Design Challenge: The Foam Wood Derby

I’ve always wanted to run a super face paced pinewood derby style race. As I designed some simple, messy projects for the 8th grade as sort of fun one off projects, I decided to make the idea a reality.

The design is simple. Each group (or individual if your group is small enough) has two deliverables. A car carved out of foam, and a top and side drawing of the car. They get a basic set of materials. A block of floral ‘wet’ foam, 2 axles and 4 wheels. And they get a simple set of tools. Basic measurement tools, speed squares and surform carving tools.

I introduced the challenge quickly, then let the students loose. To avoid having students completely destroy their blocks instantly, I made the drawings a prerequisite to getting the carving tools. The drawings could be simple, but I required a detailed full scale engineering style drawing.

Once the drawings were approved, they were off to the races. However, floral foam is mess. Super messy. I had complaints of allergy like irritation, the foam staining white shirts, dust in their eyes. All sorts of things. However, after stressing caution, using aprons and generally being more mindful, those complaints dropped off. Perhaps this would be a good project to do in a larger space or even outside.

With the designs carved, students were free to attach their axles and wheels. I could have stopped the groups and stressed the importance of being patient with this step, being precise and ensuring straight and square axles. However, I let them at it, though I did stress that our speed squares would be a great benefit to this step.

The axles and wheels came from Pitsco. Sure, you could 3D print wheels if you have the time, but laser cutting in wood was too soft and acrylic was too brittle. A soft thermoplastic is what these wheels need to be made of, and at $0.15 a piece, it was worth avoiding the headache.

Finally, we race. I used a scrap board at first…but we really needed lanes as cars continued to collide with one another. I used some foam board to make short walls hot glued to the edge of the board. Problem solved.

A simple single round elimination was enough to have a good final race, while minimizing the winners vs losers. You can even enforce a ‘When you lose, you become a cheering squad member of the team that beat you’, ensuring an exciting final race while making all of the students feel a part of the races through the end.

Finally, have students reflect on the process. I had a short discussion, then had students go and post to Seesaw. I got lots of really awesome reflections, lots of great critical thoughts, some great doodles and awesome photos.

Looking back, this little design challenge went pretty well. The kids loved it, it was inexpensive (~$1.50 per group), and was quick to run. In the future I think it could be slowed down to highlight the engineering drawings in more detail, perhaps print wheels, and focus on nice and straight axle holes.

Part Cost Cost / Kit Source
Floral Foam (72 when halved) 35.50 (price fluctuates on amazon) 0.50 Amazon
Pitsco Axles (100) 6.50 0.13 Pitsco
Pitsco Wheels (100) 15.50 0.62 Amazon
TOTALS 57.50 1.25

Surform Tools – $2.99

Speed Squares – $2.99

 

AIDS Lifecycle 2016

This summer I had the incredible opportunity to ride my bike for San Francisco to Los Angeles, beside my father and my brother. All while we raised nearly $10,000 between the three of us for the SF AIDS Foundation and the LA LGBT Center…a fraction of the $16,139,537 raised by the nearly 1200 participants in the ride. It was a surreal life changing challenge that I am incredibly greatful that I was a part of.

In an effort to create a lasting memory of the journey, I strapped a camera to myself for the entirety of the ride. After sifting through the many hours of recordings, I’ve spliced it into an edit that I am really proud of.

I hope I have the chance to do something like this again, along side of my family doing something we love, for a cause we truly believe in!

3D Printers as Construction Toy Factories

The 3D printer is the hottest tool to bring into classrooms these days. They are the talk of the town. In lots of ways, they are amazing machines. It possibly more ways, they are tricky classroom tools. Most of them take plenty of tinkering and tuning, print times are long (a 1 hour print for all 50 students in a grade can be a week or more in the making), upkeep is time consuming. Lots of little quarks.

However, where they have excelled in my classroom is in printing construction brackets. If we aim to print small parts to be used to let students build bigger structures you can kill a few birds with one stone. Print times are reduced, and you have a build to pull students away from the computer screen.

