Scratch is a computer programming language that is designed for use by children to learn programming, but that is also serving as a paradigm for STEM programming more broadly, and I suspect, for IOT programming of the future. Programs are written in scratch by assembling shapes that represent programming structures or objects.
For example, look at the code block to the right. This is an object that is called when the user clicks on the green flag button on the user interface. That green flag is how one starts a program in Scratch. This is hooked, literally, to a “forever” lop. Within the forever loop, execution (of that object) is delayed for a fifth of a second, then an “If” statement is executed. If the object linked to this object (such as a sprite that might be able to move around on the screen) has come into contact with something green, a chomp sound is made.
The Scratch interface is normally accessed on a web page, and in that context, every single Scratch programmer (that uses the basic interface) has access to every bit of code developed and saved by every other programmer. Or, you can run it on your own computer.
You will see scratch like coding in Lego projects, in association with various robot kits, and I suspect over time, with Internet of Things objects. The coding is so straight forward that even Mikey can do it.
The book Make Your Own Scratch Games! by Anna Anthropy, produced by No Starch Press, brings an elementary school or middle school age kid, or an adult who just wants to screw around, through the process of developing three significant game projects and countless elements that users can use for a number, approaching infinity, of different games.
As is usual for No Starch books, the source code is available, but more importantly, among the on line resources are certain graphics and sound files and such used in the game making.
This is a great book for STEM oriented kids, and Scratch is a great Age of Covid activity.
The winner, hands down, of the GLB Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award for 2018 is The LEGO BOOST Activity Book by Daniele Benedettelli, and published by No Starch Press. This is the book that makes last year’s coolest STEM toy ever, the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , come to life in a way that will truly advance a child’s learning and enjoyment of robotics.
In my household, we have certain carefully designed rules. The rules are invariant, but the implementation is collaborative and open. For example, Huxley must always be engaged in some sort of out-of-school and out-of-home learning activity. The most obvious way to do this is a class somewhere (which can, actually, be in school as an ECA). The decision of what that activity should be, however, is his. During part of the summer he typically chooses etiquette class or an art class. During the rest of the year, he takes a STEM class at our local Stem Builders Learning Center. Stem Builders does all sorts of things, like computer coding, cloud computing, robotics, etc. and Huxley mainly engages in engineering and robotics classes. Over the last two years I’ve observed what is taught in intro and mid level robotics, and how it is taught. I’ve also seen how two other programs that teach robotics, both in our school system, work. So I have a good idea of what a good robotics course looks like.
The robotic raw material used in most of these classes is LEGO based, similar to (but not the same as) the material provided with the recently invented and marketed LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , which is basically a big fancy LEGO kit that is also a robot, and a few other things. The programming learning associated with these classes is absent, however, from that project. LEGO offers some additional computer programming information, but very limited, on its web site. Earlier in the year, I reviewed another No Starch Press book, The LEGO BOOST Idea Book: 95 Simple Robots and Hints for Making More! by Yoshihito Isogawa, which is a great book that allows you to take the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox to the next level with a plethora of projects you can build using only parts that come in that kit. The objective of Isogawa’s book is to provide a diverse array of suggestions for robotic LEGO builds.
But again, the home version of STEM learning that combines the pragmatic goal of learning to build (and thus, in the future, fight, I assume) robots, and the other pragmatic goal of learning to program stuff, is not the goal of that book.
The LEGO BOOST Activity Bookdoes fill this need. It is the book that should have come with the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox. The toolbox does not have a programming manual, and there is nothing that comes with it, or that is available in parallel that I know of from LEGO, that hints at the power and potential of the programming interface.
The LEGO BOOST Activity Book starts out with instructions to build a basic robotic car called “Mario,” that looks enough like a Kart from Mario Kart to suggest a lawsuit. Mario is then used, again and again, in project after project, as the platform to explore dozens of robotic techniques, including diverse approaches to programming, the use of sensors, and various other moving parts.
That sequence, which takes up the majority of the book, looks a lot like a full semester class in robotics, spanning introductory to intermediate and early advanced techniques.
Following that there is a chapter on building BrickPecker, which is a robotic bird that sorts LEGO bricks by color. Unfortunately, it only sorts certain size and shape bricks and it will not rifle through your closet finding all the LEGO bricks and putting them in different containers.
Don’t believe the BrickPecker can be real? It has been captured of film:
After BrickPecker, there is a final chapter on CYBOT, a bipedal robot with the ability to talk, move its arms and fingers (all four of them on two hands), and fire a weapon. Once you’ve got the robot that can do those things, well, it is all over.
There is a massive section within the guts of the book that puts in one place the building techniques and principles needed to make things that do not fall apart easily, that move properly, and so on.
It is hard to believe there is so much stuff in this one book, but there is. One way that happens is the subtle but measurable increase in format for this volume compared to other coding and STEM books by this and other publishers.
This book came to me just in time to fill our holiday vacation. Huxley is going to return to his Stem Builder’s class in advanced mode in two weeks!
Daniele Benedettelli is known worldwide for his original LEGO robots, including his Rubik’s Cube solvers and his humanoid robots. As a LEGO MINDSTORMS Community Partner (MCP), he helps to test and develop new MINDSTORMS products. He gives educational presentations and workshops on Information and Communications Technology around the world and teaches robotics at the high school level. Benedettelli holds a master’s degree in Robotics and Automation from the University of Siena in Italy.
