Back to work

I’ve had a lovely trip to visit family, with loads of relaxation and card-playing and good food.  Now I’m all refreshed and ready to jump back into my maker summer fun.

Today I decided to get back into working with Scratch, this time using a book called Learn to Program with Scratch by Majed Marji.  I’m only halfway through Chapter 2, but have already learned some very nifty things that I wish I knew earlier!  I could have shaved a few hours off my recent 14-hour programming session!  But actually, I am glad that I started by playing and poking around without a text–I’m getting more out of the book now than I would have, and it was a lot of fun to explore on my own with no idea what I was doing.  That said, I am now ready for some instruction, and this book is just right for me so far.

I read something recently (sadly, I can’t remember what or where) about how people learn best if they are first allowed to just play around and explore on their own, and then given formal instruction, as opposed to the reverse.  It was an article arguing against flipped classrooms, if I recall correctly.  I don’t know what all the research says, but my experience with Scratch thus far would support that idea.  I don’t want NO instruction, but I feel far more equipped to soak in and process what the text is saying, having already played around and learned some things via trial and error.  It’s sort of like I have learned, on my own, the basic structure and language of Scratch, and now the book is helping me understand more about what is underneath that basic structure and learn some of the nuances of the language.  (I’m not confident in that metaphor, but it will do for now.)  I think if I had started with the book, I would be far more likely to be bored, because it is walking me through specific exercises/projects.  Since I already have a sense of Scratch and what I was trying to do before, the lens through which I see those exercises is very different.  I keep thinking, “oh, that would have made X work!” or, “that’s kind of like what I did when I did Y, but more efficient,” or, “if I did that on my project, it would make Z work so much better.”  I obviously can’t know how I would feel about the book or the exercises if I went into them with no prior experience, but I suspect it would be very different, significantly less enjoyable.  This is not a complaint about the book, which I think is excellent, but more an observation about the process of learning.  I am far more motivated to read the textbook after having struggled through the process of creating a few challenging (to me, at least!) projects without a text.

I want to think more about this.  I think frustration and getting things wrong a bunch of times before you get them right is not only important to experience in education because it’s how life is, but also because it’s at least part of what ultimately makes the whole thing FUN.  I am remembering a moment where my daughter, after months and months of being physically capable of doing a backbend without a spot but too scared to do it without an arm there “just in case,” finally did it on her own.  She was as happy in that moment as I had ever seen her, and it struck me–she was so happy because it had been so hard.  Those two things were connected.

At the same time, we don’t want to all be reinventing the wheel every day because the challenge is educational or fun.  There is some balance between figuring things out on your own (or with peers) and using the knowledge that is available to you out in the world.  Using existing knowledge means we can then build on it faster.  There is nothing inherently good or noble about starting from scratch.

I’m just thinking out loud here.  I am wondering where the balance is.

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And it continues. . .

Would rather work than write, but in keeping with my attempts to update my progress, here are two quick video clips:

First, a simple slide switch in my hacked journal, to brighten up a rollercoaster:

And then, a slightly more complicated one.  In this one, which is a greeting card with a built-in battery, I made it so that the part you are hitting on the slide (I need to draw an arrow or something there) is not straight down from the LED–behind the scenes, I had things crossing over each other (but using paper as a barrier to keep the copper tape pieces from touching; I should have taken a quick pic while in progress but I was too focused).  This isn’t really useful in this design, but I wanted to try out the idea.  So, robot family greeting card:

So far, a good day!


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I’m obsessed with paper circuits.

Today I got an early start because I was meeting up with a friend for book chatting and coffee, which was a great way to start the day.  Then I popped in to school just to pick up packages, including a set of circuit stickers, and then stopped on the way home to buy some glue and a blank Moleskine for hacking (how perfect that pocket in the back is for the battery and clips!).  I spent all afternoon and night playing in my new journal.

What I learned:

-I read that cutting the copper tape in half makes it easier to make shapes with it.  Tested this out, and found it to be true, plus that makes the tape last twice as long.

-I learned how to make a slide switch, which is super fun.  This can create an animation effect, which I want to play with (I just figured out the slide switch a bit ago, so haven’t “used” it yet besides just creating it with one LED and then with three).