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I wanted to share a few examples, and how I use them in my classroom. First up, the simplest. Brackets to join straws at different angles. I took inspiration from Makerbot’s Speedy Architect project for this one. These pieces are tiny, taking less than 10 minutes on our Printrbot Simple Metals using my super-duper fast printing profile. Currently, the 6th grade is designing architectural models using these brackets. They will be adhering to uniform proportional scale for the structure (about 1″ to 10′), and will be closely monitoring a the cost of production. Straws cost $100 per inch, and 3D prints cost their real life cost, times a thousand, or about $20 per basic bracket.

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I’m super excited to see how this project turns out. There are lots of great math connections to the 6th grade curriculum using the scaling and the economy system. The structures are bit innocuous from the structural engineering perspective, but the amount of iterative design & 3D printing we can pull off while printing such small parts will make this project worth while. We are lucky enough that each of our groups of 4 will have their own 3D printer to operate during class time, keeping the project rolling at a fast pace.

Up next, there are the balsa wood brackets, that came from the Zazouck project on Thingiverse. These parts are a bit different than the straws in that I use them exclusively as construction tool. The parts are all printed ahead of time, sorted into different types and they are used to do rapid fire construction challenges. Most recently students were tasked with building a 12″ bridge, while controlling for the cost of parts and materials used to build the bridges.

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These pieces are great for rapid construction. They lack in the structural consistency that using glued joints might give you, but they let students build quickly. Often, balsa breaks in the brackets, but a drill bit reams them out pretty easily. These are great bits, and took about 30 mins to print a set of each piece. To get a classroom set of about 20 of each part, I had the machines running constantly for a few days. But now they are done and we have our own custom construction set…in colors that match the labs floors!

Last up, we’ve got the most complicated component yet. The craft stick brackets. These pose the most difficult design process of the three, but I think it gives the most rewarding final product. Requiring constantly being aware of stick orientation in regards to slot location on the brackets. I think the challenge of the design makes these an awesome candidate for creating a lesson on using Fusion 360 assemblies to virtual design structures before printing them. This is something I’ve got in the pipe for the 7th grade next semester.
1025160920All of these follow a basic principle. Find a material that is cheap and plentiful in you lab, and design brackets to join them at different angles. Have students design the parts, even model the whole structure in CAD before printing. Cut down print times, end up with bigger and cooler parts…its a win win all around. Have you done any construction projects like this? Let me know!

Simple, inexpensive classroom woodworking projects.

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I’ve really taken to woodworking this year. I think the ability to transition from high-tech to low-tech in the same space is a powerful experience for my students. Using the lovely mini-week program, I had 7 students for 3 full days of nothing but woodworking. We had a blast, and made lots of amazing things. Today, I want to take the time to show off some of these simple woodworking projects that were big hits, were cheap to do, and reasonably safe to pull off in the classroom.

The Pencil Holder – Introduction to Drill Press

The pencil holder is simple. Start with a 4″x4″ fence post, chop into square 4″x4″x4″ chunks, and let students drive holes to fit pencils. I used an 8′ piece of douglas fir from the big box shop that cost me around 10 bucks. That’ll make 24 pencil holders at a cost of about 40 cents a piece.  I let the students mark out the center points for their holes, and let them at it.

The Tea Candle Holder – Introduction to the Miter / Hand Saw

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The tea candle holder was a simple project. Start with a 2×4, cut it down to about a 12″ section, and drive 3 holes for tea candles using a spade bit. We rounded our corners using the belt/disc sander, and one student split the 12″ section into 3 separate pieces. She even finished with contrasting dark danish oil and boiled linseed oil. It turned out amazing!

Simple Cutting Board – Introduction to the Bandsaw

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The last simple project was a cutting board. I picked up a 6′ length of 7″x3/4″ poplar board from the big box store, and split them into cutting board blanks that were around 10″ long. The challenge was to sketch out a simple design to give the board some character, cut it on the bandsaw, and put down a coat of mineral oil. This was super simple, and super rewarding.

The Finishes

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I wanted the students to experience the challenge and joy of finishing their projects. That meant lots of hand sanding (foam sanding blocks are worth the investment!), and hand rubbed oil finishes. I had a small selection to choose from, a danish oil, boiled linseed oil, tung oil finish and a wipe on poly. This final step in each of the projects too the experience above and beyond and the students had a blast.

