Tinkering with Arduino: From Playing with Sensors to Making a Skiing Penguin


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In July, we hosted Sarah Costello from San Francisco Day School as a Teacher-in-Residence. For one week, Sarah worked with us on light play in the Tinkering Studio and preparing for the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard. She also brought Hummingbird Robotics for us to try. With a similar programming environment to Scratch, Hummingbird kits allow users to create and build robots from electronics components and craft materials. As a team, Sarah prompted us to create a robot petting zoo and we would construct interactive animals with built-in sensors, LEDs, and motors.

A few weeks later, Sebastian and I uncovered our partially built animal. I was particularly driven to make a finished animal, which is how the skiing penguin was born. But how did we get there?

Hummingbird Robotics Challenges

Uncertainty with Sensors
We spent time troubleshooting the light levels of the light sensor and what was considered "dark" and "light." We found this process very finicky, and resorted to resetting the numerical threshold values of sensor multiple times. However, through the process of trial and error, our understanding of the sensor increased and we were able to have a dialogue about what values made sense, and how the values aligned with our vision for the project.

Motor Motion and Tethered Wires
We incorporated movement into our skiing penguin, but found that there was not a lot of motion from the motor. Also, the wires of the electronics components made it difficult for our penguin to ski, and could make other moving petting zoo animals challenging.

Adding Value and Overall Satisfaction
We both discovered that our tinkering styles are quite different and we mutually benefitted from the differences in our approaches. I found the process of building toward something - a skiing penguin - to be a motivating and fulfilling experience. I felt very satisfied when we had a working animal, and found a natural stopping point after we had a video of the penguin in motion. For Sebastian, the exploration wasn't very goal driven until the very end, when the skiing penguin idea emerged. The materials we used allowed to quickly change course as the functionality of the sensors and LEDs became more clear. He appreciated how the materials allowed for a process that was flexible enough to change ideas during the process, similar to Lego.

Final Reflections
One of the project takeaways was to support broad exploration and avoid narrowing down the activity goal. In our case, we diverged from "feeding an animal" and instead created a moving toy. This process then sparked the idea of a new activity to make your own mechanical toy. While the tools in the hummingbird kit may or may not be the right fit for this, mechanical toys might be a rich area to explore.

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