Tag Archive for: programming

(Raspberry) Pioneers, Bright Ideas: opportunities for secondary students

The lovely people at the Raspberry Pi Foundation – the folks who spend the money made from selling all those zillions of credit-card sized computers – have launched their programme for 12-15 year-olds, Pioneers. The idea is: a group of friends gets together, they find a mentor (an adult who can help them along, and also sign things on their behalf), then they take part in a mass group challenge. There’s a fresh challenge every three months, and the first one’s just been announced; see the film above for details, but the basic idea is, “Use technology to make us laugh.”

There are prizes for the best japes, hence there’s a submission deadline of 22nd March 2017. The plan is also that the challenges produce starting points and examples for a huge range of projects, all using digital technology, so everyone can learn from everybody else. Or something like that.

Interested? There are more details at the Pioneers web page, along with links to register a team, information for mentors, suggestions for starting points, and so on.

We’ve been waiting keenly to see what the Pi Foundation ‘do’ at secondary to follow on from their Code Club offer for primary ages, and we look forward to seeing how Pioneers develops. We’re particularly looking forward to laughing at some of the creations from this first challenge.

Shell Bright Ideas Challenge

Meanwhile, if you’re after a more traditional sort of competition, Shell UK are again running their Bright Ideas Challenge. Unsurprisingly, their challenges are based around energy. Here’s the glossy introductory film:

There are a range of ‘what-if…?’ future technology challenges, along with resources for participants and teachers and further films to introduce each of the challenges, on the project website. Submissions are due by 21st April 2017.

Here at Think Physics orbiting world headquarters we have mixed feelings about competitions for secondary students. They certainly can be of value to students, but there are so many of them it’s hard to know which are worth investing time in. In this case, project resources look comprehensive and well-presented, so it should be straightforward to take a look and see if Bright Ideas seems a good fit for you and your students.

If your school took part in Bright Ideas last year, leave a comment below or drop us a line to let us know how it went, and whether you’d do it again.

Astronauts, sports scholarships, the web, deforestation, and the power of unexpected connections

Here’s a delightful little story from web developer Sarah Mei, posted on Twitter. It starts out being about American university sports scholarships, but heads off in directions you’re really not going to expect.

We all assume, when we’re in school, that we’re going to have ‘a career’, that it’s going to make sense, and that we can map out roughly how it’s going to go. For some people that’s absolutely true, but for many (most?) of us, our lives take twists and turns we’d never have predicted. Some of us rather like it that way, even if we don’t have stories quite as good as this.

Tip of the hat to Elin Roberts for the link.

Chain Reactions (with electronics)

Like everyone else delivering ‘maker’ education, we use chain reaction machines in some of our workshops. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and some intriguing mechanisms to be discovered. But there are also some classic problems:

  1. Connecting bits of a chain reaction machine together is fraught with difficulty. It’s typically the links that fail, and that can lead to frustration when it’s not clear who ‘owns’ the connection.
  2. There’s a tendency for everything to start high and finish low, and hence for each stage to run out of energy somewhat.

One of the things we’ve been playing with attempts to solve both problems, by chucking a bit of electronics into the mix. We use Arduinos as control circuits, running some code which is fairly readily tweaked to handle one of a range of inputs, including:

  • Straightforward ‘short to ground’ switches
  • Light-dependent resistors
  • Force- and flex-sensitive resistors
  • IR distance sensors
  • Tilt switches
  • Hall Effect magnetic field switches

The software is configurable into a couple of different modes, but is typically set to trigger on a threshold reading and operate either a servo, or a continuous-rotation servo as a low-speed motor.

The resulting chain reaction machines integrate physical and electronic segments, and splicing them together is hence usually a case of running longer wires from a sensor at the end of one segment into the Arduino which controls the trigger for the next. Last week we ran an end-of-term workshop with 15 year-olds from one of our partner schools, who came up with the machines you see in these two films. We think they did a cracking job.

Now, we don’t use this workshop very often. The challenge, we find, is that there are so many alien pieces of technology that participants tend to freeze rather than try things out and explore. These groups worked particularly well, but more generally we (unexpectedly?) find this to be a better workshop with primary groups than secondary. Younger children tend to be more receptive to (or familiar with?) failure and iterative development.

However, when the workshop comes together it can produce some outstanding results. We think there’s some mileage in the approach, and we’ll continue to refine the idea.