-About circuit stickers: When I have tried with surface mounts to put lights of different colors in the same circuit, I often run into trouble with inconsistency in whether or how much they would light up.  The circuit stickers haven’t had that problem–I can put red, blue, and yellow together in one circuit and they all light up great.  I’m still using surface mount whenever I’m not doing that, because the stickers are pricier, but it’s nice to know that I have a reliable option for that kind of thing.  And the lights are really nice.  The stickers seem to stick well.  What has been VERY useful is the instructions in the sketchbook, which are available free online on the site linked above.  I highly recommend downloading it just for getting concepts, even if you aren’t actually printing/using the pages.

-I made a pressure sensor with conductive fabric.  The sticker kit came with some velostat, and that made me wonder if the fabric would do the same thing, and it sort of does.  I actually haven’t tried the velostat yet–I suspect it works better in some way.

It was a really enjoyable day.  I intended to go to bed over an hour ago because I am exhausted, but then I felt like I had to try one more thing.  This is my life right now: always one more thing to try.  Not a bad place at all to be.




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Pencil potentiometer

I am SO HAPPY right now because after wrestling last night for a long while and then again earlier today, I have sort of got my pencil potentiometer working!  I at least think I have the structure right.

This started last night with my discovery of Jie Qi’s website, via indieschoollib, and then that led me to downloading Jie Qi’s master’s thesis, which is chock full of awesome stuff related to paper circuits.  I hit this one part (I’m using a screenshot here, which I hope is okay–the thesis is public), and I immediately wanted to try it.

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But, due I think to my relative ignorance about circuits still, I could not for the life of me replicate it.  I had no idea what to do with the copper tape–what was going on under the white box around the graphite strip and how the copper tape part worked.  I even emailed Jie Qi at like 3:00 a.m. in desperation (no response yet, alas)!



I know this is not that exciting, but for a person who has spent hours trying to make it work, it is very, very exciting indeed.

I said in my video that I would explain my issues in writing, but I’m feeling too lazy to do that now.

Here are some basic tips, though.  This example is very messy because I just kept playing with the same piece of paper/tape/etc.

1. Be liberal with the pencil.  I think one of my failures was because the graphite strip wasn’t heavy enough.  I just used a 2B graphite drawing pencil.

2. The main problem I had was that I couldn’t see on the examples how the copper tape was supposed to go.  So here are a few photos that I hope will be clear.

This first one is with the flap folded up.  I think at one point I had the copper tape connecting on that top row, which did not work.  The way that the tape is folded over so that it will go along the underside of the flap is pretty crazy and messy.  The little flaps at the bottom were also something I didn’t have at first–the tape is connected under them, but the little flaps keep the piece that is connecting to the graphite from above from being connected all the time, I think.  ?  I really don’t know what the heck I am talking about.

photo 1 (17)


This is with the flap down:

photo 2 (17)


I have no idea what I am going to now actually do with this discovery.  I just think it is very cool to be able to create that dim/brightness effect with just a pencil!!!  Surely that will come in handy with future paper circuitry experiments.

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A big day for SEW for SOS

Today was a sewing day–a group of us met up at hack.rva for an RVA Maker Guild-supported workshop for SEW for SOS.  (Click on that link if you have no idea what I’m talking about!)  We hung out for a few hours, most of us hand sewing, and produced 50 pillows (that was the exact number!  we were at 49 and someone quickly machine-sewed another one in the last few minutes to get us to 50!).  I hand-sewed 4 or 5 pillows, and just really enjoyed chatting with folks–some I already knew, and some new to me.  Hack.rva is a neat space, and I think that whole community is one I’d really like to spend more time in.  Even my introverted, shy self felt very at ease today.  And I was really proud of Luke and Deven, the SEW for SOS leaders, for how they organized things and how they mentored the younger kids who came out.  We even had an adorable 3-year-old helping write/draw the messages to go inside the pillows!


