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Education

Philip Mallon discusses STEM education volunteering, University of the Third Age 

 March 15, 2021

By  Peter

Philip Mallon is back for another interview (here's is his first interview).

In this interview, Philip talks about his work as a volunteer STEM educator and mentor. Philip is a prolific Maker, with a wide range of technology interests. What I find fascinating about him, is that Philip is always ready and keen to teach everything he learns.

Now in retirement after a long career as an engineer, in which he designed and build road building robots, custom computers, and automated road safety systems, Philip is now helping others learn tech.

He is active in the community by teaching kids with special needs, kids in school, and "kids" of a certain age as a mentor in the University of the Third Age (U3a).

What joins all of those activities is Philip's passion for technology and education.

In this interview, Philip explains how he does it all. If you are interested in helping others learn tech, you will find practical and useful advice in this interview.

Enjoy!

Philip's contact and resources

Full transcript

Peter Dalmaris: [00:00:00] Philip, great to have you on the Tech Explorations podcast again. How are you today?

Philip Mallon: [00:00:05] Oh, great. Yeah. I'm looking forward to having an interview with you.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:00:10] This is your second one, right? You've done one about two years ago.

Philip Mallon: [00:00:14] Yeah. That's right. And it's an opportunity to do a bit of reflection on what I've done in the last couple of years.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:00:20] Yeah. And those were not just ordinary couple of years, especially the last one, right? Over the last year, we had the pandemic still raging across the world. Vaccinations, thankfully, are being rolled out. How was that year for you?

Philip Mallon: [00:00:36] Well, it didn't stop me. I probably did about a hundred projects last year. And I did some projects that related to the pandemic, which include thermal cameras, social distancing. And I was sort of interested what would happen if we became isolated and we had to rely on our own technology, could we make our own masks with 3D printers and things like that. But a lot of that didn't happen because the supply lines became open. And I've got a lot of technology which is ready to go but hasn't really been used.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:01:13] I'm glad you said that. I was doing a bit of reading yesterday, and one article in particular that I read mentioned that the fact that technology and science actually prevailed over the last year in the pandemic. Like technology, really, held on science delivered what it needed to deliver. It's the politics that failed. So, how about that? Like, our technology infrastructure held, we didn't lose electricity, we didn't go hungry. We had a vaccine in record time. It's just that something else broke in the way that politics and decisions are taking place. And I'm particularly happy about the technology side, obviously, being a technologist. What do you think as an inventor?

Philip Mallon: [00:01:59] I was really surprised that I could use technology to have a social interaction with seniors. And yet with the younger people, on a group called OzBerry, everything failed. But with the seniors, I was invited to a presentation in October and there was about 50 seniors all engaged with Zoom that were all familiar with it. And I thought that was fantastic. You know, they kept on going and they were learning new things.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:02:30] OzBerry is a meetup, right, in Sydney? It's a very popular meetup in Sydney, normally they do face-to-face meetups. But what you're saying is that they had to switch to an online format and that's where the whole thing fell apart, right?

Philip Mallon: [00:02:44] Yeah. OzBerry is very unstructured. So, you know, you just go there, meet someone, and have a face-to-face discussion. Whereas, U3A, which stands for the University of the Third Age, they have very structured meetings.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:03:03] Maybe that's the key, right?

Philip Mallon: [00:03:05] Yeah. It wasn't the technology. It's the fact that they weren't going to let this pull them down. They were going to go ahead and also learn how to do it. And they did it very, very well.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:03:19] That's a great point. I think the difference in OzBerry, people there that attend are really strong in any technology you can imagine these days. It's a very mixed group with a lot of different skills. But I guess the structure was missing, which is something that you do need when you are online using all sorts of different technological tools, they're face-to-face, to interact freely as you would in a normal meetup.

Philip Mallon: [00:03:46] Exactly.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:03:47] Great. Philip, so I know that you've got a presentation prepared for us. Before we jump into it, could you give us a summary, what is it that you'll be talking about today?

Philip Mallon: [00:03:59] Well, I'll be emphasizing more on my current experiences. And one of them is, again, with senior people that are retired. And it's to give them a hobby, but it's also to involve them, letting them know more about what their grandkids are doing in STEM education. So, it's having that conversation, but not just by someone talking about STEM. It's for them, themselves, to actually make and do a STEM project. And that's a real big challenge because a lot of seniors have never done any programing in their lives. So, I'm starting, online, teaching them programing which leads onto a STEM project.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:04:48] So, Philip, I see two things here. You want to join generations using technology, so grandkids with the grandparents, that's one. But you're also going to get the older generations - I guess the long matured generations - into STEM education. And I want to ask you here, why do you think that's important? Like, if I'm a 60 or 70 year old retiree, wouldn't I rather - that's the right word maybe - go play golf or fish or watch TV? Why should I be concerned about STEM?

