Short Talk: Controlling Make to Learn Invention Kits with Snap!

View on Snap!Con

Presented By: Jo Watts, Glen Bull, James Rutter


The Make to Learn consortium is a coalition anchored by the Make to Learn Laboratory at the University of Virginia. Other collaborators include Princeton University, Midlands Technical College, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education. The consortium has developed a series of Make to Learn Invention Kits that enable students to reconstruct great inventions in history such as the telephone, the telegraph, and early electric motors.

Seymour Papert has suggested that physical computing can offer an engaging context for computational thinking: “In the real world computers … are programmed to fly airplanes with electromechanical actuators and to read altitudes and airspeeds with electronic sensing devices. Some computers are programmed to control lathes and milling machines in industrial plants. Why then should computers in schools be confined to computing the sum of the squares of a series of numbers?” (Papert & Solomon, 1971).

The Arduino microcontroller is one of the most popular devices for controlling physical objects in the real world. The Arduino can control lights, motors, and actuators. It also can receive inputs from sensors connected to its input ports. Snap4Arduino is an adaptation of the Snap! educational programming language that can interact with the Arduino.

A series of contemporary Invention Kits linked to their historic counterparts is being developed. For example, the digital counterpart of the Make to Learn Electric Motor Invention kit enables students to control a linear motor using Snap4Arduino (Figure 1).

The Make to Learn Linear Motor consists of a coil of wire with a permanent magnet in the middle. A magnetic field is generated when electricity flows through the wire. (In other words, an electrical current flowing through the wire causes it to become an electromagnet.) The magnetic field generated by the electromagnet causes the permanent magnet to move in one direction. When the electrical current is reversed, the polarity of the electrical magnet changes, causing the permanent magnet to move in the opposite direction.

In another project, an interactive light painting consisting of a translucent image with LEDs behind the painting was created. An Arduino microcontroller was used to monitor a sensor that triggers movement of lights behind the image.

Creating an Interactive Light Painting

In this session, the projects described and similar ones will be demonstrated. Results of classroom use will be discussed.

@glenbull, @jamesrutter, (I can't find Jo's username, and I think John hasn't registered to the forum).

I loved your presentation. Let's continue the discussion here :slight_smile:

We look forward to following up with you. (Jo is Jo Watts.)

I echo what Bernat said -- loved your presentation and love having kids learn by recreating the early forms of inventions. I like that most of what you do is almost entirely physical, like making a loudspeaker or a glider, and I wouldn't want to change that. I see two ways that MicroBlocks might augment those physical explorations, both of them based on the ease with which the user can view, graph, and record sensor data in MicroBlocks.

The first way is to instrument and measure properties of inventions. For example, one might use a distance sensor or photogate to measure the speed or altitude profile of a glider flight.

The second way is to make invisible things visible, especially electricity. The analog-to-digital converters on even an inexpensive micro:bit can measure millivolts so they can be used as a voltmeter or even, with graphing, as a low-speed oscilloscope. That feature might be used to compare various types of home-made battery, to see the charge/discharge curve of a capacitor, or maybe to see the small signal produced by the coil of a speaker when you use it as a microphone.

Finally, I love music as a domain! Personally, I love making music. More importantly, I think music motivates many students, and music is a rich domain for exploring physics, math, and programming.

Let's all exchange emails and keep this conversation going after the conference. You can reach the MicroBlocks team via our public email "".