Zero to Maker: Project-Based Learning

Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

Prototypes for the OpenROV project that David is involved with

Some advice takes a while to sink in. Sometimes it takes a later moment of realization to bring it full circle, or as I like to call it the “So THAT’S why they told me [Insert Advice]” moment.

I had one of those moments after the Make: SF meetup I wrote about in my last column (where we soldered together the MintyBoost kit). Even though it was a fairly simple kit to assemble, I was able to learn a great deal because I was starting from scratch. I learned simple things like which way to hold the soldering iron and how to clean the tip before soldering — trivial to an experienced maker, but nerve-wracking to the newbie. As important as such subtle learning was, the big lesson didn’t hit me until the following day while I was showing a friend my MintyBoost: the journey from Zero to Maker was going to be primarily-project based. As much as I wanted to learn, I wouldn’t really absorb anything unless I had a project (or series of projects) to center that learning around.

Sounds obvious, maybe, and a number of experienced makers had told me exactly that piece of wisdom. However, when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s tough to have a perspective on what project (or projects) to pick. Even though I fully recognized the importance of such learning, I still need to figure out which projects will suit my skill level. I also wanted to make sure that I have a project goal that’s audacious enough to keep me interested – something that seems out of my league and forces me to push my boundaries.

The way I see it, maker projects can be split into two main categories: Known and Unknown. A Known Project would be something that’s been done before, and fully documented, like assembling a MintyBoost. Known Projects seem ideal for beginners, an opportunity to learn to use new tools while simultaneously building confidence. If it’s a Known Project, all you need are the tools, materials, and instructions to get started. Unknown Projects, on the other hand, lack any instruction manual, and sometimes, even a clear outcome. With Unknown Projects, the challenge of true problem-solving can be both inspiring and engaging (and highly intimidating). Unknown Projects require a different way of design thinking.

Based on those two types of projects and what I hope to learn, I’ve decided that building my own OpenROV will be my audacious goal. Even though I’ve been tagging along with the folks involved in this project for awhile, I have contributed absolutely nothing to the design or production of the prototypes. I want to change that. A good amount of work has been done, but there are still a myriad of design challenges that need addressing. It’s definitely still in the realm of an Unknown Project. The completed aspects of the ROV design will be ideal Known Projects for me to learn new tools and processes from and the outstanding design challenges beyond that will require me to find new solutions and push my creative boundaries.

I’m planning to meet with a “Dream Coach” at TechShop to help flesh out the idea and break the big, unknown project goal into a series of smaller, achievable milestones. I’ll have more on that in a future column. Meanwhile, I’ve started a list of project-idea resources. I’m sure there are numerous others, what am I missing?

Known Project Ideas

Make: Projects – DIY project sites like Make: Projects are a great place to start. There’s everything there: from electronics to crafts, fabrication to food. Each project is categorized, so you can start at an area of interest and work your way down to a specific project you feel comfortable with.

Take a class – The great thing about classes is that, in addition to getting hands-on instruction from an experienced instructor, you’ll be supplied projects that are proven to be well within your skill level. For me, hands-on learning is the only way I’ll ever remember anything. I’m going to be taking classes at TechShop, which is a great option if you’re in the Bay Area. Community colleges are another way to gain the skills you want.

Unknown Project Ideas

Start with a problem – Is there something you want to do, but can’t? A tool you wish you had? Often times, this place of necessity is where the best Unknown Projects spring from. A good example of that would be these Desktop Jellyfish Tanks. Alex wanted his own aquarium for jellyfish, and when he couldn’t find one on the market, he went about building it himself. [Editor's note: Read an interview with Alex Andon, featured in MAKE Volume 27, here.]

Improve upon an existing project or product – Trying to figure out how to do something with less, or modifying a product for your specific needs, can be another great way of developing an Unknown Project. OpenROV is definitely not the first submersible ROV, but our goal is to make it much cheaper and more accessible than commercial versions.

What are your feelings about the best means of project-based learning? What are some other project-based learning resources? Please share in the comments.


Frank Kovac and his Homemade Planetarium

Starting in 1995, Frank Kovac took ten years constructing a mechanical globe planetarium of his own design despite having no prior engineering experience. The Kovac Planetarium in Monico Wisconsin is only the fourth of its kind ever built as well as being the largest in history at 4000 pounds and 22 feet in diameter.

What makes the design special is how it simulates the motion of the stars through the night sky. Traditional planetariums use a centrally located star projector that has full range of motion to manipulate the star field. Kovac’s design moves the entire globe above and around the audience, shifting positions of the thousands of stars he meticulously scribed using glow-in-the-dark paint. [via StoryCorps]

DIY Inflatable Home Planetarium


Adding Bluetooth to a Car Tape Deck

Kevin Roof of Joliet, IL, figured out how to add A2DP Bluetooth to his car’s tape deck.

