Thursday, 18 September 2014

CodeClub: TWSU DIY Gamer Week 1

A new term means new faces at CodeClub. I've got some returning children from last year (now Y6) and some (now) Y5s who came to the club I ran for Y3-4 last term. They were all really keen to get started again and had remembered the DIY gamer which I showed them in July when we got the kits.

The children arrived in dribs and drabs as usual so I got them started on the pre-course survey straight away. It only took them a couple of minutes and they seemed to appreciate that it would be help improve the project for future participants. I explained that unlike the Scratch projects we'd done last year, this was all new stuff and very few children had tackled these projects. They liked the idea of being pioneering beta testers!

I wanted to be able to show the children the finished version of the DIY Gamer that they'd be building. I think it's really important to demonstrate what you're aiming for. I remember not doing that in my very first CodeClub session when we were working on Felix & Herbert, and noticing that quite a few seemed a bit confused. At the end when she'd finished, one clubber said 'Oh, now I see what we were trying to do...” (this is what I love about running CodeClubs – I learn so much too).

So I'd gone through all the DIY Gamer worksheets, finished the Simon Says Game and had it loaded on my Gamer so that I could pass it round and let them all have a go. I'd also added a few extra bits to the code so that there is an animation running on the screen until you press 'start' and the game begins. I also added a 'beep' to each arrow when the target sequence is running. I don't see the point of having a buzzer if it doesn't make any noise! HopefullyI can add these extra features as challenges at the end of the project.

In testing I'd also noticed that the same sequence was being used for successive games. The PRNG is Arduino is not that great and it actually produces a long but predictable sequence. However you can get the random() function to start at a random place in its sequence by calling randomseed() first, so I added that and now the Simon Says game offers a different challenge each time. My modified version of the game is here.

I'd actually been a bit dense. Because I already had a DIY gamer myself, I did not build another one from the batch supplied for CodeClub – that way another 2 children can attend. So I didn't realise that a lot of the soldering that you need to do for the regular consumer gamer kit has already been done (yes, I know that it does mention it in the introduction presentation but I hadn't read that carefully enough either). That explains why the worksheet doesn't cover soldering the switch, IR components etc.... Duh. 

Overall I think the session went well. There was certainly plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

They liked watching the intro movie and enjoyed unpacking the kits. Identifying all the components was fun and they liked my demonstration of how to 'see' the infrared light from a remote control using the camera on my phone. They didn't find the component strips game that stimulating though. Partly I think it was because they were keen to get started, but also because it was essentially a thinly disguised “have you been paying attention” test. A couple of the more restless kids were certainly getting a bit fidgety by the end. This first week is definitely a bit more chalk-n-talk that they're used to from the Scratch sessions.  As usual they were full of ideas for games they could make themselves. Hopefully they won't be too disappointed with the fairly basic nature of the Simon Says game. 

Connecting the Arduino to the perspex back went well and it was interesting to see the range of dexterity across the group. They all seemed to struggle a bit with the initial orientation of the two parts using the handout. Fortunately being able to compare with the finished gamer really helped them work it out.

They left excited and keen for next week and the soldering! One boy's description of his dad's soldering iron was a bit worrying - “it shoots out red fire” - before I realised he was getting confused with a blow-torch.

Things to do differently next time.


  • Skip the component strips game?
  • Make more room on the desks for the unpacking. We'd been in the ICT suite to watch the movie and complete the questionnaires. I then got them to unpack and check the components sat at the desk with the PCs on. This did not leave them enough room when it came to actually start assembling things, and quite a few components got dropped on the floor. This was compounded because they are sharing one between two and trying to do things together (e.g. one person holding the perspex plate while the other pushed the bolts through). The person working by themselves (because their partner was absent) finished first and with the least help primarily because they only had to coordinate 1 pair of hands.
  • Check that all components are present in each kit beforehand. I know that kids love opening things so I left the unboxing until today. Unfortunately one set has a missing start button (I'm sure it is missing from the kit rather than lost today, as the children pointed it out without opening the jiffy bag and I checked around pretty carefully afterwards to check that it hadn't just been dropped).
  • Get the children to open the box by slitting the seal along the bottom. Most of them unfolded the cardboard at the ends to gain access. This worked fine but putting everything back in at the end was tricky...
  • I should have provided a greater range of stickers for decoration. The perspex is pretty resistant to any pens other than sharpies. If we do end up using these kits again then I'll be having fun with the white spirit in any event.  

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