Philip Mallon: [00:05:24] Because they hear about it from their children and their grandkids, and they hear about, "Well, what is this STEM? How is STEM different from the way I learned at school?" And so, there is a couple of fundamentals which are quite critical. One is that, you learn by doing. And a lot of what we did at school was learning by rote or it was learning from a textbook. So, there is a difference. And the idea here is that, grandparents can have an interesting conversation about what they did in STEM and whether the project is meaningful and how it relates to society. So, there's a social interaction there.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:06:11] Interesting. Okay. To rephrase what you said - because I usually understand concepts by trying to reframe them in my mind - so what you're saying is that you have two objectives. One is to connect grandparents to grandkids, older people to younger people, through STEM and through technology. And the second one is to, perhaps, reconnect older people to the world by introducing them to modern technologies and also teaching them the skills they need to make things.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:06:39] What I'm thinking here is that, it's quite common to see retirees sitting on a rocking chair solving a puzzle or a crossword to keep their mind working. So, that puts a little bit of strain on memory. But what if, instead of just solving crosswords, you actually build an Arduino gadget where you had to understand the concepts of electricity and programing and put them together? And that, I guess, would strain your mind a lot more and exercise it, and, therefore, keep it active. So, that's how I see it. Is that what you're trying to achieve?

Philip Mallon: [00:07:21] Yeah. Definitely. But what has happened in the last 12 months is that, technology has become better so that it can be packaged in a way that you can use the extra memory, the better programing techniques, so that not just programmers, but other people, can actually understand the concepts.

Philip Mallon: [00:07:41] So, I use an analogy like playing with Lego and putting the Lego bits together. And my programing style, it's like a blocky language. One example is scratch. It's like putting the blocks together just like you play with Lego. And so far, that seems to be working. And it's only because if I was doing this, say, five years ago and it was on a little computer called the Arduino Uno, with a tiny bit of memory, you have to be very clever before you came to the memory limitations. And you could only really program that in C++. So, today you're not constrained. You've got thousands of times more resources, and those resources make it easier for lots of people to engage in this activity.

Philip Mallon: [00:08:40] Okay, Philip. Let's get into it. I'm eager to see your presentation.

Philip Mallon: [00:08:47] Okay. I'm going to share my screen.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:08:48] Yeah.

Philip Mallon: [00:08:52] Okay. So, I'll just quickly go through my bio, and this is the career base, which has always been a conflict between trying to be a manager getting lots of income for the family, and making something which is interesting. And because I was a public servant, public servants were told 20 years ago, "Stop doing and stop making. Everything from now on is going to be outsourced." And that was a real conflict for me, which has got worse and worse as my career went on. But, fortunately, I was able to climb up the management ladder and keep the family supported that way.

Philip Mallon: [00:09:37] So, I started off with clinical medicine, putting technology into hospitals. An example was the new Westmead Hospital. I've got 10 percent of the budget and go and equip it with all the technology it needed. So, that was a lot of fun. And because I studied computers and I just happened to be one of the first ones to study minicomputers. Really, this generation, all studied mainframes and they were behind big glass windows, you couldn't touch them. I could turn on and off the computer and get it to do things, which is really good. But being a public servant meant that this wasn't going to last forever because the clinicians were going to get far better at knowing how to use these than I was.

Philip Mallon: [00:10:29] So, I went off to another government department, and they were experts in using computers for traffic control. And they had already developed the SCATS system for Sydney, which is a traffic light control system sold in almost every country in Asia, including Hong Kong, the Philippines. And I got to work with experts. And one of the first things I did was to build a robot for testing roads. And I made the automatic controls to make sure that it didn't crash. But it also simulated the behavior of how a truck go down a freeway. And this machine was to get the parameters, the physical model of what made roads, what destroyed them. And it turned out it was the weight of the truck.

Philip Mallon: [00:11:22] And I worked on another geographical information system to collect all the assets about roads, and built a system called RoadLOC, using the world's first portable computer, the Epson HX-20.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:11:40] You've got a Motorola 6801 on a breadboard there.

Philip Mallon: [00:11:45] Yeah. So, a lot of this was all dependent. The Epson HX-20 laptop computer was a Japanese derivative of the Motorola 6801. And the 6801 was one of the first complete computer on a chip back in 1981. So, I got to know that quite well. And I even designed and built my own computers. So, the Department of Main Roads, they built about a hundred of these and used them in soil testing laboratories all the way through New South Wales. So, it's a matter of getting really intimate knowledge about some technology so you can exploit it. And then, I went out and found out that HX-20 used the same computer, and all I had to do was extend it.

