Culturetech BBC Make It Digital Dots boards activity

After the major success of the Raspberry Pi Foundation Dots board activity with Minecraft Pi at Liverpool Makefest and Dublin Maker, there was one final event left that I was down to help out at before the start of the new university term, the BBC Make It Digital event at Culturetech!

So on Friday 18th September, me and a set of volunteers from Farset Labs and the Northern Ireland Raspberry Jam made our way to outside the Guildhall in Londonderry to the massive Make It Digital tent.

It was a very big tent!
It was a very big tent!

With us, we had a set of 8 Raspberry Pis (with monitors and all the cables required for them) and a box of 100 Raspberry Pi Foundation Dots boards ready to be filled in with Bare Conductive Electric paint.

100 Dots boards, ready to be filled in.
100 Dots boards, ready to be filled in.

The activity

The activity we were running involved kids filling in one of the Dots boards with electric paint, then attaching these to a Raspberry Pi and seeing whatever they had drawn appear in 3d in Minecraft.

The Dots boards were developed by Rachel Rayns from the Raspberry Pi Foundation as an activity to engage people of all ages (especially younger children) in technology.

They are an extremely simple circuit board featuring a 40 pin Raspberry Pi header, a single resistor and a series of pads on the front.
These pads are the key to it all, they feature an inner circular pad and an outer ring. Between the 2 pads is a gap which can be bridged by electric paint.
Bridging the pads allows the Raspberry Pi to read it like any input, for example a button. There is 22 dot-to-dot pads, 4 colour selection pads, a pad on a cloud and finally a pad on a parachuting bear.

Although we tell the kids to do the dot-to-dot, in fact all that is actually required is a dot on each pad you want to select.

The software

For the activity, there is 2 options for the software on the Raspberry Pi side.

  1. The original rpi_dots python program written by Eben Upton and Ben Nuttall that simply if you have enough pins covered, an airplane (in your selected colour) will appear on screen.
  2. The Minecraft Pi program written by myself while on my internship with the Raspberry Pi Foundation. It splits the plane up into 10 sections, each of which is added to a 3d version of the plane inside Minecraft if it is dotted. Once the user is happy with their plane, they can attempt to see if the plane will fly. If they have enough dots dotted, the plane will fly across the sky, if not it will plummet to the ground and crash.
    If the user selects the bear, a parachuting bear will come down from the clouds and if they select the cloud, grey clouds will be added to the scene and lightning will strike down.

For Liverpool Makefest, Dublin Maker and the BBC Make It Digital event, we used the 2nd option, the Minecraft Pi program.

Friday evening

The event ran from 6pm-10pm on the Friday evening to coincide with Londonderry Culturenight and the many other family friendly events going on in Londonderry that evening.

Within minutes of the doors being opened, we were swamped by people wanting to have a go with our activity, so much so we immediately discovered we had underestimated the number of volunteers we would need to run the activity!
Thankfully, the BBC stepped in and we able to provide 2 awesome guys from their team to help out.

We tired Mark out so much, he was half asleep at this point...
We tired Mark out so much, he was half asleep at this point with black hands from cleaning so many boards!

Throughout the 4 hours that evening, we had roughly 800 Dots Boards filled in (and then cleaned)!
Because we weren’t able to keep up with the demand, a hefty chunk of those 800 boards were filled in in pairs or families so the number of people taking part in the activity that evening was 1000+.

We also were visited by some pretty awesome Minecraft in education people who came by to try out the activity including COO of Mojang, Vu Bue, Deirdre Quarnstrom (Director of Minecraft Education from Microsoft) and Santeri Koivisto (CEO of Teachergaming).

Vu Bue (Mojang COO), Deirdre Quarnstrom (Director of Minecraft in education at Microsoft) and Stephen Reid (Immersive Minds)
Vu Bue (Mojang COO), Deirdre Quarnstrom (Director of Minecraft in education at Microsoft) and Stephen Reid (Immersive Minds) trying out the Raspberry Pi Dots boards.
Santeri Koivisto (CEO) and Mikael Uusi-Mäkelä (Learning developer) from Teaching gaming having too much fun with Raspberry Pi Dots boards
Santeri Koivisto (CEO) and Mikael Uusi-Mäkelä (Learning developer) from Teaching gaming having far too much fun with Raspberry Pi Dots boards.
We even somehow got Stuart Portis (event organiser and manager) to try out the activity!
We even somehow got Stuart Portis (event organiser and manager) to try out the activity!
Lots of Dots boards getting filled in (and this was a quiet part)
Lots of Dots boards getting filled in (and this was a quiet part).
Testing to see if their planes will fly.
Testing to see if their planes will fly.
"Whatever you do, don't make Minecraft Pi full screen"
“Whatever you do, don’t make Minecraft Pi full screen”

A huge thanks to my team of volunteers on the Friday evening.