Scratch is a seminal object oriented programming language that has had a great deal of influence on other languages. It is an entry level system designed for kids and adults new to programming. If you have a kid doing any kind of robotics or STEM programming in elementary school, they are using a programming langauge that derives from Scratch.
It comes out of MIT, and is usually used on their server, using a web interface.
That web interface is closing at 7 AM on January 2nd. Later that afternoon, it will be back up, but with Scratch 3.0!
Like the Iguana book, Erickson’s book for third through seventh graders (8-12 or so years of age) contains real, actual, science, evolutionary theory, and facts about nature, along with great pictures. The key message is that toxins exist because they provide an evolutionary advantage to those organisms that use them. Why are venomous animals so common in watery environments? Read the book to find out.
Species mentioned includ the blue-ringed octopi, stony corals, sea jellies, stonefish, lionfish, poison-fanged blennies, stingrays, cone snails, blind remipedes, fire urchins.
Highly recommended as a STEM present this holiday season.
As is the case with the other kits, the Solar System includes a book, a large format big flat thing to which one might attach stickers, stickers, and a unique on-topic object, in this case, those cool stars you can attach to your ceiling or walls, and they glow in the dark. Continue reading The Solar System from The Smithsonian→
Natasha Ravinand is the founder of “She Dreams in Code,” a nonprofit focused on increasing opportunities for middle school girls to engage in coding. She is also the author of Girls With Dreams: Inspiring Girls to Code and Create in the New Generation. In this book, Ntasha interviews several women in engineering and technology in order to assemble a compendium of inspiration for others like her, who want to engage in technology without the usual and common obstacles.
Here’s two facts you need to know. 1) Only 25% of the adults engaged in science and technology (STEM) are women. 2) This is a HUGE percentage compared to what it was only a few years ago. So, we are in a bad place, but also, we are moving quickly out of that place. Continue reading Girls With Dreams and Women With Cards→
From Hypatia of Alexandria to Katherine Hayhoe, women have made and continue to make important contributions to the physical sciences. Now, you can get the “Notable Women in the Physical Sciences” deck of cards to celebrate them!
The first several projects in the book involve making electricity, or using it to make light bulbs shine or to run an electromagnet. [/caption]The most complicated projects are the ones where you make interactive games using LED lights and buzzers.
This is a book about how to play with electricity, not how to get a Masters Degree in electricity. In other words, any kid, the ones who seem destine for a career in electronic engineering and the ones who don’t, can get along in this book because it does not assume itself to be a building brick to a greater career. Yet the projects are interesting and informative and educational, and any kid who does a dozen of these projects is going to learn.
This kind of activity, which should involve parents for most kids, is the cure for the sense of depression you feel when you go to the toy store and look at the “science” section and everything you see is crap. Just get this book, order 50 bucks worth of parts, and get to work-fun. Then order some more parts, probably.
No kids’ book on electronics would be complete without a batter made from something you get in the produce section.[/caption]This book for kids is very kid oriented, as it should be. One of the first practical projects you build is an alarm system to keep your parents the heck out of your room. You can make a noisy musical instrument. You can make a device that makes sounds some humans can hear (the kids, likely) and some can’t (parents).
Although soldering is done, it is minimal and, frankly, can probably be avoided by using alternative techniques. But really, it is not that hard and one should not be too afraid of it.
A lot of the projects use and develop logic circuits. Kids actually love logic circuits, I think because they end up rethinking a bit about how tho think about simple relationships. And, it is good to know this stuff.
Unlike many electronic kits you can buy (which can be quite fun and educational in their own right) this approach does not rely on ICs (integrated circuits) that produce magical results with poorly described inputs and hookups. There are some basic ICs, including gates, an inverter, flip flops, and a timer. These are very straight forward circuits that are mostly (except the timer) really just very fancy switches.
Many of the parts, including a breadboard, LEDs, hook up wires of various kinds, and pretty much all the resistors, capacitors, etc. etc. can also be used with the more sophisticated Arduino projects, should you end up going in that direction.
This is a really fun book. If you have a kid of the right age (maybe from six to 12, with 100% adult involvement under 10 years) get it now, secretly, get some parts, and work your way through several of the projects. Then, make it (and the parts) a holiday present. Then look really smart.
This chapter-end section give you an idea of the level of the projects. There is a lot of stuff in here. All doable, but it will take a while to get through it all. [/caption]Here is the overview table of contents (the book is much more detailed than suggested by this top level TOC):
PART 1: Playing with Electricity
Chapter 1: What Is Electricity?
Chapter 2: Making Things Move with Electricity and Magnets
Chapter 3: How to Generate Electricity
PART 2: Building Circuits
Chapter 4: Creating Light with LEDs
Chapter 5: Blinking a Light for the First Time
Chapter 6: Let’s Solder!
Chapter 7: Controlling Things with Circuits
Chapter 8: Building a Musical Instrument
PART 3: Digital Electronics
Chapter 9: How Circuits Understand Ones and Zeros
Chapter 10: Circuits That Make Choices
Chapter 11: Circuits That Remember Information
Chapter 12: Let’s Make a Game!