The code we’re using is on Github, I’m afraid with rather minimal documentation at present. I’ll try to include part details for the sensors, but the code comments should walk you through most of it.

Computer training opportunities in Newcastle

Two outstanding computing events are coming to Newcastle in the next few weeks:


untitledThe Raspberry Pi Foundation’s flagship teacher training experience, Picademy is a two-day extravaganza of all things “Pi in the classroom”. There doesn’t seem to be a course outline for what’s covered, but the events are very well-regarded by previous attendees.

The course is free, and being held on various dates at Google Digital Garage, Newcastle City Library. For more information and to apply for a place, see the Raspberry Pi website.

Apply very soon – the first dates are almost upon us!

BBC Micro:Bit Drop-in day

Micro:Bit boards are being distributed (free of charge) to every year 7 student in the country, assuming your school signed up to the scheme. The school also receives  a class set of boards, a few for teachers, and a few spare units for breakages.

There’s such a wealth of stuff around Micro:Bit it can be hard to know where to start. Most of the teacher training events have passed, but there’s a teacher / student / family drop-in style workshop event right here at Northumbria University on Saturday 25th June. So if you have a Micro:Bit and want some ideas or help, or if you’re trying to work out what to do when yours arrives, or if you’re plain curious – this could be your chance.

Free, but registration required (through the link above)

Ohbot on Kickstarter

I may be a little obsessed with DIY robots. We’re gradually building up a robot menagerie in the Think Physics office, and I’m planning a comparative review of some of the available kits and plans. But that’s not ready yet, and in the meantime you may like to know about this:

I met Matt and Dan at BETT at the beginning of the year, where they had a tiny stand showcasing early prototypes of their Ohbot robotic head. Think Physics bought a couple – we were showcasing one of them at the Juice Festival last week, and you’ll see them around at more of our events over the coming months. I continue to be impressed by them, and the software’s particularly good. It’s Windows-only, but adopts a Scratch-like block programming system which is both straightforward and quite flexible.

Right now, the guys are back on Kickstarter with a more developed, easier-to-build and more expressive version of Ohbot. It’s turning even more into a robot puppet, and once they get over the injection moulding hurdle it should be considerably cheaper than the previous short-run laser cut prototypes.

Ohbot’s interesting because while it is a robotics and programming project, it’s also about self-expression, dialogue, emotion, and our responses to technology. I very much like the pure robotics approach of miniature robotic arm MeArm, and the accessible turtle-graphics programming focus of Mirobot, but Ohbot is a fascinating addition to the mix. For Think Physics’ purposes, I like it because it’s clearly using the same palette of components and techniques as our other robots, and it’s also doing something rather different. If the Maker movement is about any one thing, that thing has to be “technology put to creative use”, and Ohbot is an excellent invitation to think beyond Arduino coding and wiring components together, and to really explore how we want our technology to work for us.

The Ohbot2 Kickstarter closes on Sunday morning (!), and as I write this is tantalisingly close to success. If you can help it reach its target, do pledge for one of the rewards.

Update: Success!
The Ohbot2 Kickstarter was successful on Sunday, so the team are gearing up for full-pelt production in time for Christmas. Congratulations, guys!

Register your school for BBC micro:bit

Confused by Raspberry Pi and Arduino (not to mention Espruino, Beagleboard, Edison, and all the rest)? Don’t despair, things are about to get even more convoluted!

The BBC are introducing a whole new platform to the education mix, with their micro:bit available to every year 7 child in the UK. The board itself is the centrepiece of a whole education initiative, “Make It Digital”, which aims to build on the legacy of the original 1980s BBC Computer Literacy Project, which itself spawned the original BBC Micro. So, surrounding the new board will be a whole ecosystem of learning materials and projects. There’s also a rather interesting web-based programming tool, built on Microsoft’s TouchDevelop, which looks like it might neatly bridge the gap between popular introductory tools like Scratch and follow-on approaches like Python and Arduino’s C environment.

Arguments about whether the BBC should have gone this route are largely moot at this point – as a publicly-funded body it’s hard for them to be seen to back any commercial product, even if it’s wholly open (Arduino) or sort-of commercial but warm and cuddly (Raspberry Pi). Besides, the array of Make It Digital project partners is huge.

