Thursday 25 September 2014

CodeClub: TWSU DIY Gamer Week 2

After last weeks introductory session I was keen to get everyone doing something. I was also slightly anxious about having everyone going straight into soldering up their DIY Gamers having never done any soldering before. Rummaging through my tub where I dump carefully store all my spare components and bits of stripboard, I managed to come up with enough parts for everyone to make a simple flashing led circuit each.  I'd had a quick look online but the cheapest equivalent kit I could find to buy was at least a fiver each. I reckoned mine would have cost about £1.30 each if I'd had to buy everything new, possibly half that if I was patient enough to wait from shipping from China. 

 I chopped the board into 10 pieces and colour coded the holes where each component needs to go whilst watching my oldest son strut his stuff at Rugby practice last night.  I then knocked up a quick handout to show the position of each components.

Remembering the lesson from last week, I'd set out the soldering irons with plenty of clear desk space around them.

In my experience, kids rarely listen when you tell them about some minor hazard, particularly when it's about hot things. A good example being my son burning his hand on the steaming pyrex dish which he'd just seen me remove form the oven, and which I'd specifically warned him 10 seconds earlier not to touch because it was hot.  Having said that, I've also found that having made the mistake once and experienced the pain, they are not likely to do it again in a hurry. My son certainly acquired a newfound sense of caution regarding hot things following the now infamous (in our family) "burnt by the sausage casserole incident".

Nevertheless, I wanted to do everything I could to prevent the clubbers under my supervision from using 'I've burnt my finger" as an excuse for untidy literacy work that afternoon. 

I really like the soldering irons that TWSU have provided. Having a visible temperature control helps emphasise how hot they get and it is also easy to see when they're on. But just to try an reinforce good safety practices, after they'd watched the amusing TWSU intro to soldering movie, I showed them a slide of soldering irons pictures I'd put together.  I asked them which one was hot: 

My clubbers are a smart bunch and they quickly realised that you can't tell just be looking at it. Point made!

They all seemed really pleased to able to have some practice and got stuck in to the job with their usual enthusiasm. Overall I was very impressed with their first efforts at soldering. We managed to get all but two boards completed, with 4 of them working first time. Two more needed only a single joint re-soldering before they worked and one just had the battery the wrong way round. There was only one which was a bit of a mess, but it was still really good for a first effort.

A couple of children claimed to have burned themselves as they went along but I'm not convinced they weren't just saying it for effect. I couldn't really see any marks and their reaction (or lack of one) suggested that it must have been very minor. Either that or they have asbestos hands. They were very sensible and enjoyed wearing their goggles, saying they felt like proper 'mad scientists'. There were also lots of questions about what would happen if we were using solder that contained lead. Just goes to show they were paying attention to the movie.

I realise that I deviated from the published lesson schedule this week but I think it worked. The children were really pleased to have something that they'd made to take away with them.

Next week those who didn't finish their little led board can do so while the others get started on getting their DIY Gamer components in place ready for soldering.

I was really pleased with how this session went. It was clear when we started that most of them didn't really understand what soldering was all about or how it worked. At the end of the session they were proudly demonstrating their understanding by explaining it to me! Although I'll give myself some credit for the descriptions I gave during the session, it was clear that it was the act of physically doing it that helped the concepts coalesce in their brains. Learning by doing: it works.

Things to do differently next time

  • I think I'd have the worksheets for lesson 3 available too so that those who finish or are waiting for a free soldering iron can start using the Arduino. I'll definitely do that next week. 
  • More fresh blu-tac! The stuff I was using today was a bit fusty. There were a few issues with stripboard slipping out of the blu-tac under pressure from the soldering iron.

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.