Posts tagged nerdiness
The Many Moving Parts of our Recycled Robotic Ocean Project

Recently, Big-Brained Superheroes introduced our recycled robotic ocean to participants at this year’s Seattle Mini Maker Faire. Here’s the gist of this project:

The Big-Brained Superheroes Club at Yesler Community Center is creating a marine ecosystem out of recyclables, Micro:bit microcontrollers, servos, motors, LEDs, and sensors. Starting with our plastic bag moon jelly and continuing with our sea turtles made from deli pie containers and bubble wrap along with other animals in production, we’re exploring food webs and interspecies connections through our robotic ecosystem. In the process, we’re learning how certain manmade materials, such as plastics, can be both marvelously malleable and deeply damaging.

As a short exercise, we did a quick rundown of how this project combines science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM), and thought you might be interested in the outcome:

Science: In planning the development of their robotic sea creatures, Big Brains analyze the behaviors of aquatic animals in their natural environments so as to incorporate that information into their robot designs.

Technology: To understand how robots function, Big Brains learn about sensors and electric circuits (input), software development (process), and motors, lights, and speakers (output).

Engineering: To develop functioning robotic sea creatures, Big Brains combine their scientific understanding of how these animals move with their technological knowledge. They also learn and deploy relatively complex mechanical engineering concepts, such as how to translate rotational motion to linear motion.

Art: To create believable and relatable sea creatures out of nontraditional materials, Big Brains learn to find their creatures’ defining characteristics and communicate those characteristics through their work.

Math: To create realistic and functioning robotic sea creatures, Big Brains learn about and deploy diverse mathematical concepts. For instance, when assessing the power requirements for their robots, Big Brains develop and reinforce skills in multiplying, dividing, and adding decimals and fractions. And when translating rotational motion into linear motion, Big Brains leverage geometric concepts, such as how to divide a circle into degrees of arc.

There’s a lot more that goes into these types of projects, and one day it would be interesting to traceback all the various inputs, processes, and outputs that make these kinds of things happen. Even relatively small projects, such as those on which we embark in The BBSC, layer in so many sources of inspiration and knowledge and require so many different kinds of resources that accomplishing any small part of them can start to feel like an act of phenomenal wizardry. But the truth is that there are just a bunch of moving parts involved, and we should just put in the time and effort to wrap our brains around as many of them as we can. For Science. (And Technology. And Engineering…)

Elements of a Big Brain Storm: part 2 (the thunder)

In part one of our Elements of a Big Brain Storm story, we discussed the most visible and discrete aspects of our Brain Storms: the activities. These activities are analogous to the lightning of our storms because they’re the most obvious aspects of what we do, and their contours are most easily discerned. In this part of the story, we’ll try to articulate the less easily individuated elements of our storms: some of the underlying qualities that sort of blend together to make up the feeling or vibe that reverberates through the very best Big Brain Storms. The thunder of the Big Brain Storm is probably most easily articulated through example:

At one point during our open house party in December, one of our partygoers figured out how to illuminate our Galaxy of Light, and the room suddenly burst into applause. And before that, a Big-Brained Superhero initiated the nerding up of the The BBSC City of Light by deciding to add that galaxy. And before that, that very Big Brain got his galactic inspiration from when he tagged onto a NASA newscast project other Big Brains were developing in preparation for our Pizza, Planets, and PJs Party devoted to Hidden Figures. And before that, Big Brains started throwing Pizza, Planets, and PJs parties to watch @neildegrassetysonofficial’s reboot of Cosmos on the community center tv when it first came out in 2014. In the midst of all that was the collective development of the City of Light, circuit wall, and Cardboard Godzilla, each of which has its own origin story that feeds directly into our galaxy.


So, what exactly is the origin story for the Galaxy of Light? Where, when, how, and why does it start and end? Or does it end? For such a tiny, insignificant patchwork, there are quite a few threads. From Elements of a Big Brain Storm: part 1 (the lightning), we can easily see some of the basic elements that went into the creation of our galaxy: circuits, science, storytelling, etc. But those are just the technologies deployed. Underneath, around, and within those elements are continual conversations between and among Big Brains, Big Buddies, and volunteer sidekicks about who we are, what we’re doing, and how we’re going about the business of building our Universe.

Since we’re frequently talking input, process, output when discussing robotics/computational thinking, we’ll apply this framework to describing what we consider to be some of the most important elements of our Big Brain Storms:

Input areas of interest include:

  • From where are Big Brains drawing their inspiration?

  • How many sources of inspiration (including senses) are they using?

  • How wide is their range of source material?

  • How specific and nuanced are their observations of both their immediate environment and whatever other source material they are using?

Process areas of interest include:

  • Are Big Brains having fun?

  • How adventurous are Big Brains being when choosing their projects and activities?

  • How much are Brains challenging themselves?

  • How specific and thought-out are their questions?

  • How are they going about answering their questions?

  • Are they working together and getting help from other Brains?

  • How are they contributing to the community?

Output areas of interest include:

  • Are Big Brains achieving their goals?

  • Are their achievements more permanent/tangible or are they more transitory/intangible?