Philip Mallon: [00:12:42] So, I did a lot of projects later. I was a project manager rather than a designer or a builder. But the Transport Management Center in Sydney, I put together the video system for that. With about 2,000 cameras - so you might have seen cameras on the road all over the place - I had to integrate those and put them up on a very large wall called a video wall. Public transport projects and the Sydney Harbor Bridge, they were all sort of projects I worked on.

Philip Mallon: [00:13:14] And, finally, I collaborated with a group in Australia called NICTA, which is now part of the CSIRO. And we came up and looked at things like, would a ship fit through or would it collide with the Sydney Harbor Bridge? And so, I looked at things like lidar technology, radars. And, also, there was a concern that the Sydney Harbor Bridge was actually corroding. And we built together a health bridge monitoring system.

Philip Mallon: [00:13:52] And, finally, we also looked at a way that if a truck couldn't fit into the Sydney Harbor Bridge tunnel, that we could automatically detect that it was too big before it went into the tunnel and we could put the brakes on it and divert it. And we actually came up with an interesting project that related to the feasibility of infrastructure working with cars on the road, cars and trucks. So, that was quite interesting. It wasn't just about the self-driving car. It was also about the relationship between vehicles on the road and the infrastructure.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:14:28] You worked on a lot of innovating, but also very practical problems. And these are the kinds of problems that governments, of course, would be concerned with. It's one of a kind, like, would a ship collide to the Sydney Harbor Bridge, that's not something that you start a company for. But if you're a government, you need to find a technical solution. It's similar problems to that that you have been solving throughout your life.

Philip Mallon: [00:14:54] Yeah. Yeah. Problems that had some meaning and benefit to society. For example, the state coroner was very concerned about drivers dying in a place near Bathurst where there was black ice on the road. And we had to detect the presence of black ice, then warn drivers to slow down well in advance. And so, projects like that that would able to improve the safety of drivers on the road, they were quite important to me to do that.

Philip Mallon: [00:15:24] And I guess one of my biggest projects was the flashing lights at school zones, where we had to deliver flashing lights to 4,000 schools to try and change the behavior of drivers to slow down. That's an example of the project that we worked on.

Philip Mallon: [00:15:41] So, I might look at now, what I consider in retirement, one of the big problems that we have, and that's the digital divide in STEM education. And partly, that is a result of me being able to understand from my own family and my sons what their needs are in education. And my eldest son, Jason, has autism. And I found that interacting with Jason, not only just on simple projects, but using technology where he can play with it and also do a bit of construction, actually helped him with his education. So, I looked at how older people could also benefit from STEM education. And part of that is, I wanted to share what I did and I wanted to keep alive the learning.

Philip Mallon: [00:16:47] So, I never went into U3A, the University of the Third Age, as an expert. I was always learning. About a week before, I did a presentation and I used to concentrate on the learning process and what I've got out of it, and then share that with members of U3A. More recently, I've done workshops in the eastern part of Sydney in one library called Green Square Library. And I noticed I had fantastic resources on the East Coast, particularly the City of Sydney Council, where they provided STEM kits for kids. Then, I went to the West and I did a survey and looked at Blacktown and Parramatta, and they didn't have anything. And I was quite interested. Well, let's see what we can do about evening that balance up so that the kids of Western Sydney had the same opportunities to play with STEM resources in their local library, so they're are two things.

Philip Mallon: [00:17:56] Now, more recently, I've been invited by the CSIRO to be a professional in their STEM school partnership. Now, the big problem here is that, a lot of rural schools in New South Wales don't have a STEM teacher and the kids don't have the resources. So, the idea is that professionals can go online - even though they might be in Sydney - they can go anywhere in New South Wales and interact with the teacher who's the nominated STEM person - who might not know much about STEM - and you can assist and help them. So, I've recently been paired with a school in the Bega Valley to see what we can do about cooperating, how we could work together.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:18:49] Philip, just a quick set of questions - two questions here. Could you tell us what is the University of the Third Age and the CSIRO? Just for those of us listening that are not familiar.

Philip Mallon: [00:19:04] Yeah. The University of the Third Age started in Paris about 30 years ago and is now a worldwide organization. And it's called the University of the Third Age, because when you retire and you've got other opportunities, keep your brain active, keep on learning. And the idea is that, you can be a volunteer and offer courses. Or, alternatively, you can go along and learn how to play chess, learn to do something, and keep your mind active. But the important thing is that, it allows social engagement amongst people who are retired.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:19:45] So, it is an international institution, right?

Philip Mallon: [00:19:48] Every country in the world - every country in the world has got it, including China. China's got U3A clubs.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:19:57] The word university prompts me to think that it's a place where you can get a degree, and you have to sit exams and you do assignments. And it's got this traditional university organization. And my thinking writer isn't totally wrong. It's more like a club where you go and socialize and learn things.

