Lo tech…Hi tech: quick & easy STEM ice-breaker to get your students using their smart devices

scales app

Mobile phones and other smart devices are packed full of sensors that students can use to collect data on temperature, pressure, light intensity, relative humidity, sound, acceleration and vibrations and there are a huge number of free utility apps that can be downloaded and used to turn these sensors into seismometers, rangefinders, anemometers, speed guns and heart monitors. What’s more, such apps provide quick and easy ways to engage students in fun problem-based activities with minimal resources. It really gets them thinking!

Here’s a ‘Hackshop/Appshop’ that @ka81 and I run as an ice-breaker to get students thinking about (a) how to solve problems and (b) how useful their mobile phones and smart devices can be! We give them about 10 minutes per question and usually run it in groups of 2-3 so that they can all get involved.

Here’s how it works…

Each group of students is given a ‘tray of stuff’ containing the following; A 133mm long piece of wire (we usually use a male-male jumper wire), a cardboard right-angled triangle, two coins (we give them a 2p and a 1p), a piece of blutak that has exactly the same mass as one of your coins – we use 3.56g, the mass of a 1p), a piece of thick card (it has to be stiff), 2 rubber bands, 3 pencils, scissors and sticky tape. These are the KEY ITEMS you need. We also throw into the tray a random assortment of odds and ends; paper, batteries, paperclips, anything you like. These are really red-herrings, because all the problems can be solved using the key items, but it makes for a more interesting lesson! Students are told that they will be given a number of problems to solve and that they can use their mobile phones / tablets and anything in their ‘trays of stuff’ to solve them, but nothing else. We then set them the first question.

QUESTION ONE – How long is the piece of wire?


It doesn’t students long to figure out that without a ruler they need some frame of reference. They need to know the measurement of ‘something’ in order to use it to create some kind of scale. Our experience is that their first choice of solution is not usually the obvious one, which is to download a ruler app on their phones and actually MEASURE the wire 🙂 No, what most do is to Google the diameter of the 2p coin (25.9mm) and the 1p coin (20.3mm) and use multiples of these to work out the length of the wire. At this point many get stuck because they quickly find that 133mm is neither an exact multiple of 25.9 nor 20.3 and so decide their approach has been wrong. You see, this where we were a little trixky, it’s actually the length of (2 x 2p coins ) + (4 x 1p coins)… some figure this out… whereas other abandon using the coins and finally cotton on to the fact that they can download a phone app to do the job. The most ironic solution to the problem we had was one group of students who Googled the DIMENSIONS of their mobile phone and then used their actual phone as a (very) crude ruler. Others made the mistake of getting an image of a ruler on their phones and tried to use this…until we pointed out that the scale wasn’t going to work unless the ruler was ‘life-size’ 🙂 Whatever their initial approach, it’s a simple way to give them a wake up all regards simple ways to solve problems using apps. We then discuss with the students the various uses to which such an app might be put. One point to note… you have to use wire… string stretches!

QUESTION TWO – what are the three angles on the cardboard triangle?


Students again typically head in totally different directions with this question. The simple solution is to download a protractor app and simply measure the angles directly…but again, students rarely do this straight off the bat. Instead many get stuck with the ruler app idea and resort to using the ruler to measure the sides of the triangle and then try to Google Pythagoras’s Theorem and use their phone’s calculator to do trigonometry. Some use a low-tech phone based solution approach… they simply go to Google images and find an image of a protractor and use this to measure the angles by placing the triangle on it. Again, we round off the question by discussing the various solutions and the ways in which such apps can be used.

QUESTION THREE – what is the mass of the blutak?


