This May I had the unique opportunity to volunteer in South Africa through Autodesk’s Pro Bono Program. Our project was facilitated by Team4Tech, who connect technology volunteers with underserved communities around the world. I was part of a team of three volunteers whose specific task was to research and provide hands on maker tools and supplies to Vision Afrika primary school, which is in the Kayamandi township outside of Stellenboch. As someone who works at Instructables and is surrounded by maker culture every day, I couldn't have asked for a more exciting and rewarding project. While in my area of skill, it was also new territory for me as I am not a teacher or familiar with maker education for kids.
I learned a lot while researching for this project, both about maker products generally as well as some of the challenges facing teachers in a resource constrained environment. The aim of this instructable is to share everything I learned along the way with the hope it could be useful to others. This is by no means a definitive educational resource. If you do project based STEAM activities with kids, I'd love to hear about your experiences!
Step 1: Researching Existing Maker Tools
Team4Tech had already done some research on maker kits, and purchased a set of LEGO WeDos and tablets for the project. Given that, I researched the other existing maker kits on the market, as well as DIY projects and supplies which I'll discuss in following steps.
There are a ton of existing products out there, ranging from more advanced Arduino based kits to simpler toys that introduce STEAM principles. Many of the kits were either too expensive or weren't age appropriate for our project, however I learned about a ton of cool products along the way!
Android app for doing science with your phone, tablet, or Chromebook. You can use the sensors in your phone or connect to external sensors to conduct experiments on the world around you. Most of the external sensors involve using an Arduino, and there are several kits on the market which pair with the existing google science journal activities such as the Sparkfun inventor's kit and Jameco Science Journal Kit.
After playing around with the app, I found it cool to be able to measure sound, light and motion, but wasn't sure how engaged some of the younger kids would be with conducting experiments and recording data. A lot of the more exciting projects involved external sensors and didn't seem age appropriate. However as this is a free app, it is a powerful tool for measuring the world around you with the sensors that already exist in your phone.
PocketLab is similar to Science Journal in that it measures data from the world around you, however it is a standalone product which includes more sensors than are found by default in a phone or tablet. I believe it can be used in some of the google science journal activities, but has its own app as well. The main product is $100. We didn't pursue this kit for similar reasons to the above, but it looks pretty cool and I haven't had a chance to play with it myself.
Little Bits is a platform of easy-to-use electronic building blocks. It's a great kit for learning code, electronics, and robotics, and people love it. However as it targets older kids and averages $300 per kit, it didn't seem applicable to our project.
Snap Circuits is a set of plastic electronics components that can be easily snapped together to build circuits and explore some basic inputs and outputs like sound, motion and light. Our personal experience with this toy is that it was cumbersome to use and took a lot of the transparency out of building circuits from scratch. We found more success with a DIY approach like circuit tiles or paper circuits.
ROBOTICS KITS & CODING PLATFORMS
We knew we were going to bring these kits, and while there are some pain points getting things set up, once the app is installed and successfully paired they were a lot of fun. For kids already familiar with LEGOs, it's a great next step for introducing concepts of programming and robotics. LEGO has a bunch of other educational kits as well that go beyond their basic building block sets.
I know very little about Sphero, but it kept coming up as a favorite among educators teaching their kids about robotics. It pairs with a tablet or phone and can be programmed using different levels of code to suit different age and experience levels. It has a lot of educational activities available, and is $130.
Makey Makey lets you turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet. For example you could hook up a set of bananas to a digital keyboard on your computer, and the bananas become the keys. Scratch is a visual programming language which can be paired with the Makey Makey.
I will be honest that at first it seemed more gimmicky than educational. However after seeing how much fun the kids had with it and the creativity that could go into what one builds to connect, I changed my mind. I didn't have an opportunity to play with it well enough to learn the ins and outs of how it paired with Scratch, however at $50 it's a pretty cool product.
I won't go into detail here, but K'nex and Lego both make building sets with additional educational resources and projects for teachers. For any builders and makers out there who grew up with these toys, it goes without saying that they are classics for learning about mechanics and engineering.
Rather than being an all inclusive kit, TeacherGeek sells individual project based supplies for doing a range of mechanical and electronics based activities. There is a lot of really good educational documentation for their projects on the site, and I like that many of the kits for individual activities are under $10. We brought a few components like gears with us that could be combined with other DIY projects we had in mind, but I didn't get to test any of the full activity sets from the site. Their customer service also rocks.
We had a set of these at work, so I brought them to the project. Strawbees are a set of connectors that allow you to build structures from drinking straws. As straws are readily available trash I was excited about this kit from a sustainability and cost perspective, but in practice it was not as easy to use as I'd hoped.
DELIVERY MAKER KITS
This wasn't applicable to our projects, but for any parents out there monthly mail order maker kits are all the rage. Some great ones include Kiwi Crates (tinker crate) and Genius Box, amongst many others.
