Kitty Ears by KonichiwaKitty

n5QwsFp2In my last blog post, I wrote about some contemporary inspirational role models that could help to encourage more teenage girls to get involved with STEAM subjects. One of the people I talked about in the post was scientist Rachel AKA KonichiwaKitty.

Earlier this month, Rachel announced that she was launching a learn-to-solder kit on her Etsy page to accompany the many exciting and attractive wearables and glitzy bits n piece that she already sells.

Rachel set up a market place stall at Raspberry Fields, the Raspberry Pi summer festival and I managed to get my hands on one of her early  pre-release kits.

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A trio of inspiring educators (Rachel, Me and the lovely Liat Moss)

I  first met Rachel over a year ago at Wimbledon Jam and it’s been lovely to see her journey from inquisitive maker to workshop leader and saleswoman extraordinaire and it now feels like it wouldn’t be a tech event without twinkly eyelashes and pink hair in attendance.

So, as promised, I took the time to build my  kitty ears and wanted to write an honest review so you guys can decide whether you want to give the kitty ears a go yourself.

First lets talk about the packaging – the box is simple, but Rachel has taken the time to design a selection of pastel coloured stickers. She has a brand and you can be sure that she will always be on it. From the love-heart shaped letter o in her font of choice, to the pastel pinks that adorn everything in sight, you know when something is part of KonichiwaKitty’s shop.

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Before I bought the kit, I was given a choice of both LEDs and ear fluff (I believe the technical term is Fluffy Yarn). After much deliberation, I went for bright pink fluff and blue LEDs because… why not?!

Opening up the box, I was pleasantly surprised to find all of the materials neatly laid out plus a list of materials and an instruction manual. I’d begun to think Rachel had thought of everything!

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My first job was to check that all of the equipment was in the box and luckily for me, it was – I did have a moment of doubt when I saw “cobochon embellishment x 2′ on the list, but by a process of elimination, I realised this must refer to the cool plastic shapes that can be stuck on the ears after the crafting! My sense of OCD would have  preferred two the same, but I can’t really complain about a cool unicorn and star to stick on afterwards!

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In the instruction manual itself, Rachel has taken the time to explain all of the equipment in the box so that a novice can understand a little about what it’s for. For me, this is a really valuable step, especially as the kit includes heat shrink, which many people may not even know about, but that is an essential tool for electronics work. As a bonus treat, Rachel has also included stickers in the box and who doesn’t like stickers?

The next page of the instruction booklet explains what other tools that you might need for crafting your headband which basically lists the tools need for soldering. I would like to see ‘strong glue’ added to the list because I really  found that to be valuable (more on that later).

Amazingly, she has even taken the time to film a video tutorial and so by age 8 of the booklet, I really began to get a feel for the amount of effort that has gone into this kit.

IMG_7826So, now onto the actual crafting side of things – some of  you may already know that I’m quite clumsy, however, I did find it quite theraputic slowly wrapping the fluff around the band. I started to worry that I might run out of yarn before I was done, but I needn’t have since I currently still have a huge chunk of it left. If you do decide to give this a go, you might want to bear in mind that you can be as generous as you want with the yarn since there is plenty in the box.

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The instructions suggested that you might want to use a bit of glue to keep the ends of the yarn steady, and I tried my hardest to just hold it together with a knot, but within a few minutes of trying to wrap the yarn around the ear section, the main bit of the headband had started to unravel so I headed off into the kitchen to find the UHU. Having super strong glue lying around the house does have its advantages sometimes (thanks Stuart).

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In the instructions, Rachel suggests doing one ear, cutting the yarn and doing the other, but I’m afraid laziness prevailed and I just wrapped the yarn around the midsection for a second time and carried straight on to the other ear after starting the first… It seemed to work ok and I still had plenty of yarn leftover.

The next step was to position the lights and check they work, as well as figure out which of the two cables was positive or negative. I’m afraid I once again ignored the instructions for this point which suggested placing the lights and then using a crocodile clip to test their polarity and instead I attached the battery pack first in order to position the lights because it was much easier to figure out where I wanted them to go while they were lit up. I admit, it was a bit more of a faff because I had to first attach the battery to the left hand side so I could wrap the LEDs on the right and then attach the battery on the right so I could attach the battery on the left, but it meant I was happier with the positioning then if I’d just guessed and then switched them on.

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The LED strip that has been provided with the kit has two cables which are attached to the LEDs in a parallel circuit. One of the two cables is attached to the positive side of the LEDs and the other to the negative. The battery can be attached to either end of the cables because the LEDs themselves complete the circuit, but you need to figure which cable is which in order to attach the battery correctly. In the instructions it is explained that the cable is coated in plastic to prevent short circuits, except for the very ends, which have been stripped ready to solder.

The instructions suggested marking which cable is positive by cutting it shorter and stripping the plastic layer off, but I preferred to just reuse some of the masking tape from the box to put a mark on the one I needed to remember, which saved me getting into a mess with cable cutters and stripping things!

I’m lucky that in our cupboard is a third hand to help out with soldering and I think that I would’ve found this task significantly harder without it. First, I needed to clamp the battery pack and the cable I wanted then carefully line up the two cables before getting out the soldering iron and applying heat.

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I have to admit, I found soldering the two wires together a little more tricky than my first foray into soldering which was the Learn to Solder Zoo Badge from the PiHut, but I eventually got both of my wires carefully soldered together. I think this is perhaps the weakest area of instruction, however, it’s quite hard to write down detailed instructions for how to solder for the first time so I’m not sure how this could be improved.

It was at this point that I suddenly wondered what would happen if I slipped and the soldering iron hit the fluff! I had visions of my kitchen bursting into pink fluffy flames and so I decided to test – The small offcut I pressed the soldering iron towards melted a little and didn’t particularly smell nice, but it seemed to be fairly good at handling the heat so that was a bit of a relief.