Philip Mallon: [00:20:14] It's all about learning informally and participating, but not just listening, but also asking questions and having conversations about the topic that you're talking about.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:20:32] Right. Okay. And CSIRO?

Philip Mallon: [00:20:33] CSIRO an Australian government organization which is dedicated to science. So, it's got an old name. C means Commonwealth, S means Scientific, I means Industrial. And those concepts are the most important, that is applied science to solving Australia's problems, particularly in agriculture. And it was a CSIRO scientist - or two of them that invented WiFi.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:21:07] Yes.

Philip Mallon: [00:21:07] So, they've done actually quite a lot in radio astronomy and other areas of science, and shared that worldwide. So, they are the top organization in Australia now. And they collaborate with most of the universities in science and engineering in Australia.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:21:30] Yeah. It's a huge organization. And, like, they research everything, agriculture and food, as you said, they publish books with findings, what kind of food is good for you, what isn't. Here are some recipes that are scientifically tested to reduce your bad cholesterol and increase the good one and lose weight. There's energy research in land, water, manufacturing, so and so. It's vey spread out. It's a big organization.

Philip Mallon: [00:21:58] It's very, very large. Their involvement in STEM was to engage in one of the visions that we had in Australia, and that was to make a partnership with industry. So, the STEM projects that kids do in school had some relevance to society, and they could work on projects or know about projects with the skills that they learned in STEM could be used in industry, and they might even lead to a career in that area. So, that's the role of the CSIRO in that area.

Philip Mallon: [00:22:34] Okay. So, I guess some of the solutions to the things that I recognized there was, I would go and make things or do things that I didn't do while I was having a full time career. And that meant quite a big difference, using my hands, learning new skills. And it was totally different because I was doing some of this stuff 30 years ago. And, today, it's a bit different and I have to learn new things.

Philip Mallon: [00:23:03] I put on courses for kids, and I did that by collaboration with startup companies that during the school holidays would put workshops on STEM education. And I did my first one 12 months ago in the Green Square Library, where we looked at artificial intelligence and robotics. So, that was a lot of fun. And preparing for that workshop meant that I have to go to a company called Nvidia, and get a certificate from them on how to program the Jetson Nano. And I learned all about artificial intelligence.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:23:49] The Jetson Nano is a board, I think it contains microprocessors from Nvidia, the company that makes graphics processors. And it's really good for artificial intelligence, right? So, that's what you learned?

Philip Mallon: [00:24:08] Yeah. But they also produced a little board which was compatible with the Raspberry Pi. And I used a robot, and the robot would use the artificial intelligence algorithms that they had devised to recognize road signs and other things on a robot mat, which will allow them to navigate and find things. So, I built a robot to put out bushfires. And it would recognize things like bushfire, water. And you could give it instructions and it would also learn about these things on the board.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:24:48] Wow. That's many.

Philip Mallon: [00:24:48] So, I was learning, about, two weeks ahead of having to present all this to the kids.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:24:57] Just in time delivery.

Philip Mallon: [00:24:58] Exactly. And so, that was interesting. The other things, having conversations and activities with seniors as a learner myself meant that I could understand what they would have to go through, because it's not easy using a computer when you're doing it, perhaps, for the first time when you're in your 70s. So, that's a real challenge. But then, could I do it over Zoom? So, that made it even a bigger challenge.

Philip Mallon: [00:25:29] Now, the other thing I've been working on is to actually lobby politicians about what the government is doing, both in the state and nationally, about helping with STEM education. So, I've written to politicians, I've had a conversation with them, and I'm interested to see how the government could provide resources so that every kid in Australia could learn STEM. They could have their own robot. And they could learn about how STEM could be useful in their lives.

Philip Mallon: [00:26:04] Again, the other thing was to network with maker groups, like OzBerry and Sydney Robotics and STEM Education. So, I think I first met you, Peter, at one of their presentations.

Philip Mallon: [00:26:18] Yeah. I think it was OzBerry during the robotics one.

Philip Mallon: [00:26:19] That was the robotics. Also, I met you at OzBerry, too, so that was quite interesting. So, perhaps, I might go through some of the things. This is my son working with a little bit electronics, and he could snap together some of the things and make really simple circuits. So, I was interested in, not the complicated things, but the things that could be useful to people with special needs.

Philip Mallon: [00:26:51] So, this is my son's desk top, and you can see on there, there's a lot of things that he's working on, principally Lego. And things like cardboard and making something here for Valentine's Day, he's making a little heart for his mom. And make do with cardboard again, he's making - and he's the one that's doing it. And when you actually see him, he made a carousel. Now, he made it himself and I added the carousel music using a little computer called the Micro:bit. And the Micro:bit here is actually recreating carousel music of the last century. A bit of fun. These are examples of projects that we work on together.