Step 2: DIY Supplies
As someone who has made things my whole life, distilling DIY down to something finite and shareable was daunting. What kind of projects and supplies would be most useful and fit into the curriculum? While we were able to talk to the teachers before leaving for the trip, it's difficult to get the full picture before sitting down together in person. As a result, we did the best we could to bring a bunch of broadly useful electronics and general craft supplies which could be combined into many different projects. We knew that many of the electronics components and craft supplies would be either difficult to find on short notice or more expensive in South Africa, so we bought a lot in advance. The list of what we brought was as follows:
- Small motors
- Single and double AA battery packs
- Coin cell batteries
- AA batteries
- Conductive tape (you can get the fancier copper kind, but hvac tape is way cheaper)
- Alligator clips
- Wire strippers
I considered including a soldering iron in the mix, but wasn't sure how deep we would go into electronics. We didn't end up needing one for any of the projects we prepared, as we were able to get away with twisting wires together when making a connection was required. This makes it easier to pull components apart for reuse as well.
Foldscope is an amazing ultra low-cost microscope (under $2) with a quality similar to conventional microscopes. They were generous enough to donate some of their microscopes to the project, and will soon be shipping their product. We had a lot of fun collecting samples, and learned more than we ever wanted to know about what a mosquito looks like up close :) For schools without the resources to buy or maintain traditional microscopes, these are a game changer.
These are more commonly available craft supplies, so I'm not including links on these. This is not an exhaustive list of craft supplies we brought, but is a good range of basics that can be combined to make hundreds of projects.
- Craft paper
- Craft sticks
- Pipe cleaners (expensive in South Africa)
- Laser pointers
- Mirrors (for demonstrating reflection with laser pointers)
- Plastic gears
- Lots of tape (masking tape, duct tape, expensive in South Africa)
- Rubber bands
- Markers (expensive in South Africa)
- Balloons (expensive in South Africa)
- Tacks (expensive in South Africa)
Step 3: DIY Resources & Projects
Once we arrived, we finally had an opportunity to spend more time with the teachers learning about their challenges and what would be most useful for them. We learned that while do-it-yourself activities come naturally to their learners, coming up with ideas was an obstacle for the teachers. While there is tons of inspiration to be found online, sifting through the noisy saturation of the internet to find projects that are low cost, easy to make, and fit into existing curriculum is no small task. We realized that narrowing focus by curating a smaller set of projects could be a helpful starting point.
Two of the primary resources that we shared with teachers were Sam's awesome collection of 100 STEAM Projects for Teachers, and Arvind Gupta's Toys from Trash, which is an excellent website of low cost science activities for kids.
I also collected a set of projects by subject type which could be made with the supplies we brought, which are selected from the above resources plus a few from Pinterest and other sites.
3 Ways to Make Circuits
- Circuit Tiles (we found these were much more engaging for kids than the snap circuits, especially amongst older kids)
- Paper Circuits
- Squishy Circuits
Things that Move
- Wiggle Bots
- Plastic Bottle Cars
- Sponge Motorboat
- Straw Propellor (no electronics)
- 3 Simple Boats (no electronics)
Things that Light Up
- Learn about color mixing with LEDs
- Light Painting
- Learning about Reflection with laser pointers and mirrors
- Bite Boombox (need audio jacks, this was a huge crowd pleaser)
- Rubber Band Harmonica
- PVC Saxophone
- Rubber band guitar
- 3 ways to make a drum
- Pinterest board of instruments
Craft Stick Engineering
Step 4: The Experience
I had an amazing experience volunteering at Vision Afrika school. I built dozens of projects over the course of two weeks, which was a ton of fun. Being able to step into the shoes of teachers was an incredible learning experience for me, and the connections that formed over such a short time with teachers, students, and other volunteers left a lasting impact on my life.
After two weeks of working with teachers and building projects with kids, we had a great debrief meeting with the teachers at the end of our stay. Beyond being excited to put the supplies and activities we provided to use, the feedback we got was that the experience had empowered some of the teachers to remove some of their perceived barriers for what they believed they and their students were capable of. This was a greater impact than any tool or supply could offer, and we left feeling like we did our best to meet the project goals.
One can never know what will be most useful long term, however. The activities that seemed like a great idea might not work well in practice or with existing curriculum, and activities that seemed less interesting might end up being the perfect fit for a new lesson. Batteries are expensive, which begs the question as to whether the electronics based STEM projects are sustainable long term. DIY activities with trash might be great from a cost perspective, but they are more difficult to manage than a self enclosed kit, and collecting trash requires effort to stave off entropy.
However regardless of the long term impact of specific supplies, we came away knowing that the connection and learning we shared was the greatest takeaway of the experience. Thank you to everyone who was a part of it! If you want to hear more about our project, you can check out the presentation on vimeo.
Are you an educator who incorporates project based STEAM activities? What have you found successful in your classroom, especially if working under a tight budget? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments!