littleBits in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua – a review of last years effort and preparing for 2016

This past January (2015) I traveled to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua as co-leader of a service learning class littlebitspaulpuerto2from Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3). While in Nicaragua we conducted 3 ‘maker’ workshops with youth from a local orphanage in Puerto Cabezas. These workshops introduced littleBits and basic circuitry concepts to 21 youth – 12 boys and 9 girls.

The first two sessions were organized by gender, an approach that was recommended by staff at the orphanage. These sessions gave us the opportunity to evaluate youth interest and capacity for collaboration. The third session was comprised of 9 participants (6 boys and 3 girls) selected from the initial sessions. This session was co-facilitated by a technology teacher (Isaias Robertson) who works at the orphanage school. The involvement of Isaias was a critical factor in the third workshop. His participation has led to continued collaboration at a distance during the intervening months.

Successes and challenges

The participation by 9 youth in the 3rd session is a small measure of success and indicator of future possibilities. These 9 youth returned voluntarily and expressed interest in continuing work with Isaias over the coming months. As of July, 2015 Isaias had conducted 2 community workshops with littleBits. Participants included some of the original youth from our January workshops and new community members. During these workshops participants created a kitten with a led eyes and sound that used a touch sensor as the tongue, a robot with moving arms and legs and a butterfly with eyes that would light in response to sound.

The challenges faced in developing a sustainable education program around littleBits, and other technologies, are quite daunting. The most challenging factor has to be that of money. The average weekly salary of a Nurse in Puerto is $75.00 (USD). Introducing new technologies to youth can often be frustrating or disappointing as they cannot be afforded. Shiny new things, no matter how potentially educationally useful, are often impossible to come into possession of.

We were fortunate this past January to have raised a (very) small amount of money that allowed the purchase of some littleBits. This initial purchase was complemented by a generous donation by littleBits of some previous generation bits that we were able to take to Nicaragua. In all we left Isaias with enough to continue working with youth, albeit on a limited basis. It is our hope to continue this collaboration in upcoming years, with a planned return to Puerto Cabezas in January of 2016.


You can help support the upcoming workshops at Go Fund Me:


‘Making” in public


Making in public, with littleBits

Making in public, with littleBits

Last week I was able to spend 2 days at the New York State Fair as part of our attempt to get the Civic Makers program up and running. A large part of our time at the fair was spent talking and tinkering with passersby. Curiosity, and the opportunity to interact with technologies in a non-threatening and no-risk way, lead to a lot of experimentation and a fair number of questions.

And, in reflecting on this experience, I was struck by the fact that people really do want to tinker with, and understand, technology. It’s just that the opportunities to do so – for many people- are limited, at best. The fair was a fairly diverse audience and the curiosity and desire to play was not age dependent. And even though technologies such as 3d printing are becoming more pervasive, access to the technology – access to seeing and being able to ask questions – is limited.

I am beginning to think it is incumbent upon us – technologists, geeks, nerds, makers, et. al.- to do much much more making in public. And we need to bring the necessary patience and compassion in order to engage effectively with people and communities that may be curious but inexperienced. Democratizing technology is only an aspiration until we begin to do this work.

Snap together solutions

Modeling a solar panel control using littleBits

Modeling a solar panel control using littleBits

Last week we ran our first code to craft workshop with 20 youth from across New York state. They formed 5 teams and set about using the available technologies (Scratch, littleBits, Arduino and more) to develop solutions to a community issue or problem. This is the first workshop I’ve facilitated that began with an introduction to community. We front loaded the workshop with information gathered from specific communities and a session on understanding communities, and stakeholders. We ran the first third of the workshop without the kids touching technology. We learned and brainstormed and develop an understanding that technology as a solution has impacts well beyond the narrow focus of a designer or developer working alone to solve a problem.

There was, of course, not enough time to do justice to the challenge, but it was a beginning. And as the kids talked about their projects at various points there was always a concrete (in the abstract) user for their end products. I’m still reading through the session evaluations, but I think we’re on to something here. I’m sure it is not all that novel out in the big world but for us, for this session it is a new way of teaching coding and development with youth, and it was invigorating.

