Robot butterflies – a cautionary tale

Blc-Q2YCYAAMDyGIn his wonderful magical realism book One hundred years of solitude the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a scene in which a young girl is surrounded by a cloud of butterflies fluttering around her. She is unafraid and entranced. article-2242598-1653D728000005DC-606_964x577Now imagine that the beautiful robot butterflies designed and made by Festo could be programmed to behave like this, fluttering around in such a way as to transport any human they surround to what might be described as a magical place. How marvellous would that be? Robotic-Butterfly-by-Festo-2You might even imagine that a literary young person who was studying D&T via the OCR GCSE specification might conceive of this as a possible solution to OCR’s exemplar contextual challenge of enhancing users’ experiences of public spaces. What a creative response! And by making contact with Festo the student might even be able to collaborate with their engineers in producing a prototype cloud of butterflies for deployment in a public place such as a park. But what of unintended consequences? Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, has written a series of very engaging short stories in his book Robot Futures. They are all edifying with regard to the impact beyond intended benefit of robots in our society. In the story Robot Smog robot butterflies have been deployed in society for just this magical realism purpose but … the way the robot butterflies interact with humans is through eye contact. If you look at one or more of them they will flutter around your head making eye contact. And there is no off switch. They are powered via sunlight. When it gets dark they simply fall to the ground. Once the sun comes up they flutter off again seeking eye contact with humans. This has led to a situation where people walking in the park are afraid to look up and have taken to wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact. I leave you to read about what else happens. So as with all things technological we need to be mindful of unintended consequences and ‘be careful what we wish for’. In my view Illah’s book would make excellent reading for Year 11 and above. I wonder how often we use these sorts of science fiction short stories to engage our students with the possible downsides as well as upsides of technology?

As always comments welcome


And now this – cyborg dragonflies produced by genetic engineering to act as drones – not exactly biomimicry more bio combination!


Build, Use, Damage, Mend and Adapt – an approach to learning through and about drones

A guest post by Ed Charlwood

What follows describes the work I’ve been doing in school that has led to me to set up a new Drones in Schools Google+ community for teachers.

A convergence of influences

As with much curriculum development, serendipity did its job at the outset of this endeavour, bringing together the opportunities offered by (1) the new GCSE and A Level specifications and their broader content requirements, (2) a growing dissatisfaction with a certain high-profile external “design / engineering” competition that really requires very little design and (3) the discovery of a very interesting little kit. Firstly, the long-awaited publication of the new GCSE and A Level specifications really was a wake up call that we could not continue to plough the same RM / Product Design furrow at either qualification level. I felt it important to embrace the specification in its entirety and that meant that at Latymer we would have to teach areas that were less familiar i.e. Systems and Control and Textiles. It also meant that we could fully embrace previously fringe areas that we had been pushing at for a few years but had been confined by old assessment criteria, namely the use of CAD, CAM and the circular economy. Secondly, I have seen our students be equally engaged and frustrated with external engineering competitions, they promised a glimpse into the competitive world of high level engineering but actually offered little real decision making, restrictive and difficult manufacturing processes and actually required a lot of luck and frivolous administration. I won’t name names. Lastly I came across a $99 / £78 kit from Flexbot, offering a 3D printable drone and the promise of an open source kit. A quick PayPal purchase later and I was the proud owner of a Flexbot Quadcopter (4 rotors), cleverly packaged, with a comprehensive and appropriate information booklet and a product that worked pretty much straight out for the box and could fly via an iPhone app. Bingo.

Drones are a great ‘hook’ for learning

Drones are popular in the media, comprehensible to most people and on a steep curve of becoming demonstrably better and cheaper at the same time. Currently they have the elusive “engagement factor” and this provides a ‘hook’ making them intrinsically attractive to students. Such a hook is, in my experience, vital. It is important to note that we are not coding experts, nor are we overly interested in programming. But we are interested in using electronics to do stuff. And it is here that the Flexbot Quadcopter meets our teaching intentions.

Our approach

Under the guidance of my colleague Nick Creak we handed the kit over to our students. They assembled the drone without difficulty. Then they had a play, crashed it and naturally broke it. They took the kit apart and made some key measurements, download CAD files from the Flexbot Wiki (SketchUp) and Thingiverse (.stl) and printed a replacement for the part for the one they broke. They then began to explore the files and started to design their own drone. Initially they did this by pretty much by simplifying and copying the existing design, a useful process in its own right to develop CAD techniques and collaborative skills.

