Sherman the "Bug", Batteries, and Electricity

The school year is well underway here in Collierville, TN and my Engineering Educational Outreach program has started as of today. I went to my son's school to participate in their Reading Program. This year my wife is in charge of finding volunteers to visit the elementary school to read to the 2nd graders. I decided to help out and the story I read was about 2 dragons named Snorkel and Scorch who lost their jobs at the Royal Palace because of electricity. In the past, their jobs were to light the torches and furnaces in the castle but since electricity is used, they now use their gift of fire breathing to roast marshmallows and hot dogs. I also read a story about electricity and batteries which was appropriate to introduce the Sherman the Bug to my son's 2nd grade class. Sherman is a styrofoam bug that has small LED for a mouth. With an electric switch and 2 "D" size batteries connected to the wires protruding from Sherman's head, the LED began to glow. The children really enjoy seeing this small homemade toy's LED glow. I also demonstrated how electricity can be produced with small hand generator. The generator was connected to a small incandescent light bulb. While discussing mechanical energy with the kids and turning the crank quite hard and fast, I broke the generator. My recovery line was too much mechanical energy was being produced causing the generator to break. The kids really enjoy the stories and the demonstrations. The highlight of the visit was discussing robots and how to build them. Once the kids knew that I build hobby robots, I was blasted with a bunch of questions from how they work to  can I show them ( the 2nd grade class) how to build one. As  I returned to work, I had a warm glow inside because of the children. If you are involved in technology in one form or another, share it with the neighborhood school kids. You'll be glad that you did!!!!


Mind Maps and Robolab

Building robots can be a complicated task of managing software, electrical-electronics, and mechanical subsystems. Figuring out what functions and features the robot will have also takes some designing and planning as well. I found Mind Mapping to be a great tool for managing and planning all the above items as well as providing access to design documents related to the robotics project. At the Midwest Robolab Conference held in Wichita, Kansas, I gave a hands-on workshop entitled "Capturing Functional and Features Requirements of Robolab Based Machines using FreeMind Software." This workshop explained how a FreeMind can be used to build an Interactive Control Panel for managing all the design documents of a robotics or intelligent machine project. I've written a tutorial that explains how to use FreeMind for managing and planning of Hybrid robot using the Handy Cricket, a LEGO RCX, and a "Homebrew" Electronic Temperature Sensor circuit. I'll probably continue adding new FreeMind tricks and tips to the tutorial as time permits, which reminds me: Back to work on the Handy Cricket Robo Hacks Book!


Sneaky Gadgets - The LEGOs Version

Cy Tymony is an Author and Inventor who loves to create gadgets using ordinary items found in the home. His website's opening Intro is

                                         "People often take for granted the common items and devices they use in everyday life.       Looks can be deceiving. It's not what things appear to be, it's what they can be become."

To put his philosophy to practice he has written 2 books: Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things and Sneakier Uses for Everday Things. In these 2 books, Cy shows how:

bulletMilk can be turned into plastic
bulletHow a FM radio can be turned into an aircraft scanner
bulletReveal Counterfeit Currency
bulletMake a Boomerang with a Bookmark

Also, he provides free projects illustrating how anyone can make sneaky gadgets. I found the information on Cy's website to be quite interesting because sci-tech gadgets can be created with "no" budget and they help the environment via recycling old household "odds & ends." The only factors to take into account is one's imagination and creativity and the ability to explore the possibilities. My Lab has ton's of discarded toys, radios, and pcs that can be turned into Sneaky Gadgets quite easily. After reviewing  the free projects as well as watching his short videos, I'm definitely going to build some of these intriguing projects with a slight deviation - I'll use LEGOs to enhance the look and function of my Sneaky Gadgets. I'll post them in a future blog entry. Last, Science Fair season is just around the corner and if your child needs some ideas for projects check out Cy's website for Sneaky Gadgets. Enjoy!!!



Electronics Lab for Kids

I do quite a bit of engineering education outreaches with elementary, middle, and high schools explaining the importance of math and science using robots as the instructional "hands-on" aid. When I came across this project on Make Magazine's blog, I immediately had to post the specifics on my blog. I usually use a Radio Shack Electronics Science Fair Kit when discussing basic electrical-electronics with elementary and middle school kids but this homebrew Electronics Lab project kit is quite easy to build as well as expandable. After reviewing the details on the construction and use, I see various application specific kits that can be built such as Electronic Devices I, Digital Logic, Basic Amplifiers, you see where I'm going with this basic lab project building block. Also, this is great way for Sci-Tech Families to spend some quality time learning about the inner mysteries of electrical-electronics using a relatively easy to build and low cost electronics lab for kids. Enjoy!!!