First, a bit of history of the money side of SEW for SOS.  There really hasn’t been a money side, at least officially.  We have gotten incredible donations of fabric from multiple sources, a donated sewing machine (thanks, Dad!), and the rest of the expenses have been minimal.  Thread and needles just do not cost much, and we have them in the library makerspace.  One of the beautiful things about this whole initiative is that it can be done cheaply, especially since we already had one sewing machine when we started.  The only thing that has raised little $ questions in my head has been postage.  I have paid most of it myself, a little via library budget, and then Luke has taken some packages home to mail.  Postage is, by far, the biggest expense after sewing machines.  Who knew?  (Not me.)

More history:  this project has gotten a bit crazy.  Luke has formed partnerships with several national organizations:  NAMI; Operation First Response, an organization that provides support to veterans; several hospitals, including ones in Massachusetts and South Carolina.  When another kid has suggested a possible place to send pillows (usually because of some personal connection), Luke follows up on it.  He has also sought out organizations that help people with depression and mental illness, because his original inspiration was wanting to help people who were struggling with depression and effects of bullying.  We also got a large number of individual requests for pillows when the story aired on NBC’s website and got picked up by some local affiliates around the country.  As an example, one of those people was asking for a pillow for her son who is getting cancer treatment, and has linked us up with the hospital where he is treated.  On my desk at school is a box of 100 pillows ready to go to that hospital.  My point: we are sending pillows all over, and there appears to be no end to the demand.  I mean, as long as these kids keep producing pillows, we will have places to send them.

So that raises two “problems” (don’t really see them as problems, but don’t have another word handy–challenges?).  One, how are we going to make all of these pillows?  We have sent out over 300 so far (probably over 400 at this point? I am not keeping track!), and didn’t have any trouble making those, but the kids’ vision for SEW for SOS is bigger than just our school.  They want to help other schools start their own branches, and grow the whole initiative to meet the demand.  But one thing that has always been a concern for them (not for me, but for Luke and Deven, the leaders of SEW for SOS) is the idea that they are relying on the library for supplies.  So they want to help other schools get started by providing a sewing machine and supplies, so kids can get going without worrying about how their school will pay for it.  They also want to raise some money for postage (yay!).

So, Luke read something a while ago in a Time for Kids magazine about   You can read about their mission on the site, but long story short, they are college and high school students who have started a non-profit focused on mentoring and providing fundraising support to student-led social entrepreneur initiatives.  It’s like Kickstarter, I guess, but for student-led organizations, and does not take a cut of the money.  They also provide mentoring and feedback, which has been really valuable so far from what I have seen.  After several months of interview/application/interview (all handled by Luke and Deven, rising 7th graders; I was part of the first conversation and have been included on emails and the application, but this is all their idea and work), is promoting the project on their site and providing a fundraising platform.  !!!  This is their first middle school project–they are making an exception to their age rules.  The goal is to raise $500 to buy supplies to bring SEW for SOS to other schools, within 30 days (I think August 15th is the deadline).

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I have no idea how this will go!  I’m nervous!  But I am so very proud of these kids and their desire to really continue with and grow what they started, and to find a way to fund it on their own.  Their hearts are in this project, and they put in so much time and effort and love.  If you have $5 to spare just to give them a show of support, it would be greatly appreciated.  But it’s really not about the money, so if you don’t want or aren’t able to do that, please just consider going to their website and shooting them a message.  :)

(And if you have the question I had, the way it works is that if all the funds are raised, then we either buy the supplies and submit receipts to for reimbursement, or they purchase the supplies and have them sent to us; it’s not possible for anyone to just cash in.)

So, at long last, Here is their fundraising page, which launched tonight.  (Note:  I did NOT write any of that stuff about myself!!!!!  They are being far too kind, I swear!!!  See how sweet they are?)

P.S. If you have been interested in my posts about paper circuits, check out this post by my colleague, indieschoollib.  I am very inspired and now want to try my hand at adding LEDs to existing images to tell a story!

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Quiet day

I promised the kid I’d do some organizing in her room while she is away–this has become an annual tradition, and it’s helpful to her because she has slight hoarding tendencies and needs some help getting rid of stuff.  Our agreement is that I won’t throw out or give away anything I think she might want, and all the stuff that I am pretty sure but not positive she is ready to either store in the attic or give away, I set aside in open boxes.