Of course if you want to make this a little more silly and fun you can shape the Blutak into something… we have used rabbits in the past 🙂 What’s the mass of the rabbit? SO, by question three students have got the idea that their first port of call for solving our little problems is to download a phone app for it, so when faced with THIS question they naturally look for an app to weigh the Blutak. This is rather sneaky of us to be honest, because most of the apps don’t work and those that do, require something that we have deliberately left out of their trays – a small polythene bag. Most students quickly find and manage to download a scales app BUT be careful here and consider the age of your students because the top hit for a search of ‘scales’ on Android’s playstore gives you the Weed Scale‘ app… and yes, it does what it says on the app! Either way, when they put the Blutak on the phone scales of their choice, nothing happens. Here’s why. Weighing apps use the phones accelerometers to measure movement of the phone when a mass is applied BUT it relies on the tiny displacement of the phone due to its slightly increased mass and when you put your phone on a hard surface it has nowhere to go. This is why you need the small polythene bag we’d deliberately left out. If you partially inflate it and sit your phone on top THEN add additional mass to the the phone (e.g. your Blutak) the phone ‘sinks’ a bit into the soft bag and this movement is detected by the phone’s accelerometers and converted to mass by the app’s algorithm. Cool huh? Well it is, but in the absence of a poly bag, not an option our students could use…but it generates a lot of intersting discussion about the use of apps, phone sensors and their limitations!

So,  how can you solve this particular problem without an app using just the items in the tray? Answer, build yourself a small balance from the bits in your tray (see image below). Here’s how: cut a strip of stiff card about 12cm x 1cm. Tie the three pencils together with the rubber band so that they stack lengthways into a triangular cross section (stops the fulcrum of your balance wobbling). Place the card over the fulcrum like a see-saw. Place your Blutak on one end and your 1p coin on the other and the two perfectly balance… your Blutak therefore has the same mass as the 1p. Google the mass of a 1p and you have your answer = 3.56g. The most ingenious solution we came across was a group of students who solved the problem (albeit not quite as accurately) by forming the Blutak into a cuboid, measuring it’s dimensions using a ruler app, calculating its volume and the Googling the density of Blutak to calculate the mass – very nice, and not one we’d thought of! You never can tell how students are going to solve problems… so never underestimate what YOU can learn during such activities 🙂

 perfect balance

There are literally dozen of other ideas you could come up with along similar lines, so if you do, we’d love to hear from you!!!

Teaching statistics MakerEd style: a day in the life of a University makerspace


Today in the Uni makerspace we held a MEGA-BUILD day. First year Zoology, Animal Behaviour, Wildlife Conservation, Biology and Forensic Anthropology students have been working on a variety of projects over these past few weeks to learn about statistics and so @ka81 and I thought we’d spend the day with them making.

Three groups were busy collecting their final bits of data for their stats assignment with their Rube Goldberg Machines. These are great fun (and easy) to build, and make learning about T-tests, Mann-Whitney U tests, Wilcoxon Signed Rank tests, Paired T-tests, Pearson and Spearman Rank Correlations and Linear Regression a lot more interesting than the list sounds 🙂 Only problem is getting the machines to work maybe 50-60 times on the trot. However, many, many resets, repairs with sticky tape, hot glue and rubber bands later… all the data were in!


On the bench alongside the Rubers were groups of students working on @arduino projects. Three have different camera trap projects they’re working on and so had teamed up for the day to try to play with triggers and to try to solve the problem of getting the Linksprite TTL cameras to download to SD. The triggers were fine. They were using PIR motion sensors and lasers trip-wires respectively…both simple enough to set up and code…but were having problems with the cameras. Still a puzzle and one they’re working on. The cameras take pix and dump them to SD but none  of the pix will open! Unrecognised file format we’re told…hmmmm. They’re therefore systematically working through things to try to figure out what’s going on. Nobody said #makered was straightforward lol (see Things We Have Learned – Part 1)… perplexing…


Meanwhile, along the bench from them, one of the girl teams were busy coding their Arduino Mega to dump data from 3 range-finder modules mounted on a spy-tank to SD card. All was going well until the Mega stopped reading the port! Plug in an Arduino Uno… fine. Plug the Mega back in…dead. Power off, then on… nothing. Disconnect the SD… nothing. Tried another laptop… nothing. We have had this happen before with Leonardos too… maybe something to do with the different chips these use compared to the fabulous workhorse that is the Uno?? I’m sure they’ll figure it out 🙂


Across from the girls another couple of students were working on their miniature sensor deployment project. They’re using Hexbugs to send sensors down burrows and pipes 🙂 Their first attempt (the NanoTurtle) comprised an Arduino Nano on a miniature breadboard. The aim was to also attach a bluetooth module and spool sensor data to their mobile phones. Got it working…sort of, using the pfodApp, but the connection keeps dropping after about 10 reading… something needs fixing with the handshake (add to the list)… so they’re about to play with RedBearLab’s Blend Micro (microprocessor and bluetooth combined) and an @adafruit trinket on a leash to the serial port as well 🙂 In the meantime though, today they decided to tow a TI sensor pack on a lego trolley using two Hexbugs. We call it ‘The Chariot’ lol… had me in stitches. It was so comical, but worked a treat!


