There are typically two roads that one can travel while using technology. For many, the well traveled one involves using technology as a passive or semi-passive entertainment devise or as a communication tool. In fact, based upon my observations of teenagers, pre-teens, and many adults, I would argue that the technologies of today, phones, tablets, and computers, are simply replacements for the black and white television I salvaged from the curb-side trash, the stereo system complete with an eight-track recorder, and the telephone in my room that I coveted. So while reading a book via the Kindle or Kindle app, streaming a TED talk on YouTube, or checking out my news feed on Facebook may be educational, many times I, like many others, will indulge in these activities for pure pleasure, reading, watching silly videos, or playing games such as Gears, Cut the Rope, struggling to solve a Sudoku puzzle.
The second road one can take while using technology is to use it for exploration and inquiry. Using technology in this way can lead to discovery and nurture innovation and creativity. This was the only way one could use technology when I was younger. If you wanted to use technology, you had to create what you wanted, either through physical construction, by learning to program and control the systems, or in some cases both. It is this use of technology that pushes the envelope, from programming to constructing web servers and web sites in the early 1990’s to building Minecraft servers and programming robots today. Today, this culture is especially alive in the Maker community, which is developing cool new tools which promise to become more mainstream, such as 3d printers which will allow makers the opportunity to more rapidly prototype projects. It is very exciting stuff.
Recently, I have taken a journey which occurred while traveling down both roads of technology use. A month ago, while listening to a podcast about an upcoming conference I want to attend, a friend of mine talked about a session she attended at EdCampNYEd on a new computer interface called Makey Makey($49.95). After sending a direct message via Twitter and then continuing a conversation with another educator friend who led the workshop at EdCampNYEd, both friends shared how they were using the Makey Makey interface with their students ranging in age from kindergarten through fifth grade. I was blown away and I knew I had to order my own Makey Makey right away.
The way that the Makey Makey works is that you connect it into one of your computers USB ports. Then you attach alligator clips to the interface. There are connections on the interface which correspond to the arrow keys and space bar on your keyboard and a mouse click. Connecting one of the alligator clips to a ground, when you complete the circuit by holding two of the leads in your hands, and it will act as though you selected that key on your keyboard or clicked on your mouse button. The Makey Makey interface becomes another input device for your computer. (see video below)
After anxiously awaiting its delivery, when it arrived I made plans to “play” with the Makey Makey with the Otters and Koalas. In small groups of four to six students, we began to explore a computer program built using Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) where each arrow key, the space bar, and a mouse click were all given a unique piano tone when depressed. We began to explore questions such as how was the sound being made? Could the students, who were holding one of the leads, make the sound by themselves? While touching a classmate? What happened if we were holding hands in a circle with one person holding the ground lead and one holding another lead? Finally, we connected the leads to fruits and vegetables, carrots, apples, and squash. Would they make the sounds?
The Otters and Koalas discovered a number of facts. If everyone held hands in the circle and the two ends were holding the leads, a sound was made. If the chain was broken, it didn’t. If you connected the leads to carrots and apples it worked. A squash wouldn’t make a sound at first, but when you cut it and connected it to the fleshy middle, it did.
There are now four middle-school students in my Flex Programming class which are now creating a “game” for the Otters, Koalas, Manatees, and Dolphins to explore using the Makey Makey interface. They are expanding the use of the interface by creating something new to explore. And if they get really involved and motivated, they can learn to program the Arduino processor on the Makey Makey interface to do whatever they can imagine and then program in the pure tradition of the Maker ethic.
So I began my journey by listening to a conversation between friends which then led me down a road less taken. Like Robert Frost, when given an chance, I will make this choice and it will make all the difference in the world.
Other technology and maker kits for cultivating creativity, invention, and innovation –
MakeDo Free Play Kit – $13.95
Rolobox Reusable Wheel Kit for Boxes – $12.95
What kid doesn’t love playing with the boxes some toys come in
Super Scratch Programming Adventure – $14.05
Learn more about Scratch programming, although there are plenty materials at scratch.mit.edu as well
BigTrac – $59.95
A programmable remote control 6 wheel tracker
Lego WeDo Robotics Construction Set – $129.95
Cross-posted on my blog, KeepingUpWithIT.edublogs.org