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“. Cooool…. RaspberryPi is a fantastic thing and we love it, but IF you’re fearful of tech in the classroom, try an Arduino first… or even a Micro:bit. Start really, really simple…

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.

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. BUT… if a kit will get you making and the thought of having to source a bunch of components would put you off… get a kit(s)… to begin with 🙂



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!!!

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 keeping low-zero tech didactic teaching too. We are clearly heretics… burn the witches!

A case for didactic teaching…

Here’s why, despite our love of tech, 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 us just say this, we really do NOT want our pharmacist being creative with our prescription drugs, nor do we 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?



‘Who-topia’: are we on the cusp of a paradigm shift in how we teach and learn?


We wrote this post originally a couple of years ago, but thought it might be fun to re-post it and reflect on how things have changed…

 The TARDIS effect: how mobile devices could transform teaching and learning…

In 1963 the BBC launched the science fiction television series Dr. Who, in which ‘The Doctor’ explored the universe (and continues to do so through his various regenerations) in his TARDIS, a machine that’s ‘bigger on the inside’ and that allows him to travel anywhere in time and space. Some 50 years later we too can do the same, albeit virtually, using mobile devices and this opens up an exciting constellation of possibilities for teaching and learning. With this in mind @ka81 and I set about re-imagining an alternative teaching and learning universe with mobile technology at its core. We have called this new educational universe, ‘Who-topia’… but could it happen and do we want it?

More and more of us have in our pockets our very own T.A.R.D.I.S… and it’s much bigger on the inside that we can possibly imagine! No longer does teaching and learning need to be constrained by time and space as students can travel to wherever they wish, whenever they wish by using their mobile phones to connect to the ‘Internet of Things’. Educators and students alike can view, upload, download, collate, compile and share data, ideas and resources at the tap of a touchscreen. But, we can both be so much more than simply travellers in virtual time and space! We can also use these devices to interact with our environment, to collect data and control other devices as part of our teaching and learning experience and this opens up glorious new dimensions for teaching and learning.

21st century teaching and learning?


Imagine the following scenario. Students sign in to their classes with their mobile phones, having scooped the session’s content via their class’s social media group the night before and archived it to their own mobile Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). They use their phones, in class, to interact with the materials, the teacher and fellow students in order to test their understanding, whilst sharing their views, comments and questions via a live Twitter™ feed. The whole session is recorded in real time and uploaded to the students’ phones at the end of the session. Outside the classroom their learning continues as they now use their phones to collect data for projects and use social media such as Facebook™ to ask questions and share answers. They build their own data-loggers in the university makerspace to explore ideas further and design and code their own open-source phone apps to interrogate these devices and share their data via Bluetooth to the web. They record their progress as they go on their blogs and add in useful updates and links to their LinkedIn™ profiles at the end of the day.Unrealistic?  We don’t think so… here’s why.

A constellation of possibilities


Automated attendance registers involving students swiping the barcode on their student cards are already in operation and barcode and QR-code scanner apps already exist, whilst free apps like Socrates™ and Kahoot™ allow students to use their mobile device like ‘clickers’ to interact with peers and tutors during in-class sessions. Facebook is already being used to deliver content, provide 24/7 support for students and allow them the freedom to upload their work wherever they are and in whatever format they like. Evernote™ is already being used as a virtual PLE by some students to compile, collate, edit and create content specific to their own learning and it is now easier than ever to scoop, snip, scrape and clip information to support individual learning. Live Twitter feeds and chats too are on the increase and provide teachers and students with a ready means of interaction and webinars and video-blogs are becoming more common in educational settings. In addition walk-throughs are now easy to produce in real time using video capture software like Blueberry™, Action! ™ and Bandicam™ (tip: go to where the gamers are!)and we have successfully used the latter to record lectures and provide instructional materials for students.

Sensors at your finger tips


Mobile phones are packed full of sensors that students can use to collect data on temperature, pressure, light intensity, humidity, sound levels and vibrations and there are a huge numbers of free utility apps that can be downloaded and used to turn these sensors into seismometers, range finders, wind meters, speed guns and heart monitors. Makerspaces are beginning to appear in educational settings providing students with a wealth of enquiry-based learning opportunities and 3D printers and physical computing devices such as Raspberry Pi™ and Arduino™ are becoming more common in our schools, colleges and universities thanks to a new wave of educational initiatives. MinecraftEdu™ has merged gaming with learning and Lego Mindstorm™ allows kids to build physical devices to learn about science . And with these developments has come coding. It’s now part of the National Curriculum in UK schools and children as young as 8-9 are using MIT’s Scratch™ to create their own content  whilst older children are using it to create their own phone apps and more advanced users ‘joining the dots’ by using MIT’s S4A™ software to code apps that will control Arduino-based devices.

Only time (and space?) will tell…


The idea that we need a paradigm shift in education is not new  and it has long been recognised that at the heart of this shift lies a return to more creative ways of learning and teaching. Mobile technologies, we believe, 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. So, the question is this; is our ‘Who-topia’ for the ‘geeks’ or ‘the masses’?  We guess only time (and space?) we tell…