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Woodworking doesn’t need to start off with complex joinery, or fancy hardwoods. Some of the best projects take just a few cuts, a few holes and a coat of finish. The students had a blast learning about the tools, and were all extremely proud to walk out with all of their projects.

Creating algorithmic designs for fabrication in Beetleblocks

I was recently tasked with creating a quick activity that could be done within a booth at the Philadelphia Science Carnival, something that would take only a few minutes to do so kids could filter in and out of the booth. It was going to be tough to do something great with that sort of timeline, and nearly impossible to stock enough supplies to support the 400+ kids that will come through during the carnival. I decided to tap my favorite ‘free’ supply, adhesive vinyl scraps from the sign shop, creating stickers on our craft plotter.

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Now stickers resonate with kids in a way I don’t really understand, so I knew it would be a good draw at an event like this, but I wanted to do something less frivolous than just making worthless stickers with a craft cutting machine. So, I turned to code. We could program a cool design, and cut that out. I dove into Beetleblocks and came up with a really simple bit of code that quickly demonstrated the power of code, and the magic of math.

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The code is fairly simple. First we can have students create a square, realizing that we can use the repeat block to make our lives easier. The result is this simple little chunk of code that produces a square.

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Great! We have a square…but that is a pretty boring shape. Maybe we can make it interesting. Now we can start to think about some math. We know that a square is a 4 sided shape, with 90 degree angles in each corner. If we multiple the amount of sides and the angle of the corners, we get an important number: 360 degrees. What if we wanted an 8 sided shape? What would be the angles of the corners?

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Great! Now we’ve learned something important, and we can really get creative with the initial shape that we draw…but a single shape is boring. Lets now create lots of these shapes, and rotate the origin of the shape a bit each time to make something a bit more interesting.

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Now we’ve got something interesting! But look, we can make another interesting observation in this code. We are drawing 6 shapes within the repeat block here….each time rotating by 60 degrees. 6*60 again gives us that magic number 360! So we can create more shapes, and as long as the product of the degrees of rotation and the number of shapes equals 360 degrees.

Now that we have this code set up, we can let students play around with the numbers.

What happens if we have a 360 sided shape with 1 degree angles?
What happens if we nest yet another repeat block?
Can we use operators to automate the math for us?
Can we write our own functions like drawShape or repeatShape?

There are lots of questions that can drive further exploration. In the end, we might clean up our code using custom blocks, or add some math and variables to automate things for us.

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A quick tip of note; to make the lines easier to see, we can change the display port settings in Beetleblocks. Uncheck the grid and the axis and check off ‘Parallel Projection’ to see directly down on our shapes. You can change the color of the background under the settings ‘gear’ icon, and change the color of the line with the ‘set hue to’ block under colors. You may need to zoom to fit as students start to build bigger shapes with more sides as well.

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Now, the problem with this lesson is turning these thin lines into something that can be cut out into stickers, or on a laser cutter, etc. It is easy to cut these lines, simply exporting the .SVG file out of Beetleblocks. The hard part is giving those line thickness enough to create a defined shape. The easiest way I have found is importing the SVGs into Inkscape, giving the path a fairly thick stroke, and using the Stroke to Path tool.

Ultimately, this simple activity can show a great deal of coding concepts quickly. Loops, operators, variable and functions can all be explored. The connection to geometry is obvious, using degrees in an applied way can help solidify how degrees and periodic functions can be used in action. IMG_5068

I’d love to build on this concept to do things like laser cut jewelry, hand coded letters to create signs, continue to drive algebraic math connections while creating complex machinable 2D designs. With the focus on 3D design and 3D printing, the power of 2D line is sometime forgotten.

Cutting up some wood.

I’ve ventured into the woodworking world this school year. I’ve made the effort to go out and outfit the lab with a simple set of woodworking tools, and provide chances for my students to run power tools and make some wood dust.

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I did this with no real project or plan in mind, other than that I knew I wanted to provide more hands-on, mess making madness into my room. In the world of digital fabrication, the lab can become pretty stuck behind screens, but these tools take us back to the roots.

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I started working on some personal projects, to break the tools in and hopefully become inspired to get my students behind the driver’s seat. The tools really make for a pretty productive little workflow, were reasonably inexpensive and are generally safe when used properly.

