Digital Logic at the Side of the Everlasting Why…
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.
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!
Would you like schematics for our Big Brain Logic Boxes? Of course you would! (Click on the link above to get them.)
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!
United We Do!
The profound connections between perspective, process, and possibility were on display during our first ever mini BBSC trip to Seattle’s Mini Maker Faire this year, sponsored by Brown Paper Tickets.
Thanks (once again!) to BPT Maker Advocate, Tamara Clammer, several Big-Brained Superheroes got to do something totally new last weekend. Or, more accurately, we got to do something(s) totally new.
For instance, a few of our BBSes had never before ridden our city’s light rail:
Or ridden the Seattle Center monorail:
Or driven a remote-controlled submarine:
And that was merely the beginning of the boundless process of making our Big-Brained Superhero world just a bit bigger.
Soon, it became time to lay hands on and make.
Simple machines with Xbot:
And simple circuits with Curiosity Hacked:
While the taller BBSes then proceeded to see the world anew through the latest tech:
the shorties split to the Pacific Science Center to embiggen their brains in other ways:
Whew! After a very full day, we returned to Yesler Community Center with heads full of ever-expanding notions of what big brains can do with just a little help from our friends.
Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Code.org’s #HourOfCode
Around this time last year, our young BBSes spent some time developing Codecademy’s web holiday cards. How did it go? Well…it could have gone better. This year, we spent time with Code.org’s Hour of Code. How did it go? Well…aside from a lack of headphones for every BBS coder, it couldn’t have gone better. It went so well that several of our young Big-Brained Superheroes are choosing to go Beyond One Hour. Even without BBS sidekicks around to help them!
And now, for the breakdown. Our BBS population for this exercise was fairly similar to that of last year’s Codecademy exercise, so we’ll skip that explanation and go straight into the review.
- Like last year’s Codecademy exercise, this year’s Code.org Hour of Code is freely available to anyone with a computer and internet access.
- Unlike last year’s Codecademy project-based exercise, this year’s Hour of Code was game-based. This particular game-based approach provided much more method to the madness and enabled a leveling up process that was significantly more logical and predictable than Codecademy’s project-based approach. Coders were more motivated to think problems through, and they seemed to grasp much more programming logic as a result of Hour of Code’s game-based approach.
- The Angry Birds character set is a great example of how broadly inclusive design doesn’t have to be banal or vapid, and the use of Angry Birds in Hour of Code was an obvious draw for our young BBSes.
- The instructional videos were exceptional in that they were explanatory but didn’t give too much away. They were timed well, and the diversity of the instructors was inspiringly inclusive. Apparently, when Chris Bosh speaks, our Big-Brained Superheroes listen. (When they have the technical capability to do so, that is.) And the written instructions that were provided for those without sound capability eliminated a big obstacle for us.
- The completion certificate at the end of the game was a nice reward and motivator for some BBSes.
- Beyond One Hour provides us with a simple way to continue the learning!
The Less Good:
- Once our BBSes got the auditory reward for completing a level, they tended to skim through the text that told them they might have completed the level using fewer lines of code. Making that information more prominent (at least the first time around) would have given them stronger cues that there was more learning to get from the level they just completed.
- Also, it would help if the link to “Show Code” were more obvious or if the lines of code came up automatically in at least one level so coders wouldn’t unintentionally skip over it.
All in all, we are thrilled with how our coding exercise went this year, and we’re continuing to use Code.org in our BBSC meetings. For us, it was not just a method of learning some basic programming logic, but it also served as a welcoming, inclusive invitation to explore the world of computer programming. After completing their Hour of Code, several of our coders went on to build web pages using W3schools:
Or played with Tynker and other code-learning platforms directly available through the Code.org website:
In short, even though our coding exercise this year was not holiday-centric, Code.org’s Hour of Code provided us with some fine holiday (and beyond) fun!
