Jennifer Torres, Maker VISTA
It’s Fall, and the sun is out in East Palo Alto. At Los Robles Elementary School, a student twists the end of a black and red wire, and plugs them into positive and negative ports on her terminal block. Another student tests his light motion sensor. He covers it with his hand, and the mouth of his cardboard batman promptly opens and shouts, “I am batman, I am batman!" The kids in his group giggle uncontrollably, and the sound persists until he uncovers the sensor. This has drawn the attention of other students and a classmate rushes over to ask how he too can add sound to his project. Here in the makerspace, kids are challenged to both learn independently and work collaboratively.
During the last three weeks, Mr. Juarez’s middle school makerspace elective has worked together in groups of four to bring motion, lights and sound to their cardboard creations. The objective of the project was to help kids learn how sensor and motors function as inputs and outputs. To do this, TechHive’s Monster Petting Zoo curriculum was used as a foundation for this lesson.
Students were assigned to one of the four following roles: facilitator, mechanical engineer, computer engineer, and designer. At this stage in the game, designers have finished their job, and attentively assist their team. Computer engineers drag and drop blocks of code within MIT’s kid-friendly coding program Scratch in attempt to fix any last minute bugs, and mechanical engineers test their motors and sensors.
One group seems to be struggling. The team is pensively hunched over their work and explain that their servo motor is running unusually slowly. They suspect that the battery might be low on power. Having already gone through the usual steps of the troubleshooting—unplugging and plugging in their circuit board, shutting down the coding program, reconnecting their equipment, I bring over a new battery, which they test eagerly. The motor still moves at a snail's pace. Having exhausted every option, we conclude that their servo motor (hot glued to the interior of their cardboard box) must be the culprit. The students are patient, and I bring over a new motor for them to connect, but it’s already time to present.
Batman group has finished, and defunct-motor group is called on. They hold up their creation nervously. They point to their light sensor and identify it as the input. With hesitation, the presenter places his hand over their robot’s sensor, and watches nervously as it’s mouth yawns wide at a creeping speed. You can hear a light chuckle spread through the room, and a few kids ask how they changed the speed. He simply says that you can’t—it’s just broken. Another asks if some motors can change speeds. Ultimately I realize here that in the Makerspace, some of the best ideas and questions spring from the most untimely glitches.