Learning tools

Education tools are designed to facilitate learning. They make certain that the learner has as few 'gaps' in knowledge as possible.

Good tools make learning more effective and enjoyable. Most of what I present here are examples of educational tools (usually disguised as toys) for young self-learners. Educational tools make learning more efficient and enjoyable.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”
— John Dewey

Good tools make learning effective, and fun. Apart from computer-based learning aids, having the right tool helps learning to mastery. Most of what I present in this chapter are examples of tools (usually disguised as toys) designed for young self-learners. It is important to note that educational tools are designed to facilitate learning; that is, to make learning happen faster, be more enjoyable, and ensure that the learner has as few knowledge ‘gaps’ as possible. Certainly, it is possible for a person to learn without such tools. However, just as elite Olympic athletes train with state-of-the-art equipment and world class coaching, learners that want to maximise their outcomes should consider investing in the best educational technology that they can get their hands on.

Construction sets have an important role in helping the learner to develop creativity and imagination. Using basic building blocks made of wood, paper and plastic challenges learners to create within the constraints of the physical world. The learner has to consider the availability of parts, their physical characteristics and gravity at every step of the building process. Construction can also take place in a group environment, in which case the learner also has the opportunity to develop emotionally, and practise their collaboration and communication skills.

Companies like the Happy Architect, Grimms and Lego offer high-quality construction kits for young children.

Construction kits can also be more specific in terms of the kinds of skills they are designed to develop. For example, Lakeshore Gear Builders is a kit specifically designed to teach gear mechanics. Octoplay sets help learners understand geometric construction. And Magnetic Polydron 3D is a kit that contains magnetised parts so that they snap together, offering another way to explore three-dimensional space construction.

In science, the possibilities are endless. The last few years have seen an explosion of educational tools specifically designed to teach science. Electricity, motion, heat, light, sound, chemistry, biology and much more can all be learned in a fun and interactive way.

The learner can understand the physical aspects of magnetic fields with a large copper solenoid (1). They can explore physics and motion with the help of a machines set with which they can construct cranes and pulleys, providing an opportunity to explore planes (2), axles (3) and levers (4). There are kits that make learning of light, colour, magnetism and sound so fun that the learner will not want to stop learning!

For learning atomic and molecular chemistry, kits can help students create a physical model of the world at the atomic level by constructing models. Model kits provide parts that represent atoms of different kinds as balls. Atoms of different kinds are available depending on the number of bonds that they have available to connect with other atoms. These kits also provide parts that represent bonds as rods, used to connect atoms together, creating molecules. The student can then create molecules based on their understanding of how atoms like that of oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur and carbon work.

Learners from 10 years of age or older can begin experimenting with real chemistry sets. Setting up a lab in the kitchen using a mix-and-combine set will give the learner the opportunity to experiment with acids and bases, react with baking soda, and progress from basic fun things like creating magic colour changes to more advanced practical things like creating a mini fire extinguisher and exploring the behaviour of atoms and molecules. Chemistry sets have always been a staple in science classrooms and will continue to be a core tool in learning about the physical world.

To explore electricity and electronics, again, there are excellent sets for every need and budget. Makey Makey is a classic choice that provides a fun way to control your computer through everyday items that people don’t normally associate with computing. You can create a musical keyboard using bananas instead of actual keys, a game controller using keys drawn on paper with a regular pencil, and post tweets using letters made from alphabet soup. The learner will become enthralled with finding out elaborate ways by which they can control applications on their computer, which promotes out-of-the-box thinking and creativity.

For learners that want to explore circuits and electronics, choices like Littlebits, Electroninks, mCookies, and of course the Arduino platform are perfect. The Arduino prototyping platforms has revolutionised electronics making by bringing together a single board (the Arduino) that provides the “control centre” for whatever the maker is making. This control centre includes the capability to execute a program, and multiple input and output connectors. These connectors make it possible for the maker to connect things like lights and motors to their Arduino, so that the Arduino can interact with them. The Arduino’s innovation, however, was in the software. The software that runs in the Arduino was designed so that people without a background in programming or in electronics can quickly pick up and start making their own gadgets.

An Arduino program is called a ‘sketch’, which is a reminder to makers that everything they make is an experiment, a sketch, and is temporary. The maker will constantly tweak their creation, whether that’s a Lego block tower, or an electronic gadget based on the Arduino. Makers always iterate their creations to improve them or to simply try something else.

With the Arduino, the ability to iterate quickly was particularly important, and hence the emphasis on easy hardware interfacing using standardised inputs and outputs, and easy sketching using a simplified programming language and a bare-minimal programming interface that runs on any computer.

Apart from the Arduino, learners can choose from many other options. For example, Circuit Scribe is a pen that instead of regular ink contains conductive ink. With it, the learner can draw a circuit on regular paper, and then place electronic components on that circuit. Batteries, lights, transistors, switches and much more can be experimented with using a Circuit Scribe pen, a few common electronic components and a notebook, literally. With a tool like Circuit Scribe, experimentation can really be rapid and spontaneous, with every component being reusable, and with starting again being possible with the flip of a page.

Other examples of electronics learning tools that promote rapid tinkering are mCookies and Little Bits. With both, the learner uses electronic modules that snap-connect to each other, like Lego blocks. The modules have magnetic and colour-coded connectors so that the learner can easily figure out which way they can connect. This simplifies the task of creating functioning circuits so that the learner can focus on the creative rather than the functional aspect of making.

The motivation behind the design of tools like mCookie and Little Bits is that it is important for learners to first become comfortable with their creativity, and later, once they have experienced that incredible power, use it as motivation to learn electronics in a more fundamental way, by exploring individual components, their physics and becoming more familiar with grass-roots electronics.

There are many more tools for learning nearly everything in the context of Maker Education; that is, learning through making. Hopefully, this chapter has given you a taste of what kinds of learning tools are available in the market for learners and educators.


Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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