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The final step was to apply a hairdryer to the heat shrink in order to seal the joins, which I took great pleasure in doing, although I think I was hoping it would shrink even more so was a little disappointed with the inner layer of shrink!

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The final step was to try my ears on and take a picture for social media!

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So, final thoughts. Firstly, a lot of thought has gone into this kit. It is clear and detailed in the instructions. Rachel has done a fantastic job in sourcing materials and writing a great instruction booklet. I haven’t watched the video, but I suspect it is equally excellent and detailed. I love that this brings together crafting and electronics in a fun and creative way and I enjoyed trying out new skills.

But… I wouldn’t recommend this for the very first time soldering, for someone clumsy like me, I think it requires a little more finesse then a first timer can manage. I would suggest getting a learn to solder zoo kit first to make a mess and blob everywhere before graduating onto something a little more complex – for me, soldering wires together was the first time I found soldering to be a bit of a challenge as it was a bit more fiddley than anything I’ve done before.

Overall though, I really love this kit and think Rachel should be incredibly proud of what she has achieved. I can’t wait for my biggest niece to be a little bit older so that she can learn to solder with one of these kits too! I think she’d absolutely love it!

One final note, I made the kitty ears last week but haven’t had a chance to blog because I’ve been involved in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The very same day that I made the kitty ears, the battery pack fell off some LEDs in Titania’s wings (yes, the queen of the fairies had lit up wings)… guess who ended up bringing a soldering iron to the theatre to fix the wings?

It’s a funny old world isn’t it?

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Role Models

Well, here goes… attempt number two to write this post after the original version disappeared into the ether last night for no apparent reason.

People often ask me what we can do to address the gender inbalance in the world of coding, computing and digital making and I always have the same reply “We need more positive role models for girls interested in coding”. Think about it, when we think of famous coders, developers, programmers and makers they all have one thing in common – they are almost all white, middle-aged and male. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with being white, middle-aged and male, but it’s not exactly inspiring for teenage girls to go into an industry that appears to be entirely populated by people who they can’t identify with.

Computing has a bit of an image problem and it doesn’t exactly help matters that we often use Ada Lovelace as a shining beacon of a female role model in the world of coding. Yes, she was the first ever programming and yes, she was a rebel and an awesome person, but she died over 160 years ago so she’s not exactly contemporary. We also tend to highlight Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper, who are excellent examples of women who changed the world, but your average teenage girl isn’t going to be excited by a picture of a woman in her 70s receiving an award. How are we going to convince teenage girls that coding is cool when the only role models they have were born before their grandparents?

If you ask young people today what they’d like to be when they grow up, you’re less likely to hear “footballer, fireman, pop star” and more likely to hear YouTuber high on the list – the role models that our young people aspire to be like are those that are involved with digital content, that are relatable and fun and we should be capitalising on that in the maker community to identify other role models that can inspire young people and especially young women, to get involved.

So, rather than just identify the problem, I’m going to share with you now some of my favourite inspiring role models.

Carrie Anne Philbin

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Four years ago, while trawling twitter for a way to upskill my computer science teaching in anticipation of the curriculum change, I came across something called “Picademy” and decided to apply. Little did I know how much attending picademy would change my life and I owe a huge debt of thanks to Carrie Anne Philbin for being a real role model to myself and hundreds of other teachers around the world. Carrie Anne shows us that anyone can be involved with digital making – she is fun, exciting, innovative and inspiring and she certainly succeeded in getting me excited about what I could do and why.

Originally a secondary school teacher, Carrie Anne is now Director of Education at the Raspberry Pi Foundation where she continues to inspire us all with her empassioned talks on inclusion, digital making and EdTech. She has published a book, has her own YouTube channel, GeekGurlDiaries and is the face of the Computer Science course for US YouTube big hitter, Crash Course. Add to that that she’s a genuinely nice person and you can easily see why Carrie Anne should be considered as a modern day Role Model for Women in Tech!

Tanya Fish

Tanya is an ex-teacher who works for Pimoroni involved in making their incredible range of products even more awesome and education-ready.

For me, Tanya is a role model for a number of reasons – she’s not just an awesome, multi-coloured hair, giant flashing boots-wearing bundle of energy and fun, she’s also a proud ‘Aspergirl’ having recently received a diagnosis of ASD after years of wondering. Tanya loves to make feel-good and fun makes that demonstrate that anyone can be a digital maker. One of my favourite projects that she has worked on are NFC nails which flash when they go near any NFC reader – Tanya even went so far as to take a nail technician course to combine some of her favourite hobbies!

Tanya’s project demonstrate that she’s both a maker and an engineer determined to make things that appeal to anyone and everyone which make it easy to get started and even easier to be inspired for your next digital making projects.

Iseult Mangan

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There is often a perception that once a woman has a few children, they’ll stop working and stop pushing boundaries for success. Iseult proves that this is definitely not that case – not only does she have four incredible children (one of whom, Aoibheann, won European Digital Girl of the Year in Brussels last year because of her volunteer work for Coder Dojo runnning workshops for coding in her local community), she also teaches, runs workshops, advises the Irish Government on steps towards establishing a Computing curriculum and attends events aroud the UK sharing her passion and love for coding and EdTech.

Whenever I spend time with Iseult, I leave feeling inspired to push myself more – she is such a lovely person to spend time with and has an amazing ability to make everyone around her feel positive about themselves and for me she an incredible role model for women as she proves that it is possible to have a fantastic family and still be a fabulous digital maker.