The group beside them were putting the finishing touch to their Arduino breathalizer so that they could calibrate it against a police breathalizer and look at the effects on reaction time (using a reaction timer game they’ve built, also from an Arduino Uno) with different alcohol levels.


And outside the makerspace, in the stair well were the the helium blimp team who finally got full control over their blimp and were using it to film all the other groups 🙂 All in all, just another day in the makerspace…but oh what fun we had teaching and learning!


Drones, bones and mobile phones: a sneak peak at some student MakerEd projects

spytank selfie2

It’s been fun in the Uni Makerspace lately. The students have all been busy tinkering away for weeks now, prototyping and sorting their experiments ahead of next week’s ‘MEGA-BUILD DAY’ when the final builds need to be completed ready for data collection. One of the greatest joys has been the range of ideas they have come up with… so here’s a sneak peak at what some of them have been getting up to.

Blimping your ride…

Drones with fully gimballed cameras capable of sophisticated and controlled video and stills photography for aerial survey work are expensive. So one team of lads have set about trying to make an ultra-cheap alternative. Their plan is to strap a PowerUp 3.0 unit…


…controlled via bluetooth on a phone app…


…to a helium-filled balloon and then attach a mini video camera hacked from an @Extreme_Fliers Microdrone 2.0 to get their survey footage.


Well, the first thing they discovered was that it took seven balloons to lift the power unit… not exactly practical.


What was more, rubber balloons are, it turns out, rather ‘leaky’ when it comes to helium and so most of the helium was gone by the next day. Their Plan B was to use a foil balloon. This held the helium OK, but being a party balloon (it was very ‘colourful’) the shape was all wrong and steering it at all was difficult. The next attempt saw them using two big balloons, one at each end of the power unit. Success! Although the stability of it was less than ideal… it DID fly… and they could steer it, just about…


The problem was the tiny size of the rudder on the PowerUp 3.0. So they set about increasing the the size of the rudder. This was met with no success at all. Either it was too flimsy and so provided no additional ‘steerage’, or it was too stiff and so their was insufficient torque in the PowerUp 3.0 to move it. So they are currently living with the rudder and adding the camera in the hope that the extra ballast will give the blimp more stability. Watch this space…


Badgering sleeping animals?

Meanwhile some of the girls have been working with a Logitech Spy-tank. This is also controlled from a mobile phone app and has a tilt up-down IR camera on it that takes video and stills.

spy tank

So once they’d all finished taking ‘spy-tank selfies’ their thoughts turned to what it could be used for. Now being bioscience students, their thought naturally enough, was to send it down an animals’s burrow. They reasoned that they could build a sensor pack, strap it to the back of the tank and explore the micro-climate inside, for example, ‘a slumbering badger’s burrow’. So they tinkered with an Arduino Uno and played with various sensors and triggers but didn’t seem entirely pleased with the micro-climate logging idea once they’d explored the possibilities. What they really wanted to do was to map the inside of the burrow and so they decided to use an HC-SR04 range-finder sensor to do the job.


Their original idea was to stick just one HC on a servo and code the Arduino Uno to do a sweep left and right, taking distance measurements as it went, but they have now settled instead on going for a bank of HCs pointing in different directions to collect their data. Slight snag was that each HC needed four pins and well, there just weren’t enough really on the Uno. Solution? Stick them on a Mega 🙂


Their next step is to hook it all up to an @adafruit data-logging shield and dump the burrow data to an SD card. It’s then just a simple (?) case of reconstructing the internal dimensions and topography of the burrow from the HC-SR04 readings…



Dem bones…

Not all the students in the Makerspace are tinkering with physical computing, drones and rovers. One Forensic Anthropology student wants to 3D print bones so that students can have their own sets of reference materials.


