Those Little “Gems” for Makers

As makers take on new projects, it is often difficult to anticipate what issues may come up in the build process, or what problems might need solving along the way. Maybe we hit a roadblock because we can’t measure something accurately, but we know there must be a way to do it. We have a vision in our head for creating an object but seem to lack the right tools to make it happen.

These obstacles can be frustrating. And yet, part of the joy of working on something new is the surprise learning opportunity we find in the process of design, creation, and iteration. In our need to find a solution, we encounter a new tool that we might otherwise have overlooked. I like to think of these somewhat obscure tools as gems, given their newfound value in our toolkit.

Let me provide an example.

In a 7th-grade math class this year, teachers wanted to incorporate 3D design and printing in the process of understanding and calculating volume. Rather than teach this concept through a 2D tool (paper) or even through 3D tools (such as cardboard, as had been done in the past and created an issue of project storage), the faculty hoped that by using 3D design software, like Tinkercad, students could prototype, test, and share designs all in a virtual environment before printing out the final models. And they would print these models at a scale much smaller than the original cardboard ones.

As the project began, students worked in groups to create a “robot” model. One student might take on the features of the head, while another worked on the torso, and a third on appendages. Each was responsible for the design, as well as the accurate measurement of volume for the particular part. All students were required to use primitive shapes only, to make the calculations straight-forward. Once initial designs were complete from each group member, files were shared and brought together into a single model. There were iterative steps here as students discovered potential problems of scale and proportion, and needed to make model adjustments.

As the models came in, one of the math faculty considered that while the calculation sheets from students would verify their careful measurements, was there a way we could calculate volume on the 3D design file (.STL) automatically, and thereby check their work?

ViewSTL
It turns out that an online tool does indeed exist. ViewSTL is a free, web-based viewer of 3D design files (both .STL and .OBJ). You simply drop the file onto the web window to view and rotate the model. As part of the information display, the volume is automatically calculated for the model in both millimeters and inches cubed. Here is a screenshot of an example model below.

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 12.57.52 PM

In another example from a few years back, a middle school student in my design and make elective (Creator’s Studio) built a circuit using LEDs, wires, and a power source for her “Name in Lights” project. She needed to determine the correct amount of resistance and the correct wiring to successfully power a given number of LEDs. While time and effort could be taken to calculate the math using Ohm’s Law, we wondered if there was a tool that could do this for us quickly and accurately.

LEDCalc
We discovered LEDCalc; a free, online tool that can calculate the appropriate resistor value and the wiring configuration necessary for any number of LEDs and a stated voltage. And if there is not enough voltage, it states that too. Below is a sample read out. She supplied the values on the left, LEDCalc generated the wiring diagram and resistor values.

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 9.57.01 PM

Here is the project created by the student (her last name was Block). She used a 12V volt power source and 29 color-changing RGB LEDs:

Getting Help in Finding Gems
There are many gems out there to discover. It is just a matter of matching them up with a particular need. It helps to have a community you can tap when that need arises. I am constantly seeking help from my favorite PLN, the K12 fablabs group. They are inspiring, knowledgeable, and friendly educators from around the world who don’t hesitate to help out whenever possible. It is through K12 fablabs that we first learned about LEDCalc, and I continue to approach the group with new inquiries regularly.

What little gems have you found in your maker experience? Do you have a favorite educator PLN? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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