My awesome team of volunteers for Friday evening. From left to right: David Linton, Ryan Neill, Oliver Warke, Andrew Bolster, Andrew Mulholland (myself).
My awesome team of volunteers for Friday evening.
From left to right:
David Linton, Ryan Neill, Oliver Warke, Andrew Bolster, Andrew Mulholland (myself).

Saturday

The event ran from 10am-6pm on the Saturday. It coincided with the Londonderry Maker City event that was happening in next door in the Guildhall.

By the Saturday morning, I had been able to get some additional volunteers over to help out, although even with a team of 9 people (plus Matt from the BBC), we were still overwhelmed later in the day.

Although the event started at 10am, it didn’t get busy till after midday which allowed us to do some much needed Dots board cleaning catch up, table cleaning and GPIO pin fixing.

After midday though, we were basically constantly assisting people with the activity. This continued till around 5:30pm when it started to quiet down again.

On the Saturday we also set up a Raspberry Pi Camera module to do a timelapse of the event. Below is roughly 2 hours of the event in 55 seconds. As can be seen, it was incredibly busy!

"It's my airplane I just drew!"
“It’s my airplane I just drew!”

IMG_8771

IMG_8810

IMG_8822

"My plane is better than yours!"
“My plane is better than yours!”
A trip to the local bakery is a good way to keep volunteer moral up.
A trip to the local bakery is a good way to keep volunteer moral up.
My awesome team of volunteers for Saturday From left to right: Toby Tregear, David Linton, Libby Hoy, Sam Stuart, Vincent Lee, Finley Roulston, Ryan Neill, Andrew Mulholland (myself) and Oliver Warke.
My awesome team of volunteers for Saturday
From left to right:
Toby Tregear, David Linton, Libby Hoy, Sam Stuart, Vincent Lee, Finley Roulston, Ryan Neill, Andrew Mulholland (myself), Oliver Warke and Claire Mulholland.

Conclusion

From feedback from parents, kids and the BBC, we can say that the activity was a complete success. With over 2000 people of all ages taking part from kids as young as 4, right up to senior citizens of 80+ years.

This is what makes the Dots Board activity so awesome, it really is suitable for people of all ages, thanks to its simplicity.

 

Big thanks to the BBC Make It Digital team for inviting us along and looking after us while in Londonderry, the Raspberry Pi Foundation for the Dots boards, Farset Labs for use of their equipment and to my volunteers, couldn’t ask for a better team over the 2 days.

Writing worksheets in markdown

For a year or 2 now I have been on the hunt for a way to be able to print out documents written in markdown, specifically Github Flavoured Markdown (GFM). I am a big fan of markdown, it takes away a majority of formatting clutter and lets you focus on simply writing. GFM works great for coding worksheets as really all you need are:

  • Headings
  • Normal text
  • Bold/italics
  • Images
  • Code blocks (and preferably syntax highlighting)

9/10 times I simply don’t need anything else.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation have been for quite a while developing their resources in markdown. The resources are added to their Github account and from there, every so often they are pulled and rendered on the Raspberry Pi Resources section.

I have used a number of their excellent resources and printed them directly from the resources section of their site, but what has been more of an issue is if I want to edit the resources, making a few changes simply for our Raspberry Jam or if I want to write my own.
For quite a while I wasn’t able to find any easy way to nicely rendering and printing worksheets I had written in markdown, so ended up switching back to Microsoft Word.

A solution

To write my markdown documents, I use Github Atom, an excellent (free and open source) general purpose text editor. It has a built in markdown renderer (hit ctrl + shift + m to open it) which displays the markdown documents as they will look like on Github. Atom though does not have any way built in of printing these.

I happened to be having a look through popular Atom plugins and stumbled across Markdown-Themeable-PDF. Markdown-Themeable-PDF is a plugin for Github Atom that allows you to really easily generate a beautiful looking PDF from your markdown, including full support for images.

How to install/use it

  1. First make sure you have Github Atom installed, you can download it from here.
  2. Open Github Atom, go to the settings and select Install.
    Search for Markdown-Themeable-PDF and hit the install button beside it.
  3. Open your markdown document you want to export to PDF.
  4. Hit ctrl+shift+e to export it. It will save a PDF with the same filename (plus .pdf) in the folder you are working in.

You may also want to fiddle with the automatic header and footer, details on that can be found on the Markdown-Themeable-PDF page.
I have personally disabled the header and only left the page number in the footer.

The results

I have used the Tweeting Babbage activity from the Raspberry Pi Foundation as an example as I have tweaked it for the NI Raspberry Jam.

Tweeting Babbage activity rendered as a printable PDF
Tweeting Babbage activity rendered as a printable PDF