To make this viable though this process needs to be cheap AND produce 3D prints that retain the subtle surface features of the original. He’s therefore working @LJMUFabLab to compare 3D prints on different quality 3D printers (filament – Ultimaker 3D, 3D UPS printer; powder – Z650 3D printer), from different quality 3D scans (free 123D catch phone app, mid-range Matter & Form portable scanner,  iSense iPad scanner add on; top-range Next Engine 3D scanner – beow) in the hope of finding a means of producing cheap, high quality facsimiles.

10953218_1093107820715040_9161757923577352630_n    10984050_1093111960714626_8243079893965916089_n

Ultimaker 2 (filament)                                                       Z650 (powder)


10998888_1093107857381703_8094377714492793984_n  3d scanner iSense

NextEngine                                              Matter & Form                                 iSense

Maker Education: why you don’t need to be a ‘TECH-spert’ to build cool things…



A perceived lack of ‘TECH-spertise

One of the main reasons we find that many of our colleagues in education are a little fearful of MakerEd is they have the perception that they don’t possess the skills needed – they lack the ‘TECH-spertise’. Physical computing in particular appears to be viewed like this… but this need not be a barrier. Take for example the ‘spaghetti’ robot above? It avoids obstacles using an ultrasonic sensor module mounted on a servo so that it can look left and right and then decide the best way to go. Pretty cool… BUT our point is this. That robot was laser cut, wired up and coded by a 14 year old who two days previously had never even heard of physical computing, had no idea what an Arduino was, had never coded and had never used a laser cutter! When we say a lack of ‘TECH-spertise‘ is no barrier, we mean it! So, how DO you get started if you literally haven’t got a clue? Here’s some suggestions.

Start with Arduino THEN move to RaspberryPi

Start with something really, really simple! By this we mean build something that doesn’t require circuits, or writing your own code, or downloading data or talking to the internet. In short start with an Arduino ‘plug in and go’ project. Arduinos are micro-controllers that allow you to connect to sensors and/or control other devices. They are, therefore, ideal starters for MakerEd projects to get students making working devices and interacting with their environments quickly and easily. “But what about RaspberryPi?” we hear you say,”we have a bunch of those in our school“. Well, there’s absolutely no doubt that RaspberryPi is a fantastic thing and we love it to bits we really do, BUT, it isn’t in our view, the place to start if you’re fearful of tech in the classroom. To start with, you need a whole bunch of different cables, an SD card, a keyboard, a monitor in addition to the board to connect up, then you have to download and install Linux BEFORE before you can even get going… and when you do, it doesn’t have the immediate hands-on utility as far as making things is concerned that the Arduino does. So if you’re a complete novice we’d suggest starting with Arduino. What’s more, starting with the simplest Arduino project you can – something ‘plug in and go’.

Starting with something simple – Arduino ‘plug in and go’.

They key word here is SIMPLE. So how simple are we talking about? As simple as (i) downloading and installing some free software which you can get HERE (it’s called the Arduino IDE and is where you type in or cut and paste code), (ii) plugging a sensor into sockets on an Arduino and (iii) reading off the results on your laptop or PC. If you can do this, then you can make a simple data-logger with your students for under $10. You don’t even NEED to write your own code (you can grab it from the internet or from some great books – see later) and you don’t even NEED to wire up a circuit (you can plug SOME sensors straight into the Arduino – no soldering, no breadboards, no spaghetti!). All you literally need is (i) a laptop or PC with the Arduino IDE software installed, (ii) an Arduino board (we recommend a cheap Uno copy… we find the Leonardo a little prone to dropping its connection) and (iii) a sensor to plug into your board!  Of course, ultimately you’ll probably want to WRITE your own code and MAKE circuits…but we did say start SIMPLE!

THE simplest data-logger you can probably make is shown below. We start our students off on this one. It involves no more than plugging a TMP36 temperature sensor (flat-side innermost) into the holes (‘pins’) labelled A1, A2 and A3 on the Arduino board, plugging the board into your laptop or PC  and typing in or cutting and pasting some simple code into the sketch window of the Arduino IDE (see below).