  • How are individual and collective Big Brain achievements building on each other?

These being elements that generate some of the thunder of our Big Brain Storms, we don’t have any preset or predetermined answers to these questions. We haven’t studied the exact number of optimal inspiration sources a Brain should be leveraging, for example. It’s possible the number is out there, of course, but with so many variables within any given Brain Storm, we’re skeptical that we’ll find one number to rule them all. So, we go with the, for lack of a better word, vibe. We feel it and sense it more than we typically see it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real or not important. In fact, if anything, the vibe is often where it all begins.

To make up for not having a more complete understanding/explanation of these elements, we offer the God of Thunder:

Elements of a Big Brain Storm: part 1 (the lightning)

On Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 to 7pm in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, Big-Brained Superheroes drop in and engage in Big Brain Storm activities, which we loosely group into three interrelated categories: Recycled Robotics, Math and Spatial Relationship Skill-building, and Storytelling. Though relatively confident in our collective ability to nerd up nearly any activity (’what’ is generally much less important than ‘how’ for us), there is at least a tiny bit of method to our madness in all things. Here are the ‘what’ we do in Big Brain Storm meetings and our understood rationale for doing it:


What: Recycled Robotics, involving:

  • Micro:bit/Scratch/,

  • circuits and electronics,

  • binary math, switches, and digital logic,

  • 3D and 2D art with recycled materials

Some Examples:

Why: Where to start? There are a myriad of ways in which to understand the ‘why’ behind our gravitation toward recycled robotics, but let’s stick with a few of the moderately prosaic reasons for now. Big Brains use recycled robotics as a platform to explore several useful concepts related to technological, human, and social development:

  • Ar-ti-cu-la-tion: In many ways, understanding how to build a robot can be analogous to understanding how we build ourselves. When we’re developing robots, we are thinking about their inputs (their observations and influences from the physical world), their desired outputs (the specific ways in which we want them to affect or influence the world), and their processes—both intentional (code) and unintentional (bugs)—that connect, or fail to connect, their inputs and their outputs. In our ideal world, Big-Brained Superheroes have infinite power over each of these elements of their own lives, and gaining that power can, if we do it right, start through analyzing and manipulating them externally—in this case, through building robots.

  • Connection: Sure, it’s perfectly fine to build fully independent robots, but we’d rather build robots that respond to and initiate communication (behavioral or otherwise) with each other or some other part of The Big-Brained Superhero Universe. In our ideal world, not only do Big-Brained Superheroes have ultimate power over how they observe, understand, and interact with the world as individuals, they think about the systemic affects of their individual actions and how systems in turn affect them. Placing our robots in an interactive world in which communication drives communication gives us a useful opportunity to discuss how our own communications influence each other.

  • Creativity: Creativity, generally, and metaphorical thinking, in particular, are ways in which human and social development have thus far diverged from technological development. We’ve learned how to create robots to analyze and interact with the world, but we haven’t yet learned to create a robot that can look at a pile of used cardboard and plastic packaging material and envision a robot. So, using recyclables to create our robots gives us an opportunity to exercise those more complex functions of our brains that make Big-Brained Superheroes creators of worlds rather than just products of them.


What: Math and Spatial Reasoning Skill-building, including:

  • building with LEGO, Magformer, and wooden blocks,

  • symmetrical art with recycled materials,

  • Prodigy and Osmo

Some Examples:

Why: Though this activity class started out as a way to fulfill the immediate wants and needs of Big-Brained Super Shorties (Big Brains roughly 7 and under), it has evolved as a fundamental platform for engaging and nerding up Big Brains of all ages and interests. We’ve used the materials in all kinds of randomly fun ways, including in completing what we call The LEGO Challenge (finding an image in a book and challenging Brains to build it out of LEGO in a timed situation and then having the rest of the club evaluate their work), using the dots on the LEGO pieces to discuss how addition, multiplication, and fractions work, and making things float with Magformers. To name a few. These stations are always available to Big Brains during Big Brain Storms and thus can also serve as social play areas during project breaks.

Aside from all the immediate value that we see ourselves, we are persuaded as to the longer term value of these activities by the social science on them:

Spatial skills are positively correlated with standardized test scores, motivation for learning, STEM major declaration, and number of science courses taken. Our analysis also indicates that the cumulative, informal training of childhood play has the ability to increase spatial reasoning. Spatial skill scores were significantly higher among students who played action, construction, or sports video games in childhood. Male and female students display significant differences in spatial skills, especially for mental rotation, with males outperforming females. However, gender disparities are fully mediated after adjusting for a variety of academic factors and whether students frequently played with construction-based toys.

For whatever directions Big-Brained Superheroes choose to go in life, their brains require preparation. Meaningful access to these toys can help make that possible.