A 3D printed Flexbot part

We then printed their chassis designs and used the slicing software to investigate various manufacturing options:

  • How long would the print take if it was “ultimate” or “low” quality?
  • What would happen if it had a low / medium / dense fill?
  • What were the implications of the design being aligned differently?

On average a “normal quality” high density print would take 2 hours. The booklet provided by Flexbot also has some interesting text comparing the economics of 3D printed manufacturing vs mass production techniques like injection moulding.

Students then could begin to design “iteratively” – a new key concept in the OCR interpretation of the new specifications.

“Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made.”

We also offered a number of design challenges: design a modular drone, alter your design to use as little filament as possible (make it cheap!) or to print as quickly as possible, design your drone to use a standard component – in our case this was a Lego axle.

Flexbot parts

The Flexbot circuit is robust enough to be shared between students and the batteries, propellers and motors are cheap enough to buy in bulk. If you do not have a 3D printer, jobs can be specified, costed and outsourced to a 3D print hub. The simulator (which is available once you have started the process of uploading parts for hub to print) shows it would cost approximately £6 for a basic chassis made from PLA by Fused Deposition Modelling. Some hubs even offer 25% student discount and most do almost next day delivery.

We additionally posed a number of extensions questions to our students, each eliciting a different design outcome: What is the effect of changing the alignment of the rotors? How big/small can the drone be? How much weight can it pick up?


Design Decisions Pentagon

David Barlex has produced a design decision pentagon to describe the decisions that students might make when they are designing and making. So I was intrigued to use this to explore the decisions that our students were making.

Clearly they weren’t making any big conceptual decisions – the sort of product had already been decided – a quadcopter drone. The technical decisions in terms of how it would work had also been decided – four electric motors linked to flexbot circuit, controlled by the Bingo app. But there were lots of possibilities in the constructional decision-making.

Not 90°!

One student changed the alignment of the motors so that they were no longer at 90o to one another which made the drone faster but harder to control. And I suppose you could argue that this constructional change did in fact change the way the drone worked. A key feature of the pentagon is that the design decisions featured at each of the vertices aren’t independent of one another hence the lines between the vertices.

Interference fit

Another student responded to the modular challenge producing a design with four separate arms held tightly by an interference fit to the central node, taking advantage of the high degree of dimensional accuracy of additive manufacture. This required investigation and was in itself was a valuable learning experience.

Clearly it’s possible to set particular design challenges around constructional decisions e.g. making it more crash worthy.

Aesthetic decisions could also be made. Indeed changing the alignment of the motors could be seen as an aesthetic as well as a constructional decision. Devising light-weight covers that can be 3D printed or perhaps produced from nets that have been laser cut from thin sheet plastic might give the drone different ‘personalities’ and this may be seen as a marketing decision, changing the appearance to have appeal to different users. Marketing decisions can also be made with regard to how the drone gets to market – via a kit in a shop or on line, or via digital files for home or hub manufacture in collaboration with a circuit board/electrical motor supplier, related to this, deciding whether the product is open source or not is also a marketing decision. And just who the drone is for will make a big difference to what it might look like and additional features. And taking a step back how will the design decisions overall be affected by requiring drones to be part of a circular economy?

There is, of course, a “purer” engineering challenge, to design and make racing drones, where there are already a number of competitions with related rules and constraints.

The next area for us to consider is that of the consequences of drone technology, and its close cousin the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) many of which have some more sinister applications; bombing, surveillance and smuggling as a counterbalance to the positive aspects; photography, delivery, surveying etc… each is a rich seam for discussion as well as the wider issues of automation, disruptive technologies generally or government regulation and control.

Far from this being a proprietary endeavour I want this to be a collaborative, open source one, so I invite you to join the Drones in Schools Google+ community to share your experiences, ideas and resources or add your comments to this post.

Ed Charlwood headshotEd Charlwood

Head of Design & Director of Digital Learning at Latymer Upper School, London

I am a passionate advocate of Design education who believes in the power of learning through analysis, designing and making. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator (class of 2013), a Google Certified Teacher (class of 2015) and the DATA Outstanding Newcomer to Design and Technology Award winner (2008), a particular focus of my work is to exemplify the notion that innovative and appropriate use of technology can redefine the traditional teacher-learner relationship and transform educational designing and making experiences. My vision is to inspire and empower students to make the things they imagine.

Three cheers for Amanda Spielman!