From computer code to code of law: Enlarging the concept of procedural literacy beyond computing.

IMG_0436In planning for an upcoming workshop with youth I’ve been thinking more deeply about the meaning of digital literacy. Like any literacy, there are layers of ability that can be developed. And there are orientations to the teaching of these literacies – social contexts and goals (whether stated or implicit) – that can lead to greater or lesser freedoms when it comes to ‘reading and writing the world’.

Developing digital literacies that move beyond the surface, literacies that empower the learner to do more than just use a web browser or an office suite, lay the foundation for computational thinking. In this movement into a deeper understanding of not just how but how-to there is a transition from ‘reading the world’ to ‘writing the world’. In other words, computational thinking moves the process of coding from an isolated activity devoid of social meaning into the context of humans actively building the world (Vee 2013).

When you start looking into computational thinking you encounter the idea of procedural literacy (Mateas 2005). The original framing of procedural literacy has its roots firmly in new media studies. But I’d like to expand the idea of procedural literacy- maintaining its roots and ties to computational thinking but expanding its domain outward to embrace more of the world.

The impetus for making this move is tied to the very fuzzy thought I had recently about modeling political, legal, governmental processes using things like littleBits and Arduinos. As we have been discussing the upcoming youth workshop, and integrating a more clearly articulated framework of computational thinking, I keep coming back to the basics of logic – both computational and social (or human). Fundamentally I believe that:

By developing an understanding of code, and coding practices, participants will develop a procedural literacy that can then be used to understand, re-create and build a diverse range of systems, including technological, legal, governmental and social systems.

or, in plainer English:

Learning to read and write computer code can foster the growth of literacies across a range of systems.

So there is a skills development pathway that is a movement through digital literacy to computational thinking and ending in procedural Literacy.


References and readings

Brennan, Karen, and Mitchel Resnick. “New Frameworks for Studying and Assessing the Development of Computational Thinking.” Annual American Educational Research Association meeting, Vancouver, BC, Canada (2012): 1–25.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2013). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Routledge

Ingerman, A., & Collier-Reed, B. (2011). Technological literacy reconsidered: A model for enactment. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 21(2), 137–148.

Mateas, M. (2005). Procedural literacy: educating the new media practitioner.On the Horizon, 13(2), 101-111.

Stevens Jr, E. W. Literacy, Law, and Social Order.

Street, B. V. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice (Vol. 9). Cambridge University Press.

Vee, A. (2013). Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy. Literacy in Composition Studies, 1(2), 42-64.

Minecraft, littleBits – virtual/physical interactions and sensing

This past Jminecraftlilbitsuly we did some work with littleBits and Minecraft (video below) which has lead to some further thoughts and development. Once you start taking these two tools seriously there is a tremendous amount of potential in their educational use. One of the most important aspects for me is the connection of the virtual and the physical. Being able to use Minecraft as one piece of an ecosystem that connects virtual and real provides an easy entry into the module development of a range of activities. littleBits provide a toolkit that we initially used to mirror creation in Minecraft. The expanding range of littleBits modules is continually opening new connectors that allow for an even greater range of activities.

As I was thinking about this I felt a need to map what I view as the current ecosystem for this virtual physical project space. While this is not definitive or static, it captures what I currently see as the key elements – the flora and fauna – of this space. The Minecraft/littleBits symbiosis moves beyond a mirroring of what is created in one is replicated in the other into a robust and modular system that can include programming, micro-controllers and sensors. Mapping physical world interaction into the virtual or having virtual interactions move out into the physical – sensing changes, reacting – all within the creative grasp of kids and curious adults is powerful and facilitates multilayered learning processes.

So what I’m poking at now or in the near future: redstone, sensors, arduino, logic gates, computercraft – still the Minecraft/littleBits combo but expanding a bit to strengthen the virtual physical interactions elements. Look for more specific details, recipes and learnings over the next few months as I (with the help of engaged colleagues and new collaborators) tinker and test.