Full STEAM Ahead


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Workshop notes from the blog of Angelo Fernando

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Technology lessons - No books required! Sometimes you don't need text books to learn a skill. I don't usually advise young people to skip university, but I know of many folks who have learned incredible skills, never having stepped into a classroom for the past 20 years. One friend fixes BMWs as a hobby. Sometimes he has about 10 in his driveway! Another runs a mid-sized marketing communications agency, but has built and operates an eco-resort. The former never went to engineering school. The latter never took a class in architectural design or management. And my point is: We often hone our skills in our garages, and our basements. These are our 'labs.' No one gives us a certificate for these long hours of professional development. Here's a related example: Children learning about science and tech on a farm. Think of it as a STEM lab in Nebraska. Cows. BMWs. Conservation. Plenty of knowledge out there, not found in books and lectures.


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Baxter, Sawyer, Tina, SIRI. Is this our future? Baxter and Sawyer are brothers in arms, so to speak. They are collaborative, follow instructions, and adaptable to their surroundings. They also happen to be robots. I find it interesting that they have human names, although they are industrial bots. No mistake they are meant for the factory floor, and not cute or friendly robots that are also coming of age elsewhere. Rethink Robotics, which manufactured them says they are "trained not programmed." It quotes a professor who says his “long range aim is to try to achieve human level artificial intelligence. So the Baxter would be like a person, maybe not a full-fledged adult."  Baxter is a 2-armed bot, and is described as "the safe, flexible, affordable alternative to outsourced labor and fixed automation." It weighs 165 pounds. Sawyer is a one-armed fellow, and is called a "collaborative robot designed to execute machine tending, circuit board testing and other precise tasks." It weighs just 42 pounds  Why I find this interesting is that we have begun to look at robots in humanistic terms, and this paves the way for them to be 'invited' into our homes someday soon. If you don't believe me ask those who love their Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. How long will it be before we have a Homework robot, and an automated, (two-armed, hopefully) Personal Assistant? Low maintenance, too --no need for company benefits. Some people who use SIRI may say they already have one of those! Chat bots are also in the news now - like the Iranian bot, endearingly known as Tina. Humanoid devices are also the stuff I have begun writing about elsewhere.


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Chatbots are coming! Chatbots are coming! You are not imagining. Suddenly there is a lot of talk about these things called Chatbots. And, what exactly is a Chatbot? It's probably not what you might imagine. It's not an App that you use to talk to someone - thought that evolution might just happen. A Chatbot is a virtual information assistant that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide answers you may ask of it. Yes, like SIRI, but better. A Chatbot may predict what you are looking for (say ‘weather in Colombo’, as opposed to ‘weather in San Francisco’), and provide you with some insight it gleans from past interactions with you. Amazon and Microsoft have been early out of the gate with these AI assistants. Amazon, for instance has Alexa, and is used with the Amazon Echo speaker. It's basically a piece of hardware you talk to (as opposed to an App like SIRI). And it this networked speaker provides you with things such as sports scores, places you are looking up such as restaurants etc. What's the big deal about Chatbots? From the perspective of my book (conveniently titled) Chat Republic, the big deal is that we humans, fully immersed in a Web 2.0 world, are moving towards having deeper, richer, and dare-I-say commercially-infused conversations. For whatever reason, we sometimes prefer technology over humans (which explains why we’re asked to text someone not call!), so the market is giving us what we show preference to. Or deserve – if you want to be snarky about it! Artificial Intelligence has developed to the point that it can deliver information that was once curated, created or thought through by humans. Oddly enough, some Chatbots do have humans working behind the scenes! I'm not against Chatbots. They have a role to play, after all. Supreme irony: Chatbots do the work once done by humans. Humans also do the work done by Chatbots.


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Start taking notes! (It's good for your brain.) I've always known that note-taking is good for you. There are plenty of stories about this, and it's always refreshing to see research and evidence for this. Here's why writing things out by hand makes you smarter: By slowing down the process, you accelerate learning. One theory is that introducing 'desirable difficulties' that challenge the user help retention. The person who introduced this idea is Robert Bjork, at the Learning Lab - interestingly called Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. Of course the best example of note-taking can be seen from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. His notes went like this: "Put this in the Book of useful inventions and in proving them bring forward the propositions already proved..." Or, in what looks like a 'note to self, Leonardo jots down this: "And this is to be a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they may treat. A notebook, after all is a piece of 'technology' designed with a simple interface. Use often. Use responsibly!


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So many (scientific) ways to use a GoPro! If you saw The Martian, you couldn't miss the GoPro cameras strategically placed where Mark Watney (Matt Damon) hast to talk to other humans who were mostly absent. It's not exactly a webcam, but a powerful tool to 'journal' an activity a whether it is extreme sport, or something technical. I've started off using a GoPro in robotics, and it was quite revealing how the camera sees a manoeuvre. I am now considering a class about the camera itself. For this there will be three cameras at work, in fact. The first, will be a webcam because of the expert I am going to bring in, via Skype. He will demo a GoPro and 'teach' us how to turn a GoPro into a scientific inquiry tool. We will be using one in class as well. The GoPro on Mars didn't seem contrived - or a blatant product placement –since some have actually been used in Space before. In real space, that is, and not on a movie set. And it has also gone to on some breathtaking missions -- in a balloon, for instance. Here's one of my favorites. What a great way to demonstrate the surface tension of water, by making the camera a part of the experiment, while acting as a journaling device!


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When Distance Learning was a mule-drawn wagon! I have always been interested in Distance Learning, but as I like to tell young people many of our modern business and education models existed before the Internet. For instance, about 50 years before eBooks made it possible to have the library accessible from home, we had the 'mobile' bicycle-drawn lending library. But this 'school on wheels' known as the Jesup Wagon beats that! It was developed by George Washington Carver, a former slave. A scientist, better known for the innovation we call 'crop rotation' and also peanuts, he loaded a wagon with seeds in this His 'horse-drawn classroom' and laboratory. His students were former slaves who had become sharecroppers. The Movable Classroom program began in 1906. The wagon cost $674. We could all use this to get some perspective, especially when we think we need fancy technology to connect knowledge with students.


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Workshop for teachers who plan to incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Copyright: Angelo Fernando Salt River Elementary School Scottsdale, Arizona Content sourced from Hoipolloireport.com April 2016



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