Tag Archive for: tinkering

So. Many. Robot. Puppets.

Well. It’s happening.

It’s taken us a while to really get geared up, but now suddenly dozens and dozens of Connected puppets are out in the world. Thanks to our new friends at Northumberland Libraries we’ve been out west to Haltwhistle, up north to Wooler, and a couple more schools roped themselves in for good measure.

Over the next few weekends we’re absolutely ram-jam-packed with workshops. For future dates keep an eye on this bookings page at the Life Science Centre, they’ll be releasing more workshops very soon.

Meanwhile – feast your eyes on these puppets! We’ve seen easter bunnies and knife-wielding figures and a stern-first sinking Titanic and a three- (four-?) eyed llama and dinosaurs and sharks and more. So many more.

Huge thanks to everyone who’s joined us so far, and for all your lovely comments and feedback. We’ve had a blast making these contraptions with you.

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More puppets!

We’ve been delighted to welcome more puppets to the Connect network this term, with workshops running in several schools. Our pace of delivery is picking up now, with our colleagues at the Life Science Centre slotting loads of sessions in for the new year. If your school (or library, community centre, or other venue) is interested in hosting a series of workshops, please do get in touch: email us at jonathan.sanderson@northumbria.ac.uk. Also watch this space, we’ll post details as soon as we have them.


Connect is an Internet of Things digital making project, and it’s easy to assume that coding is the hard part. But if we’ve got Connect’s coding system right – and we don’t yet know if we have, but bear with me – then the most challenging part becomes the mechanism. We’ve known this for some time, but getting the programming system even close to right has been a battle. So we’re only now managing to turn our attention to mechanical engineering.

Most of the time, we don’t have to think too much about how different mechanisms work. Yet simple mechanisms are a basic building block of mechanical engineering, and they’re even written into the national curriculum at key stages 1 and 2. Indeed, our resource page is consistently one of the most popular areas of this website, seeing many thousands of views each year.

Simple mechanisms are surprisingly challenging to explore, however – particularly ones which can be operated using little servo motors. Which is why we’ve started exploring with parts like these, above. Based on the dimensions of lolly sticks, they’re neatly drilled so we can use straightened-out paperclips as pivots and linkages.

These test pieces don’t quite work, but we’re making some adjustments and later in the week we’ll try again. Fingers crossed we can bring you some example mechanisms built using these components, which we’ll then roll into the next Connect course.

Connected, at last

It’s happening. It’s genuinely happening. More than that – it works!

This half-term we’ve been testing out parts of Connect with some willing guinea pigs families at Battle Hill Primary School. There are a lot of hidden technical bits and some really quite shaky code involved in keeping Connect devices talking to each other (I’m allowed to say that, I wrote the code). We couldn’t quite be certain that once it met real people it would, you know, work. But it does.

Designs for an animatronic cat, at a Connect workshop, February 2022In the very first week one family made the dog in the picture above, which wags its tail when it’s happy and sags rather pathetically when sad. In subsequent weeks families have found out how to code more behaviours into their Connected devices, and explored different mechanisms they might use as they think through what their ultimate creations might be. Here’s a family sketching out a design for a cat puppet, and thinking about how it might move.

It’s not all gone smoothly, not least because I contracted covid after the first week and had to isolate for the next two sessions. There are plenty of rough edges for us to smooth off, including literal ones – at one point I spent a happy hour with a stack of microcontroller boards and a nail file.

With some adjustments, we’re pressing ahead with a second pilot at Carville School after half-term, and shortly after that we should have workshops popping up all over the place. Huge thanks to the Battle Hill families for helping us debug the project!

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.

Stepping into the (not-so-lime) light!

The Centre for Life’s forthcoming live science show In a Spin is being produced in collaboration with Think Physics. Today, therefore, has involved much sketching, planning and calculating, as Joe and Duncan from Life build props and set-pieces for the show.

Don’t be fooled by the cobbled-together appearance of the strip of lightbulbs above. Oh, no. That is a very rough-around-the-edges prototype. What it shows, however, is that we’ve done our sums more-or-less correctly, and we can indeed switch a bunch of lamps with a controller and a relay without blowing anything up unintentionally. Which would have been embarrassing.

Tomorrow, Joe’s world will revolve around a pile of laser-cut arrows, and new intern Callum will hopefully show us how to draw up a PCB which we can get fabricated by Northumbria’s magnificent milling machine.

I’d say ‘watch this space,’ but really, don’t: watch the show at the Centre for Life, from 16th June.

Think Club 0 – Maker Week, day 5+1. Pendulum predicament edition

Maker Week may be over, but there’s plenty of making still to be done. You’ll notice from the picture above that I’ve been hacking away at the turntables again. Meanwhile, Joe now has a refined version of our LED lamps sorted out. It’s pretty neat, and bright enough, but we’ve counted up and realised we’ve the means to make a lot more lamps. Tomorrow is likely to see some production-line soldering.