Rachel Wong

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People often associate coding, electronics and digital making with a slightly masculine image, but Rachel certainly goes out of her way to disprove that idea. She is best described as all things pink, fluffy and feminine and she’s proud to be a very girlie girl. Her making projects combine fashion with glitter, LEDs and even robotics. She is a real 21st century girl whilst also being an enthusiastic and fun maker who isn’t afraid to try new things.

On top of all of this, Rachel is also a scientist by profession and is also open about her struggles with anxiety and depression, making her a role model in so many different ways. You can’t help but be infused with her infectious enthusiasm when you meet her at events and she’s a fabulous role model for girls around the world.

Avye

How many 10 year olds do you know that spend their weekends running robotics workshops for strangers? That’s exactly what ten year old Avye does and she’s really determined to make her mark on the maker world. Avye began learning to code at the age of seven and is familiar with a variety of programming languages as she attends regular workshops in her spare time. She has begun delivering workshops at her local Coder Dojo and was one of 12 young people selected to take part in the Young Coders Conference at the Tate Modern. Inspired by the courses she helped develop, Avye is now running more and more frequent workshops and has recently successfully raised funds to run a Girls Only Coding Event at Wimbledon Library – she wanted to be able to give all of the attendees some coding kit to take home and so she has raised over £1000 to be able to give them all micro:bits and other accessories.

What I really like about Avye is that she is independent and determined, whilst still being a really lovely young lady to spend time with. She feels passionately about promoting coding and support young women like herself to feel comfortable and supported so that they will be willing to give it a go. Avye is a real role model for girls and I suspect we’ll see more of her as time goes on as she’s a real little star in the making.

So, I’ve told you about some of the ladies I think we should be highlighting to draw attention to women in tech, but I’m sure you’ve all got plenty of ideas for other people who should be on this list too. I know I could’ve easily made the list at least three times as long based on people I’ve met at events and spoken to on social media. Why not let me know in the comments section what you think – I’d love to hear who else could have been included and why!

2017 in review

I was going to write a Facebook post or a brief tweet about all of the things I’ve been up to this year, but then I realised that professionally, 2017 has been one of the most exciting and varied years of my life – so much has happened that, looking back, I can’t believe it’s my life. Two years ago I was a respectable, happy primary school teacher and now, in the space of one year, I’ve been to Argentina, Brazil, Texas and Orlando for work as well as NYC for holiday and various parts of the UK and Brussels for an award nomination! What a rollercoaster.

TL;DR : I’ve had an AMAZING year

January

By January, I finally felt settled into my role at pi-top, I’d begun working on some pi-top events for a couple of charities BECSlink and IntoUniversity and having lots of fun with the ever-growing staff. I managed to squeeze in visiting the London Python Dojo at Sohonet where I finally met Drew Buddie IRL and the two of us chatted to all the attendees about the teaching of coding as well as getting a better understanding of how a Python Dojo works.

I attended BETT for the first time as an exhibitor, which was kind of exciting – I got to meet so many people IRL and, because everyone knew where to find me, I probably met more people than I would’ve had I just been visiting the show. I was expecting to be exhausted by the end of the week and, although I was pretty tired by Saturday, I was also still super-excited to see so many lovely people in attendance and I can’t wait for this year. I also attended the BETT awards with pi-top where we won the ‘start-up of the year award’ – I was really pleased with this as I had been involved in writing the application and so it was great fun getting all dressed-up with the company founders and getting up on stage to accept the award. pi-top are shortlisted for another two awards this year so fingers crossed we get to win again!!

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February

February saw my first Coding Evening of 2017 – we’ve managed to host one per half term since I started running them in 2014 and I’m still having lots of fun and meeting new people each time!

At pi-top, February also saw the first Champions weekend – I got to take most of the lovely people that I’d selected to be pi-topCHAMPIONS to Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing for a two-day bonding and training session. Not only did we get great feedback, we also had an amazing time. It proved to be a great weekend all around and I was reminded once again how lucky I am to have so many wonderful people in my life.

On a personal note, February saw me taking up running properly for the first time in my life – I’ve just checked and have managed to clock up just shy of 300km this year which is pretty impressive for someone who has always hated running!

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March

March began with the pi-birthday, what a fabulous event that was – from unicorn face paints, to pi-brewed beers, it was great fun. I managed a talk and panel at the event in spite of a nightmare cold and got to meet a host of wonderful people – from the young up and coming coders in the pi-youth community to some wonderful adults organising events and supporting children around the world (I’m looking at you Mr Provenzano). It was also great fun catching up with the Pimoroni pirates and long-time community members like Alex Eames again and we managed to squeeze in a giant meal at a local restaurant after one of the nights.March

March also saw another Coding Evening and I also got to visit one of the schools in the group I used to work for as a teacher to deliver a workshop as part of their STEM day. As part of my work for Crossover Solutions, I visited a school in Amesbury to run a Physical Computing workshop and had lots of fun!

April

I’m really lucky that I know so many wonderful people in the Raspberry Pi community and so I was really pleased to be invited to help out at PiWars 2017 in Cambridge – I was invited to help judge the event and so I headed up for a weekend of fun. I have to admit that PiWars was a HUGE highlight for me in 2017 – I always burble about how great the Raspberry pi community is, but this is the event that really shows this off. Lots of fans coming together to compete, but with no malice or anger, just lots of support and fun. Even the people who did badly left smiling and so I’m really exciting this year to have bullied some of my colleagues at pi-top to help me enter a team! I can’t wait to see how we get along!

April also saw me attending a lovely little event in Malvern called ATI and running pi-top workshops in schools in Eastbourne. Albert Hickey and I also managed to squeeze in a third Wimbledon Raspberry Jam which was a hugely successful event including talks by students, teachers and community members as well as workshops run by young people and involving LOTS of glitter.

I also started some work for Crossover Solutions teaching for half a day every other week in a local school in Wandsworth which has been great for keeping my finger on the pulse of CS teaching!