It was with a heavy heart that I read the opening paragraph of the Summer 2017 Editorial of Designing

As design and technology specialists we all know that good quality design, engineering and technology education is an essential part of any government’s economic programme. We also know that design and technology is a place in the curriculum where young people can develop the skills, attitudes and values employers are looking for, that contribute to the economy and the making of a better society and that are in increasingly short supply.

We have been banging the economic utility of the subject drum for the past 25 years and it has done us precious little good. Of course some of the young people who study d&t will go on to work in design/technology based careers to their own benefit and that of the country. But as a percentage of the cohort that will always be low, no more than, say, 10% at the most and if we see d&t as a subject for all young people whatever their career intention it is important that we offer up and subscribe to other reasons e.g. A personal argument (learning useful skills) a social argument (being able to understand and contribute to the debates surrounding the deployment of design and technology) and a cultural argument (appreciating the contribution of design & technology to our society in the past, now and in the future). There is little economic rational for the teaching of history or geography yet teachers of these subjects have little difficulty in justifying their inclusion in the curriculum and they are held in high esteem. And whilst studying science is seen as a key school subject with regard to the nation’s economic success science teachers do not rely on this argument as the justification of science for all – quite the reverse.

s216_Amanda_Spielman__1_So thank heavens for Amanda Spielman who in her speech Continue reading

Are girls interested in technology?

A guest post by Ulrika Sultan

[A note from Torben: Today, 23 June, is International Women in Engineering Day. Marianne Culver (President, RS Components) says Let’s inspire more young women to fall in love with engineering.]

ITU Special Envoy for Women & Girls In ICT, Geena Davis with a young inventor at World Maker Faire, New York, 22 September 2013.

There are conditions in society that influence girls from an early age with specific attitudes and roles that hinder them. Feminists scholars of technology (e.g Harding 1986, Cockburn & Ormrod 1993) argue that everyday discourses of technology cultivate a prominent factor that effect stereotyping and gender norms in a negative form, promoting stereotyping in the field of technology. Other factors, including lack of confidence, lack of support at home, lack of encouragement in the classroom and lack of support from peers and other authority figures, can explain why so few girls pursue a career in technology. Studies have also revealed that ineffective teaching methodologies may favour boys over girls. These norms fuel ideas of what technological agency is and what ”technological” looks like. These discourses can disguise girls’ engagement and interest in technology. Maybe there needs to be a significant cultural change.

In my research, I want to test the dominant discourses around girls as not interested of technology. Are girls seen as beings that have to become interested in technology or as beings that are interested in technology already? Are girls constructed to be beings not interested in technology? Are there unconscious or conscious attitudes that declare girls as less able than boys and therefore, leading to differences in teaching and/or encouragement. Is there a problem with the concept of technology in technology education? Many questions appear when reading others’ research in the field.

Sylvia Todd: Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show – TEDxSanDiego 2013

The overall hypothesis in my research is that girls are interested in technology. Technofeminism is my theoretical lens. A technofeministic view of the learner regards the learner as a part of socially situated learning, constructed by society’s views on the learner. I don’t want to link the social construction of gender to the social construction of the user of technology. I’m merely interested to see if there is a construction of girls as beings that are not interested in technology.

I hope that the results of this study-to-be can generate new understandings regarding whether girls are constructed as being interested in technology, or described as and looked upon as not interested in technology. This could lead to further questions, such as if there is a problem with the concept of technology and how we teach it in school. If there is a problem with the concept of technology and how we teach it in school this can be seen as highly relevant for the research field of technological education and be seen as a contribution to the competence of the knowledge of teaching technology.

I know that comments are always welcome on this blog so if you are a teacher and have any views on ways to engage girls with technology and or comments about the way girls respond to technology in your school I’d be delighted to hear them.


Harding, S. (1986). The science question in feminism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cockburn, C., & Ormrod, S. (1993). Gender and technology in the making. London: Sage.

Ulrika Sultan

Now a doctoral student in technology education at Linköping University, with special interest in girls engagement in technology. I’m also a lecturer at Orebro university. There I educate preschool and primary teachers-to-be in technology and the natural sciences. My previous experiences include working as a licenced teacher in preschool, preschool class, compulsory school, and the recreation centre. My latest working experience before becoming a graduate was as Head of the municipal engineering school, KomTek.




The Importance of Technological Perspective. Or; It’s no longer OK not to understand how the Internet works.