DISCLAIMER: The BBSC is not affiliated with any of the code learning platforms or sites discussed in this post. However, one of our volunteer brain-hackers (Launchpad McD) does work for Facebook, which is somehow involved with Code.org (though we don’t know how, and we didn’t know this before we began exploring Code.org).
Big-Brained Superheroes vs. the Rain
Saturday may have been the rainiest day of the year so far, but that didn’t stop Yesler Terrace from engaging in its bi-annual neighborhood clean-up. From there, ten Big-Brained Superheroes braved even more rain on our walk to our favorite maker space—Jigsaw Renaissance—in Seattle’s International District.
This trip was a reward for a brave young BBS who received the first ever Big-Brained Harry Potter leadership award for defending others against bullying.
Here’s our exceptional BBS Harry Potter Leader working on an electronics project at Jigsaw Renaissance:
Other young Big-Brained Superheroes were fortunate enough to share in the adventure. Happily, Jigsaw Renaissance is more fun than Disneyland.
Here are a few of us working on a robotic arm and a salt water conductivity experiment:
A few young BBSes then expressed their appreciation for BBS Volunteer Mr. Measurement Man via whiteboard:
And also learned a bit of guitar and keyboard:
Much Persistence was exercised in the process of analyzing and deconstructing a broken cell phone:
World Pizza also made a delicious appearance.
Big-Brained Superheroes definitely know how to make the best out of a torrential downpour!
* Thanks to BBS Volunteer, Launchpad McD, for compiling this post! *
Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Winning
What you see here is the screen one of our 4th-grade Big-Brained Superheroes saw after beating DragonBox, the game we began playing during Washington State’s algebra challenge week. One of our favorite aspects of this success is how much exercise our young Big-Brained Superhero’s Persistence superpower got in the process. He faced no small number of challenges and frustrations during the game, but he just kept going. Even though the algebra challenge week had ended, he was determined to keep going until the end. And so he did.
Needless to say, we’re incredibly excited to see him so diligent in his Persistence superpower exercise. He set a goal, and he stuck to it until it was achieved. So, unalloyed success, right? Fourth-grade BBS FTW!
Well, there’s a catch. When our young hero hit the above screen and realized what “endless” meant, he wanted absolutely no part of this game anymore. He was done. Finis. No way was he going to participate in an “endless” journey. No goal—no game. End of story.
And this got us thinking about some of the problems associated with focusing so directly on outcomes. Outcomes are, by nature, limited. And once you reach them, why keep striving? Of what value is process? And can all successes be planned and measured? Not to mention…Sense of Adventure, anyone?
It goes without saying that Persistence is good. Winning is good. Mastering algebra is good. But, as every good superhero adventure series teaches us, the challenges most worthy of our superpowers are those that aren’t, by nature, limited. And those in which our mastery is endlessly questioned.
Big-Brained Superheroes vs. The Babylonians
You’re reading the world’s first Big-Brained Superheroes Club guest blog post! What a pleasure blogging is for me since I started volunteering for this wonderful program over a year ago. Enough about me, and on with the blog posting!
What’s the deal with those darned Babylonians? You see, algebra traces its history to the Babylonians, and the Big Brains have recently been tearing up the Algebra scene at Yesler Community Center.
Yes, Big-Brained Superheroes are learning algebra as early as age 5 thanks, in part, to the Washington State Algebra Challenge. It relies on an online game called DragonBox, which is designed to intuitively teach the mechanics of solving equations algebraic style via game levels involving icons and exploration.
In all seriousness, it took me just as long to figure out the mechanics of the Algebra Challenge games as it did for the young Big Brains. Even longer, in fact, since they taught me how to play. At first, I was a bit perplexed by how it taught Algebra at all, but after playing for a while, the genius behind it became clear. It works by teaching the mechanics in game form and then gradually begins to use the algebra equations we’re accustomed to seeing. By the time you get to the levels containing traditional equations, you’re well-versed in the process of applying the same treatments to both sides of an equation in order to isolate your variables.
Check it out, and get your Algebra on!