ArduinoUnoSmd450px + tmp36 = simple data-logger

So is that it? Pretty much! The only missing part of the equation is where to get the code and how to use the IDE software to upload it to your Arduino. And that’s the great part! Arduino is an opensource thing… the devices themselves are opensource and so can be freely and cheaply copied AND the code is shared across the globe and there are literally hundreds of tutorials and books out there on how to do this. What’s more they cover everything from the simple data-logger above to the most complicated thing you might ever wish to build. You really do NOT therefore need to be a ‘TECH-spert‘ in order to get started with MakerEd projects involving physical computing, beacuse there’s nothing you cannot find with a click of the mouse. Some of our favourite places to go for ideas, code and instructions are shown below (just click on the image to follow the link)

Our Top 3 places to go for ideas…


We love @Instructables and @Makemagazine – it’s where lots of makers share their projects and they are fabulous places to search for ideas, wiring diagrams and code (just use their search boxes) that you can then use and adapt for your teaching. The quality of instructions vary, depending on the individual postee, but you can ask them questions through the message boards if you need to and there are usually pictures or videos showing what gets connected to what, which can be a great help if you are new to physical computing.


@adafruit – we LOVE their tech AND their learn section. Full of great projects, expert guidance and links to everything you need to make the projects presented, from suppliers to the code you need and then how to join up all the dots to get the project working. Not, we would say, one for the total novice BUT the place to go next when you have found your feet and want to start pushing the boundaries a little.


Our Top 3 books for getting started…

If you have to buy any books, we have found these three to be perfect for our needs. The first Invent to Learn by @Sylvia Libo Martinez & @Gary Stager is THE definitive book on MakerEd and gives a wonderful overview of the subject and has tons of great advice and stuff on pedagogy. The other two are the best starter books for physical computing projects we have found and are the two we give our students. ‘Hacking Electronics‘ by Simon Monk has some cracking sections on hacking with Arduinos (including the code for the simple data-logger we introduced above) and the Mark Geddes’ Arduino Project Handbook is the clearest, most readable guide we have found to getting started quickly with Arduino.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00067]  books

Starter kits

We are often asked about Starter Kits, and there are plenty on the market full of fantastic resources to get you going with Arduinos…BUT…. whilst we have found them great for tinkering with ourselves, we have found that they don’t currently fit the bill for our teaching. Why? Because they tend to contain a whole bunch of stuff that never gets used e.g. keypads, too many LEDs, LCD units (we find shields are easier for beginners to use), motors BUT just single ones (even simple robots need at least two) and assorted components that are maybe used once in a while. They’re also usually short of sensors. All this means that (i) there’s quite a bit of built in redundancy in the kits we’ve seen as far as teaching goes and so, (ii) they’re quite expensive for what they are and (iii) no starter kit contains enough of everything to cater for more than a single student at a time. So whilst they’re great for hobbyists, we’ve yet to see a really good educational starter kit that will allow groups of students to each build the same thing from a more targeted set of components. Perhaps one of the big companies could put one together? Just a thought 🙂 So for now we find buying just the components and boards we need to be the most cost effective way to embed physical computing into our MakerEd teaching.

Are we being blinded by technology in the classroom?


We’d like to start today’s blog with a quote… a rather long quote granted… but we wonder if it resonates with any of you?

“In the 21st century economy, science fiction technologies are becoming everyday realities and this new, knowledge and innovation driven economy requires not only new skill sets but an education system that focuses more on critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and initiation and less on knowledge acquisition and regurgitation. The idea that we need a paradigm shift in education is not new and it has long been recognized that at the heart of this shift lies a return to more creative ways of learning and teaching. Mobile technologies provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to achieve this by allowing us to develop new, flexible pedagogies that provide students with diverse, rich learning environments in which the creativity of the student as hacker / maker can flourish and in which learning is no longer confined in time and space. It is within our grasp therefore to move towards a more dynamic, mobile way of teaching and learning that has the potential to transform curriculum delivery, enhance student learning and see a return to creativity in the classroom and lecture hall, whether these be real or virtual.” 

We wrote this a while ago, and as maker educators still passionately believe this to be true… BUT… are we maybe being blinded by technology?

It seems to us that in educational circles it’s pretty much taken as read these days that using technology in the classroom is a good thing. It’s considered to be innovative, it’s what gets teachers noticed and it’s what students want. But is this really true?