We’ve mentioned a few times, often in the context of our Disruptive Technologies work, how important we believe it is that a part of the work of D&T in schools should be to enable young people to gain ‘Technological Perspective’. David has described this as:

(that) which provides insight into ‘how technology works’, informing a constructively critical view of technology, avoiding alienation from our technologically-based society and enabling consideration of how technology might be used to provide products and systems that help create the sort of society in which young people wish to live.

Events following the awful attacks, first in Manchester and then in London last Saturday night, have brought home to me just how important this is, as these young people will be the future decision-makers and leaders of our society – and they simply must be equipped to do a better job than our current leaders.

I’m sure you’ll have seen that, in response to the attacks, there has (once again) been an attempt to blame the Internet and a call from Theresa May for the ending of ‘safe spaces’ for terrorists on the Internet. Given that this was a thrust of government policy before the attack, it’s hard not to see this as an opportunistic attempt to shore up that policy, but perhaps now is not the time for cynicism.

It is however the time for a clear-eyed analysis of what it would mean to end safe spaces on the internet. In case you are tempted to think that that sounds a pretty good idea, I offer you three articles that explain why it’s not just a very poor idea but in fact a rather meaningless idea – all written by people who are far more articulate on this than I can be.

The first, from The Guardian’s Charles Arthur, is ‘Blame the internet’ is just not a good enough response, Theresa May; at bottom Arthur’s argument is that banning technology is not a substitute for clear-headed policy and political action. He points out that, in the 1970’s, Northern Ireland’s terrorists got on just fine organising their plots using the ordinary telephone service (since neither mobile phones nor the internet were then available) and no-one was suggesting that in response all phone calls should be monitored. Presumably if that had happened they would simply have used other communication methods (dead-letter drops?).

Arthur notes the dystopian implications of the suggestion by John Mann (MP for Bassetlaw), who said: “I repeat, yet again, my call for the internet companies who terrorists have again used to communicate to be held legally liable for content.”, and says;

The authoritarian sweep of Mann’s idea is chilling: since legal liability is meant to deter, the companies would need people to monitor every word you wrote, every video you watched, and compare it against some manual of dissent. It’s like a playbook for the dystopia of Gilead, in The Handmaid’s Tale (which, weirdly enough, most resembles Islamic State’s framework for living).

I think the summary (but please read him for yourself) of what Arthur has to say is that:

  • Banning technologies will simply drive ‘bad actors’ to other communications means,
  • But will have highly negative effect on our own technological society,
  • Rather the focus should be on disabling the source of the ideas both internationally and at home. Arthur doesn’t say this but it seems important to note that after both the recent London and Manchester attacks it has emerged that the perpetrators had  (apparently fruitlessly) been earlier reported to the authorities for their worrying behaviour and views; such reports clearly need better responses and there needs to be supportive community work to encourage this kind of reporting by taking it seriously.

The second article, from MIT’s Technology Review, Theresa May Wants to End “Safe Spaces” for Terrorists on the Internet. What Does That Even Mean?, reinforces the third point above by noting the importance of personal contact in developing extremist ideas. This article also makes the point well that there are things that the big social networks can do and be supported in doing that fall short of asking them to monitor everything you say.

The third article is Theresa May wants to ban crypto: here’s what that would cost, and here’s why it won’t work anyway by Cory Doctorow. This more technical article explains why it is that banning ‘safe spaces’ fundamentally means undermining all internet cryptography, what the appalling costs of that would be and why it still wouldn’t stop terrorists anyway. I urge you to read the full argument, but this is the summary:

This, then, is what Theresa May is proposing:

  • All Britons’ communications must be easy for criminals, voyeurs and foreign spies to intercept
  • Any firms within reach of the UK government must be banned from producing secure software
  • All major code repositories, such as Github and Sourceforge, must be blocked
  • Search engines must not answer queries about web-pages that carry secure software
  • Virtually all academic security work in the UK must cease — security research must only take place in proprietary research environments where there is no onus to publish one’s findings, such as industry R&D and the security services
  • All packets in and out of the country, and within the country, must be subject to Chinese-style deep-packet inspection and any packets that appear to originate from secure software must be dropped
  • Existing walled gardens (like iOS and games consoles) must be ordered to ban their users from installing secure software
  • Anyone visiting the country from abroad must have their smartphones held at the border until they leave
  • Proprietary operating system vendors (Microsoft and Apple) must be ordered to redesign their operating systems as walled gardens that only allow users to run software from an app store, which will not sell or give secure software to Britons
  • Free/open source operating systems — that power the energy, banking, ecommerce, and infrastructure sectors — must be banned outright

That may sound a ridiculous set of things to conclude; just read the full article.

