Monday, November 29, 2010

Cricket Microcomputer Cell Phone

Created by my 9th graders! What I love about this is the experience of cramming all the electronics inside a box. They even routed the IR beamer from the computer to inside the box so it matches up with the transceiver inside. It really feels like an electronic object with the UI on the outside and the complicated stuff on the inside. This is a simple robot as you can't choose the numbers you dial but just hit the same switch and it dials pre-programmed numbers that are displayed on the LED. We aren't working on conditional statements yet. It is their first project after all.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Student Performance in OpenSim

Performed by two 8th grade students. Note my atrocious camera work. But my excuse is we can so much with tech in education; it's just so hard to do it well. What I like about this, though, is the virtual puppetry (what we're calling it) is getting better and this scene uses local lights in an effective way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Virtual Learning is Fun

Many times during my work with students in HewittSim unexpected things happen. Once a student accidentally attached an 8 foot tall mushroom to her spine, becoming a walking fungus. If students click on the wrong surface of a chair they want their avatar to sit on, they can end up sitting sideways with their avatar looking none the wiser.
Usually we are pressed for time and when these mishaps spring up during our short class periods as teachers we have to suppress the urge to tell students to quiet down and focus. They are very funny and you can’t blame kids for being amused by things that are so preposterous in this parallel universe we’ve begun inhabiting for our educational adventures.
So when today’s math class explored our completed Parthenon to measure parts of it looking for examples of The Golden Ratio, we allowed the girls to get off task a bit when they discovered a runaway piece of marble floating at least 100 meters above the building. It was just pure fun to fly up and stand on it with empty space around and below our avatars. It was just as normal in this unusual world to walk right off and fall to the ground intact and continue with the task of measuring. I actually think having a laugh at the crazy things that happen enriches the learning experience they are having because of its novelty.

A Special Place

We just finished our first go-round with the 8th graders' dramatized scenes in our sim. Some videos will come soon, but I wanted to put up some photos of their stages. They spend a few weeks in charge of these stages, setting up and modifying props, learning to navigate their spaces and execute their blocking. And to different degrees, they become works of art themselves. The Alice In Wonderland scene is the most impressive, of course, but others are thoughtfully laid out and harmoniously composed. I like that you come to have a similar experience on a virtual stage as I imagine you do on a real one. The cast rehearses and pushes together towards the final performance, and when the show is done, everything is taken down and the stage becomes empty and bare, waiting for the next dramatic cycle.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Super Cricket IR Distance Sensor

Gleason Research released a new sensor to use with their Super Cricket microcontroller. It's an infrared distance sensor, which got me excited thinking we can start doing with the crickets what my younger students have been doing with NXT robots. When I tested them out I found that rather than outputting the actual distance reading, the sensor sends the microcontroller data similar to that of other cricket sensors--that is, a number from 0 to 255 that is inversely related to the intensity of environmental variable. So as the photocell sensor returns a higher number for lower light levels and a lower number for higher light levels, the distance sensor returns a higher number for close distances and lower for greater distances. You could work out some data points and calibrate the sensor that way for use in a conditional statement, but it would be nicer to have it return an actual distance. With the aid of this website, I was able to figure out a conversion formula that takes the raw data and outputs something close to actual centimeters. I used the formula given on the website but had to divide the result by 2. Its range is about 8 - 50 cm and it's more accurate from 8 - 15, becoming progressively wider than actual centimeters until up around 50 cm it's about 5 cm too wide. There is probably some fiddling I could do with the formula to lessen the slope a bit but for our purposes--making a functional educational robot--it should work well enough.

So here's a test program I put together:

global [distance]
to convert
     setdistance ((2914 / (sensora + 5) - 1) / 2)
to main
     display distance 
     wait 2]
This will display the sensor data, converted to cm, on an LED display.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Exciting Developments with Microsoft Kinect

I'm much more excited about what people are doing with Kinect than what Kinect is made to do out of the box, no matter how Microsoft feels about it. There are some great developments, and so quickly!

And to think after I showed my students a couple early hacks they wondered why you would want to do that...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Action! Our School's First Live Virtual Performance

Our K-12 school was immersed for a week in activities revolving around Sophocles' Antigone with loads of exciting projects across the entire curriculum. But Antigone is not for the little ones, so the drama teacher and I cooked up a virtual performance in the style of Ancient Greek theater that would give the elementary students an idea of what it looked and felt like. The drama teacher had five students in grades 10-12 rehearse an adapted Aesop's Fable, The Frogs Desiring A King, and perform it in our standalone sim. Over the summer, I made a replica of the Theatre of Dionysus and some basic clothing. So the show took place at the foot of the Acropolis, upon which The Parthenon was being built by other students! How cool is that! I had to figure out some fun solutions to theatrical problems, like the giant log, which is rezzed from a button at the top of the stage. The stairs that appear briefly are actually rezzed by the log and help the actors get on the log more easily. Voice chat is provided by FreeSWITCH and the recording was made with Fraps in the Imprudence viewer.

