Inventions we Love! Matrix Flare

We had so much fun at Denver Mini Maker Faire!  We saw tons of great new things, and met interesting people that are working on creative and wonder-inducing new inventions.

One of our favorites is Matrix Flare (and they’ve signed up to exhibit at the upcoming STEAM Fest – so be sure to join us and check them out!)

We interviewed Tasha Bingman and learned more about Matrix Flare.  We hope you’ll support her Kickstarter campaign.  We think you’ll be inspired by her story.

An idea is born
matrix.cubes

Matrix Flare cubes show off their creative animations and artwork created in the Pixel Maker App.

Tasha initially created this project for her 7 year old so he could learn about circuits, programming, graphical user interfaces (GUI), and still be able to create art quickly.  He enjoys it so much she thought it would be a fantastic Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) project.  After they’d created a couple of them, they realized that they were playing with the animations so much they figured others would enjoy them as well. Read more

The Lessons of Lock Picking

maxresdefaultAt the Boulder Mini Maker Faire, we hosted a lock picking table.  Adults and children alike sat for hours experimenting with locks and practicing their lock picking skills.  One of the parents at the event questioned our judgement stating that lockpicking is promoting illegal behavior.

That really got us to thinking.  Is she right?  Why would we encourage illegal behavior?

We sat down and examined the sport of lock picking (called locksport – see http://locksport.com/), and the value and virtue of lock picking as an activity.  Here are the reasons that we love lockpicking and why we’ll have it again at The Rocky Mountain STEAM Fest in September.

Criminals don’t take time to pick locks.  Statistics show that crooks don’t pick locks (technically “non-destructive entry”), they break windows, kick doors, or cut padlock hasps (“destructive entry”). The criminals don’t have the patience to learn a skill which will slow them down in the act of stealing things.

Locksmithing is a legitimate profession.  Locksmithing — the art of fixing locks, which often means picking them — is a legitimate, sometimes profitable, legal profession.  One of the goals of our STEAM Fest is to connect young people that are exploring their career options – or adults that are looking for a new career, to possible professions.

A lock is a complex mechanical device. Really, a lock is a puzzle. Our lockpicking exhibit has “open sided” locks that allow participants to see the insides of a lock. Participants have an opportunity to see how the tumblers and locking mechanisms actually work — this familiarizes them with the functionality, and gives them insight into why these devices protect their belongings and property.  It might also help them to identify locks that are not as secure, as well as those that are.

Because locks are complex mechanical devices (puzzles), they require problem solving skills to both open, and close.  A younger child will enjoy closing and opening a lock with a key (which was also provided at the table), while his or her older sibling, (or any one of the dozens of adults that were interested in the locks), will enjoy multiple approaches to solving the puzzle at their fingertips.  Problem solving is a critical skill (in life), and a skill that has been identified by dozens of career success reports as lacking in American adults.

It’s important to learn persistence.  Part of being a proficient problem solver (and of being a productive member of society), is the skill of failing, and learning to persist and to try again. If you visit a lock picking exhibit, you will observe all of the participants are failing many times, until they find a solution that works — and then they’ll do that two or three times (often with an expression of delight on their faces).  This determination and persistence is important to learning outcomes, and lock picking is a terrific way to give kids (and adults), a taste of it, without being so frustrating that they are angry.

Everyone likes the joy of accomplishment. Because lock picking exhibits typically include some relatively easy locks to pick, most people got to enjoy success with the task — giving them a sense of pride, joy, and accomplishment — as great event-planners, we want folks to get as many of these opportunities as possible.

There is a large contingent of people around the world that participate in the sport of lock picking — check out http://locksport.com/ – they have competitions around the globe — these are all sporting and professional men and women who love the challenge of a good puzzle — they are not criminals, nor are they advocating or participating in destroying security, privacy, or personal property.

Activities like lock picking can stimulate great conversations. Any child (or adult), that is concerned about the illegal uses of lock picking, can facilitate a great conversation about “good” activities and “bad” ones — some lock picking is illegal and NOT OK — but that same activity, in a legal and constructive environment, can be a fantastic learning tool. We’re also excited to provide activities like this that get people talking about important and complex issues.

Join us at Rocky Mountain STEAM Fest and try your hand at a lock or two yourself!

Study: Does Vacationing Really Make You Happier?

Here we are in the week after the holidays. With Christmas on a Wednesday and New Years on a Thursday, for many of us it was a longer than usual break. Did you stay home or did you travel? For how long? And was it relaxing or stressful? Now as we get back to work and the kids get back to school, are you rested, recharged and reinvigorated as you roll into the winter? Or has your holiday high evaporated into sluggishness as you drag your thoroughly vacationed self back to the grind? A study in the journal Applied Research in the Quality of Life asks a similar question: does vacationing make you happy?

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Play With Modular Robotics at the Boulder Mini Maker Faire!

Not long after opening its doors in an unassuming industrial park building just off Bluff Street in downtown Boulder, Modular Robotics found itself in crisis: every Friday an employee had been running to the suspiciously close Boulder Beer for a pair of six-packs, but now the company had expanded and not only was there no room in the fridge, but, “the six-packs went incredibly fast,” says Christie Veitch, the company’s Education Director.

In the early life of a tech startup, desperate times call for decisive action and now, almost five years after their 2010 founding, a Kegerator sits in the corner. Just before the holidays it was nearly buried in cardboard boxes and tupperwares full of plastic pieces. Down a tight hallway where the Mod Robotics team had recently cut through the wall and into a vacated next-door space are the smashed-together bench style desks of the administrative and marketing team. After our meeting, Christie decided to avoid the hallway by going outside with me and then back into the building via another door.

Chip.Elf

Chip is a Level VI Modular Robotics elf.

But the real work of Mod Robotics is done the old-fashioned way: by elves working with screwdrivers and soldering irons. Here is Chip. He is a level VI elf. They’re no longer baking circuit boards in a fry pan, as did CEO Eric Schweikardt for his PhD project that became the company’s prototype. But after the boards are printed and the plastic pieces molded, the elves snap, screw and solder these pieces into Cubelets and MOSS robot building systems.

That’s the genius of Mod Robotics: the elves do the heavy building so that you don’t have to. Cublets are self-contained inputs and outputs that you and yours can magnet together into robots as big or small as your imagination. The black ones are sensors, the clear ones do things, and the colored ones think, or, you know, at least provide the backbone of logic.

The newer, MOSS system adds the structures of panels, wheels and various other connective bendy bits to Cubelet-like backbones, allowing you to make cars, creatures and other creations that look like real or imagined awesomeness. If you’re an educator or an education-minded parent, Mod Robotics also hosts free, downloadable lesson plans like 10 Cool Things to Do With Cubelets, 10 More Cool Things to Do With Cubelets, and the comprehensive MOSS Instroduction to Robotics Unit.

Christie says that in addition to demonstrating the basics of robotics – sensors, effectors, logic – Mod Robotics hopes to show the power of emergent behavior.

“Each one of these things is just a thing,” says Christie, eloquently, “but when you put them together, you can see how they create complex behaviors – a robot lighthouse that knows to come on in the dark or a steering robot that knows to slow down before it crashing into stuff.”

My experience of chucking my kids (8 and 6) into a pile of Cubelets is that offspring tend to be immediately engaged in a way that creates their own emergent understanding. At first my kids snapped stuff together randomly and semi-noticed what happened, and then their ideas got more goal-directed.

“I want to make a car,” said Leif, 8, and with some experimentation, he was eventually able to do just that.

“I want to make a robot dinosaur that breathes fire at daddy’s butt,” said Kestrel, 6, and now a couple weeks later she remains steadfastly undeterred.

If you want to play with Cubelets or Moss yourself, stop by the Mod Robotics booth at the Boulder Mini Maker Faire, January 31 – February 1, 2015 at the Boulder County Fairgrounds! For more on the Modular Robotics manifesto of simple pieces from whence arise complex behaviors, check out CEO Eric Schweikardt’s talk at TedX Front Range, here:

Make Eggshell Geodes With Connections Academy

Look in the hills of the Front Range and you’ll find crystals like quartz and shiny minerals like laminated sheets of mica. Up the Big Thompson and St. Vrain, my kids and I know caves lined with them. Take quartz home and chuck it in the rock tumbler for a couple days and you’ve got a pearlescent stone perfect for school show and tell. But find a geode and you’ve got a dragon egg. There is nothing like cracking open a drab rock and seeing the insides shimmer. This activity from Connections Academy will help you make your own.

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Kitables Kickstarts Automatic Rubik’s Cube Solver


The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that without the addition of work, the entropy of a system will increase. In other words, left alone a system becomes more disordered: molecules disperse, heat homogenizes, and if you drop a Rubik’s Cube, it ain’t real likely to solve itself. Instead, random processes applied to this best selling toy of all time tend to increase its disorder. Of the 350 million Rubik’s Cubes sold to date, how many do you think are sitting at the bottom of the toy box or even on the kitchen counter, unsolved? According to this lovely 2nd Law, the correct answer is lots.

The Boulder startup Kitables is out to change that. Currently being Kickstarted is its snap-together kit that in conjunction with a little Arduino board allows you and yours to put a Rubik’s Cube in a slot and watch the automatic arm solve the puzzle for you. They call it “every nerd’s dream machine.” And I don’t know about you, but the idea will definitely keep us here at Maker Boulder up at night.

The company is the brainchild of Arieann DeFazio, research scientist at CU Boulder using x-ray crystallography to study Alzheimer’s disease.

“I always had it in my head to create the perfect job, somewhere I could have a business and do science too,” says Arieann, escapee from a biomedical sciences PhD program in Florida. “After five or six years of searching and not finding it, I finally decided to make it myself.”