For a start, what technology is it that we are all talking about when we use the phrase ‘technology in the classroom’? And, what is it exactly that we’re trying to achieve with all this technology? Are we in danger of just using technology for technology’s sake?  Take for example, physical computing. We love our Arduinos, we really do, and there’s no doubt that students develop skills in using them that will make them stand out from some of their more traditionally taught peers…BUT… in building a data-logger to record temperature, or making a range-finder, are we not in danger of Rube Goldberg-ing? Over engineering something simple to make a point? And what point? We do after all have thermometers and rulers that will do the same thing?


Tech makes lessons more engaging, doesn’t it?

Perhaps we’re just trying to make certain subjects more engaging? Let’s face it, it’s more FUN to build your own data-logging device than simply whip a thermometer or ruler out of a drawer. But then what IS engagement really? How do we measure that? And is there really and any demonstrable relationship between engagement and learning?  It seems like one of those implicit assumptions again… greater engagement leads to greater learning. But does it? Really? Sure your classes may be more popular and you may get better feedback from your students and their attendance may be great but do they learn any better? In theory, surely there are at least four kinds of students in this respect (i) those who love tech and do great when taught using it, (ii) those who love tech and don’t do so great, (iii) those who hate tech and yet do great anyway and (iv) those who hate tech and do badly? So where exactly do we get this idea that more technology and more creative ways of doing things is invariably a good thing? Is it really any better than any other teaching method? Are we not in danger of falling into the trap of replacing one teaching system with another? In our experience, one size never fits all, so why is technology being heralded as this panicea for all our educational ills?


Kids are techy aren’t they?

Then there’s the assumption that all kids are techy and so we SHOULD be using this stuff. Really? Well yes, they USE their tech…many of them (but not all!), but using it is very different from being techy, or tech-savvy. Besides, when exactly do we teach them how to use this tech for learning? Don’t we just assume that in sticking something on an iPad will somehow magically improve their learning? Why? But you hear this all the time… this school is seen as ‘cutting edge’ because it gives all its student pads and it has a 3D printer, this teacher is ‘innovative’ because they use Raspberry Pi. We’re not saying they’re not, but surely it’s not the mere investment in tech that makes teaching innovative, it’s how it’s used by a school or a teacher? Are we maybe all becoming just a little bit blinkered?


Who is technology for?

We were at an education conference recently in which technology was championed as being ‘the way forward’ – it’s what students want! And, we found plenty enough students there to back this view up! Enthusiastic was not the word…BUT… let’s step back a second here. Who ARE these students? They are the kind of students who go to educational conferences. Does that not tell us something? They are the same kind of students who become student reps and ambassadors. They are the bright, engaged, turned on, proactive students. They are not ALL students. They are not even the majority of all students. Neither are they the voice of the majority. So why is it that we seem to ignore this when formulating our technology driven educational agendas? Is technology for the geeks or the masses?


Burn the witches…

Some would say it doesn’t matter. It’s good for them all…it’s skills they’ll need. They should all be using tech. We have heard this a lot!  And there was a time we believed this. There was a time when we thought that the difference between students who engaged with tech in the classroom and those who didn’t, was simply one of readiness. They’ll get there eventually, they’re just not ready yet. They’ll see the light. Not any more. If we have learned anything from our forays into all things tech for teaching and learning, it’s this… there is a strong case for didactic teaching! Yes, you heard right… as a couple of self-proclaimed geeks doing their bit for MakerEd… we believe strongly in the case for low-zero tech didactic teaching. We are clearly heretics… burn the witches!

A case for didactic teaching…

Here’s why, despite our love of tech, that we believe it’s not the be all and end all of 21st century teaching and learning. First, our experience in HE has shown us that the majority of students starting their degrees are incredibly risk averse. How do we know this? Because we have given them choices about whether they wish to learn didactically (traditional lectures, worksheet, instructions, ICT workshops etc) or creatively (no lectures or worksheets, focus on problem solving, making, projects, autonomy etc) and asked them about their choices.

