Blog post by Gary Morin.
Our Makerspace, like so many other congregations of Makers around the world, had a Pi Day Celebration today. From 10:00 to 12:00 in the morning we had 25 youngsters in to learn about Pi and do some hands on activities each having to do with Pi and the 5 senses. They loved it.
Our science coordinator Jennifer did an excellent job finding hands on Pi demonstrations for the kids and walking them through each one. But as cool as we adults think we are, at least one of the kids took it upon herself to make up her own Pi Day activity. Penny, who is one of our members and a High School AP Math teacher was sitting with a little blonde girl of 7 or 8 when I walked up. The little girl was holding on to a 28 page 100,000 digit Pi sequence I printed to show the kids a hint of how big Pi is. She was holding it like she would her favorite coloring book. When her sister called her back to her parent’s side she looked at Penny as if to say, “Do I have to give this up?” Penny told the girl she would hold on to it for her and she could come back and get it anytime. The little girl left and Penny looked at me. She told me the little girl had seen a video of another little girl reciting Pi to 430 digits and she wanted to do that too. She was memorizing!
I personally heard a couple of the kids say to their parents as they left, “That was fun Dad /Mom!” Seven year olds who think Pi related activities are fun are great in my book and their parents are great for bringing them. But as great as all that was, they weren’t the best thing that happened on our Pi Day.
In the afternoon, we had an adult Makers hangout where we could all bring in stuff to show off and just talk about projects and what we were working on.
Just after noon, a young High School student and Maker named Cameron came in and said he wanted to see if someone could help him with a project he wanted to build. He had a bag filled with electronic parts including an Arduino computer board, wires, batteries and a commercial electronic module I could not recognize.
It turns out that he had an idea to build a Schrodinger’s Cat demonstration box. He wanted to have the lid hooked to an Arduino computer with a random number generator that would open the box and show the cat was either dead or alive. (Remember Schrodinger’s Cat all you Physics Geeks and “Big Bang Theory” fans)
For a random number generator Cameron wanted to use the count of the radioactive decay particles from a bit of Americium in a smoke detector module. He probably learned in a science class that radioactive decay is a random process and an important component of Schrodinger’s thought experiment. He reasoned that the circuitry in the smoke detector must be able to somehow count the decay particles and send a signal to the alarm control. Wow, pretty smart for a High Schooler! He wanted to know if anybody there could help him find the appropriate signal pins on the circuit board of the smoke detector to collect the random data from the decay process.
Now, there is no way to find a “data sheet” for such a module that would make this easy. This young Maker ripped it out of a home smoke detector for heaven’s sake. The only way to figure something like this out is slog through it with an oscilloscope looking pin by pin for the right ones. More than that though, you need a detective/hacking process.
This is way past my electronics skills. Luckily we had two members there who have extensive electronics experience and were there for the celebration. One of them, Neil, had just brought in the excellent nixie tube clock/calendar he built. The other, Tom, was retired and had extensive experience as an electronics technician. We set Cameron at the bench with the oscilloscope. Then they asked me if we had de-soldering wire, de-soldering tools, jumper wires and some other assorted stuff. I directed them to the cabinets where I had arranged everything. Then they walked this young man thought the hacking process: how to use the oscilloscope to look at the signals, how to de-solder some of the mechanical parts to get access to the circuitry, and how the signals typically worked in this kind of device.
Now it was the Maker’s turn in the driver’s seat. He used the scope to probe the various pins till, voila, he found the one with the random signal! Neil and Tom proceeded to help Cameron solder on the wires needed to get the signals over to the Arduino and program it to spit out the random numbers on a monitor screen. From what I could see, he was already pretty good with the Arduino.
To say that this young man was happy is an understatement. Not only did he have his data pins but he had a better understanding of the whole process. He learned how to de-solder and what tools he needed to do that. He learned more about data collection using the Arduino computer and finally there was all the positive feedback he got for his own self esteem circuits. He told me he had a great time and thanked us all.
Ours is a new Makerspace. We have been operational for only a month or so and our full time staff and volunteer members like me spent a lot of time getting it ready for just this kind of situation. We all walked out there that day smiling from ear to ear. In the end my friends, this is why we do this!
Our Makerspace is the Suncoast Science Faulhaber Fab Lab in Sarasota, Fla. Stop by and join the excitement!
For more Makers, Inventors, Robots, Gamers, and a Science & Technology mini-festival, sign up for the free event, Davinci’s Faire and BarCamp Sarasota-Bradenton. It’s being held April 11 & 12, (Sat & Sun) 2015. Read more about the event, HERE.