As it happened scheduling conflicts resulted in the students having only three 40 minute classes to go from zero to showtime. They had never set foot in a virtual world, much less get an avatar to act, so I think they did a terrific job considering. And one fell ill so the drama teacher had to step in to play Jupiter. Ah, show biz. The little kids loved the show and I think had an experience of Ancient Greek theater that was in some ways closer to the original than the rest of the school. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Avatar Costume Design Noob

I just finished my most developed avatar costume for a character in our 8th grade drama project. I know it's really elementary and clunky but it works well enough for the audience, which will be medium range back. If anyone has suggestions for ways to make attachments that aren't too time consuming, I'm interested. I know better methods have something to do with 'mesh' but haven't had time to investigate.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Random chatting

Omegle is a website for having text or webcam chats with random people. Though it is simply a website for chatting I have to believe it is a game for reasons I will explain. My 7th grade students just told me about this during a class in which they have been working on making posters about internet safety to put up around our school. The website has as its motto "Talk to Strangers" and the statement "Chats are completely anonymous, although there is nothing to stop you from revealing personal details if you would like," both of which are behaviors my students are fully aware should be avoided. But as they showed me the website they were clearly excited and having a great time trying it out to see what happens. The most important reason I want this to be a game is that it is a medium for kids to do something their parents are always telling them not to do. My first thought was that it makes the concept of strangers meaningless to them by reducing them to harmless sources of funny conversations. After a lot of exposure to this stuff will they start thinking of strangers on the street as random people to play around with, flirt with, have a crazy wacky time with? But if they treat it as a game by just playing with it or seeing how long they can maintain a chat before the stranger leaves or seeing how many strangers they can surprise or whatever goal makes it fun for them, then they are participating in an activity with its own set of rules that is apart from reality and strangers will still be strangers, to be wary and suspicious of, in real life. That is my hope, and theories about games should bear it out. Of course, there are many reasons for them to avoid this type of activity online at this website and the hundreds of others like it, such as chatroulette, even if they do treat it as a game. An informal study on techcrunch found that 1 in 8 video chats on chatroulette had content that was not suitable for children. The same study found that a little hacking can determine the IP address of the chat partner, giving at least a general idea of your physical location.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Collaboration

I tend to assume collaboration with technology is great for education. There are so many excellent tools out now that enable students to build things like stories, presentations, and concept webs together, in the process learning how to listen to each other, communicate effectively, and use the affordances of the tool to reach their goal. Google Docs, Webspiration, Voicethread, and Etherpad (one of its many manifestations is linked below) are all examples of these. I've used a couple of tools recently that highlighted the limits of collaborative environments, however, and the experience helps underscore a couple of good principles to work from when setting up a collaborative learning activity. When I worked with 8/9th graders in building The Parthenon with OpenSim the project went really well until the last session. There were just two specific tasks to accomplish--placing a few more ceiling pieces and lining the rest up better and doing the same with some columns in the chamber of Athena--and students were concentrating on doing them well, knowing that the appearance of the final product was up to them. But they kept running up against the problem of two people moving pieces around at the same time. Interestingly, there is nothing built in to OpenSim to prevent multiple people from editing the same prim. Because they were moving them into place based on their perspective, both were often trying to move them into different positions, undermining each others' efforts. The problem came down to there not really being enough for everyone to do.

Etherpad (great version at collaborators and no registration) is another wonderful tool for collaboration that I've been using with great success in my robotics class as a way for pairs of students to document project descriptions, plans, pseudo-code, and program versions that allows me to see who is contributing what. But before I start students using it I open it up as a sandbox activity for everyone to try for a bit and get their desire to play with it out of their system. It always ends up freaking them out a bit, because with a blank page and 18 students trying to type at once no one can get anything done. For this reason, when an English teacher asked if she could have her class use it to collaborate on a sort of fan fiction activity, I cautioned against her just tossing them in there simultaneously to start writing. They would just get in each others' way. I suggested small groups take turns working on it while the rest are doing something else, or somehow starting with a big chunk of text already there so they would be less likely to undermine each others' work.

So the principles I can think of that help manage collaboration with these robust tools are 1) make sure there is enough meaningful work for everyone to do, and 2) provide systems and procedures to ensure no one is duplicating efforts of anyone else.