No surprises that it was another busy month.

May

In May, I built my Pimoroni Mood Lamp and really honed my soldering skills- turns out, I’m quite good at soldering!

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I met with Alasdair Davies and Francisco Coutinho Gouveia at London Zoo so we could talk about the amazing coding and conservation activities they’re getting up to on the island of Principe – in the last few weeks, Alasdair has been receiving footage from the turtles that are currently ‘wearing’ Raspberry Pi cameras and it’s hypnotic stuff.

May saw me visit Cornwall again to do some work for the National STEM Centre as a roving Scratch roadshow as well as visiting Bank of America to help them run an amazing pi-top workshop for children of their staff!

June

June was a whirlwind month – I managed to fit in performing in an amateur performance of Blithe Spirit as Edith the maid, a Coding Evening at the Library Pot in Richmond AND a trip to San Antonio, Texas for ISTE (the US equivalent of BETT).

July

I’m still not sure how I survived July – I was meant to be going to Brazil for two weeks to run some coding workshops for teachers, but somehow, before I knew it, I was booked to spend the week before in Argentina for pi-top!! I got to attend the first Code Club festival in Horsham but had to leave at lunch time so I could head back to Heathrow for my flights to Buenos Aires.

July

I can’t get over how much of an amazing three weeks I had in South America and I’m very excited about heading back to São Paulo in two weeks for some more training with Maple Bear!

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I spent my birthday in Brazil so it was a great relief to finally come home and relax a bit in August.

August

On the first of August, pi-top moved offices from a very ‘start-up’ office in Bethnal Green, to a much more professional looking office in Old Street – it was a very exciting move for all of us and has been great fun! The only problem with the new office is that it’s much too close to too many lovely eating places!

At the beginning of August, Stuart, Kirk and I managed to build my Google AIY (or ‘Boxy’ as Kirk renamed it), which was great fun!

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On a personal note, in August, we managed to sneak away for a few days with my nieces (aged 7 and 4 at the time) and had a little escape to the country visiting both Longleat and Stourhead House and I directed a rehearsed reading of a play, which I’m now going to be directing in April in Kew!

At the end of August, I decided to see if any of my pi-top colleagues fancied playing a few board games after work and thus ‘board games nights’ were launched at pi-top with a games night occurring every couple of weeks (and occasionally twice in one week). I have to admit to being really pleased with how this has worked out as there seems to be at least 6 people each time and occasionally as many as 12 and, while there are a few ‘core’ gamers, the attendance has been quite varied, allowing a greater variety of people to hang out and spend time together – great team building!

September

Having missed the first pi-top social in July as I was in Brazil, I was pretty excited to organise a second one – karaoke night in the local pub… unfortunately, I’m not sure my colleagues would appreciate me sharing details of the event on social media, but let’s just say that it was a FABULOUS night and I hadn’t realised that I worked with such an amazingly ‘talented’ bunch of people 🙂

I’d love to pretend that September was a peaceful month, but with everything building up for October, there was nothing quiet about it – between a Code Club event at Monzo, beginning our PiWars project, organising a Coding Evening and attending the ArtsRichmond Swan Awards for drama and musicals, it was another crazy, but exciting month.

Also in September, I had an article published in issue three of Hello World magazine – thanks to my earlier meeting with Francisco, I had developed an interest in teaching coding to pupils who don’t speak English as their first language so, while I was in Brazil, I wrote a piece for the magazine and was really excited to see it published.

I finally put all of my running practice to the test in September by running my first 10km in Kew Gardens, finishing in just over one hour and 8 minutes.

October

At the beginning of October, I finally took a real holiday and Stuart and I headed off to NYC for a week – we got back just in time for pi-top to launch the new pi-top with Inventor’s Kit, which had kept me busy for most of September. It was an amazing achievement to have been involved in such a great product and I really feel proud to have been part of the team.

This month also saw me being featured in the MagPi magazine on their community profile – thank you for writing lovely things about me Alex, it was a real honour.

October also saw me ‘popping’ over to Orlando for a few days to attend an event called Project Lead the Way, but, more importantly, to spend some time with John Sperry, my US counterpart along with pi-top‘s new education guru, Graham Brown-Martin.

When I landed back in the UK, I had to immediately jump in my car and drive to Cardiff as I’d been invited by the RPF to help out at Picademy as part of PyconUK. PyconUK was a really wonderful event this year and I’d like to thank everyone who was so supportive of my talk about mental health – this was a bold new step for me and I really hope I get the opportunity to talk more about it in 2018.

Also at Pycon, I was presented with a John Pinner award for service to the Python community which was overwhelming and amazing and I was so honoured to be one of the first recipients (along with quite a few familiar faces including both Tim Golden and Josh Lowe!)

I got to catch up with some many amazing people at Pycon – you read my write up here.

November

I thought that November had brought an end to my travels, so it was surprising to learn that I’d been shortlisted for an Ada Award for European Digital Woman of the year, meaning I had to go to Brussels for an overnight stay. Although I didn’t win, it was an incredible honour to be shortlisted and to spend some time with some wonderful people, especially Danny and Helena, as well as one of my favourites, Iseult and her wonderful daughter Aoibheann – what a fab couple of days!

November saw another Coding Evening and a trip to the V3 Tech Awards, which pi-top were shortlisted for as well as a visit to Merton Council to talk about ways to support the local community and youth clubs with pi-top.

December

December has been a wonderful month with Christmas parties, event planning and meetings about some exciting stuff next year. Thankfully there were no trips abroad, just to visit family in Cornwall and Lincoln and I’ve finally been able to relax a little bit.

Next year is already looking exciting with trips to Brazil, Dubai and Chicago already in the diary – I’m directing a play with auditions in 10 days and a house-move may even be on the cards later in the year (fingers crossed – five years in a one bedroom flat is my limit when the pair of us have so much stuff).

