THE BIG-BRAINED SUPERHEROES CLUB
Digital Logic at the Side of the Everlasting Why…

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After meeting some folks from San Francisco’s Tinkering Studio here in Seattle, we sent them either a present or a curse (we’re not sure which). We sent them a package containing instructions and all the parts to build three of our digital logic boxes. Poor Ryan apparently selected the short straw

Building the kit was a good experience, but for me I wanted to mess around with something more basic and easier to understand. I looked up logic gates in Forrest M. Mims III circuit guide books and found a simple diagram of the “and” and “or” switches. I used two momentary switches and constructed two circuit board blocks that could be combined with the rest of the set. However, I am still a little unsure of the “why” behind doing this activity. While programing and systems thinking are interesting topics, I wonder what the intrinsic motivation for people to play with them could be.

Ryan is exactly right. And here is our explanation(ish):

While we recognize that systems and computational thinking may or may not be interesting in themselves, we see them as potentially valuable tools to help us think about our own thinking. All the complex ‘thinking’ computers do can be broken down into a long series of very simple binary ‘decisions’, which are basic rules (logic) governing inputs and outputs. Understanding those rules helps us understand how computers ‘think’, and understanding how computers ‘think’ can help us better articulate (in every sense of the word) our own complex thinking. Essentially, the computer-as-series-of-logic-gates serves a metaphorical function. Just as the chain reaction machine might.

For us, the purpose of putting the logic gate into a black box (of sorts) was to create a puzzle. You know that inside this box is an AND, OR, or NOT gate, and your job is to figure out which one it is. In that sense, the motivation behind the activity is simply problem-solving and is not much different from that which motivates us to solve any other simple puzzle. The tool we offer to do this—the truth table—is simply a way to document the problem-solving process. All that said, we are working to make the problem-solving portion (including the truth tabling) more inherently fun. We want to keep the language (‘input’s, ‘output’s, ‘1’s, ‘0’s, etc) because we think doing so will help provide a foundation for those who want to learn more about computers. But we want to make it more tactile, if possible.

Once we get the basics of how to figure out which gate is inside which box, our next challenge is to connect the gates together to see if we can predict what the output would be, given our inputs. For instance, when we connected the AND and NOT gates together (essentially creating a NAND) at GeekGirlCon this weekend, we asked participants whether they thought the output light of the NOT gate would be on or off if we turned on both AND inputs (for instance). At that point, we’re increasing the complexity of the puzzle a bit—we’re creating a hypothesis and connecting that hypothesis to specific conditions. After they articulated a hypothesis, they then tested it. And if their hypothesis was incorrect, they would then go back and figure out exactly where their thinking had gotten off-track.

Eventually, we want to create an obstacle course (of sorts), where we have an end goal (such as, turn output ON) and certain requirements (such as, use at least 2 logic gates) and see what we can get out of it. We also want to combine our digital logic activity with our binary counting activity to see if we can create and interpret the output of a single bit adder. By using the language and rules of digital logic, we are simply adding a bit of structure to a seemingly complex problem-solving process. Once we have the method down, we think it can be highly portable to a variety of challenges and easily built upon. That’s the goal, anyway.

The broader point is that we have a tough time articulating the answer to a question that our Big Brains ask all the time (when they’re doing their math homework, for instance): “Why?”. It’s important for us to have a ‘why’ for everything we do and everything we ask our Big Brains to do, and yet, it’s incredibly challenging to make that ‘why’ clear throughout the process. Especially when the task is foreign or complex, if our Big Brains can’t connect it to something they already understand, the experience or knowledge they gain from it is not going to stay with them for very long. Articulating the ‘why’ is probably the toughest aspect of instructional design and also the most essential to get right. Which means we have much more work to do.

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Many thanks to Team Apptio for helping to nerd up our lair for this year’s United Way Day of Caring.

Many thanks to Team Apptio for helping to nerd up our lair for this year’s United Way Day of Caring.

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BBSC Electronics and Digital Logic

Brains building brains in the latest BRAINSTORM e-zine! Thanks to the City of Seattle, SparkFun, and so many others for helping build our lab!

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"As the kiddos go back to school, knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math are certainly important, but their imagination, creativity and how they interact with others is critical."

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Would you like schematics for our Big Brain Logic Boxes? Of course you would! (Click on the link above to get them.)

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If you’ve been checking out our Facebook page, you know that our Big-Brained Superheroes helped Yesler Community Center’s Back-to-School event attendees learn about logic gates and create illuminated notebooks. And if you were at The Museum of Flight’s STEM Back-to-School weekend, you probably saw BBSC volunteers there doing same. In short, we’ve had an insanely nerdy week, and our schedules just keep getting nerdier. None of which would be possible without these exceptional sponsors:
guided: Generous donors of such amazing recycled notebooks!
Brown Paper Tickets: Batteries and LEDs and Maker Advocate Tamara’s time, oh my!
The City of Seattle: The sponsors of our digital logic project that keeps us off the streets!
Sparkfun: Also sparking so much digital logic fun!
And, as always, Somali Community Services and Yesler Community Center, who keep the lights on for us!
Kindness. So much Kindness everywhere. All for the cause of hacking brains and school supplies alike. Thank you so much, Team Big-Brained Superhero!

If you’ve been checking out our Facebook page, you know that our Big-Brained Superheroes helped Yesler Community Center’s Back-to-School event attendees learn about logic gates and create illuminated notebooks. And if you were at The Museum of Flight’s STEM Back-to-School weekend, you probably saw BBSC volunteers there doing same. In short, we’ve had an insanely nerdy week, and our schedules just keep getting nerdier. None of which would be possible without these exceptional sponsors:

  • guided: Generous donors of such amazing recycled notebooks!
  • Brown Paper Tickets: Batteries and LEDs and Maker Advocate Tamara’s time, oh my!
  • The City of Seattle: The sponsors of our digital logic project that keeps us off the streets!
  • Sparkfun: Also sparking so much digital logic fun!
  • And, as always, Somali Community Services and Yesler Community Center, who keep the lights on for us!