Second, it’s THEIR learning, not ours. Every student has their own aspirations. They have their own lives to manage. They have their own baggage to deal with and a great many of them need a lot of support. Not all of them want ‘firsts’ or even ‘2:1’s and so who are we to tell the that they should! This does not make them lazy. This does not make them hopeless. This simply makes them in need of a more structured way of learning and for most, this means a more didactic, low tech approach. A colleague of ours said recently, “Surely though to make the most of their degrees and get jobs they need tech?” Ah, that old walnut… Let me just say this, I really do NOT want my pharmacist being creative with my prescription drugs, nor do I want the girl in charge of the nuclear power station down the road thinking, ‘Now I wonder what would happen if I pressed this button…’. Let’s not forget that there are plenty of scientific careers out there (@ka81 and I are scientists as well as educators) that really need people who can follow instructions, do it by the book and not go all autonomous on us!!!

Third, all singing all dancing creative techy teaching may be fun, but can we really fit it into our curricula? How many school teachers out there already struggle to fit in everything they need to teach? How many of you start lower down the school with lots of hands-on, creative learning, with practicals and demos, with a smattering of tech, only to find that as exams approach that these get abandoned in order to get your students through the written tests? After all, it is the results students get for these tests that will determine their immediate futures and against which teachers will be judged isn’t it? There are no marks for tech-based, innovative teaching when it comes to exams, is there?



Things we have learned -Part 1

home spy tank selfie

@ka81 and @markfeltham666 – All views are our own

MakerEd: towards an alternative teaching and learning universe

My other half @ka81 and I are both educators and avid makers. Caroline teaches physics and I teach the biosciences (often with an Animal Behaviour slant) and whilst I’m quite happy to lecture to 250 students on the weird and wonderful sexual shenanigans of everything from weevils to whales, our joint passion is for ‘the doing of science’.

A few years ago we had a crazy idea to start a collaborative project on maker education and makerspaces for teaching and learning.  We wanted to embed flexible, smart learning into our teaching through the use of social media, mobile technologies and especially making in order to provide students with the opportunity to develop a unique portfolio of skills and have fun! We wanted to design something that would stimulate students’ curiosity, develop their creativity, encourage their engagement, enhance retention, and promote autonomy, initiative and innovation. Put simply we wanted to take our students with us on a journey to a very different teaching and learning universe. Three years later, we have a makerspace (albeit a temporary one) and students who are; starting to build their own data-loggers, camera traps and sensor packs using @arduino @Raspberry_Pi and @adafruit; deploy sensors with UAVs, app controlled Spy Tanks and PowerUp 3.0 driven helium blimps; and 3D scan, print and laser cut a variety of things as part of their bioscience degrees and secondary education. You may have guessed that we are somewhat committed to joining the dots across the educational landscape.


Think. Make. Learn. Share

Trying to embed #makered into your teaching across all subjects (not just computing/engineering) can be an exhausting task, but we were lucky. We met so many wonderful, energetic, inspiring people on our #makered journey who’s passion for learning and dogged determination to succeed kept us going when we felt like giving up. So, in the true maker spirit we wanted to share our own experiences with other makers in education in the hope that we might do the same as the friends we’ve made along the way – keep some of you going, when you feel like giving up! To whit, if you’re trying to bring Maker Education into your own school, college or University and feel like you’re facing an uphill struggle, here’s a few things we discovered that might give you some perspective in those moments of doubt.

  1. You may often feel isolated – you’re not, it just feels that way.


One of the first things I think we noticed when we started all this was that in educational circles it felt like we were the only people on the same page as ourselves. Nobody really seemed to know anything about Maker Education at all. Even the ‘great and the good’ at the various annual Teaching & Learning Conferences seemed, with one or two exceptions to be oblivious. So we’d sit there and listen to presentations about 21st century teaching, flexible pedagogies, innovation in teaching and learning, student engagement etc. and wonder where the Maker Education stuff was. I think maybe it’s different in the US, where there’s much more of a maker culture, so perhaps it was just because MakerEd is a relatively new thing in the UK, but it was weird. When we visited Makerspaces and Makerfaires people ‘got’ what we were trying to do… in academic circles though… blank faces. It took us a while to realise that actually, there WERE educators out there who had similar ideas, but as with all things new, they were in tiny pockets scattered to the winds – the trick was finding them. Twitter worked for us #makered #edtechchat #makerfaire #makerspace #stem etc