I’ve always wanted to be able to turn my car on, pull out my cell phone, and just play my music library from there. One device, zero wires, infinite satisfaction. After going through countless tape adapters, I got fed up, and made my dream come true.


Meet the Makers from MAKE Volume 27: Doug Bradbury

Meet Doug Bradbury. In MAKE Volume 27, Doug wrote an article describing how to make a treadmill desk, that is, a desk with a runner’s treadmill below it. The idea is to stay in shape while you work. It turns out that if you set a treadmill to move its belt at 1.5 miles per hour, you can walk and still use your computer and make telephone calls without discomfort. Treadmill desks are an easy way to walk about five miles a day and avoid the mid-afternoon slump that people who work sitting down often experience.

We wanted to get to know Doug a little more, so we asked him a few questions.

Where you live, what you do for a living, and what you are interested in?
I live in Glen Ellyn, IL with my wife Jen. During the day, I take the train into Chicago to write software with a small software consultancy called 8th Light. We write super high-quality software for our clients and have an focus on craftsmanship and learning. We fill our “dojos” with apprentices and teach them how to become professional software developers. Our company is a part of the larger “Software Craftsmanship” movement. I was the primary author of the “Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship,” which has been a unifying document bringing like-minded software companies together. I spoke to this community last fall at the Software Craftsmanship North America Conference in Chicago. My talk was titled “Made to Make” and was about the innate desire that is built in to so many of us to make things, especially software.

One of my biggest hobbies is RC airplanes. I love building them in my basement workshop and flying them in the park across the street or at one of the many local club fields in the area. My favorite modeling subjects are World War II era birds.

I’m also super lucky to have a hackerspace in Glen Ellyn, just down the street. I’m a member of Workshop 88 and enjoy getting involved in their projects. They are a great bunch of people working hard to build a quality hacker-space in the Chicago suburbs.

How did you become interested in making a treadmill desk?
I first became interested in treadmill desks when we were setting up our first office for 8th Light. We aren’t your typical cubefarm kind of environment. We like open spaces for collaboration and each of our offices includes a hammock for solving those particularly difficult problems. We were all trying to stay healthy and an active workstation sounded like a great idea. What we found was too expensive at the time, but later, I was at a Chicago hacker / maker conference called ORDCamp and listen to someone describe how he had strapped a laptop to a treadmill to try out walking and working. That was enough to convince me that I didn’t have to shell out the big bucks, but could make one myself.

I’ve since partnered up with a company to sell lower priced treadmill desks and am currently working on reverse engineering the control interface to these treadmills so that I can build a completely computer-controlled version. I’ll be sharing the results on Walkncode when it’s ready to go.

Tell us about one of your favorite tools
One of my favorite tools is a the Syscomp CircuitGear (CGR-101). It’s an open-source USB oscilloscope/waveform generator/pwm generator/Digital IO/ whatever you want it to be. It is a super affordable way to get what would otherwise be thousands of dollars of equipment.

From the Pages of MAKE

MAKE 27MAKE Volume 27, Robots!
The robots have returned! MAKE Volume 27 features a special package with robotics projects for every age and skill level. They play music; they outwit your pets; they learn from their mistakes! In addition, we’ll show you how to build a special aquarium to keep jellyfish, create pre-Edison incandescent lighting, spy via the internet, and make a go-anywhere digital message board! All this and much, much more, in MAKE Volume 27.

On newsstands now! Buy or Subscribe


Engineer Mods a Kindle for his Sister

Mike at Geek Republic pointed us to this nifty Kindle mod. He writes: “[Glenn] is an electrical engineer whose sister has cerebral palsy. He hacked together a Kindle with a toy eReader so that she can turn the pages and control the Kindle with ease.”

Glenn calls his creation the Frankenkindle.


Vote Now for the 2011 Makeys Winners

We’ve had a great time, this year, seeking out and nominating the most maker-friendly “mainstream” companies to recognize for their outstanding contributions to DIY/DIWO culture. Now, the nominations are closed! The polls are open! Tell your friends, family, and co-workers! Come one, come all, and vote to determine which of our twelve nominees will receive the first ever MAKE Magazine Industry Maker Awards at Maker Faire New York on September 16! The nominees are:

Most Hackable Gadget

Most Repair Friendly

Best Education/Outreach program

Best Product Documentation

You can vote now on the Makeys home page, or at the bottom of this one.

Polls close at 11:59PM PST on September 2, 2011.

Thanks again to all our nominees for going that extra mile. No matter who takes home the trophies, none of them would have been nominated in the first place if they hadn’t already gone above and beyond the norm, in some way, in embracing and inspiring maker culture.

Good luck! See you in New York!