Philip Mallon: [00:27:50] Now, the other one that I've been working with him is a thing called squishy circuits and understanding that playdough is conductive. So, what we're doing here is actually making things, like a Christmas tree, that has lights and combining the art of playing with playdough with electricity and electronics.

Philip Mallon: [00:28:14] But the other thing, Jason, he has no verbal language, but is really good at understanding and following complicated diagrams in Lego. So, I can't even work with this. And the one that he finished just recently for the Chinese New Year was a whole banquet made out of Lego. So, I thought that was quite good. He did the whole thing himself. And you can see him going through.

Philip Mallon: [00:28:46] They're the Maker Groups that I've been working on. And about a year ago, I put on a workshop, about 15 kids attended. After that, no more physical workshops were happening. But it was really good to work with the kids. And always using a robot called mBot was one of about three robots. It was quite simple. But to add the machine vision, I used a little camera there called the Pixy camera, and it gave some of the machine vision.

Philip Mallon: [00:29:21] There's Alex, he was my partner on that workshop. Now, Alex, he was an expert in artificial intelligence and was a graduate of ANU and had a startup company. But he had never sold anything in his life. For the Jetson Nano, we had to do a bit of soldering. And there is Alex, he's finished with the soldering iron, and I taught him how to solder. So, I thought that was good that I could help people that had a narrower outlook in their career. And they wanted to have their own startup business and they needed some extra skills.

Philip Mallon: [00:30:06] So, there's the JetBot, using the Jetson Nano. And I had a conversation with a Chinese company - you might have heard about that, Peter - called Seeed Studio. And they have a sister company called TinkerGen. And I told them about my interest in STEM education using robots, so they gave me a free robot to evaluate. And I was able to get this robot to learn road signs using codes like this. And then, go back and tell them how they could improve their robot, so I did that about nine months ago. And you can buy that now from China, from Seeed Studio. So, it's called the M.A.R.K Robot.

Philip Mallon: [00:31:04] The great thing about this was, I was able to communicate with the inventor and also have a dialog with the company. And I thought having that feedback and having interaction was quite important. So, makers could actually contribute to projects like this. So, there is the robot on the line.

Philip Mallon: [00:31:33] And I'm currently working on a new robot, also now sold by Seeed Studio, and it's a pet dog. What's fascinating about it, if you actually look at it, it's like the Sony - I don't know if you have seen the Sony pet dog robot. It's actually embraced by lots of seniors in Japan, because it's too hard to keep real pet dogs while you're getting older.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:32:03] Yeah. Messy.

Philip Mallon: [00:32:03] And, basically, these sort of robots, they can actually behave just like a real dog. And I'm currently working on this as a project. And there's Jason, so people like Jason were quite fascinated because -

Peter Dalmaris: [00:32:21] He's interacting with the robot.

Philip Mallon: [00:32:23] He's interacting with it. And I'm going to add things like touch. So, when he touches the robot, I have to add a high level logic to it so that it will have a brain. It's got really good muscular control. It's got nine servos to control at the moment. So, I'm going to add -

Peter Dalmaris: [00:32:44] I'm looking at it's page. It's it's called Petoi Bittle, Bionic Open Source Robot Dog. Unique bionic system, it contains a customized Arduino board, which is the brain and moves all the motors, and interacts with the sensors. Up to 12 servo motors, so it can move different parts. Yeah. It looks pretty good.

Philip Mallon: [00:33:16] Yeah. So, the brain that it's got is not good enough for more advanced things. I want to add more sensors. So, when it recognize you, it will bark.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:33:28] It can interact with Raspberry Pi or ESP32 for things like video and more intelligence.

Philip Mallon: [00:33:37] Yeah. That's what I'm doing. I'm going to add machine vision to it so it can recognize things. And this is my magnet on the projects that I'm currently working on. So, I've actually done quite a bit, but I'm holding them off until I get another computer, called an ESP32, which will be a better brain than it has at the moment.

Philip Mallon: [00:34:04] So, what about the other things I'm doing? I'm collaborating with Blacktown Library. And I've so far been quite successful for them to spend a bit of money on STEM resources for kids. And so, they're going to set this up at both Blacktown and Mount Druitt Libraries. And I'll put on workshops there for them, possibly during the school holidays. So, that hasn't started yet because of COVID-19. It won't work via Zoom. I will have to do it as a face-to-face meeting.

Philip Mallon: [00:34:39] And those are some of the projects that I'm looking at. The computer that I'm going to work with, the Micro:bit is one of them, and the other one is called the M5stickC from M5Stack. I'll be using that. And Blacktown now had bought all the additional resources so that kids can learn electronics with that. So, that's what they have done.

