, present and future, their place in popular culture and their impact on work and our world. We spoke about the Hero robot in ancient Greece, Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings and mechanical Lions and modern machines. We spoke about the robots we could think of in stories and films and about what a robot is and the difference between machines, automatons, androids and robots.

We then got to making robots

LEGO Mindstorms is a wonderland of possibilities for invention and imagination but for first time users the full Mindstorms kit can be overwhelming and feel like being thrown into the deep end and the demonstration builds take a lot of time and patience to get started with.

It's difficult to make something simple

LEGO Mindstorms is exciting and you just want to get started quickly with something you can make and program to do things  ... its with this in mind that we have spent a lot of time developing quick and simple robot builds and a simple programming app to use with them. Our simple robot called "Buttons" can be easily made and programmed to move around with our app in less than 10 minutes.

“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.” ~ Albert Einstein

Within 10 minutes the children had made their robots and had started programming.

Making a robot is a tangible learning experience ... its an object to think with and a bit like working with a three dimensional puzzle. Some of the children were wondering why their robots were either not moving or "not doing what they were told" e.g. going round in a circle rather than a straight line. With a little bit of help and experimentation they "debugged" their robot builds .. finding out that connections from the brain to the limbs were not working ... the robot's nervous system wasn't connected properly ... they hadn't pushed the wires into the large motors for them to make a good connection - in tech talk ... the connectors weren't seated properly.

After the children got used to programming their robots to move around we introduced some more buttons and attachments for it ... add on buttons that could be used to program the robot to make sounds and to control a small motor that can be used with our gripper attachment.

My first experience of teaching programming to children was with robots - back in the early 1980s using the constructionist ideas in Seymour Papert's Mindstorms with the LOGO Turtle and language. Programming a robot to draw is a powerful learning activity ... its an experience that has stayed with me and inspires me to this day. Programming a robot to draw inspires young people today just as it did back in the early 1980s - our 3D printed pen holder robot attachments were by far the most popular activity. Using the same movement commands they were now familiar with but with the robot holding a pen the children got to programming their robots to draw.

On your marks .. the children program the robots to draw

Robots come to their senses

So far the children had been programming robot actions ... robot outputs. We had a discussion about inputs and outputs, our muscles, limbs and senses and robot effectors\actuators and sensors. We introduced the children to the Mindstorms colour sensor and infra-red sensor. With the colour sensors the children could use colours to program their robot to move, make noises and make tunes. With the infra-red sensors the children could make their robots detect distance and program their robots responses e.g. how far away to detect an object, to move away or towards an object and how fast to move.

Doing it yourself and making your own is a great way to appreciate and understand something - the children were really proud of their robots and what they had achieved with them ... and best of all - they had tremendous fun.

See all the photos from Pop Up Thinglab 29 here

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Pop Up Thinglab 28: Education, Free Association & 360 Degrees Of Freedom

Pop Up Thinglab 28 was a 360 media staff development workshop for Redbridge Institute of Adult Education.

InspireNshare Thinglabs explore and experiment with new technologies and with new ideas and methods in education. In Pop Up Thinglab 28 we used a 360 camera and virtual reality to explore new methods for a staff development workshop.

The first thing was to deconstruct the standard classroom - literally. We got rid of the tables and had no use for the smartboard so people arranged themselves in a circle so they could see each other and we could "lose control."  

The standard classroom layout with its focus on the front of the classroom and the blackboard\whiteboard\screen or smartboard are powerful in shaping the power dynamics of a classroom and framing the roles people play. Presentation surfaces like "smartboards" are useful but are they too often used as prostheses for control and as Zimmer frames for the "sage on the stage" to stand and deliver the standard education model?
Death by Powerpoint?
People in education were starting to talk about "Death by powerpoint"  so I started talking about "death to powerpoint" and presented for a full three years from 2010 to 2012 without using a slideshow ... I even started quoting John Hagel who also spoke without slideshows, smiling and saying  "I must apologise for not having any Powerpoint slides". Not using a slideshow is more exposing but you do get used to it and with this exposure comes a new relationship with the other people who are present ... you notice them a lot more, there's a lot more eye contact and interaction ... and without a slideshow presentation I found myself far more present.

With everyone facing each other .. people were talking to each other .. a wonderful thing - a million miles from the behaviour expected in the well ordered and well controlled classroom where it almost seems "children should be seen and not heard" for a lot of the time.

I had lost control :)

I was having a conversation about teaching and risk with an Ofsted inspector sitting next to me and said that I would be quite happy for people to talk among themselves as the staff development session ... exploring something wholly non deterministic and emergent. However, people had come to see and use the 360 camera and make some virtual reality so I gave them a round of applause and we got started.