The biggest challenge of the day, however, has been the pendulum:


Joe is right to look pensive. We wired things up, swung a kettle, heard chime roughly when we’d expect them – then, just as we started to celebrate, we noticed that the chimes were, in fact, coming entirely at random. Drat.

We scratched our heads, rewired, tried again. It was worse.

We scowled at it, tried something else. That didn’t work either.

Eventually… we ate some of the biscuits. Subsequently, we think we have a solution. It’s a bit touch-and-go, but close enough that we reckon we can afford to sleep tonight. We’ll pick up the pieces in the morning and see if our current thinking is correct.


Think Club 0 – Maker Week, day 5


We forgot the biscuits.

Whilst you’re all pondering how that could possibly happen – and today, being the end of maker week, I had some really good biscuits, let me tell you – here’s what we did:

Above, the Think Club crew beavering away. I have absolutely rubbish photos of the incredibly intricate soldering work being done to assemble our advanced lights for Light Play. So I won’t show you the photos, but I will tell you about the lights, since they’re works of art. We have Trinkets – which are like half an Arduino, if that means anything to you – powered off a single 1.5V cell via a step-up board that works, as far as we can tell, via unicorns. The Trinket drives a handful of Neopixel RGB LEDs, and a couple of controls allow you to set the colour, or the rate change of colour. It’s all terribly neat and self-contained, and particularly pretty. Pictures next week, promise.

Meanwhile, we assembled the pendulum frame and finally got around to hanging the pendulums. Pendula. Penduloptera. Whatever:

Pendulum hanging

What really surprised us was that our frame was clearly wonky. Like: properly out-of-kilter. With trepidation we offered up a spirit level to the cross-member, and found this:


Huh. Well, that’s fine, then. I guess.

The pendulum array now looks like this:

Pendulums hung

OK, so there’s one missing from the end, and the lengths aren’t sorted, and we need to tidy lots of things up, and we haven’t got the instrumentation in place, and we have yet to even begin the essential stage which is ‘flashing light optimisation’… but you get the idea. Suddenly, the undergrads revising for exams in the quiet work area just outside Think Lab went from wholly indifferent to ‘ooh, shiny!’ and started talking to us. Which was nice, and gave us a taste of how people might respond when they see this thing in place at the Faire next weekend.

So – huge thanks to the Think Club 0 crowd for their endeavours this week, they’ve done a heap of work and have been delightful company to boot. The bulk of the work for both projects is done; next week Andrew, Joe, Sarah and myself have a bunch of finishing-up to do, then… dun-dun-duuuuurrrrrr: Maker Faire UK. Woohoo!

We also seem to have a gigantic pile of biscuits to scoff. What a disaster that is.

Think Club 0 – Maker Week, day 4

Maker week was busy enough today that I mostly took photos of the empty lab at the end of the day, like the abandoned soldering table at the top of this post. However, here’s Jess in flow making turntables, and Chris in deep code:

Turntables were most definitely on the menu today, with Jess, Lauren and Sarah completing at least a dozen:

Turntable assembly line

We’ve also made significant progress on the rest of the light wall, and there’s been lots of marking up of the pendulum frame. Also, on my way home tonight:


Oh yes. We have pendulum bobs. Though I think the people in the queue behind me at the checkout were a little confused about why I was buying quite so many kettles.

Tomorrow: bringing it all together. >ulp<

Think Club 0 – Maker Week, day 3

A quiet day today, with family commitments reducing the turn-out. Nevertheless, Joe’s particularly proud of getting the colour-changing lamps to work. My still photo above really doesn’t do them justice.

Pendulum frame

We’ve assembled the two ends of the pendulum support structure. Look at the size of that thing!


We now have a working turntable design which is slow enough to look good. It’s a bit bodged but works surprisingly well, particularly since it relies on a chopstick as a key component. I’m unreasonably delighted by that.

Meanwhile, Chris was immersed in Sonic Pi, the Scalextric was briefly up-and-running, and Andrew’s done a heap of calculations around the pendulums, working out what notes we should go for and hacking my simulation code so we’ve had a bit of a listen. It’s much less irritating than it was.

Oh, and we’ve ordered another round of electronic bits, and most importantly restocked the biscuit supplies. With exciting new varieties, no less.

So tomorrow we’ve mass-production of turntables to arrange, lights to finish assembling, colour-changing light circuits to solder up, and pendulum bracing to sort. We’re hoping the Think Clubbers come back after their day off. Otherwise, a busy day will become a hectic day.

Tag Archive for: tinkering

Tag Archive for: tinkering

Mini Mangonel

A simple design for an elastic band-powered catapult, which can be used as the starting point for tinkering experiments.

Light Wall

Think Physics’ take on the Exploratorium’s classic ‘Light Play’ activity, an ever-changing sculpture of colours and patterns.