So micro:bit is coming, and hopefully bringing with it a vast array of high-quality resource material. And best of all, it’s all free. Or at least, one micro:bit per year 7 student will be – the rest of us will have to buy the things, but that’s still a great start.

Register your school now to receive micro:bits for your 2015 year 7 group, via this web form.

No, really: if you’re responsible for ICT in your school, fill the form in. Micro:bit might turn out to be a distraction, but there’s a decent chance it’ll be a superb platform and ecosystem for investigations and embedded projects. I’ll be trying to get my hands on a few micro:bits when they become more widely available, and I look forward to building things with them via Think Club.

Additional links:

Accenture: Apprenticeship Open Evening

Accenture is a multinational digital company who support businesses to develop their: Strategy, Digital, Operations, Technology and Industry. They have a range of opportunities from apprenticeships through to graduate programs, intern opportunities and summer vacation schemes.  Accenture looks after a number of projects for clients including the NHS, aerospace and finance sectors, and have even been involved with Google Glass and Universal Music!

They have a large base in Newcastle and are currently recruiting apprentices.

Find out more: 

On Wednesday 6th May (16:30 – 18:30) Accenture will be hosting an open evening for students, parents, guardians, teachers and careers advisers to find out more about their apprenticeship scheme.

What does the evening involve?

  • Meet current apprentices and find out their thoughts about the scheme
  • Speak with apprenticeship leads regarding opportunities at Accenture and the types of projects you could be working on
  • Receive great advice from the recruitment team on CV writing, interview techniques and the recruitment process (remember to bring your CV)!
  • Pizza!

The evening is aimed at school leavers or for young people who are perhaps interested in exploring further opportunities.

Location: Accenture, Cobalt Business Park, Newcastle Upon Tyne,  Tyne and Wear NE27 0QQ

For more information click: Newcastle Apprenticeships  or contact Stella Gauld by emailing on: stella.gauld@accenture.com

Featured Video: Ellie Gangel is currently on the apprenticeship scheme at Accenture and is really enjoying her time with the company. Think Physics had the opportunity to film her at Accenture. We were very impressed by Ellie’s enthusiasm towards her role, as well as the apprenticeship scheme on offer.  Ellie has some great advice for anyone considering this post-16 opportunity. Find out more by watching Ellie.


Tinkering Thursday: 11th December

In the photograph above, Joe is pointing a telescope at the sun. Two things about this are remarkable:

  1. It’s December, we’re in Newcastle, and we actually saw the sun today.
  2. Joe can still see.

We all know – obviously – that looking at the sun through telescopes, binoculars, even cameras is, in general, a really really bad idea. But let’s be clear, just in case this is news to you:

Looking at the sun through a telescope, pair of binoculars, or indeed any sort of optical instrument is a really, really bad idea. You’re quite likely to blind yourself.

Don’t do it.

…unless you have a solar telescope. Oh heck yes, we have one of those. It has a very, very precise and very, very dark filter, and through it the sun looks like this:

The sun’s disc, with a little cloud, as seen through the solar telescope. December 11th 2014.

The sun’s disc, with a little cloud, as seen through the solar telescope. December 11th 2014.

So that was fun. We’ve some work to do getting the best performance out of the solar telescope, but the good news is that we’ve managed to extract the weird bits of material that were floating around in the eyepiece, so the whole thing doesn’t have to go back to the manufacturers. In California. Phew.

Back in Think Lab, we continued Tinkering Thursday with Joe making rather more smoke than he’d intended. He was attempting to make a lightbulb from scratch, but since we haven’t yet worked out how to isolate the smoke detectors in the Lab, we packed that in sharpish. We’ll come back to it.

Our attention turned, therefore, to the more careful (and less combustible) pursuit that is trigonometry. There is, it turns out, good reason you learn sines, cosines, and (in this case) inverse tangents in school: so you can make adorable little robots draw not-quite-lined-up Christmas trees:

This sort of thing makes us happy. If you look closely you might catch a glimpse of some extremely rough-looking code – the main output of the afternoon was, perhaps, a bug report filed with the lovely Mirobot team. We continue to be big fans of our dinky little robot friend, and as the software settles down it’s proving even more capable than we’d hoped.

More Tinkering next Thursday!

Tag Archive for: programming

Technology Wishing Well

Think Physics’ multi-award-winning new installation for Maker Faire UK 2016. Build your own at home!