Philip Mallon: [00:35:10] And for U3A, I'm looking at projects and sharing the knowledge with U3A about lots of projects. Now, this one here uses a communication system called ultra wide bandwidth. And I'm going to design an indoor navigation system like GPS. So, with three base stations and a tag, it will be possible to find out where you are. And what's really interesting about this, with simple mathematics of triangulation, kids can actually do the mathematics themselves. They can solve the equations and they can actually do a lot of this. Whereas, with GPS, it was so complicated that not many people engage with that. But here, you can actually build quite a complex system as long as you go through step by step and understand how it all works.

Philip Mallon: [00:36:10] So, the other thing I'm working on is a vertical garden, and I'm measuring the moisture in the soil using capacitive sensors. And I've got pumps that automatically bring in the water, so it's a water management system. And I'm doing the same with light. That is my vertical garden. It uses little computers, ESP32 computers and Grove electronics with light sensors. And what's really interesting, I'm discovering how photosynthesis works and what part of the spectrum is really important for that to happen. So, it's a very, very interesting project.

Philip Mallon: [00:36:51] So, there's the light sensor and I've also put some of those little computers into environmental chambers and measuring things like the actual temperature outside. With COVIDd-19, this is my first thermal camera. And it's a very low cost one, but it's able to detect if I have a high temperature on my forehead. So, I thought that was quite interesting.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:37:24] So, what kind of sensor are you using for that? It's just visual or infrared?

Philip Mallon: [00:37:29] It's infrared sensor, and it measures the infrared radiation emitted by a body. So, if I have a high temperature, it's able to take a map. So, it would have, about, 120 by, about, 60 array of LED sensors, which are sensitive in that infrared radiation area. But I think you can actually do some of this stuff yourself and then integrate it into, perhaps, a security system. So that if someone's got a high temperature, they can't get into your house or you could use it for monitoring. But you can go further than just a commercial system which has its own proprietary technology built on top of it. So, everything I'm doing is all open source.

Philip Mallon: [00:38:34] The most current one I'm working on for U3A is computer music. And these are some of the projects I've been working on. The first one was a watch that they could actually wear themselves, and the watch has a built in timer. And this is the second project that a senior, who has never programmed before, is actually working on at the moment. But then, I have challenges for the ones that want to go a bit further. And this one here adds a GPS module so that you can extract the time from a GPS sensor. And it can then synchronize your watch. And I do the same with the network timing protocol, so you can do some synchronization.

Philip Mallon: [00:39:23] So, the projects I work on are really, really simple, but they do have challenges that challenge me. And I then share the experiences on whether that was successful or not. So, with the music one, I'm starting off with a doorbell, where all you have to do is just press the button. And when you do that, it gives you music. But I'm then extending it so that seniors might be interested in having things in the house that can turn on automatically. Like, if they have a push button and they're in a chair, they press the button, the lights could go on. So, I'm looking at how you could integrate some of this with things like Philips Hue lighting for your house. And using some home automation software that would allow seniors to be more independent and even allow a carer to attend to them if they need help.

Philip Mallon: [00:40:32] This is one that I'm preparing for my next U3A session. And what it is, it's comparing the colors with music. And this is now international standard for kids learning music. So, you can buy musical instruments like the one on the bottom, which is a xylophone, or a glockenspiel to be more correct. And the red means that's middle C. Then, as you move down, the color coding, it's a coding of the musical scale. And that helps people learn music. So, I've been exploiting that quite a lot in special education, where kids can have a lot of fun playing with tubes that are all color coded. They can bang each other on the head and they can make music.

Philip Mallon: [00:41:29] But this particular application is actually turning Lego into a theremin. So, the theremin is over 100 years old now, and it's the the world's first musical instrument. And what you do here is move your hand back and forward. So, if you go to one of the Lego bricks, it uses a sensor which is connected to a M5stickC, and you can see the piano scale on it. When you move your hand back and forward, the little red dot follows the notes on the piano and you can actually make music. So, I thought that's quite interesting, because it's actually combining quite a few concepts there, color coding, music, and also programing. So, yeah, interesting.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:42:21] Sound color programing.

Philip Mallon: [00:42:21] Now, that little computer - which only costs $9 - has a three axis accelerometer on board. And what I've done is, instead of using the hand position, I'm using accelerometers to move your hand back and forward to play a musical instrument. And that's what's happening here, if I move my hand up and down like that, it will select the note. And if I do that, it will play the note. And so, that's a glockenspiel simulated on the color screen of the M5stickC.

Philip Mallon: [00:43:04] I'm quite happy with this computer because the seniors, they can make things for the kitchen, like a kitchen scale that I've got here. And they don't have to have the mechanical skills because it's very well packaged, and it can be easily put together as a wearable on a watch, and it could be used immediately on a project. So, I've been quite careful to select a computer like this, which can be used very quickly on a project.

