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Morning Sun
  • Okie In Exile -In search of the Computer-Controlled potato cannon

  • Every once in awhile I get tired of living in my head all the time and I need something to do in the physical world.

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  • Every once in awhile I get tired of living in my head all the time and I need something to do in the physical world.  A certain constituency in my household believes it should be taking out the trash, cleaning out the basement, or other mundane but necessary activity.  And she’s right; I should be better about that.  The roaches in the basement are complaining about the filth.
    But there is a temptation to spend my time some other way.  I few years back this was done in my mania over potato cannons.  Then I decided maybe cannons weren’t necessarily what I needed to make, so I went through an extended period where I made computers.  Then I discovered that building computers is expensive, so I made a crystal radio.
    Now I’ve discovered something called the Arduino microcontroller.  To put it in broad terms, the Arduino microcontroller is a tiny computer that you can interface with lights, servos, and motors. I’ve set myself the project of building a robot car and I’ll try to document that on my blog.  Instead of doing that today, I want to talk about the ramifications this has for education.
    In each of the projects I mentioned above, my first step was to go to the Internet.  If you’ve got the spare time to kill, I invite you to pick out any one of those topics and google it. You will get hit after hit, some of it exactly on target and some of it trash.  Some of it so trashy you know not to even look at it.  (What hot Asian girls have to do with potato cannons is beyond me.)
    But the trash isn’t the biggest problem.  The biggest problem is the stuff that looks helpful but isn’t.  When I was in my computer building phase, I wanted to make a home media center based on Linux.  I’d found a source that said it was easy.  I gathered all the materials I needed and started pushing my way through to discover “easy” in this case meant “I think someone might be able to do it.” I had to build a Windows media center instead and that cost more money.
    So this source wasn’t trash: it was a trap.  I am sure someone who knew more than I did might’ve been able to do it, but a teacher would’ve been able to direct me to something that wasn’t a blind alley.  Don’t get me wrong; learning how to deal with blind alleys is a useful skill, but if you get too many of them at the wrong time, it can be very discouraging.
    For someone who is teaching in a technical area, there are innumerable resources available online.  (I don’t know whether this is simply because technical types have greater access to the Internet and are more comfortable with its technology or because I am not looking.  How the folks in the arts and the humanities do what they do is a wonderful mystery to me.) But the Internet is a jungle and there is a great need for guidance.  You need someone to help you avoid the traps.
    Page 2 of 2 - In education, we set up simple adventures for our students so they can test their limits and experience success.  We gradually step up from those simple adventures to more complex ones until--we hope--the students will be able to guide themselves through their own adventures.
    What we have on the Internet is much like what happened when the printing press was invented.  At that time, they had a lot of books available that weren’t available before.  You can teach yourself from books, but, as I mentioned above, there is trash and there are traps.  The role of the teacher is be a guide through that, and it is the same today.
    So as teachers we’ve needed to master the world of books, and now we need to master the world of the Internet.  We’ve got to learn to look at what we are really trying to do in terms of teaching our students and to use the tools we have available in the best possible way.
    They can then take what they’ve learned and take it to the next level by being creative.  I am thinking about the possibility of making a computer-controlled potato machine-gun using a computer and an Arduino microcontroller.  What do you think?
    Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. You may contact him at okieinexile@gmail.com.
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