And then, please, find ways to discuss these things with the young people in your schools; make sure they, at least, do understand how the technologies around them, including the Internet, work. Having well-informed technological perspective really does matter.

The Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter #2

This is the last time I’ll clog up this blog with stuff about the Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter. But just to show it wasn’t a total flash-in-the-pan, the second edition has just been posted

You can sign up for the newsletter and read past issues from the newsletter archive.


Enabling and revealing creativity in design & technology

Design & technology (D&T) has the possibility of enabling young people to be creative although in practice many teachers are reluctant to encourage the risk taking that is required for creative activity in order to ensure examination success. The conditions for enabling creativity are reasonably well known and can be summarised by a double AND gate model as shown here.

double AND

Four features need to be in place for pupils to act creatively.

  • The activity has to be presented in a context to which the pupils could relate.
  • The activity has to be supported by a significant stimulus which was often, but not exclusively, intensely visual.
  • Focused teaching is necessary to provide knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • An attitude of continuous reflection needs to be encouraged.

However these four features alone do not ensure creative activity. The deciding factor is the way they are managed. This must be done so that pupils can handle uncertainty in exploring and developing outcomes. There must be some risk associated with the endeavour in terms of the “originality” of the activity as far as the individual pupil is concerned. These ideas of context, stimulus, relevant teaching and continuous reflection mirror the requirement for being successful in the designing and making needed for the contextual challenge of the new single title D&T GCSE. And it would make sense for such preparation to be used in the teaching of designing and making assignments in the programme of study leading up to the contextual challenge.

This leads us to the second AND gate. How do we enable young people to take risks and at the same time manage the risk taking? The answer lies in the design decisions that pupils have to make. This can be seen as involving five key areas of interdependent design decision, shown diagrammatically below:


  • Conceptual (overall purpose of the design, the sort of product that it will be),
  • Technical (how the design will work),
  • Aesthetic (what the design will look like),
  • Constructional (how the design will be put together)
  • Marketing (who the design is for, where it will be used, how it will be sold).

The interdependence of these areas is an important feature of making design decisions, as change of decision within one area will affect some if not all of design decisions that are made within the others. It is the juggling of these various decisions to arrive at a coherent design proposal that can then be realised to the point of fully working prototype that provides the act of designing and making with intellectual rigour and educational worth and makes it an essential part of technology education.

Teachers have used the design decision pentagon to audit the number and type of design decisions that pupils make during designing and making assignments. In most cases the teacher has made the conceptual decision. The class is going to design and make this sort of artefact. But the audit often reveals that design decisions in the other areas are few and far between. The technical and constructional decisions are made by the teacher, the marketing decisions in terms of who the artefact is for are often ignored with the only type of design decisions the pupils make is concerned with aesthetics. In such situations pupils are unlikely to learn to make design decision and the creativity of the outcomes will be minimal. But just how many different design decisions should a pupil make? Too many and failure to produce anything of worth is likely to be the result. One way to tackle this question is to give limited choices at the corners of the pentagon. So, for example the teacher might say, “You can choose one of these three different ways of working, and any one of three different main materials, and one of three different possible aesthetic influences and one of three possible users”. This gives 3x3x3x3 possible combinations – eighty one in total. If three at each corner is two many for a particular class then two choices gives 2x2x2x2 possible combinations – sixteen in total. In both situations there will be some overlap in choices between pupils but it is more than likely that there will be some if not considerable variation in the nature of the artefacts the pupils design and make in response to a given brief in which the conceptual nature of the artefact has been decided by the teacher. So by ensuring appropriate preliminary teaching and controlling the number of design decisions that pupils can make the teacher manages the risks that the pupils take in the design decisions they make. The wind is set fair for creative activity. Just how creative the artefacts produced are will be a matter of judgment and it is here that a comparison of outcomes across the class pays dividends. If a post-it sized photo of each of the items produced are displayed on a 5×5 grid the whole class’s work can be viewed at a glance. If all the items look similar then the strategy for enabling creativity has failed. Items that are different from the majority will stand out and give an indication of creativity. The greater the proportion of items that are different and stand out the greater the creativity there is across the class.

By tackling designing and making activities in the way described here teachers will be building mini creative communities to the benefit of the subject. The 5×5 grid of products will provide evidence for all to see just how creative the pupils in a class are being and such grids might well provide ‘something special’ for Julie Nugent.

As always comments welcome and we would be delighted to see some 5×5 grids of  artefacts designed and made by pupils.