Arduino+Maker Project Iterations

I really had no idea how using a small Arduino Micocontroller for a Saturday workshop would be a maker epiphany for my teaching. I had attended a Saturday workshop at Microsoft labeled as “Animatronics” in 2014.  The organizer, Paul Dietz ( designed the workshop based on electrical engineering and maker education using his background experience as a Microsoft Researcher and Disney designer.  Attendees were told to bring a cereal box and we had items to add to our maker project like pipe cleaners, feathers, and string. By the end of the workshop, our team had a cat with a 3D tail that moved at a 100 degree angle with a servo, and its mouth also moved up and down to quote a poem.  USB speakers were on hand to play the poem on the computer providing all of the power to the Arduino microcontroller.

LED Servo motors in a shoe box
an early version of our projects using servo motors, LEDs and Arduinos

The next year I adapted that same project for my students.  I used existing resources from our Physics teacher’s lab like Arduino kits and servo motors.    I walked them through small Arduino programs like lighting the Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)  and using the piezo buzzer.  I tried to emulate the same project with my students.  They brought in shoe boxes and in pairs they came up with a theme to use a servo motor.  We made full use of the 180 degree servo motors.  Every year since 2015 our project has gotten more elaborate, and all based on student feedback; they really enjoy the project and come back to me years later to tell me to do it again with each class.   In a school where students are challenged in their math, science, language arts and elective courses, doing group activities and building provides a creative outlet. This project  provides introductory skills in using micro-controllers for prototyping, students use organized sharing tools to keep track of projects, and the learning is well supported through standards. 

Some powerful things happen in a makerspace and I am committed to sharing these principles to engage in conversation and expand the scope of maker projects.  In fact, in the same way that I attended a workshop in the Spring of 2014 with no expectations, I continually increase my goals for the project and my students exceed those expectations as they apply maker principles to a Computer Science project. These are some of my greatest take-aways from the Arduino Maker project :

First maker projects are one of the most underrated social activities teachers can use to develop social skills.  Something amazing happens when teams are collaborating and doing some kind of tactile building.  They talk with each other and ask questions; students with social anxiety are engaged in casual conversation that is organic and bond-building. In a maker space, students are learning how to build their project but they are also learning how to connect with others.  Nearly every student is engaged in the classroom and teams are working towards a common goal they are personally vested in.  Sometimes we get volunteers to share out some electrical engineering skills and help make projects more elaborate.

student soldering
A volunteer helping a student solder an electrical project.

Second, I have learned so much through the process as well.  For instance, I am learning each year how to improve the project and how to adjust the workload for these emerging project managers; this year I added in small benchmarks so that I can personally follow up with each group and so they have daily goals for work time.  Ninth grade students are not ready for a large, culminating project without key deadlines. Student teams create a collaborative space to share work and their plans for building so that each person has work to complete and deadlines.  There also needs to be enough work so that all students can account for their time; for this reason I like smaller teams working hard to complete their deadlines.  Last year, 2017, I included a summative assessment where each student could show me a working microcontroller project like an ultra-sonic sensor providing a readout to a liquid Crystal display (LCD) or a student would have to show me an array of LEDs running off the timing of a relay.  In 2018, I did not include this summative assessment and I cannot guarantee that all students took responsibility for their own learning of how to problem solve Arduino micro-controllers.  I had to go back and provide that assessment after students finished the maker project.

painted 3D city with servo spinnig Space Needle
A student team proudly painted their 3D city with a servo spinning the Space Needle


Third, constructivist, personalized learning takes place in this casual, risk-free setting. Seymour Papert asserts that “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”  This last important concept in my maker space ruminations is one of the most difficult to achieve as it requires so much more work before the learning takes place.  I have four years of work leading into this culminating project.  I can show how students address key standards in a formative assessment and I can also show how we are addressing other standards through problem solving and collaboration.  What is still the most difficult is that concept that I am also the learner as well.  Each year I have to look at the project to see how I can improve it.  I used a post mortem survey so students could demonstrate addressing the key standards and they can reflect on some of their lessons learned.  I can ask them how they are using computational thinking in their project based learning and students have some spot-on answers.   For the last two years, I also incorporated video for student to reflect on their work and provide a both a snapshot of accomplishments but I will also use these videos as examples for next year’s Arduino maker project; students also have a sample of their work to share with other periods throughout the day.  Some statistics include a 4.5 rating this year for all students as their favorite project.  I am excited to see those statistics but it means infinitely more when my students see me the next year and follow up and tell me how much they enjoyed the collaborative project.  Their feedback that follows months and years later means that much more.

Watch the Facebook Live video and hear students describe their projects.