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

PS

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

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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?

Reflections

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!

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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

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:

Pentagon

  • 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.

Something Special for Julie Nugent

JulieN    In her latest editorial for D&T Practice Julie Nugent, D&T Association CEO, asks if schools will to tell the Association when they are doing ‘something special’. Often ‘something special’ becomes details of what students have designed and made and is presented as images of products that are clearly the result of considerable skill. There is however a great danger in pictures of products that are clearly objects of desire. The product alone does not tell the story of the process that enabled it to be envisaged in sufficient detail that it could be realised. This made me wonder about going beyond celebrating the product that is designed and made and revealing both the teaching and learning that enabled the designing and making to take place and the pupils’ thinking that used this learning to achieve sound design decisions and quality making. This reminded me of a paper I wrote (over 20 years ago now!) in which I interviewed a teacher and a pupil about what they did and thought in designing and making a textile product. You can read the paper here.

The paper probed the teaching that led to pupil learning that in turn enabled the pupil to make and justify really sound design decisions. It is this sort of information that shows the  teaching and learning needed for pupils to be able to combine the intellectual and the practical that is the hall mark of good design & technology – something special. The interviews that formed the basis of the paper I wrote did not take long – about 20 minutes each; and were conducted over the phone. So if your pupils at your school are ‘doing something special’ then it might be a good idea to carry out some teach/pupil interviews to reveal just how special this ‘something’ is and let Julie know. If time is short then I’m sure the D&T Association would be happy to organise someone to carry out the interviews over the phone.

As always comments welcome.

The Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter

[Update 15-15-17: the first newsletter has been posted. If you haven’t already signed up for it, you can view it (and choose to subscribe) here.]

Early next week I’ll be launching a newsletter focussed on Disruptive Technologies and D&T. What I want to do here is explain a little bit why I’m starting this and the kind of content that it will contain.

The first edition of the newsletter will be published next week – some of what follows is sampled from it.

You can sign up for the newsletter on the newsletter’s sign up page.

Background

David Barlex and I have been working on a project that focuses on making a range of Disruptive Technologies (DTs) accessible for classroom use and discussion. The DTs we have chosen to emphasise are:

We think these technologies provide a really powerful context to help pupils learn about technological perspective (this idea is developed in our recent Working Paper Big Ideas for D&T), while at the same time introducing pupils to technologies that  are likely to have a significant impact on their adult lives. The DTs we have chosen are at very different levels of development with, for example, additive manufacturing being something that many (most? all?) schools have at least some access to. In contrast, synthetic biology is advancing surprisingly rapidly as a technology in industry but has, so far, made minimal impact in schools and programmable matter remains largely a R&D project in some universities and other research institutes.

We also realise that there are other technologies ‘out there’ that have the potential to be disruptive and, also, that it is possible that some of our nominated DTs may turn out to be more of a disruptive whimper than a bang. That’s future-gazing for you.

This is an ‘in our free time’ project so inevitably develops more slowly than we would like.

However, I read a lot. (Well, David and I both read a lot – but I should probably emphasise that I take responsibility for what appears in this newsletter.) And I’d like to share the fruits of this reading with colleagues in D&T because I realise that not all have the luxury of time that I do to wade through quite a lot of content to find the useful and interesting nuggets.

This is probably my age talking, but Twitter seems to me to be too ephemeral for stuff that might actually be useful (if you’re lucky enough to see it fly by you probably won’t find it again when you need it…). And I don’t want to clog up the blog on our website with this kind of stuff. So, I’m trying out a newsletter for size; it will take at least six months for me to decide whether it is a success or not – and I’ll measure that by how many folk have signed up to it.

Content

I’ve deliberately called this ‘The Disruptive technologies and D&T’ newsletter rather than ‘The Disruptive technologies in D&T’ newsletter as this gives me a bit of elbow room to wander over wider issues related to D&T education. Mostly it will contain links to recently published material on-line with a degree of commentary on each item. I’ll make no attempt to cover every DT every time. And I’ll also mentions books that I’ve read that seem to me to be useful, relevant or interesting. Sometimes they’ll be all three.

My aim is to produce a reasonably (but not too) frequent edition with enough content to be interesting but not overwhelming. I’m thinking that perhaps 3-4 issues a month, during term-time, might be about right, with a slower rate of publication in school holidays. I will rely on feedback from you to tell me whether both the frequency and length are reasonably manageable.

If you think that such a newsletter might be useful, please both sign up to receive it and forward this post on to colleagues and, if you work in ITE in any capacity, to your trainee teachers.


Click to subscribe to the Disruptive Technologies and D&T Newsletter