No Heat Lava Lamp – Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show

By Super Awesome Sylvia and her dad, James

Today we’ll show you how to make your own groovy lava lamp, no heat required! All you need are a few things you just might have in your kitchen. Lets go!

For this groovy build, we’ll need:

  • Powdered sodium sicarbonate (baking soda) and powdered citric acid (from the canning section at the grocery store) or, some fizzy antacid tablets [more expensive, but easier to find])
  • Clean empty bottle (plastic or glass)
  • Water based food coloring
  • Vegetable oil (at least as much as your bottle holds)
  • Water
  • Funnel (optional, but really useful)

Subscribe to the MAKE Podcast in iTunes, download the m4v video directly, or watch it on YouTube and Vimeo.

First, take your bottle and fill it with about three centimeters of water (you don’t have to be exact). Then take your funnel and while tipping the bottle, carefully and slowly fill it with oil to just near the top (not too high though), making sure it doesn’t bubble too much. Don’t worry if it mixes a bit, it’ll separate eventually. Oil and water just don’t mix!

So, why don’t oil and water like to mix? Oil and water are made up of molecules, little groups of elements bonded together. Water molecules have one big oxygen atom, and two little hydrogen atoms. These give each side an opposite charge, making it a “polar” molecule. Polar molecules love to stick to other polar molecules. Oil is made up of carbon and cydrogen atoms formed into what are called hydrocarbon chains. The oil molecule’s charge is spread out, so it’s a “non-polar” molecule. Non-polar molecules like to stick to other non-polar molecules (but not as strongly as polar ones).

When a water molecule and a oil molecule come together, oil is what’s called, hydrophobic (it’s scared of water!). Because the oil is non-polar, it has no attraction to the water molecules, and they just don’t stick to each other. Water is also a lot more dense, so the oil sits on top of the water happily.

Back to the build, take your food coloring, and put about four to eight drops in. Watch as the drops fall through the oil as perfect little spheres. As soon as the drops hit the barrier between the oil and the water, they will either sit happily on the water’s surface tension for a bit, or they’ll pop and color the water immediately. If you’re using powdered ingredients, take equal parts of baking soda and citric acid, mix them together, then spoon them into the bottle. If you’re using antacid tablets, break them up a bit, then drop them in. Wow, Look at it go!

The sodium bicarbonate and citric acid only react in the water. As soon as they get there, they let off tons of little carbon dioxide bubbles that each grab their own bubble of colored water as they breach the oil/water barrier on the way up. These “double bubbles” fly up through the oil, then hit the surface, where the CO2 bubble pops, allowing the water drop to fall back down, and the whole cycle begins again. Amazing!

Remember: don’t put a cap on the bottle till the reaction is complete, otherwise pressure will build up and give you a nasty surprise when you open it later. Once it’s done, you can put the lid on and store it for as long as you want, and when you’re ready, just drop in some more fizzy stuff and enjoy the show! As an added bonus you can also put a light underneath, add some sparkles, or anything else that’s fun and buoyant.

That’s all we’ve got for this episode, remember to experiment with different colors and baking soda/citric acid mix ratios, show your friends, and get out there and MAKE something!

Check out more episodes of Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show.


D.I.Y. Flame Tree: Brett Levine (video)

Brett Levine has been fascinated by fire since he was a boy, coming close to setting his house on fire several times during his learning process. His latest creation, the DIY Flame Tree, is a freeform construction of copper tubing with gaseous vents that can be lit for visual effect. Maker Faire Bay Area 2011 participants were invited to created their own additions to the work and then stand behind the fence to watch the pyrotechnic results of their labors.

Subscribe to the MAKE Podcast in iTunes, download the m4v video directly, or watch it on YouTube and Vimeo.

Check out more videos from Maker Faire Bay Area 2011.



Building your own Fritzing components

Bertrand Le Roy, who worked with Fabien Royer on the Netduino-Powered Game Console, has written up a detailed tutorial on creating your own components for Fritzing, an open source design tool for interactive electronics:

This is me shaving a yak. Shaving the yak, if you don’t know, is what you do when a seemingly simple task necessitates many recursive and unforeseen sub-tasks in order to be carried out.

Today’s metaphorical yak is the representation in Fritzing of a $0.95 part, a knob potentiometer. Fritzing is a wonderful Open Source tool for designing electronic circuits. Its only shortcoming is that its library of components is not yet complete enough that it can be used to design all circuits. In my case, it’s lacking the SD card reader that I’m using, analog sticks and… this small $0.95 potentiometer. Well, in fact, for the potentiometer, I could have easily used one of the stock components from Fritzing that is close enough, but for my first component design, I wanted to start with a fairly simple part so I went ahead with it anyways, with the hope of having a better fit in the end.

Building a simple Fritzing component


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