Project number one came for my 8th graders who were wrapping up their final semester with me in the lab in the middle school. I wanted to make something that they could take with them, represent their time in the middle school. Something with the creative openendedness. The results were laser engraved panels, and simple wooden frames.

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The images were designed in Canva, a simple little graphic / collage tool. It was simple enough to drop the student into, with a high enough ceiling that the students could make something they’d want to keep. The frames were made out of super inexpensive rough spruce furring strips from the big box store.

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Students were given a board long enough to make the frame, and we made the cuts quickly, and safely with the miter saw, clamped to the fence and with stop blocks set up ensuring clean safe cuts. It was easy to set the miter, show the students the cut, and let them jump on. The miter saw is a big, scary tool, but with the material fixed properly, there were no issues.

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Sure, the cheap furring strips were warped pretty good. Some of the miters came out a bit nasty. Gluing up wasn’t easy, because we didn’t have 20 framing clamps, and only a few band clamps. However, just taping the corners was fine, in the end the board was going to be firmly fixed to the frame with brad nails, giving it plenty of strength.

The project was a blast, if a bit messy and lots of work. It was ultimately a great experience for myself to introduce the woodworking tools to my students, and for my students to have the opportunity to get behind these tools. I’m looking forward to doing more of this sort of thing, taking a step back from the high tech and doing things the good old fashioned way with my students.

 

Introducing Design with Vexillology

As I planned to introduce some elements of design to my new 6th grade group, I turned to my personal guide through the world of design, Roman Mars and 99 Percent Invisible. The stories in their podcast are always captivating, and eye opening about all of the tiny designed elements that make up our world. I knew I’d find a good story there to share with my students…however 6th graders don’t have the attention span to listen to a 20 minute podcast…neither do I really some days. So I turned to Roman Mars’ Ted talk on the design of flags. In it, he lays out his hatred of poorly designed local city and municipal flags. He doesn’t just complain though, he offers a solution in the form of a set of flag design rules laid out by the North American Vexillological Association.

These design rules are simple, and clear:

  1. Keep it simple: The flag should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: The flags images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2-3 basic colors: Limit the number of colors to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set. 
  4. No lettering or seals: Never use writing of any kind or an organizations seal.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: Avoiding duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

These simple rules are quick, and easy to introduce to a group of students. In fact they are all described in great detail with examples in ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag‘, a 15 page primer in flag design published by NAVA. This provides a really great framework for a quick and easy design lesson: Design a flag for your school, classroom, neighborhood, etc.

So I did this quick lesson with a group of my 6th graders. I wanted to have them experience the practice of using a design rules to develop a unique flag for either the school, or the city of Philadelphia, which itself is in need of a new flag.

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Building from the Ted Talk, I encouraged (but did not require) that students draw the flag on a 1″x1.5″ square cut from a notecard. As noted by Ted Kaye in the Roman Mars Ted talk, that is the size a flag appears when seen from a typical distance. IMG_4355There were lots of ideas, lots of great flags, and a few that failed to listen to many of the design rules, but the gears were turning and the conversations were happening. What is the best symbolism to represent our school? If we threw away our blue and grey colors and had to pick our own colors, what would you choose?
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My effort with teaching design is to have my students look at the world in a different way. Roman Mars and I have the same mission in this sense:

“My mission is to get people to engage with the design that they care about so they begin to pay attention to all forms of design. When you decode the world with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over to make our lives better. And that’s essentially the definition of design: making life better and providing joy”
– Roman Mars

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The level with which the students connected to this lesson was pretty shocking. I was expected a bit of ‘this is stupid and boring’, but after breaking down what makes a good flag, and what makes a bad flag, we had a blast digging through different flag designs and showing off the best and worst we could find.

This project can easily to be extended in the makerspace classroom, using tools like the vinyl cutter to cut stickers that my students love to put on their computers, or to cut fabric that can be stitched together into a full scale flag.

It was a quick and easy lesson, and surely all of my students will now never look at a flag the same ever again. In fact, they might be critical of all of the terribly designed flags in the world, and perhaps do something about it.