Kindness. So much Kindness everywhere. All for the cause of hacking brains and school supplies alike. Thank you so much, Team Big-Brained Superhero!

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Debunking a Superpower Myth

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When we talk about what we do in The BBSC, we sometimes hear, “That’s great that you’re teaching kids Persistence (or Willpower or [insert superpower here])”. We appreciate where this comment comes from, but for a whole variety of reasons, it’s important for us to debunk this myth. We aren’t actually teaching kids these superpowers, and this fact highlights a core precept of Big-Brained Superherodom:

All these superpowers are integral to all Big-Brained Superheroes. And Big-Brained Superheroes simply must exercise their superpowers at some point (they can’t not).

Anyone who has ever watched BBSes play an online video game, for instance, has seen that they already have Persistence (and Willpower and [insert superpower here]). And it’s at least partially their need to exercise those superpowers that compels them to play in the first place.

What we in The BBSC are trying to do is decontextualize these extremely valuable abilities so that we can help isolate them, strengthen them, and prepare our BBSes to intentionally apply them to a variety of contexts. Why is it important for us sidekicks to see superpowers and our goals for them in this way?

  1. Efficiency: We don’t have to be playing basketball to talk about Teamwork and Leadership. And we don’t have to be drawing a picture to talk about Creativity and Sense of Adventure. All of our actions are composed of superpowers, and it’s our job to see these abilities, value them, and reward (or possibly redirect) their use at every opportunity.
  2. Efficacy: When BBSes get off track, it’s important for us to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem as accurately as possible in order to help remedy the situation. Our experience has indicated that BBS challenges are almost always related to either conflicted motivations or any number of various incorrect preconceptions. Lack of ability has yet to be a significant hindrance for any BBS we’ve encountered so far, so misattributing problems to that would hinder our success as sidekicks.

In short, we sidekicks are not teachers. If anything, we’re little more than motivators, facilitators, and sometimes explicators. We all bring our superpowers, and we all help each other exercise them. And while the way we construct—and deconstruct—this process does have its challenges (and yes, even its flaws), it’s the best method we’ve found so far for breaking through barriers and getting down to business tapping into hidden strengths.

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This Adventure Made Possible By…

When a young Big-Brained Superhero decided she wanted to go on an adventure in the halls of Yesler Community Center, we knew just who to call. The front desk and administrative staff are frequently the unsung Big-Brained Superheroes of the center. Rather than drawing strict lines around their pre-conceived roles and responsibilities, they’re often looking for ways to exercise their Kindness and Teamwork superpowers on behalf of the community. In this case, when we brought out some cardboard and paper plates, staff member Kris was more than ready to get to work making this adventure possible.

How do you measure the value of this kind of support? How do you measure the power of being able to realize your big idea for a Saturday afternoon adventure within the relative safety of your own little community?

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Systems Thanking

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You’ve probably heard by now that, over the weekend, The BBSC hosted our first ever community-building event. There are so many contributors to this event worthy of recognition that it’s almost impossible to name them all. Nonetheless, we’re going to try. And, because we’re big-brained superheroes, we’re going to try hard.

First, our corporate and non-profit sponsors.

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Look at just some of what these folks contributed!

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And the sponsors are…

-> Judkins St. Cafe
-> Somali Community Services of Seattle
-> 4 Fun Dog Training
-> ITSPHUN
-> Ada’s Technical Books
-> GeekGirlCon
-> Seattle Bouldering Project
-> Cellar Door Mercantile
-> SparkFun
-> Elliott Bay Books
-> Renton Computers
-> Lisa Arnold Consulting.

Whew! That’s a lot of love! And we’re not even done yet. Next up, the people who devoted their time and energy (and often money) to making this event a success:

-> Danielle Henderson—our amazing emcee
-> Volunteers from Judkins St. Cafe (including Ed the printer)
-> Volunteers from Somali Community Services
-> The Big-Brained Superheroes who volunteered
-> All the event attendees (aka the adventurers)
-> All the folks who couldn’t make it but bought tickets anyway!

Whew! That’s a lot more love! And yet there’s still more. The BBSC is big on making the invisible visible. And doing so means that, while we might not go all the way to back to Nikola Tesla and Charles Babbage, we still have a lot of thanking to do.

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For instance, our digital logic and circuit board activities wouldn’t exist without:

-> All the Big-Brained Superhackers
-> The City of Seattle Technology Matching Fund (including taxpayers like you!)
-> Somali Community Services (again)
-> Xbot Robotics
-> Sparkfun (again)
-> The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio where we got the great circuit board platform idea
-> And even the folks at REStore who cut our wood for us.

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Plus, there are those who contribute the basic stuff that rarely gets the love and attention it deserves, such as:

-> Yesler Community Center—where we hold our meetings and build much of our cool stuff
-> Julianna from SPACE who so long ago donated the paper products we’re still using today
-> And all the Big-Brained Superhero volunteers (past and present) and friends who are often thinking of us and joining in to lend many hands when needed most.

And the list goes on…

What we’re getting at is that, while we Big-Brained Superheroes work incredibly hard every day to make cool things happen, we recognize that we’re just a tiny pale blue dot in a vast universe of amazingness that expands around us all the time. Stepping back and appreciating this universe every so often underscores our responsibility to deal kindly with each other and to preserve and cherish our own place in it.

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A Special Delivery
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