I’m really looking forward to attending BETT with pi-top as we have some great things planned and I’m confident that 2018 is going to be another amazing year. I still can’t get over how much my life has changed in the last 18 months.

 

PiWars, Ada Awards and Text Adventures

Once again, it’s been a busy few months both at work and outside of work. Sometimes I take a look at the last 12 months and wonder how so much could’ve happened in such a short amount of time. This time last year, I was excited about travelling to Glasgow and Belfast, now I’ve been to the US three times and to Argentina and Brazil, with the next Brazil trip all set for next month. It’s funny how quickly things can change.

So, what have I been up to? As simple as it may sound, one of the most exciting things I’ve been doing over the last few months has been working with some of my pi-top colleagues to build a robot to take part in PiWars. Last year, I attended the event as a judge and was struck by how much of a wonderful community event it was and how it really brought out the best of the pi community and so this year I was determined to get involved myself and was surprised to find that some of the guys here were equally keen to get involved. After several meetings, our team is still 8 people strong and we’re really exciting about building our robot (once we finally decide on the design).

Take a look at our first blog post about the members of our team here on the pi-top website. Sometimes I’m reminded that I work with a really great bunch of people!

In the middle of November, I received notification that I’d been shortlisted for European Digital Woman of the year at the Ada Awards. While I didn’t win the award, it was a great honour to have been shortlisted and they made it clear that they had received a lot of entries from women across the EU, so to be in the final three was an incredible achievement, especially as I got to fly to Brussels and spend the day with some of the young nominees, including Aoibheann Mangan, daughter of Iseult Mangan (also an incredible maker and educator) and Helena Staple, daughter of roboteer Danny Staple. Both young ladies (and their parents) made my trip to Brussels really exciting and I loved spending time with them (and eating far too much chocolate with them)!

Finally, as part of my outreach work for Crossover Solutions, I’ve been working for a half day every two weeks in a school in Wandsworth where I’ve been looking at Text Adventures with the Year 6 pupils. You may remember that I first looked at Active Lit way back in 2014 and I’m still a big fan because, while it doesn’t necessarily teach a specific coding language, it really does teach some computational thinking skills. It’s really difficult for students to understand the level of decomposition needed to create a single room in a text game – they have to think about each individual item of the room as an object and then decide whether it is an object that can be opened, taken, hidden etc. I made a couple of presentations to go with the lessons this time which can be found here and here, as well as a worksheet to help define items in the first room. It’s still a very tough interface to explain to children and I found myself running around a lot to help support them – I’d love to hear about how other teachers have gotten on with using it as I really feel as though there is a lot of scope to teach some transferable skills here and the students really enjoy working through and creating their own text adventures.

Anyway, that’s it for my brief update – expect more soon!

PyConUK 2017

Gosh, I’ve been a little bit busy lately. I feel sad because it means my digital making has fallen by the wayside a little, but I guess we have to accept that sometimes life gets in the way.

I can’t believe that it’s November tomorrow – I’m currently in Lincoln visiting my niece for her 8th birthday (of course, I got her something relating to digital making from Pimoroni – a very cool Chibitronics kit that already got opened and tested before breakfast – Expect a review soon).

I’m also just recovering from four amazing days in Cardiff for PyConUK as well as a few days in Orlando for the Project Lead the Way Summit for pi-top.

In this post, I’m going to focus on PyCon, but please be prepared for it to be a fairly long one as I had a lot of adventures as part of my trip to Cardiff.

This is the fourth time I’ve attended PyCon as an educator and I can’t get over how much it has gone from strength to strength in that time. This year, as well as a children’s day and teacher’s track, there was a full two-day Picademy running at the start of the conference along with a wealth of education-focused talks (and a panel) from the likes of Tom Crick and Kushal Das.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Picademy as a facilitator again – it’s always an amazing experience to work with the Raspberry Pi Foundation team and this was no exception – in spite of their being two team members heavily pregnant, the energy and enthusiasm from everyone is always contagious and I absolutely love being part of the team.

This Picademy was no exception and all of the attendees seemed to really enjoy themselves as well as coming back to day 2 with smiles on their faces – there are loads of great photos in the PyConUK photo album by Mark Hawkins, but I’ve put some of my faves below. Please note, all photos within this blog post are from Mark’s album and so should be credited to him!

At the end of the first day of Picademy, we took all of the attendees for a meal at the Clink restaurant, which was a remarkable experience as all of the kitchen staff were inmates at HMP Cardiff. The concept of the Clink is to teach inmates genuine life skills so that they can reduce the reoffending rate for ex-prisoners and it seems that this amazing scheme is doing well, as they’ve seen a 41% reduction since it started. Not only that, but the food was absolutely incredible, so well done to all involved! The only downside was that no alcohol was served within the venue, but the food was so amazing that it didn’t really bother us! If you’re ever in Cardiff, or any of the other locations with a Clink, I would recommend booking a table as it was amazing and such a good cause.

After Picademy was over, I received a lovely message from one of the attendees, who wanted to thank us all for the experience of Picademy, Martin went on to explain that he had been suffering from anxiety and depression and had nearly not returned for day 2, but he was glad that he did. He really deserved his RCE badge and certificate and created an amazing project to detect whether someone had fallen over (useful after a night out). It was amazing to think that between us, we’d helped improve his outlook on life so much that he is already feeling more positive about the future. I’m so grateful that Martin took the time to let us know how he was feeling as it really brightened up our Friday night.

Saturday was the ‘kids day’ as well as the education track at PyConUK and I had offered to run a workshop in the Code Club room for younger coders. I was a bit nervous about running a workshop with breadboards, LEDs and Python for children as young as four, but it was an amazing success and the children were really creative with their junk modelling. Alas, I forgot to take any photos because we were having too much fun!