Need Electrical-Electronic Parts for Your Sci-Tech or Robotics Project? Scrounge Around!

When I started out in electronics, I didn't run out to the nearest electronics parts place ( Olsen Electronics was the place for buying electronics in Michigan in the 80's) I would take them off of discarded radios and TVs. Even today, I have a the DW Foundation (Don Wilcher's) where family and friends can drop off old or broken consumer electronics for recycling of electrical, electronics, and electromechanical components. You'll be surprised to find all types of ICs, connectors, motors, LEDs, transistor, speakers, etc by scrounging the pcb of discarded electronics. Although, the process of removing the parts is somewhat tedious, it makes for a good evening or weekend Sci-Tech Family affair of educational fun. The benefits of Scrounging Electronics provides the following benefits:

bulletHelps the environment
bulletSaves money
bulletAllows one to be creative in use of recycled electronics in sci-tech and robotics projects
bulletIts a great evening or weekend project for Sci-Tech Families
bulletHelps college students who have Capstone Project Assignments

So before you throw out that old TV, radio or computer, scrounge for electronic parts, your junkbox and pocket book will Thank You for It!



Digital Electronics Lab Experiments

As most of you know by reading this blog I'm an Adjunct Instructor for ITT Technical Institute and I'm in the home stretch regarding finishing the Summer Quarter teaching AC Electronics. In a previous Blog, I mentioned that the Lecture Notes are opened to the sci-tech and robo-gadget community. Hopefully this information is serving the community in providing tech info on AC Electronics. Well, I be providing some tech notes on Digital Circuits as well because this September I'll be teaching Digital II on Saturdays. The information I'll be posting on this blog will allow either the Handy Cricket, Basic Stamp, LEGO RCX, or a TI Graphics Calculator to enhance it's computational performance through the use of external Digital circuits. I like to call this free knowledge of Information Exchange Open Courseware: inspired by MIT's free lecture notes program.


Midwest Robolab Conference

If you have been reading this blog, most of you know I participated in an engineering education conference where the instructional tool of choice is LEGO robots! The Midwest Robolab Conference  sponsored by Wichita State Universities Colleges of Education and Engineering presented a conference where engineers, and educators could meet to exchange ideas and projects on using robots in the classroom to spark interest in math and science. Robolab is a programming language created by Chris Rogers of Tufts University and National Instruments whereby robot behaviors can be designed using an iconic language called "Robolab".  The programs are constructed by wiring various control and sensory blocks for motor control and object detection using a wiring tool. After the program is built, it can be downloaded to the target robot using an Infrared Tower into the RCX microcomputer ( the yellow programmable brick). Once the program is started, the robot will carry out the embedded code's instruction without the use of wires. There were several speakers including Chris Rogers and the Midwest Robolab Conference organizer Larry Whitman ( Wichita State University) who gave tutorials on how to program and used CAD tools in designing robotic mechanisms. I presented a discussion and hands-on tutorial on Capturing Functional Requirements using FreeMind Software. A key concept that Chris presented in his keynote speech was to make kids not to become engineers but to be literate about engineering. I agree with that comment because not every kid wants to be an engineer but that should be aware of principles used in designing consumer electronics, buildings, computers, and yes robots!


More ZigBee Research

I've been having a blast exploring the inner workings of ZigBee with the Demo Kit I purchased for my day job. I'm investigating how to add a mesh network controller for Ceiling Fan applications. The Demo kit is quite easy to use :you can start to explore mesh networking right out of the box based on the canned program embedded into the MC16 microcontroller. Here's a list of applications I generated using "Jarnal" to further explore this unique wireless device.



One thing I'm interested in pursing is item 10 :Creating ZigBee based robotic assisted devices (RAD) . I've been interested in creating hybrid robots using different mechanical and electronics controller interface platforms. The 2 workshops conducted at tomorrow's (8/7) Midwest Robolab Annual Conference (Sponsored by Wichita State University) I'll discussed building such a robot using the LEGO Mindstorms RCX with the ROBOTIX construction kit. Some interfacing techniques I'll be posting in future blogs is how to wire the ZigBee Demo kit with the Handy Cricket. Also, with kids returning back to school, I'll provide some resources on ZigBee and the Smart Home. This info would make a good science paper or possible science fair project in how wireless technology can be used to improve the home. So stay tuned to further developments of this cool technology in future blog postings.