Blog Archives

Build Your Own Camera and Explore the Science and Engineering of Photography

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As the number of gadgets and gizmos available for purchase grows, there is a decreasing number of opportunities for kids to build their own toys. It’s not only a matter of convenience; it’s become increasingly difficult for do-it-yourself projects to compete with cheap mass-produced products that incorporate fancy electronics. We’ve featured DIY resources and social networks in the past, but most of the instructions on these sites won’t help you build anything too fancy. Now, with the Bigshot that changes.

The project helps you build your own digital camera using a kit they provide, while exposing you to the science and engineering of photography. The accompanying site is extremely well-designed and is filled with educational materials covering everything from the camera construction process to the science of optics. Of course, the allure of building and owning your own digital camera is undeniable, and for $89 is worth exploring if you run a science club or simply want to excite the child engineers in your life.

How Transistors Work

Suppose you learned that transistors are a fundamental building block of modern electronics, and you decided to learn about how they function. If you looked at the first result in a google search you would see this Wikipedia article filled with technical details, but not that much beginner-friendly clarity. As with many such important concepts, explaining it at just the right level of detail to be both technical and accessible is a serious challenge.

To the rescue comes Derek Muller, creator of the Veritasium Youtube channel, who demystifies the idea behind transistors. His video features just the right type of animations and visual props to make a point without getting lost in technical details that would only be relevant to graduate students or scientists. If you’re interested in electronics, this six minute video is as good a starting point as any textbook or lecture.

Hackathons Coming to a University Campus Near You This Fall

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The stereotype of a computer programmers is that of an antisocial person sitting in a cubicle or basement, staring at a computer screen late into the night. Although there may be some truth to this, writing code that matters often requires quite a bit of social interaction. None of the software that we use today would be around if it were not for the collaboration of thousands of software engineers who exchanged ideas, fixed each others bugs, and perhaps even provided moral support.

For young programmers, getting together with their peers as well as with seasoned veterans is an educational experience that elevates programming from homework assignments and tests to serious product development that can affect lives. This October MIT is hosting its annual hackathon, a three day get-together for college students and high school students who are eighteen years old or older, that serves as an engineering fest and competition. Students can build anything they want while sharing ideas with fellow participants and learning from invited experts. A few weeks later, Yale is hosting its inaugural hackathon with a similar format. If you’re an undergraduate interested in the software industry, either event is the place to be. If you teach computer science and your college or high school does not host hackathons, you should consider organizing them as a way to get students to work together on exciting projects.

A Video Game Company Recruits, Trains, and Reaches Out to High School Students

The desire to create their own video games is one of the top reasons why kids give programming a try. As a result, teaching programming through computer game creation has become increasingly popular. One can now easily find books and after school programs that follow this trend, but as tempting as this approach may be, it suffers from false expectations. A student who wants to learn how to make video games doesn’t realize that computer science educators are more interested in teaching him how to program than in helping him create something that resembles the slick professionally-produced games that he plays at home. Of course, the initial excitement of creating your own computer program may compensate for unmet expectations, but it’s not clear that this is a good trend.

What if, on the other hand, students could create real modern video games alongside industry professionals? That is the idea behind Pipeline, an outreach effort by Valve, a major video game company. They have recruited a group of high school students who are working alongside their much older colleagues on video game titles that will be sold to millions of players around the world. These students are not only exposed to the video game industry, but are sharing their experience with their peers through the Pipeline website. This may be the easiest way to learn about what it actually takes to make a professional video game. Learning to code is important no matter what your goals are, but if you’re interested in joining the video game industry, signing up for Pipeline will give you a realistic view of the work and knowledge required to do so.

Startup Engineering: A Course for Advanced High School Students and Their Teachers

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Successful startup founders seem to be starting their companies earlier than ever before. Whereas Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg dropped out of college to start their companies, David Karp whose company, Tumblr, was recently acquired by Yahoo, dropped out of high school to work on his own software projects. While leaving school is not a requirement for successful entrepreneurship, starting early can help.