Also as part of the kids day, the lovely Josh Lowe ran an amazing workshop demonstrating using EduBlocks with Minecraft. I am really impressed with the latest iteration of EduBlocks, which 13-year-old Josh has created himself as a way of  bridging the gap between Scratch and Python – Josh is definitely one to watch and over the course of the weekend he managed to squeeze in a talk, a lightning talk, a workshop and a show and tell!

After the kids’ day finished, we invited the children up to the main conference stage to talk about their projects. I was really lucky to be asked to host this session and I was so impressed with all of the projects that the children produced. From the PyCon Flashing Python to a Micro:Bit Morse Code reader, the projects were amazing to behold and so well explained by all of the children. (Check out the rest of the kids’ lightning talk photos, starting here.)

On Saturday evening, I also hosted the adult lightning talks along with Vince Knight and it was great fun seeing a range of ideas, including Josh and another RPi fave, Martin O’Hanlon, talking about BlueDot, his simple Bluetooth controller for Raspberry Pi.

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It was great fun catching up with Martin and a few others like Dave Ames and Ben Nuttall – one of my favourite things about PyCon is catching up with old friends.

Sunday was my final day at the conference (I decided not to stay for the Code Sprints on the Monday). It was also my most emotional day overall – first off, Josh and I were presented with John Pinner Awards for service to the Python Community. John Pinner was the original founder of Pycon who sadly passed away a few years ago and so the organising committee decided to honour ten community members with an award in his name. I was pretty overwhelmed to have been one of the chosen few (the other 8 received their awards on Friday) and still can’t believe that I was nominated!

Not long after receiving my award, I did something that terrified me – I did a talk about Mental Health where I talked very openly about my personal struggle with depression. It’s been a tough journey to get to where I am today, but I’m confident enough to stand up and talk about my illness in a frank and honest way – I hope that it has opened a few people’s eyes to what it means to suffer from depression and anxiety and I look forward to getting a link to the official video, but in the meantime, Paul from Pimoroni live-streamed the talk in two parts which can be found here and here. Apologies for it being a bit rushed and emotional at times, but it felt good to get it all off my chest and thank you for all of the amazing comments and feedback. If I’ve helped one person or changed one person’s opinion on mental health, then I consider my talk a success so thank you for allowing me to stand up and talk about it. Link to my slides can be found here.

I guess that’s one of the amazing things about PyCon – they actively encourage talks about personal issues as well as including Django girls code days and TransCode days alongside the education days and kids’ days. AND they offer a free fully-staffed crèche to make the conference more accessible to parents, as well as offering bursaries to teachers and speakers to help make it more achievable to attend. It is perhaps the single most inclusive conference I have ever been to and that’s probably why people return year after year.

Finally, well done to everyone involved in organising PyConUK and here’s to next year being as amazing, if not better! Thank you to everyone I spoke to during the event as everyone was incredibly kind, supportive and friendly even before I laid myself bare in my talk. Good luck to those people who I spoke to after my talk who were struggling and felt brave enough to talk to me about it, and to those who maybe weren’t so brave and needed a hug too – it does get better, I promise. And… I only cried a little bit after my talk, and that was only because of how relieved I felt about how well received it had been.

 

 

Computational Thinking in Brazil

I’ve been fairly quiet recently, but at least I have a decent excuse.

Way back in November, I was asked to help write a computational thinking scheme of work for some Canadian schools called Maple Bear – confusingly, I was told that the scheme would be deployed in Brazil, but I had great fun working with David Wall on 16 simple activities to promote computational thinking and computer science. David had seen me on Twitter and wanted to work with me and I really enjoyed writing the lesson plans with him.

Fast forward to May this year and David sent me another email to see if I’d be able to travel to Brazil for two weeks of training with Maple Bear. Every year the Brazilian teachers are invited to Central training in July and January (winter and summer break) to learn pedagogical skills for maths, English and science as well as school leadership training and they’d decided that this year they wanted to include computational thinking as one of their core training sessions. David had done a two-day session in the summer (January) with some specially selected participants, but they wanted to open it up to the rest of the teachers for their winter training which meant that I was invited to São Paulo to help out.

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Maple Bear is a really interesting school group – they follow the Canadian curriculum, but don’t have any schools in Canada. From what I could see, they pride themselves on having some of the best and most well-trained staff that they can and the teachers’ passion for their students came across clearly in my sessions. I think that the schools operate as a franchise around the world, but with the majority of them being in Brazil, where they have a reputation for being some of the best schools in the country. To us Brits, it may seem peculiar, but the Portuguese speaking pupils are taught exclusively in English until they reach the age of 7 when some of the teachers deliver their lessons in English, while others deliver in Portuguese. I have to admit to being really impressed with their commitment to delivering top-quality education.

Anyway, my training was planned to be two, two-day sessions in week one at the central training in São Paulo and then two, two-day sessions in individual Maple Bear schools, one in the city of Belo Horizonte, just north of Rio and one way-up in the north-west of Brazil in João Pessoa, a tropical beach-town where winter is characterised by hot weather and torrential rain.

Needless to say, heading out to teach these teachers about Computational Thinking really got me thinking about what we mean by it. I thought about those four key-words that just trip of any CS teachers tongue – Decomposition, Abstraction, Pattern Recognition, Algorithm.

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Image credit: BBC Bitesize

We call these the cornerstones of computational thinking, but how do we put into words what they actually mean? It’s actually quite difficult to get your head around how to explain abstraction, even when you know what it means, so introducing it to people that are completely unfamiliar with the terms can be quite difficult. For me, I learn best by example and so I immediately thought of activities and examples that would describe these skills, for example, tidying your room is an overwhelming task, but folding your clothes is much less intimidating, or planning to revise for examples over the summer can see terrifying until you break it down into a revision timetable and plan carefully what topic to revise and when.