Philip Mallon: [00:43:37] With the CSIRO program, I have been allocated to a school in the Bega Valley, Pambula. And we've only had our first Zoom meeting, and I'm yet to actually find out what they'd like to do. But one of the things they're interested in doing is learning more about the environment. And learning about how carbon dioxide can be measured in a room and can warn people that they should open the windows. So, I think that'll be one of the first projects we'll actually work on together. Peter, that's the end of the presentation.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:44:19] It was amazing. Wow. And all that is the work you've done this year?

Philip Mallon: [00:44:25] Yeah. Most of that is stuff I've done this year. Except the work on the robotics, I did last year.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:44:32] Yeah. So, as you can see here, of course, the drivers behind the projects that you select, I guess, they do resemble things that you've done back when you were a government employee but at a smaller scale, of course. You used to play around with the Sydney Harbor Bridge and roads and huge robots. And, now, you go to devices that are wearable, and at a small scale, and things that seniors can do inside the home. You mentioned the ability to control various home appliances.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:45:12] And, also, I've seen a lot of influence from your son and your son's special needs when it comes to learning and interacting with technology. You mentioned he's not verbal, but his hands are very good at making things and following instructions that are visual.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:45:29] So, maybe just to wrap it all together, could you give us, based on your experience and the feedback that you have received from seniors - maybe just to separate seniors from younger people - what kind of projects do you think are more appropriate for that demographic, assuming that there is no background in programing or in technology, many people like that? Still, the tools seem to be advanced enough and easy to get into that don't really require that, so that's a fear that somehow you can convince people that they can put it behind and still get into STEM without having to worry that their lack of experience and technology is a problem. So, maybe, can you give us three or four top pieces of advice for people that would like to be involved in projects like that?

Philip Mallon: [00:46:35] Yeah. Well, perhaps, with the U3A, I found that working with Zoom is really difficult because there are a couple of steps that you have to go through to make it work. And one of them is that you put a firmware, you have to flush the memory on the small computer.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:46:58] The first step is pretty hard there working at a computer.

Philip Mallon: [00:47:01] Yeah. And I've made YouTube videos on how to do that. But so far, not one single U3A member has been able to do it.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:47:13] I guess we don't have to worry too much about that with immunizations going as they are. Probably by the end of this year, we'll be able to resume face-to-face. So, let's say that that's not a problem.

Philip Mallon: [00:47:24] Yeah. That is a big barrier. But with a face-to-face, I can have all this prepared. And even if they haven't prepared it themselves, we can do it in five minutes at a face-to-face meeting. So, some things are face-to-face meetings are essential.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:47:44] Yeah. So, I guess that is a very good piece of advice. Don't even think about having at least the first few sessions that over the internet. First few sessions, at least, should be done face-to-face. After that, you've got more flexibility.

Philip Mallon: [00:48:02] The other thing I use a lot is the experience that I had at UTS as a lecturer. Now, there was a subject there called Engineering Discovery. UTS was quite good because they actually put the lecturers through a graduate certificate of higher education so that they can understand the fundamentals of teaching and learning. And I was lucky enough. And I used a lot of the principles that I had at UTS.

Philip Mallon: [00:48:30] Now, for example, the first project that students do on U3A is a watch. And I explore the history of clocks and watches as part of the context. And it's quite interesting because I didn't know where the first watch came from. And as a STEM activity, if you ask all the kids to go and Google the invention of the clock, they'll come back with the wrong answer. So, it's a really interesting opportunity to critique the truthfulness about the internet and Google searching.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:49:09] There you go, yeah. So, it's not really just about technology, but it's research and research skills and the ability to go through a research process, that, eventually, allows you to reach to a correct conclusion. And that is easier said than done. It does take a bit of time and patience.

Philip Mallon: [00:49:34] And it's critical thinking and it's also to encourage creativity, so that they can actually question the results that they're getting. Now, at the moment, I'm preparing a module for U3A on computer music. And one of the things I'm going to ask them, where was the first computer used in computer music? And not many of them will realize that it was the CSIRO in Sydney that actually had the world's first computer playing computer music, which is interesting. And even people in the CSIRO don't know that.

Philip Mallon: [00:50:17] But from the point of view of, I guess, a context of origin, why did they do it and nobody else? So, I thought that was quite interesting. So, I always put in a social context and I looked at the origins and the history behind some of the technologies that I'm working on.

Philip Mallon: [00:50:43] So, maybe another piece of advice that you offered - I'm rephrasing what you just said - is not to just focus on technology and that's it. But try to mix it, put the technology in context of the outside - let's call it - the real world. Put a little bit of a story behind whatever it is that you're building, which is the excuse for learning something new, learning any technology. But there's a lot around it. You want to make sure that the value is all part of the package. It's not just one item.