Arieann was surfing Instructables.com when she realized, “Here are all these great ideas, but nobody’s got the parts!” When she looked deeper, Arieann says she found that most existing DIY kits were just electronics or just mechanics or just science kits, “Most of what you get from Radioshack, is you do like five steps and you have a robot,” she says.

Arieann’s goal was to combine mediums to create a fully integrated home science experience. Working at CU and with another Boulder startup, Arieann started formatting her kits on the side. Eventually she hopes to have Kitables kits across STEM fields.

For now, there’s the Rubik’s solver. God’s Algorithm already existed for the Cube — the optimal path of action from any given state to the solution state. Arieann brought a friend with mechanical engineering experience into the business to work the machine side. And they’re hoping that Kickstarter will help take care of the business side.

“We have two Kickstarter goals,” she says. “The first is to make sure people actually want this thing. And the second is to provide a little seed funding, or I guess it would be micro-seed funding.”

Here’s a little editorial: as awesome as the solver most certainly is, you gotta visit the Kickstarter for the video’s comedic genius, which taps into the place within us all that knows what it’s like to obsess over Rubik’s. Be warned: the soundtrack for the solver video will make you want to get your Kojak on.

Consider this: by pledging for Kitables you can do you part to fight entropy and bring just a little more order into the world. Let this forever be known as the day that entropy was beaten back from the gate!

Roller Coaster Thought Experiment

You know those thoughts you have in the shower? No, not those thoughts…but the mind-wandering flashes of observation or brilliant insight that you can’t seem to get any other way? I was thinking last night about a trip we took last year to Knott’s Berry Farm, where Leif — then 48 1/4 inches tall — was just tall enough for the radical roller coasters. There were absolutely no lines and so Leif and I strolled through the gates and directly onto Ghostrider, where we seated ourselves in the last car of the train. With my continued assurances of a fairly mellow ride, we clicked toward the top of the first hill. And long before we crested, Leif and I were whipped over the top and down many hundreds of feet toward the cold, hard ground, pulled over by the gravity already working on the front seats. Now in hindsight and in the shower, I recognize a couple thoughts that went through my head at the time. Here they are in no particular order:

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Calculate Best Bucket Size for Halloween Haul

Want a real Halloween nightmare? Imagine filling your child’s too-small bucket in the first three houses and going home with only a small slice of your kid’s potential rake. But if you allow your little monster (or in my case, blue whale with pink and purple barnacles), to carry a big bag, you should be prepared to spend the hours and hours (and hours) needed to fill it. Bad news: there are nightmares on both ends of the bag guesstimation spectrum.

So instead of playing the equivalent of Russian roulette with your child’s Halloween bag size, use the equation below to calculate—with the power of absolute mathematical certainty (wink, wink)—the bag size that’s best for you and yours.

•  T= Total time in hours you plan to spend trick-or-treating

•  A= Trick-or-treater’s age. If over 20 (or below zero…), shame on you. You’re stealing my kid’s goodies.

•  Hc= Hours spent on costume. If store-bought translate into hours at $20/hr.

•  Pd= Population density in trick-or-treat neighborhood. Enter 1 for “rural”, 2 for “open suburban”, 3 for “tight suburban”, or 4 for “Apt or dorm”

•  Ma= Estimated median age in neighborhood. For comparison, median age in the Gaza Strip is about 15 and in Japan about 41.

•  X= Your child’s ineffable, illogical, but very real lust for candy. Enter 1-10 with 10 being “has strategized since last Halloween”

Interpretation Key:

If Bckt is less than 1, your pockets are more than enough

If 1<7, use small-size, plastic jack-’o-lantern bucket

If 7<Bckt<15, use the standard trick-or-treating bucket

If 15<Bckt<25, use a grocery bag

If 25<Bckt, use a trash bag


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Alice Shi Kembel’s Take on Captivity vs. Freedom for Mice & Mini Makers

Our former pet mouse, Snowflake, started out as snake food.  He and two other mice had been purchased by our son’s friend to use as bait for snake traps in the field next to his house in Park City.  When we returned to his house after a five day excursion to Yellowstone National Park, we found three mice in a colorful plastic cage, complete with a climbing tunnel, loft, and running wheel.  My three boys fell in love immediately, and spent hours playing with the mice, who they named Snowflake, Brownie, and Ribbon.

When our son Jonah’s friend and his mother returned to the house two days later, the mice had become pets in the boys’ minds, so it was a shock to them when Tyler announced, “I’m going to use the mice in my snake traps now.”

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Throwback Thursday: History’s 5 Most Underrated Inventions

What are the most important inventions of all time? Some people go for big, obvious things…like boats, the printing press, or gunpowder. Don’t get me wrong, those are all pretty great and everything. But the printing press is nowhere without paper and sans compass, boats were pretty much stuck paddling around in sight of land. This list rights the wrongs of history’s tunnel vision. Here are history’s 5 most underrated and overlooked inventions. Read more