One of my favourite activities during the training was one I found on code.org – ask the group to add up the numbers 1 to 200 in their heads as quickly as possible, put pressure on them and make them feel stressed. Obviously no one is going to do it, especially if you only give them a few seconds to think about it. Now ask the attendees/students whether anyone actually tried it or whether people gave up – make it clear that it’s ok to have given up.

Now, explain that we are going to decompose the problem by breaking it down a bit. You need to write on the board:

1 + 2 + 3 + .... + 198 + 199 + 200

The next thing we want our users to do is to recognise any patterns in the sum we’ve written up – someone will eventually point out that either you can add 200 + 1 to make 201 repeatedly, or you can add 199 + 1 to make 200 repeatedly.

Now we use abstraction to calculate how many times we’ll need to repeat the sum – depending on whether you’re using 200 or 201, you either need to repeat it 100 times or repeat it 100 times and add 100 one at the end – either way you get 20100 and you’re able to write an algorithm for your sum.

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What you’ve done is apply computational thinking to a fairly complex sum in order to calculate it quickly and understand that actually, adding all of the numbers up to 200 is pretty easy.

In fact, on the final set of training in João Pessoa, I started thinking about how you could make the problem more complex and it occurred to me that you could apply the exact same method to adding all of the numbers up to 400, which would then give you the sum 401 x 200, or all of the numbers up to 600 (601 x 300). As you can see, my maths brain got really excited by the application of this puzzle.

For the first day of the training, I wanted to separate the ideas of computer science from computational thinking and so we focused on unplugged computing; I spent weeks searching through the excellent resources on CS Unplugged and Barefoot Computing as well as using the ideas we’d written into our scheme of work. I wanted to focus the training on the teachers having fun as I know that from my experience of Picademy, I was much more enthusiastic about applying what I’d learnt because I’d had time to try it out and play with it myself.

In the second half of the first day, I had planned on demonstrating how you can apply computational thinking to a music lesson by asking students to compose a piece of music and then write a pictorial algorithm for playing it back. As it happened, I’d seen some street performers in São Paulo that really impressed me by playing incredible sounds just using every day objects like bottles and pipes so and so I used this as inspiration for the teachers on the course and asked them to use items in the classroom to create pieces of music.

At each of the four sessions, I was continuously amazed with the musical talent of the teachers, but what I liked even more was how much fun they were clearly all having. It felt like a mask dropping down as the teachers realised that it was ok to relax and enjoy the activity.

At the end of the first day, I was really pleased to be able to talk about some of the people who inspire me and I ended up with three whole pages full of inspiring people from Carrie Anne Philbin to Cerys Lock! I also talked about great software and hardware like Code Club and Raspberry Pi. Check out my slides from the session here.

On the second day of training, the focus was more on software, I spent the morning introducing the teachers to Scratch and the afternoon looking at Active Lit and the amazing Sonic Pi – once again, I focused on keeping the training as fun and as interactive as possible and I love the fact that every single time I introduced Scratch, it was hard work trying to convince the teachers to go on their coffee break because they were having too much fun!! Interestingly, in all four of my sessions, only around 5 teachers in total had ever used Scratch so for most attendees, it was completely new.

I had such an amazing time meeting a diverse range of people in Brazil and I’m grateful to Maple Bear for inviting me over – I hope I get to go back as I was so impressed with how well all of the people on the training absorbed information and demonstrated eagerness to use what they learnt in their schools. I’d be really keen to hear about what lessons they have taught using unplugged suggestions or else introducing Scratch, Sonic Pi or Active Lit. I loved that each teacher seemed to take something different away with them, with some immediately planning unplugged activities, while others were thinking carefully about how to integrate Scratch into their lessons.

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One of the things that really stood out for me whilst doing this training is that most teachers naturally understand computational thinking, in fact, when you think about the day to day life of a teacher, we are using CT skills on a daily basis without even recognising it. This can be a bit of a trap because we may find ourselves thinkings “oh but I do that already” because the point is that we’re all good teachers because we use computational thinking without thinking. It is a skill that we have developed to become successful, but that doesn’t mean that our students know how to use it; it’s time that we made those implicit skills that make us good teachers explicit for our students’ benefit. We need to make it clear how to use decomposition to make a problem easier to solve or pattern recognition in order to spot how to predict outcomes. We need to make sure that children aren’t growing up with the resilience and toolkit needed to solve the most basic problems.

Our students are not mindless machines, they need to be guided and shown how to help themselves – we can no longer just learn by rote because, as we often quote (or misquote) Richard Riley, the former US director of Education “Education should prepare young people for jobs that do not yet exist, using technology that has not yet been invented, to solve problems of which we are not yet aware”.  How can we confidently prepare our learners for both jobs and technology that does not exist – it’s simple, we can’t, but what we can do is prepare them to be able to cope and to develop the critical thinking skills to manage when a situation is new or unfamiliar. As teachers, we must understand that we are no longer omnipotent and all knowing, there will be pupils, even in the primary school classroom, who know more than we do and that’s ok, because what we do know is how to guide and nurture those students to achieve and become the best that they can… and who knows, maybe one of those pupils will be the one who discovers a cure for cancer, or invents a flying car. Isn’t it nice to know that we were part of that journey?

Travelling to Brazil was an amazing experience and, as a country without any computer science curriculum, I felt honoured to be able to introduce a vision of computer science and computational thinking to around 75 teachers over the course of two weeks; I hope I get to back. Talking to all of the teachers that I met in Brazil really reminded me of why I’m doing all of this and why I love computer science as much as I do. I feel clearer in my own mind about what this journey means to me and what an impact we can make on teachers and students by simply talking about computer science and computational thinking. Thank you Maple Bear for giving me such a wonderful opportunity.

