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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!”

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"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

Dublin Maker

For the past few years, the Dalriada robotics team have been heading down to Dublin every July for Dublin Maker (previously Dublin Mini Maker Faire) to let kids play with our robotics gear. This year was slightly different as we had decided to give the Raspberry Pi Foundation Dots board activity a go after the success that had been seen with it at Liverpool Makefest with the new Minecraft code.

As the team of us had to be down for 10am in Dublin, it meant an early start for some of the team who were starting out on the North coast. For them, the trip to Dublin would involve a 320 mile roundtrip in a single day…

Before we even left Northern Ireland though, we hit 2 snags. First was an issue with the Dots Boards needed for the activity. After a misunderstanding with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the planned 200 boards for Dublin Maker didn’t arrive in time. So we were stuck with my own set of 20 demo and test boards…
The second snag was my car decided to have exhaust issues the evening before. The result of this was the entire team heading down on the bus, 4 monitors, 4 lapdocks and all the supporting Pi gear to go with it…
On the way, we were joined by Toireasa and and Tanya, 2 awesome Kainos employees who signed up to give us a hand with the activity.

Dublin Maker

On arriving (a little late), we discovered this years event was even bigger than last year with already hundreds of people walking around!

Very busy
Super busy already!

We quickly set up our equipment and within 10 mins of arriving, we were already accepting kids to give our activity a go.

It started out quiet with only 5-10 kids wanting a go at a time...
It started out quiet with only 5-10 kids wanting a go at a time…

Dublin Maker tables

Within 30 mins of arriving, we had already hit capacity with people queuing to take part in the activity and many kids having to pair up with siblings.

Starting to get extremely busy with all 8 volunteers on their feet talking with or helping people
Starting to get extremely busy with all 8 volunteers on their feet talking with or helping people

Throughout the day, a crack team of “board washers” operated on the stall, hastily cleaning the Dots Boards with baby wipes so they could be handed out to the next waiting kid. Libby ended up spending most of the day doing this and as can be seen below, she ended up with some very black hands..

Libby hands
“This is what happens when you clean over 400 boards” – Libby
We even had the local press interested in what was going on
We even had the local press interested in what was going on
We had kids as young as 6 right up to adults as old as 85 taking part in the activity
We had kids as young as 4 right up to adults as old as 85 taking part in the activity
We were very glad we put down card on the table before starting...
We were very glad we put down card on the table before starting…

Thanks

My awesome team of volunteers deserve a massive thanks for taking the trip down to Dublin to be worked off their feet all day.
Over the 6 hours we were exhibiting, over 1000 Dots Boards were filled in (and cleaned) with over 1500 people getting involved. We count the activity as a massive success and look forward to using it again in the future.

From left to right Ryan, Tanya, Clare C, Toireasa, me, Toby, Libby, Claire M
From left to right
Ryan, Tanya, Clare C, Toireasa, me, Toby, Libby, Claire M

The team were rewarded at the end of the day with a lot of pizza…

Yes, that is a single slice from a 24 inch pizza....
Yes, that is a single slice from a 24 inch pizza….

BBC Make It Digital

On Thursday 26th and Friday 27th, myself and an army of volunteers students from the Computer Science department at Queens University took part in delivering workshops for 250-300 Northern Irish schoolkids from across the province, as part of the BBC Make It Digital event.

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The event was held at BBC Blackstaff studios in Belfast and ran from the 26th – 28th, although we were only doing Raspberry Pi workshops on the 26th – 27th.

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The kids worked through 2 activities. Introduction to Sonic Pi and Introduction to LEDBorg using ScratchGPIO.

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The feedback from the kids was excellent, with many having to be prised from the Raspberry Pis at the end of the sessions.

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Making awesome music with Sonic-Pi

And they certainly kept the volunteers busy with plenty of questions on how they could expand on the initial worksheets to create even more awesome stuff.

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And they were pretty keen to show off the cool stuff they had made to their teachers!

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Huge thanks to my army of volunteers from Queens University Computer Science department and thanks to the department for supporting the activity!

A few of my awesome volunteers from Queens.
A few of my awesome volunteers from Queens.
Well what else did you think they were for?
Well what else did you think they were for?
The upgraded CERN hat from Farset Labs
The upgraded CERN hat from Farset Labs.

Motorola Lapdock – The ultimate mobile option for Raspberry Pis?

So a while back I heard about the Motorola lapdock. It was designed for the Motorola Atrix phone, idea was it would slot in the back and could be used like a computer.

The idea never really took off so there are a number of people in the world sitting on large warehouses of these.

The Spec

  • 11.5 inch screen
  • Keyboard (usually has English and Hebrew characters)
  • Trackpad (isn’t great, would recommend USB mouse)
  • x2 USB ports via built in powered USB hub
  • 4-6 hour battery life with the Raspberry Pi model B+
  • Battery status LEDs
  • Weights little over 1kg
  • Micro HDMI male port (for connecting to Raspberry Pi)
  • Micro USB male port (for connecting to Raspberry Pi)

Using with Raspberry Pi

With the correct cables, the lapdock is perfect for use with the Raspberry Pi, especially for use with a mobile classroom or one that needs to be packed away at the end of a lesson.

Setup is extremely quick, for Raspberry Pi 1 model B, you only need 2 cables. For Raspberry Pi 1 model B+ and Raspberry Pi 2 model B, you require an extra standard micro USB cable as the newer Raspberry Pis don’t support backpowering over USB.

Cables?

The lapdock requires some pretty specialised/weird cables to use it. You require a male USB to female micro USB and a male HDMI to female micro HDMI cable.

For the USB cable, it is easier to get 2 cables, a micro USB extension cable and a male USB to female micro USB adapter. Both are not hard to find on places like Ebay.

The more complicated cable to hunt down is the HDMI cable. Best source I have found so far is here.

Where do I get a lapdock?

A good question. There are a number of sources you can buy them from. The most direct option is from Israel, where a charity is sitting it seems on a warehouse or 2 of them. A majority of UK sellers will have likely bought it directly from them and are just reselling it a bit higher. You have 2 options, buying in singles or in 6s.

Just a word of warning. Given you are ordering an item in from outside the EU, you may have to pay import taxes, especially if buying 6! I ended up with taxes and charges close to £95 when ordering in 6 recently.

They were still well worth it though!

 

So what do I think?

They are awesome! We can take the 7 we have and have them set up in a matter of minutes, given it is so few cables. The inbuilt battery is extremely useful for workshops where we don’t want to set up a mains network across the room. They are extremely well built and feel solid. They are also great to sling in a bag or suitcase where you know you will need a Raspberry Pi setup. A perfect example is I quite easily brought over 2 to the Raspberry Pi 3rd Birthday celebrations in Cambridge at the weekend with no issue due to them being extremely thin and light.

The keyboard is fine to use, although I sometimes find the spacebar doesn’t register. The keyboard though is completely usable and I have had very few complains from students about it. The trackpad isn’t great, so I would recommend a cheap USB mouse to go with it if using it extensively.

I don’t know anything out there that could beat it for the price and ease of use combined! Including cables, they work out about £75 each if you get hit by import taxes and ordered in 6s. The screen is extremely clear, the build quality is excellent and the battery is a much welcomed added bonus.

If you need a solution for your Raspberry Pi that you can throw into a bag for Raspberry Jams etc, this might just be  it.

Motorola Lapdock hooked up to a Raspberry Pi
Motorola Lapdock hooked up to a Raspberry Pi