Philip Mallon: [00:51:14] Yeah. It's not just the making, but it's also the reflection on how the experience went and some of the context behind that. And I think the seniors, some of them might not be able to do the whole programing. And that's okay, because I think a critique learning processes. And it's okay for them to copy some of the code from a library. And I try to get them to read what some of the blocks are trying to do. So, even if their own software didn't work, at least they've got a bit of an inkling onto what's going on.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:51:54] So, Philip, I just have two last questions that I'd like to ask you here. So, the first one is, again, in the context of helping seniors in STEM and bridge that digital divide, do you see yourself more of a teacher or a mentor? And if you could just say a couple of things about what that means for you, like what does it mean to be a teacher, if that's your answer. Or what does it mean to be a mentor, if that's your answer.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:52:21] And the second question is, what happens if one of your seniors comes back and says to you, "I'm totally stuck. I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do"?

Philip Mallon: [00:52:36] Well, perhaps, I can answer the second question first. And I'll say that, that has already happened. I've had two students, and the problem is the first one was very, very enthusiastic and raced the hill of what I was doing and got quite frustrated and had given up. And I was surprised that she spent hours and hours on it. And I ask my U3A students not to spend too much time. If they do spend time, limit it to about half-an-hour. And tell me, let's have a conversation, about what problems are you having.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:53:18] So, you time box frustration to 30 minutes and then ask for help.

Philip Mallon: [00:53:22] Yeah. The lady that gave up was spending hours on it, wasn't getting anywhere. And what I'm telling the students, there may be little quirks or techniques that are not necessarily logical, and there might actually be bugs in the system, and there are workarounds. Now, I know what they are, and it's hard to do just on Zoom, but I think we'll overcome that with our face-to-face meetings. But even then, I would ask the students not to try and race ahead because some of these things - you know, kids right through to university students spend years and years learning programing. So, they're not going to be able to overcome everything that's required in a few hours.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:54:20] So, I guess experience is important, like, in anything in life. But, in particular in technology, every piece of technology has got its quirks and only experience reveals those quirks. It's like my knowledge is a vending machine. You use a particular vending machine and you know that if you take a packet of chips from that slot, it usually gets stuck. And then, you know that if you hit the machine at a specific spot, it pumps it and gets the packet to drop. And only you know that. It's not in specifications datasheet or in a user manual.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:54:56] And I think that's why the student has to know when it's time to ask you. And you put a time limit, so 30 minutes, if you haven't figured out, ask me. So, when they come back with a question 30 minutes later, do you give them an answer or do you prefer to guide them so that they can find an answer? And I guess that's what makes you either a teacher or a mentor.

Philip Mallon: [00:55:21] Well, I put in extra support. So, while we have live Zoom sessions - and they're recorded and they can come back and watch it - I make the YouTube videos, which are much shorter and they're easier to follow. So, there's less interruptions that way. So, I give them alternative resources.

Philip Mallon: [00:55:42] One student had a lot of difficulty even just logging on to Zoom, and gave up the course because of that. Now, I would like them to be able to come back and say, "Well, come to my place and I'll show you how to use Zoom," rather than just quickly giving up. So, I think there's a lot of additional support. So, it's not just about following your presentation and that's it.

Philip Mallon: [00:56:11] The process that we went through university where you might have listened to the lecturer, did a lab session, and that was it, you had an exam. The processes of learning as a senior are different. And I had to be a lot more flexible. So, I think your first question was, what's my role? I think being a teacher is probably the last one. I want to facilitate their learning and give them a challenge and step-by-step, together, we can get there. So, I'm not expecting them to listen to a boring one hour presentation.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:56:54] Thank you, Philip. Just to clarify, in case people are wondering why I'm making a distinction between a teacher and a mentor. I'm just using those terms in a simplistic way. For me, a teacher is what I've experienced since I was going through school, which was just stick to the curriculum. A mentor, on the other hand, is someone who gives more freedom to the students to explore and then helps them as part of their exploration. And I guess when it comes to STEM, because of the project work, the ability and the freedom to explore is a more important component of learning, and that's where you need kind of a mentor rather than a teacher who follows the curriculum.

Philip Mallon: [00:57:40] The role of mentor, I use that with teachers and, also, with people that want to start up a new company offering STEM services to schools. So, in that role, I can look at some of the broader aspects of how a mentor or how they can get on and, perhaps, make suggestions and have a conversation and give them some feedback. But it's a completely different role.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:58:14] Well, thank you, Philip. That was amazing the amount of productivity that you have presented. And the fact that you're actually not doing that all that for yourself and for your own building curiosity, which obviously you have, but you're creating things that you are sharing with others and helping others learn. I find that amazing. So, thank you for sharing that with us today.

Philip Mallon: [00:58:39] Oh, thank you, Peter, for the opportunity of having a discussion with you.




Tags

STEM, U3A


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