High school students who have completed an AP computer science course, or who have had previous programming experience, and are interested in learning about the way software engineering is done at the top startups, can now take a startup engineering course that will not only expose them to the latest technology and methodologies, but will give them an opportunity to launch their own project. Stanford University is offering this free online course through Coursera, and although it is a massive open online course (MOOC) it will have a few unique features that set it apart from other MOOCs. First of all, students will be exposed not only to the technical tools of the trade, but also to the business side of starting a company. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, students will complete a final project that will entail building their own web application, and the best projects will qualify for prizes from sponsoring startups. The course starts June 17 and should be an interesting learning experience for both students and their teachers.

Photo credit: hackNY

DIY.org: A Social Network for Young Engineers and Inventors

Do-it-yourself projects are vital components of a good STEM education, but until recently there have not been good online DIY resources targeting kids. DIY.org, a social network designed for children to share their creations with each other, seeks to change that. The site lets kids learn from each other and from a growing collection of tutorials. DIY.org is not restricted to purely engineering creations; users can share anything they make, from baked bread to artwork.

Perhaps, the greatest benefit of a site like this is that it allows kids to create a portfolio of their creations. Far too often, the talents and abilities of kids are hidden behind letter grades, numerical scores, and short teacher assessments. We are living, however, in a time when showcasing your work is becoming increasingly more important than bragging about your grades. Instead of aiming solely for perfect test scores, it may make more sense to enjoy the process of working with your hands and your creativity while acquiring useful knowledge and building up your resume. If you’re interested in a more advanced community, Instructables is worth exploring.

K-12 Science and Engineering Workshops at MIT

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One problem that online learning, with all of its obvious advantages, cannot currently solve is how to bring hands-on learning to students. Luckily, quite a few colleges and universities offer out of school STEM programs that complement videos and textbooks, and MIT is no exception. If you’re anywhere near the Greater Boston area you can schedule a free group workshop at the Edgerton Center at MIT, which runs a variety of science and engineering programs for kids of all ages. The activities, which are run by MIT undergraduate and graduate students, include working with electrical circuitry and exploring chemical reactions. For those who want more time to learn and build, longer summer programs are available, but you need to sign up early as they are quite popular. Below is a video that captures some of the spirit of the Edgerton Center.

Instructables: A Place To Learn Do-It-Yourself Engineering

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An oft-repeated maxim is that learning by doing is the best type of learning. As easy as it is to believe, it seems that humanity, at least the part living in the developed world, is quickly moving in the direction of complete dependance on complicated gadgets designed by high tech companies that recruit brilliant scientists. Even if one wanted to build something, how can it be possible to compete with the world of highly advanced industry? As it turns out, the point is not to compete but to learn how to hack — hacking, not in the sense of breaking into computer systems, but in the sense of making things. That is the idea behind, Instructables, a site devoted to collecting community-generated do-it-yourself projects. Whether you want to make complex origami sculptures or your own boat, there are numerous visual guides and detailed instructions to help you out. Each project, is effectively a hands-on lesson and can be a starting point for further exploration of physics, math, and engineering principles.

Street-Fighting Mathematics: Inexact Reasoning Leading to Deeper Understanding

All too often school teaches us to “guess and check” when a simple exact calculation would lead to the right answer. Guessing the answer to a one variable equation may not further our mathematical knowledge, but is it possible that guessing can lead to deep insights? According to Sanjoy Mahajan, physicist and author of Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving [PDF], the answer is yes. He makes the case that by using certain basic problem solving strategies one can avoid rigorous and complicated calculations while the result will be the same. Moreover, these strategies and the solutions that they yield lead to a deep understanding of the subject matter. The book is full of examples from mathematics, engineering, and physics and although some parts require knowledge of calculus, it should be accessible to motivated high school students. As a bonus, it is freely available from MIT Press. Here is a TEDx talk that the author gave illustrating the street-fighting techniques in his book.