Step away from the ‘smartphone’ and try using your hands and mind to make something – #bookreview

The Make: Series of How-to Books

A British scientist made headlines a few years ago when she warned that young people no longer make or repair things. It has become all too easy for them now, she cautioned, to simply throw away old or broken devices and buy new ones.

A key point was that many things currently being discarded could be fixed or refurbished and put to new uses. It would just take a little effort, a little learning, and some imagination.

I ran into some of that “no longer make or repair things” attitude a few years ago while working temporarily as a substitute teacher. If you have ever been a substitute in a public high school or middle school, you likely know that students often view “subs” as an excuse to pay absolutely no attention to anything he or she says.

When I could get no interest or response to the day’s assigned work in a science class, I tried introducing a challenge: Imagine you have become stranded on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean, and you have just a few items with which to try to survive and attract the attention of a passing ship. The items ranged from coconuts and palm fronds to a pocket mirror, a small magnifying glass, a couple of cups, some string and a safety-pin.

I figured the kids might come up with some clever ways to (1) crack open the coconuts for food and liquid, (2) start a fire using a magnifying glass and dried palm fronds, (3) use the string and safety-pin to catch a fish to cook over the fire, (4) use the cups to boil seawater and capture the steam to make a little drinking water, and (5) prepare a separate pile of palm fronds to burn as a rescue signal to a passing ship.

Ha. At first, the students seemed intrigued and engaged by the challenge. They immediately started calling out survival “strategies.” Unfortunately, most of their ideas started with two concepts: “First, I’d go to the mall and buy…” or “First, I’d go online and buy….”

The reality of being stranded in isolation without immediate communication did not even register with them at first. When they did begin to try to imagine surviving without their smartphones, they quickly ran out of ideas and became sullen or antagonistic toward me.

This experience also became the straw that finally broke the back of my desire to continue as a substitute teacher. I had grown up at a time when making, tinkering, building, and repairing all were noble pursuits for a teenager interested in science, electronics, space and engineering. If I wanted a shortwave radio or a new type of model airplane or a small rocket I could launch in my back yard, I built them from scratch or combined pieces of previous projects. None of this experience registered with my students. And my next attempts to stir up enthusiasm for making and repairing things similarly fell flat.

Make It So?

Do you worry that your kids are growing up not knowing how to make things or fix things? Do you fret that you no longer remember how to make things or fix things?

Working with your hands, eyes and brain – and not just mindlessly swiping an index finger across a tiny screen – can be both physically and mentally rewarding.

Of course, the web is alive with “how to” information for making or repairing almost anything. And I make occasional pilgrimages to public libraries and bookstores to find reference materials and instruction books related to specific projects.

I am an unabashed fan of the “Make:” series of books from Maker Media. I don’t build all of their projects, but I do try out some of them. And I enjoy reading about zany, yet sometimes practical, stuff such as (1) how to use a magnet to tell if money is counterfeit, (2) how to create artwork that actually does something, using just a handful of electronic components, (3) how to generate electric power with several lemons connected in series, or (4) how to make some really good paper airplanes and paper helicopters. The “Make:” books consistently feature clear, well-organized instructional text, illustrations and photographs of how things go together.

Books such as Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff (2nd edition), Easy 1+2+3 Projects, and Planes, Gliders, and Paper Rockets can appeal to parents and children who are in elementary school or older. For older kids and their parents, or for would-be engineers, Make: books such as Bluetooth, Getting Started with Intel Edison, and 3D Printing Projects can be helpful and enlightening how-to guides. Books on numerous other topics also are offered.

Do your kids (and/or you) seem unhealthily addicted now to clutching and staring at smartphones all day? You may want to try putting the devices aside and seeing what you can create with your hands, your mind, some household materials and a few readily available gadgets that don’t require pricey data plans and contracts.

You can do it! Power off now! (Okay, for just a few minutes at first if you insist and if you have a really bad case of smartphone withdrawal.)

— Si Dunn

Make: Paper Inventions – A fun how-to book for kids and their adults




Make: Paper Inventions

Kathy Ceceri

Maker Media, Inc. – paperback

Don’t just hand this book to your kids, say “Have fun,” and then go off to play with your computer. Get out the glue, scissors and paper and join in.

You might enjoy seeing what happens  when you (1) cut all the way around a Möbius strip or (2) fold a single strip of paper into a versatile and surprising trihexaflexagon, or (3) try your hand at quilling. That, the author writes, is “the art of creating 2-D and 3-D designs out of thin paper spirals and curls.”

Make: Paper Inventions opens with a nice, succinct overview of the history of paper and the fact that it was not made from the hard interior of trees until the mid-19th century. Before then, paper was made from many other materials, such as linen, cotton, the inside of certain tree barks, and the flattened stalks of papyrus plants.