We put the 360 camera in the centre of our circle and I explained how it had no direction .. that it captured the scene in all directions at the same time. When asked who would like to be in the picture and see themselves in virtual reality ... everyone was keen - to get interest and engagement there is no substitute for personal involvement!

In Bob Dylan's innovative and influential 1965 "Subterranean Homesick Blues" film clip he holds up and flips through a set of cue cards as the song plays. Linear sequence and direction are necessary with flat media but 360 media can be non-linear and non-directive - we can substitute time with space and Dylan's cue cards could be shown all at the same time but arranged in space with 360 degrees of freedom so we could view them however we wished. It's also the case that by organising in 360 degrees we can contain show a lot more in a single frame than a flat image.

I wanted to explore 360 media as well as education and had an idea of doing a something like Dylan's cue cards but in a 360 media style and to have something created by the people involved ... after all "educere" (to draw out) is one of the roots of the word education. 

I wanted something fast, fun, spontaneous and intuitive and something non-linear, non judgemental and emergent ... free association seemed ideal. With free association people are invited to relate whatever comes into their minds and not to censor their thoughts. It is intended to help us learn more about what we think and feel, in an atmosphere of non-judgmental curiosity and acceptance. The method of free association has no linear or preplanned agenda, but works by intuitive leaps and linkages which may lead to new personal insights and meanings. When used in this spirit, free association is a technique where those involved do not know in advance exactly where the conversation will lead, but it tends to lead to material that matters.  'In spite of the seeming confusion and lack of connection...meanings and connections begin to appear out of the disordered skein of thoughts...some central themes'. The goal of free association is not to unearth specific answers or memories, but to instigate a journey of co-discovery which can enhance the integration of thought, feeling, agency, and selfhood.

I invited the group not think about it but to write down the first word that came to mind when asked "Education?". This was an experiment with a risk ... I had not done this before and I had no idea if it would work ... once you stop and think it becomes difficult to choose just one word but would people be open enough to just write down a single word. I'm not sure if it was the engagement and participation with 360 media making or something else but everyone wrote down a word - this was a learning experience for me ... education doesn't have to be tightly structured, managed and controlled - you can be spontaneous, take risk, explore, experiment, co-create and learn together.


With 360 degrees of freedom here is what our teachers free associated with the word "Education"

View in 360 degrees on Flickr here

Everywhere, Learning, Paperwork, Brain Friendly, Learning Fun, Power, Discovery, Learning, Empowering, Enriching, Progressing, Moving Forward, Enjoy.

View in 360 degrees on Flickr here
Fun, Learning, Exhilaration, Opportunities, Empowering, Accessing, Enjoy, Learning, Training, Fun, Progression, Enabling, Moving up, Enhancing, Fun Learning, Learning.

In workshop two we had a little extra time left so I asked the group if they would like to make a 360 video for Youtube - everyone was enthusiastic ... the video is here. This was another learning experience for me ... I was amazed at how creative everyone was ... its just like sir Ken Robinson says "Creativity draws from many powers that we all have by virtue of being human" ... we are all creative ... it just needs to be drawn out. In the video you see some unfolding their cue card, some rotating it, some moving it above and below the 360 "plane of the ecliptic".

The 360 camera was at the centre of our circle but seemed to disappear -  I've noticed this before ... maybe its because people are unfamiliar with 360 cameras or the fact that it isn't pointed to anyone in particular but encompasses the whole group all around. The 360 camera gave the pre-text to form a circle and helped facilitate a 360 group activity but in theory all this could have easily happened without the technology ... in this case the tech was like a placebo ... it could have been switched off or have been fake but would have helped facilitate an inclusive effect.

We talked about technology and education ... how the PC era of IT had been intrusive - everyone separated, looking into glass and at worse with their backs to each other facing a wall. Hopefully a new era of technology will be not just "non-invasive" but even enabling of social relationships in the classroom.

Learning is a whole person thing ... its about body as well as mind and bringing movement , social interaction and physical activity into the classroom must be a good thing. We talked about how the classroom is a physical space and how we can bring physical activities into the classroom with maker education, role play, project based learning. We talked about how the classroom is a social space and how technology has affected this. We had a conversation about the "technology trap" ... putting technology first and then justifying it, for example using voting systems rather than having students simply put their hands up. Technology mediated discussion is fine for distance or individual learning but a classroom is a social environment .. its good to have peer discussions in person.  Its true that for some things a voting system can help collect anonymous responses but there are other ways to do this. 

I found that free association and the degrees of freedom with 360 media were perfect symbols for a new approach to education and technology. Free association for education as a journey of co-discovery which can enhance the integration of thought, feeling, agency, and selfhood. 360 media to add new dimensions to a flat education experience by including everyone and putting them picture 

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