I’ve prepared a slideshow of good flags and bad flags to show to students, or to use to quiz them after reviewing the design rules. See that here. Or, if you like to Kahoot in your classroom, I’ve put together this Kahoot too.

 

A New School Year & New Challenges

It has been a fast and furious first few months of the new school year. Lots of new things have changed too, namely the move to block scheduling, and my efforts to develop a sound method of project-based assessment.

Firstly, lets talk project highlights.

The 6th grade has come in with an incredible energy level and excitement for working with technology. They have devoured lessons on basic HTML web page coding, creating really wonderful reflection blogs where they collect their thoughts on the work we have been doing. They then took to the laser cutter, designing toy planes in Sketchup. We got to cut out multiple revisions, and finally raised $180 for Maker’s Care and The Make-a-Wish Foundation. I could not be prouder of their efforts to make a difference with this project!

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The 8th grade has dove head first into a semester long design thinking challenge. This project is poised to be the capstone project for the 8th grade, where they get to take their skills and apply them to whatever project they choose, so long as we follow our design thinking workflow. The project has been taking a bit to get rolling smoothly, but we are on a good track now. The students struggled with the relatively slow and deliberate preliminary phases of the design thinking workflow, namely empathizing and ideating. Now that we are in the prototype phase, with defined goal, we are rolling. There are lots of problem-solving social media applications being built on BuddyPress, a few apps being built in App Inventor, a handful of robots being built with our Makeblock robot construction set, and even a jetpack. I’m super excited to see how these projects all turn out.

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Now, lets talk the trials & tribulations.

The projects that are going on in the 8th grade are awesome. Well thought out, and well intentioned thanks to the design thinking process. However, I have really seen the extent of trouble the students have with self-directed work, and self-instruction. The real challenge of the projects in the 8th grade is that they are on their own to discover resources, learn about tools, and keep the project on task. It seems at times however that that challenge is a bit too great. Students have been quick to give up on challenging components, quick to change their goals to avoid a tricky tool that they’d need to learn. With 14 unique projects going on between all of the 8th grade, it is incredibly difficult to keep motivation high in each group as they face difficulties.

There are lots of things I think I could to do solve some of these issues. Namely, constraining the type of projects more tightly. If the projects are more constrained, either being build and app, or build a robot, it would be easier to ensure there are robust resources for the students, and ensure that I have enough time to keep all groups moving forward.

The biggest trouble I am having this year is with assessment. It sits on my mind nearly all the time. I spent a great deal of time this summer trying to determine the most authentic, useful, and efficient form of assessment and feedback for our entirely project based classroom. I was given the opportunity to grade on a pass/fail basis last year, as it was the first year of the lab and the program. This year however, I have made sure that I am providing more productive feedback to my students.

I decided to stick with something simple this first year of assessing, in the form of rubric based assessment, just as many educators use in PBL. This solution works pretty well. My rubric consists of primarily soft skills, and no focus on content knowledge. I wanted to provide feedback to my students on how well they were pushing themselves through challenges, how well they are collaborating with their peers and how well they are participating with the projects, not whether or not they know what .SVG stands for, or if they know exactly how to use the arch tools in Sketchup. The issue however with the process is ensuring I have collected enough observational data to use as the basis for where they scored for each rubric. I will walk the room, clipboard in hand writing down small notes for each of these soft skills, maybe writing quotes I have over heard, perhaps just plus or minus marks. However, when I sit down to grade, I still feel like I don’t have enough evidence to put a student into one category or another. I’m looking to collect more data moving forward, and have turned to Classdojo as a way to quickly give plus/minus marks for each of the soft skills. I am thinking I’ll have to turn more to the numbers than to anecdote as evidence tools moving forward.

The year is off the a good start though. The lab is a mess, things have been made, things have been broken, and I have watched frustration turn into outbursts of ‘I did it!’. I find myself stressing over assessments, ensuring my students are motivated in their project, keeping kids from the depths of frustration, but I always remember that my kids are doing awesome things in my classroom and having an an awesome time doing it. Perhaps my assessment isn’t perfect authentic, but at least I know the experiences my students are having sure are.