Google AIY…

Ok, before I get started, I wanted to offer a huge thank you to Jamie at The Pi Hut for sorting me out with a copy of the MagPi with the AIY kit. You are a star!

Back in May, the Internet exploded with the news that the MagPi magazine was offering a free Google AIY kit to use with Raspberry Pi. Copies sold out in minutes and people hunted across branches of WHSmiths to try and get their hand on one. Shops got new stock that sold out instantly.

The concept? Google, working with Raspberry Pi, have created a simple voice-interaction module so that you can use your Pi like an Amazon Alexa (but powered by Google).

Naturally, the makersphere exploded with excitement and projects began surfacing across the Internet. Copies of the MagPi were selling on eBay for extortionate prices and people were chattering about what they would create.

I’ve had my copy of the Magpi for a few months, but I wanted to wait until my friend Kirk was visiting as I knew he’d enjoy himself helping us with the making.

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We pulled the kit out of the box, and being the methodical cool kid that I am, I quickly checked the components against the kit I had. This is where we hit the first hurdle – according to the instructions, we had a ’40-pin header’ that was pre-soldered, but the picture showed the 40 single pins that most definitely weren’t pre-soldered. To further add to the confusion, all of the photos of the accessory board within the tutorial appeared to show the 40 single pins soldered on to the board, but the first line of instructions stated that no soldering was necessary – so which was it? Did we need to solder or not?

Further exploration and a brief skim of the instructions made us realise that we didn’t actually need to solder the extra pins on, but we were pretty confused for a while there. Why show them soldered on if we don’t need them!?

Kirk decided to boot up a pi and start writing the code and it was at this point that we realised that we need a special version of OS. Stuart got pretty grumpy at this point because he only knew how to flash SD cards using a command line and he claimed the image file could only be read using a Linux machine – fortunately, I explained about Etcher and we were back on track.IMG_2127.JPG

Before we got any further, we decided to stop for dinner – it had been an hour already and all we’d managed to do was flash an image and get confused about the components.

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After dinner, Kirk checked the SD card – success!

We knew we had the right image when the AIY background popped up so Kirk made a start on setting up the AIY API (supposedly the hardest part of the task).

This is where we hit on yet another issue – the new OS image was convinced that we were time travellers and that it was actually January 2018 – Kirk spent quite a bit of time fighting with the date and even tried to just ignore it, but Chrome clearly had other ideas.

I’m not sure what Kirk did, but he managed to get it working eventually, however, the pi was renamed as ‘TimePi’ to represent it’s time-travelling capabilities.

While Kirk got on with the software, I was in charge of building the hardware, while Stuart caused problems by putting things together ahead of the instructions! (Kirk also decided that we need to have a paintbrush in all pictures…each to their own).

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The next instruction that made Stuart cross involved using Scotch tape to hold the microphone in place – firstly the microphone didn’t sit flush unless you really rammed it into the cardboard and secondly, Scotch tape did not stick to the cardboard properly and so I had to go and find some masking tape instead.

Meanwhile, Kirk had successfully managed to set up the Google AIY API so that it worked with one of my Gmail accounts – both boys said it was surprisingly easy, considering this was the part that people had warned me about going wrong. Having said that, both Kirk and Stuart are hugely experienced using Google products so they didn’t use the instructions particularly, it was something they already knew how to do.

Kirk wanted me to point out that he found the software set up quite confusing as there were instructions in the magazine as well as completely different instructions online, but he managed to get everything working eventually and when i came in from loading up the dishwasher, the two boys were arguing over whether they were on instruction 9 or 12 depending on whether they were using the online instructions or the magazine instructions.

At this point I realised that there was absolutely no way that I would have been able to get the software side working without the boys and I became confident that this was not a beginners’ project.

I took this opportunity to make some cocktails, while Stuart got excited about there being a slot in the cardboard to easily add the SD card… simple things 😉

We got the light to turn on, but hit on some problems

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Stuart dialled in using SSH and we realised that the speaker wasn’t working – on closer inspection, one of the cables that I had previously screwed in had come loose and so we had to pull it apart to refit the cable – personally, I think Stuart knocked it out when he was putting things together in the wrong order, but he claims it was my shoddy building skills!

So, we got the AIY working but were slightly disappointed

Without another add on, we weren’t able to ask the AIY to play music – in fact, it didn’t seem to do much, but the boys got excited and started trying to find out what to do next.IMG_2157.JPG

A bit of hunting and I found a great post on the Raspberry Pi forum which explained how to get the AIY to interact with YouTube. Thanks for posting MikeRR

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It took a while, but Stuart and Kirk were successful and managed to get techno music playing…

The next step was that Stuart wanted to get Radio 6 music playing through the AIY…Things did not quite go as planned, with the AIY mis-hearing Stuart’s instructions a little bit…

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At this point, I was completely oblivious as to what the boys were doing, which once again affirmed that this wasn’t really a project for me, but rather it was better suited to makers and people with greater understanding of both software and hardware. At least they were having fun.

So, in conclusion, I’m not convinced this Raspberry Pi project is one for schools, but in defence of the MagPi, it was never advertised as an educational project, it’s definitely one that’s more for the makers than the educators. The instructions could have done with a bit of polishing, but I suspect most makers wouldn’t have got as confused as I did by something as simple as a pre-soldered header. Basically, this particularly piece was a bit beyond my ability, but the boys had fun, particularly when they got beyond the most basic stage – it was around 11pm when I eventually kicked Kirk out so they must’ve been really enjoying themselves.

The thing is… now what? We have a built AIY unit, but what do we do with it now, other then get it to play Techno Music…