The first project in the book is the messiest, and you may not want to use your favorite blender. But it will provide good teaching moments for kids (and their adults). The text and photographs show how to make new paper from several sheets of recycled copy paper. You will not want to run the homemade paper through your laser printer, but it can be used for art projects.

Kids can handle some of the paper projects in this book by themselves. However, the more complicated ones, such as building a large geodesic dome from newspaper pages, definitely will need adult guidance and encouragement. And certain materials may need to be ordered.

Meanwhile, the final chapters of this fine book offer projects that mostly involve folding pieces of paper. And they provide some focus on mathematics, such as how to fold paper in such a way that just one diagonal cut will result in a five-pointed star.

Make: Paper Inventions can help put more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) into the lives of your kids–and into your life, as well.

Si Dunn

Hello World! – Updated book brings new fun to learning Python – #programming #bookreview

Sande--Hello World!, 2e

Hello World!

Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners (2nd Edition)

Warren Sande and Carter Sande

(Manning, paperback)

Many politicians, educators and pundits keep arguing over whether the United States should offer computer programming classes to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Others say all of us, including senior citizens, should do some coding to help us (1) maintain mental sharpness and good computer skills and (2) ward off late-in-life memory problems such as dementia.

These contentious debates are a long way from being settled, of course. Meanwhile, questions also rage over which programming languages we should learn. There are, after all, many dozens now in use.

Experienced software developers often state that Python is a good choice for youngsters ready to tackle their first “real” language, particularly once they have spent some time mastering Scratch, which MIT describes as “a programming language and an online community where children can program and share interactive media such as stories, games, and animation with people from all over the world.”

Manning Publications recently has brought out an updated second edition of its popular Python how-to book, Hello World!, written by Warren Sande and his son Carter Sande.

Some parents want to hand a programming book over to a child and let them learn at their own pace. And that can be done, in many cases, with Hello World! (It is written at a 12-year-old’s reading level, according to Manning). But other parents want to share the learning experience and be mentors, too, and the Sande book can be used effectively that way, as well. In either case, many children younger than 12 also should be able to learn from it.

Be sure to note the “Other Beginners” in the book’s subtitle. I have taken classes in Python, and I have worked my way through a couple of  Python programming books. Hello World! is proving a useful addition to my library, too, because it gives some clear explanations and examples for  many different concepts, such as using variable nested loops, importing portions of modules, or providing collision detection in a game, to name just a few.

One big question quickly pops up when someone decides to learn to program in Python: Python 2 or Python 3?

Several years ago, the language was updated from version 2 to version 3, but many users of version 2 chose to not upgrade. So now we recently have had Python 2.7.6 and Python 3.3.3 (with Python 3.4 coming soon). The two versions have some similarities, but they also have essential differences. Bottom line: They do not play well together.

In this second edition of Hello World!, the authors have elected to stick with Python 2 in their text and code examples. But they have added notes to help make the code work for students using Python 3. Likewise, they have added an appendix explaining some major differences between Python 2 and Python 3.

Other significant changes include using color in illustrations and code listings and, in the chapter on GUI programming, using PyQT, rather than the no-longer-supported PythonCard. And the updated book now spans more than 460 pages, including its index.

With Hello World!, even the most eager student who is a very fast reader can be kept focused and busy for many hours while learning how to program in Python.

Si Dunn

The LEGO Build-It Book 1: Amazing Vehicles – Creating with 1 brick collection – #bookreview

The LEGO Build-It Book 1: Amazing Vehicles

Nathanaël Kuipers and Mattia Zamboni
(No Starch Press, paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-59327-503-7

Using just one collection of LEGO bricks and this colorful how-to guide, you can build 10 different model vehicles, starting with a simple go-kart and working your way up to a muscle car, a street rod, and a rescue truck, among others.

No Starch Press recently has launched its LEGO Build-It Book series with this well-crafted volume, aimed at readers age 7 and up. Volume 2, due out in September 2013, will offer another group of 10 construction projects that can be built from just one collection of LEGO bricks.

Many young readers will appreciate the new LEGO book because it has many illustrations that mostly just show,  step by numbered step, how each vehicle goes together.

Nathanaël Kuipers is a Dutch design professional who spent several years working for the LEGO Group in Denmark, where he was mainly responsible for engineering LEGO Technic models. Co-author Mattia Zamboni has a background in graphic design, photography, and LEGO, as well as electrical engineering.

A key message from this book and the evolving Build-It Book series, Kuipers says, is: “You don’t need to buy the really expensive products or lots and lots of sets to make interesting models. With a little creativity and some useful techniques, you can build endless models from a simple collection of bricks.”

Si Dunn