Experimenting with OnShape

I recently became aware of OnShape during MakerCon coverage on the Make Magazine blog. It looked great. It had alot of the bells and whistles of things like Autodesk Inventor and Solidworks, with sketch based modeling and assemblies. And, it runs in the browser. It looks promising, so I signed up for the beta. Sure enough, only a few hours later, I was given access.

I hadn’t gotten too much time to play with it recently, but I decided to give it a shot today. I wasn’t feeling super inspired to make anything interesting, but I was annoyed about losing whiteboard markers constantly. So, I decided to design a little holster.

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It has been a long while since I used a more technical 3D CAD tool like this. I find myself banging out little 2D brackets in Inkscape or simple  3D models in 123D Design, or even Tinkercad more often then needing the toolset of something like Solidworks. That being said, I was a bit rusty, but it followed what I expected with my use of Inventor and Solidworks in the past. On the left, I could see a history of my recent actions, organized by sketch and related feature applied to the features.

 

For such an extensive toolset, the interface never felt over complicated or scary. I was quickly able to find my tools based on the icons and just natural placement of tools. It was an intuitive little environment. The speed with which the design rendered changes was pretty satisfying as well. I was worried the bandwidth needed for this sort of app could choke it up with complex features, but it seemed to handle everything with ease.

curaIn about a half an hour, I had the model produced and into Cura, ready to be sliced and printed on the Printrbot Simple Metal. STL Exporting from OnShape wasn’t too obvious, but I figured it out with some Googling and guessing. I was disappointed to find out that there is currently no assembly STL export when I was Googling. It wasn’t something I needed for this model, but it would be one of the reasons I’d turn to this tool in the future if I needed to do a complex assembly.

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Sure enough I messed up three times. First, I made the holes for the markers too small. Then I made the stopper holes too small. Then, the next print messed up with about 5 minutes to go. But, thanks to 3D printing, I was able to print and check and print again quickly.

 

Overall, I am solidly surprised. I didn’t think it would be easy to slam functionality of massive tools like Solidworks into a browser based app, but OnShape seems to do it pretty well. I think that the interface is clever and modern, and it can serve as a great step past 123D Design for students in my classroom. It especially serves as a valuable tool for Chromebook based classrooms that lost 123D Design in the browser not long ago.

 

 

Experiments with the ESP8266

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I’ve been meaning to jump on the Internet of Things bandwagon, but I’ve just been a bit turned off by the price point. I built a simple temperature logger for my fermentation fridge using a Spark Core, but the experience was not that straightforward…or as straightforward as I wanted it to be for using in the classroom.

Then the ESP8266 came around, and then it got Arduino support and then I couldn’t keep away. I’ve been tinkering with the idea of creating a super easy to use Wifi connected device that would allow my students to more or less flip a switch and start collecting sensor data wirelessly. The lesson would result in creating active data visualizations, not the details of creating this wireless data streaming device. The ESP8266 looked like it could provide a cost effective solution to this little challenge.

So I snagged a few ESP8266s from eBay and got them out of the bag yesterday. I tried to use the little ‘carrier board’ that came in the $7 eBay kit, but couldn’t get code over. Tracing the board back, I found I wasn’t able to manipulate a few pins I’d need to ground for programming then disconnect…so I soldered up a pretty shoddy little protoboard and connected it to a breadboard. A big thanks to Alasdair Allan on the Make Magazine blog for an article that got me through building this board and programming the board.

I got the data pushing out to data.sparkfun.com easily enough using some example code by Liam Marshall on Hackaday.io. The code went over in no time, and connected directly to the network instantly. I was super surprised…I expected a bigger struggle. I actually has less trouble with the ESP8266 then the Spark Core. (Which I still have configured to pump data directly in to Google Sheets instead of a service like Phant.)

Now that the data is streaming, it is time to start creating the ease of use component…which is the hard part for sure. I’m going to aim to create a simple Python front end that will pipe the SSID and password into the code and reprogram the board. Alternatively, I might simple try to pump the data over serial into precompiled code to avoid running into programmer issues. Once I can get it to a ‘plug it in and tell it the SSID and password’ point, I’ll start thinking about where to collect the data. Likely I’ll set up a Phant.io install and collect the data that way.

Check out the data stream here.

See the code below.