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RI Engineering Masterclass: Chain Reaction

My desk, earlier in this week.

My desk, earlier this week.

If you have the misfortune of following my Twitter feed, you may have noticed a flurry of posts this past week with pictures like the insanity in the heading, or this tumble of wires.

All is now revealed: I was prepping for a new workshop, delivered for the first time this morning to the poor unsuspecting members of our Autumn 2015 cohort for the Royal Institution Engineering Masterclass scheme. This was their sixth and last session, and we wanted to leave them with something creative, challenging, and just a little ridiculous.

There are lots of ‘chain reaction’ type workshops around, and while they’re a heap of fun they tend to go big on the trial-and-error aspect of engineering. I wanted something just a little more thoughtful that brought in a wider range of elements. So the plan was hatched for each stage of the machine to weave in and out between the physical domain and the electronic.

That is: the connections between stages of the chain reaction wouldn’t all be mechanical. So we had a wide range of sensors, some Arduino code to handle those inputs, and a few different types of servos, relays and motors to transfer the electronic processing back into the mechanical realm.

It was a lot of try to pack into a 2½ hour workshop, but it almost worked. It helps that this bunch of Masterclass students are smart, capable and inventive, and they worked really hard to make something out of the session. We didn’t get a sustained chain of machines going, but here’s what they did, and what it all looked like:

Well done, everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed working with you, and you should be properly proud of your inventiveness and ingenuity.

Some of you were asking about the Arduino kits we use: I recommend Oomlout’s ARDX kits. There are other starter kits out there, often with glossier booklets to accompany them, but I’ve found Oomlout’s documentation to be better-written than most, and the range of components is good. They’re also one of the cheaper starter kits. You can buy directly from Oomlout (which is a lovely chap called Aaron who’s usually around at Maker Faire UK) or via Amazon. Other useful suppliers include Pimoroni and Kitronik.

The Arduino ecosystem is vast but fairly accessible, and the suppliers above have a huge range of breakout boards, add-on ‘shields’, sensor inputs, servos, and so on. The hardest part is starting to think of projects to apply all your new tools to – which is precisely why I like things like chain reaction machines or playing musical instruments. There are lots of books of projects like plant waterers or burglar alarms, but straight-up playing with this stuff gives you an excellent idea of the range of problems to which you might apply it all. In the end, I think guilt-free playing is the most effective route to learning about electronics and micro controllers, at least for these initial steps. Later on… well hey, people do degrees and apprenticeships and make careers in this stuff. But start with something you find amusing.

I’ll be making quite a few changes to the Chain Reaction workshop before I run it again. But I will run it again. Thanks again all!

Update Monday 23rd – the lovely folks at Cambridge Science Centre have this morning tweeted a link to this video. Wow.

Last Week, in Think Physics…

[you’ll have to imagine one of us reading this first line with some dramatic music playing in the background]

Previously, in Think Physics…

ESTEC space capsule-1650

Something suitably spacey-looking from Joe’s trip to ESTEC, as part of the UNAWE meeting.

Joe was in The Netherlands last week for the UNAWE Workshops – a worldwide primary space education conference. Hosted at Leiden University, with delegates from more than 25 countries, he reports excellent lunches and some useful ideas. We’ll twist his arm to write something more extensive soon.

Less internationally, I was at an Enterprising Science workshop in London, hosted by the Science Museum and King’s College. Lots of useful nuggets and discussions, and a trip around the utterly fabulous new Cosmonauts exhibition. I may have geeked out just a little over the Soviet-era LK-3 lunar lander that’s on display. Sadly, no photography allowed.

Back home in Newcastle, we’ve now held the first two sessions of our sell-out Royal Institution Engineering Masterclasses:

…and we had an excellent turn-out for the first of our Physics Matters! lecture series:

Free tickets are still available for the rest of the series – starting with Biophysics this Thursday evening.

Speaking of events, don’t miss our calendar – we’ve been adding loads of stuff to it. Upcoming highlights include our A-level Physics teachers’ network meeting on 18th November, astronaut Chris Hadfield at the Centre for Life a few days earlier, and Edinburgh Fringe sensation Festival of the Spoken Nerd at Northern Stage on 30th October.

Otherwise, we’ve been fielding calls and requests and meetings with loads of our partner schools, nailing down the details of what we’re going to be up to for the rest of the year. It’s busy!

A cake, this afternoon.

A cake, this afternoon.

Finally, and of critical importance, this week has started fantastically well: project director Carol brought in a cake.

[back to the dramatic voiceover]

And now, Think Physics continues…