Thus far, I have three full bags of trash/goodwill and I think 4 full boxes ready to go to the attic upon approval.  There is still a lot of be done, but it was a very productive evening.  Every year (this is the 3rd year), it gets a lot easier because she gets better at managing her room on her own on a regular basis.  The first year was a nightmare.  I think it took me something like 9 hours.

So, not much making today, but I did amuse myself and the cats a little.  I tried using a Littlebits motor instead of a WeDo motor on a WeDo project.  Reasons:  I don’t need to be hooked up to the computer for it to work, and I can run more than one motor at a time, plus other fun stuff.

So, I could get it to work–there’s a little adaptor piece that comes with the motor and attaches to a Lego piece.  But it’s not easy (at least for a spatial-thinking challenged person like myself) to get it rigged up to where it will stay put and also connect correctly to projects.  I did get one thing going with it that turned out okay–just used a WeDo project (i.e., the plans for what to build) and subbed the Littlebits motor.  I think I’ll have more fun if I just figure out ways to build Lego things and then plop Littlebits inside them for effects.

So then, later on as a break from cleaning, I decided to try to make a toy for Malcolm, just purely make something that I thought he would like.  He liked it all right (watch to the end)!

(I’m not always this cat obsessed.  I am home alone with them for 12 days, and they are keeping me sane.)

Tomorrow (technically today) is a SEW for SOS workshop day.  I hope we get a good turnout and make a bunch of pillows!  It’ll be good to see some kids again and return to my roots (of maybe 6 months ago!) of sewing.

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Up All Night

My sleep is pretty messed up in general during the summer (I am partial to 4:00 a.m. to noon, given the option), but last night, I got so immersed in Scratch that I didn’t go to bed until 8:00 a.m. this morning (and just slept 4 hours, so I hope to go to bed at a decent hour tonight and reset myself).

I think I started playing in the afternoon sometime, and started the project I ended up really focused on sometime in the early evening.  I estimate that I spent about 14 hours working, with a few little breaks here and there, but mostly just working.  And it felt like nothing–I never felt tired or bored, and even when I did finally go to bed, I felt the urge to get back up and tinker with it.  I felt challenged, and the project of course didn’t end up doing what I had really hoped it would do (but I am keeping it marked as Draft because I am hopeful that I can figure out how to make it work much better), but I was SO HAPPY and fulfilled when I finished this draft.  And I was happy all during the process–even when I was frustrated, I felt deeply at peace.  Here is a link to the game.

The game is essentially a little cute intro and then three mini-”games”: a random silly sentence generator; a drawing game; and a little music sampler thing.

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Choose your “game”

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Silly sentence generator, part I

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Silly Sentence, part II

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I didn’t use anyone else’s existing code this time, so it was really building from scratch.  I did some searches of the Scratch wiki for explanations of how to work with variables/lists and what certain blocks do, and got some little bits of code there, but for the most part, this was an attempt to really understand the blocks and how they work together, so I didn’t want to grab pieces from other projects without really understanding how to build them myself.  As a result, it does not work how I had hoped!  I wanted the Sentences game to involve the user/player adding words to the lists that are randomly pulled from.  I wanted the drawing game to be considerably more elaborate.  I wanted the music game to involve more user input as well (I think I can make that work; that was the last piece I did, and I was too tired to tackle it).  BUT, I am really proud of all that does work!  Here is some of my code, which maybe looks the same as the code I posted before, but trust me, it’s more complex!

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Drawing game code


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Silly sentences code. This was the hardest one.


I slept for a bit, then got together with a friend from school and had a great long conversation about, among other things, creativity and project-based learning and community.  Good, good stuff.  I think this coming year is going to be really interesting!

Now I feel pulled in multiple directions: I want to read The Night Gardener; I want to veg out in front of Netflix; and I want to see if I can get that music game to be something more appealing than what it currently is.  Not sure what I’m going to do first. . .

Update: made a slight improvement very easily on the music piece.  I think I must have just been too tired this morning to see the very simple solution.  It still isn’t what I want, but it’s better!

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