  1. That feeling of frustration at having to explain what a Makerspace is…yet again, will pass.


You know that feeling you get when you think you have a great idea and you want to share it with anybody who will listen? That was us back then…passion bordering on evangelism. We would thump our tub whenever and wherever we could, but time after time no sooner had we taken that initial deep breath in order to excitedly blurt everything out, than we’d be cut short before we’d even gotten going. ‘Makerspace?’, blank face, ‘What’s a Makerspace??’. Now this is fascinating stuff… at least to me. You’d start off by retracing your steps and happily filling in the blanks with a brief history of makers /the maker community / makerspaces and eventually get to MakerEd, at which point you’d either get a nod and a smile (code for… well I don’t teach computer science so…), or you’d get a slightly different nod and a smile (code for… ah right, you mean PBL / enquiry-based learning, we already do that). Either way I found myself evolving my conversations so that what began as patient and reactive, became slightly agitated and pre-emptive, before hitting the full blown ‘Why am I even bothering to have these conversations?’, withdrawing into hermitude for a while to reflect on my grumpiness and then finally emerging with my perspective and expectations adjusted only to see the latter exceeded almost immediately. Time had moved on and people were actually talking about makers and making in an educational context. People knew what an Arduino and Raspberry Pi were – it was great! OK I exaggerate, we still regularly have to have the ‘What’s a makerspace?’ conversation, BUT, it’s not met with those same coded nods and smiles anymore. It’s met with interest and questions. A step in the right direction!

  1. You will have to do battle with CAVEs – suit up, it’s actually quite fun.


So things began to change for the better. We felt less isolated and found other people who spoke ‘MakerEd’ or who were interested in learning it. But this did not (and still doesn’t) apply to everyone. We had to accept that no matter what we did, we were never going to get all of our colleagues on board, in particular, the CAVEs. We all know and work with CAVEs. It stands for Colleagues Against Virtually Everything. We’d like to be able to take credit for this cracking acronym, but alas its originator is somewhere in the ether. So wherever you are, thank you! To us, CAVE is not a derogatory term. It’s not a criticism, it’s just that CAVEs have a different mindset to the makers among us. I kind of think of them as the Koala Bears of education, cuddly enough but ultimately completely content with their diet of educational eucalyptus. Hot ‘n’ spicey is just not for them… and that’s fine… unless, you need a signature from one, or funding! Then you may have a problem. Ever tried to get a 5 year old to try something new to eat? It can be a bit like that… but that’s for another blog.

  1. Get used to taking the lead and find your ‘-EEN’… you may need one or two


If you’re serious about pushing MakerEd in your particular workplace you may need an ‘-een’. Before I explain what an ‘-een’ IS I would just like to make it clear that I’m not advocating the use of any kind of stimulant… what I am saying is that you will probably need to find new levels of energy to deal with 1-3 above, because let’s face it… we also have all our other teaching and learning commitments to fit in as well as MakerEd. @ka81 and my personal vices in this respect were Caf-EEN, Nicot-EEN and Adrenol-EEN. They kept us alert, travelling at 100mph and firing on all four cylinders during those early stages. Thankfully, (we both have heart problems) we have shed the first two and now survive entirely on the third, despite having discovered another three cylinders and so we’re now travelling somewhere in excess of 250mph…metaphorically speaking of course. My point is this. In all likelihood you’re going to have to take the lead with anything MakerEd… it’s just not ‘mainstream’ enough yet and so this will require more time and energy on top of your usual teaching duties.

  1. If you’re uncomfortable not knowing – you’ll need to buy a cushion.


If there’s one big thing we’ve learned along the way it’s that you HAVE to be flexible in how you teach and assess MakerEd. In allowing students opportunities to brainstorm, invent, design, and build…and then time to fix mistakes, improve, test and improve again you will inevitably find that you are taken into uncharted territory, sometimes without the required documents and with only a smattering of the local language. If you’re not comfortable with the big unknown and the phrase ‘Hmmm, I don’t know. Why don’t we find out?’ then buy yourself a nice big soft cushion, plant yourself in front of a mirror and practice saying it twice a day until the phrase rolls off your tongue like a native and the little voice inside your head stops saying ‘But…’.

We’d love t hear about your own MakerEd experiences, so if you’d like to guest blog, please get in touch @ka81 @markfeltham666 or join us on HEdWorks@HEdSpaceUK.