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Published January 26, 2016 | Multidisciplinary

Making: Tooling Up to Teach and Collaborate

In the past, the Vitrine Technologie-Éducation has taken an interest in the potential of the Maker movement (Fab Labs) in the CEGEPs. Two projects, one at Collège Bois-de-Boulogne and the other at Champlain Saint-Lambert, were initiated to begin experimenting. Today, two more areas of ‘making’ are garnering more and more interest, namely robotics and programming (the latter brings the former to life). I would argue that both fields can be considered pretexts for developing our reflexes to collaborate and share expertise more with each other.

Robotics For Everyone

Making intelligent objects is now child’s play. Some ingenious objects are being created by young tinkerers who have fun programming commands into a microcontroller (such as the Arduino) or a single-board computer (such as the Raspberry Pi). These devices fit in the palm of your hand, but have impressive capabilities nonetheless. The IT and engineering departments in the CEGEPs have already been using them for all sorts of things for a while now. You can use them to open garage doors or to connect kits of lights, sensors and sounds.  But you can also use them to control servomotors, allowing a drone to take flight or a robot to move around autonomously while avoiding obstacles.

If we add that most of the microcontrollers and single board computers are available for well under $100, we can see why young children and teenagers are lining up to explore science through multidisciplinary projects that draw on computing, electronics, robotics, home automation and other areas, as seen in this video (in French):

Arduino à tout faire” (Arduino does it all - FUTUREMAG – Broadcast on ARTE in December 2014)

Are you obligated to learn the C programming language or Python? Not necessarily. You don’t have to do everything yourself! Draw on the expertise of your colleagues. Take advantage of this opportunity to organize a collaborative project.

Robotics and Collaboration

The project created by Myrijam Stoetzer (14 years old) and Paul Foltin (15 years) is a perfect example of the way robotics and collaboration go hand in hand. These two young Germans decided to develop a prototype for an electric wheelchair that is controlled by eye movement. Up until that point, they were happy just building robots with first generation Lego Mindstorm bricks (NXT). The idea came to them when they were looking for a joint project to build for their robotics club. From one competition to the next, their work was such a success that they earned the top honours for the Jugend forscht competition (Youth research), which was presided by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Diriger un fauteuil roulant par la vue” (Steer an Electric Wheelchair with Your Eye Movements - FUTUREMAG – Broadcast on ARTE, November 2015)

This project, with an overall cost of 200 Euros, only required a Raspberry Pi, an Arduino, a few infrasound detectors, some scripts and a real-time, open source shape detection software (OpenCV).

Faced with their success, the two youngsters insisted upon posting the details of their work on-line (in English), including a list of the components, instructions for their assembly and all the code from their project that was the fruit of their joint efforts. All this so that others might benefit from their work.

This project respects the maker culture tradition in its truest form, as explained in the following interview with Hugues Aubin, the co-founder of the FabLab in Rennes, France.

FabLab, interview with Hugues Aubin (FUTUREMAG – Broadcast on ARTE in May 2014)

According to Hugues Aubin, the planetary FabLab movement can be explained by the democratization of 4 basic "bricks" which, when combined with each other and the Internet, allow people that are not specialists to achieve things that used to be the rarified domain of industrialists and their design engineers.

These 4 technical “bricks” include:

  1. Recreating an object through 3D printing.
  2. Performing laser cutting thanks to design files downloaded from the Internet.
  3. Programming objects thanks to interface boards (such as the Arduino, which makes programming accessible to all).
  4. Documenting the steps so that they can be uploaded to the Internet, which allows others to reproduce these projects and improve upon them.

Robots or Algorithms

While certain camps ironically state that "if you are afraid of robots, all you have to do is keep the door closed," Elisa Braun at the New York Times reports that it’s more the harmful threat of algorithms that we should be worried about. This leads Dominique Cardon, a French sociologist to say that “we need to arm ourselves with a more critical culture towards algorithms" during an interview with Samuel Azoulay. This is all the more true when you consider that not a day goes by without us interacting with one of them (often without us even realizing what an algorithm is)! However, it is important to understand that algorithms "are calculating with intentions" and lead to different visions of society, as Samuel Azoulay reminds us. It’s for this reason that Dominique Cardon is calling on businesses to disclose the purpose of their algorithms.

Teaching Programming in School?

Should we be teaching the rudiments of programming to our students so that they understand algorithms? Some people think so. And in Quebec, certain people are increasingly vocal about this, according to an article that appeared Le Devoir in December of 2015. What place should IT occupy  in educational programs? Others are asking questions about how to increase the interest of girls in technology, a domain that has –up to now – been largely dominated by men. On the fringe of these debates, some extracurricular projects have seen the light of day, including some projects in line with the "Hour of Code" initiative. There are, for example, the projects described by Margarida Romero in her plea to include an introduction to programming in school. For certain people, it is too soon. For others, the technologies are not mature enough. These people are forgetting the wave of robotic turtles that appeared with the LOGO programming language that was introduced in the 1980s, which was widely used in schools around the world. What have we learned from the results? This information is one of the things we will be sure to address in the Vitrine Technologie-Éducation’s next lab, entitled La classe de demain : enseignants, étudiants et robots, which will begin on Wednesday, January 27th 2016 from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. This will be the first of 3 meetings. (Editor’s note: Registration for the event free, but required. See the form at the bottom of the page here).

In this video filmed back in 1972, Seymour Papert speaks about interesting kids in science and math by using robotics during the early years of constructionism and the LOGO language (with the famous robotic turtle).

About the Author

After an initial career as an entrepreneur, then as an IT consultant, Christophe Reverd joined the team at Vitrine technologie-éducation as an ICT Education Advisor. Christophe holds a Master’s degree in IT Governance and completed a “microprogramme” in Pedagogy of Higher Education at the Université de Sherbrooke, where he teaches as a lecturer to IT professionals and graduate students in the Administration and Science Faculties. He is also involved as a board member of the not-for-profit Robotique Zone01 and created the Club Framboise, which brings users of the Raspberry Pi computer from Montreal and surrounding regions together. Follow on: Twitter LinkedIn Facebook

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