What: Storytelling, involving:

  • videography, photography, and stop-motion,

  • writing and editing,

  • drawing,

  • material art and science

Some Examples:

Why: Again, we have so many reasons underlying our interest in storytelling, it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, if we want to get people to our People, Planets, and PJs Party, it helps to consider what tools we can use to persuade them. And if we’re going to present our Jellyfish Robot at the Black in Tech hackathon at Facebook, we’re going to want to construct our presentation in a way that holds everyone’s interest. And we can go on and on about how good stories engage our brains in helpful ways (empathy, kindness, teamwork—all those superpowers). But all these practical considerations aside, we have a more basic rationale for integrating this category of activities into our Big Brain Storms. The tools and techniques used in storytelling can, when thoughtfully explored and applied, help our Big Brains become better observers, thinkers, and communicators.

If this sounds a lot like our rationale for leveraging Recycled Robotics as a platform in The BBSC, then it should. Input (observation)—process (thinking)—output (communication) can pretty much sum up how we understand what we do in Big Brain Storms as skill in those areas is fairly fundamental to the act of creation. Which is a perfect example of why ‘how’ is much more important to us than ‘what’. As long as we’re conscientiously and skillfully developing these three elements of how Big Brains understand and interact with the world, then our activities can be pretty arbitrary and just as much based in practical constraints and happenstance as anything else. But since we can’t directly see input—process—output, we find it more palatable to discuss the physical platforms through which we explore these elements. In other words, our activities are the lightning in our Big Brain Storms. Part two of this series will consider the thunder.

And now, your reward for getting elemental with us:

You’re welcome.

A BBS Universe Evolution: Making MARS

Through November and December of 2017, the BBS universe underwent a startling evolution, the details of which you can (and definitely should!) explore here.

Part of our universe evolution included the development of what we’ve come to call our Mobile Artistic Rendering Station (aka MARS). MARS addresses two longstanding challenges we’ve faced in the Big Brains:

  • Our cardboard and pegboard construction materials have had a tendency to devolve into an unwieldy chaotic pile;
  • The process of scouring the community center for large standing whiteboards has often hindered our project readiness.

Given our space constraints, it made sense to address both of these challenges with a single solution. So, MARS is formed:


First, our Big Buddies were tasked with measuring all the diverse dimensions of the 2x4s that Tamara, a kind and generous BBS benefactor, salvaged from the dumpster of the construction company for which she worked. Buddies then chose the combination of boards that would best fit the dimensions described in the diagram we had created.


After measuring twice, Big Buddies, using our handy and fairly safe oscillating saw, cut the lengths required for the MARS out of boards they had scrubbed and prepared for the project.


Next came the pilot holes and deck screws to secure the frame to the platform.


There was a lot of practice and teamwork involved in using power tools for the first time.


Once Buddies modified the design a bit by adding boards across the tops of the long sides, they attached, after much ado, two 3x5(ish) whiteboards. With some locking casters thrown on, MARS was ready to roll.

MARS, fully loaded.


Great work, Big Brain Buddies!

Anatomy of a Superlative Big Brain Adventure: 2 of 2 (Our Inputs)

In Part 1 of our Anatomy of a Superlative Big Brain Adventure, we looked at how we determined that our recent BBS field trip to Carkeek Park was a success. As challenging and ambiguous as it may be to make such a determination, understanding and articulating the tools that were employed to facilitate the event’s success is an infinitely more challenging and ambiguous task. For starters, it all begins with Big Brains—Who are they? What inspires and motivates them, individually and collectively? What are their strengths and concerns?—etc. For instance, you wouldn’t take just any random set of kids off the street and set them loose in an oceanside forest with $$$ worth of technology for half a day (well, maybe you would, but we wouldn’t). So, let’s stipulate that not all our actual inputs will be enumerated in this one catalog and instead try to capture the overall gist of what we consider to be our known inputs.

Input #1: Trust


Trust in our community, in our shared superpowers, and in our institutional frameworks and people, including:

  • Seattle Parks staff and volunteers and their substantive commitment to facilitating a field trip that maximizes positive Big Brain development;
  • Big-Brained Superhero Buddies and volunteers and our collective commitment to try hard, be kind, and have fun.

As ambiguous as it seems, we know trust when we deploy and experience it, and for this adventure to be a success, we definitely needed it.

Input #2: Space and freedom to explore


Carkeek Park and all the diverse environments and experiences it offers combined with 3+ hours for Big Brains to explore those offerings made for an invaluable and incomparable Big Brain adventure. We could go on about the relative freedom Big Brains had to explore this place in their own time in their own way, but then we may be circling back to trust already. So, let’s keep fixated on the environment, which was fully stocked with curiosity stimulants, as evident in the 700+ photos and videos Big Brains captured, such as:


Because these are just some of the many many things they took pictures of, we have to assume that these are just some of many many things that interested Big Brains on this field trip. And because not all of the Big Brains photographed these same objects, we have to assume that a wide diversity of potential curiosity stimulants mattered as did the freedom for Big Brains to observe them.

Input #3: Care


Being hugely resource-intensive for us, field trips are never simply a box-checking exercise in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. So, if we’re going to do them, we’re going to do everything we can to give ourselves the highest probability that we’ll feel a sense of success afterward. Care facilitates our success in so many ways because it’s fundamentally based in knowing who Big-Brained Superheroes are, as individuals and as a group. For our Big-Brained Superheroes on this particular trip, care came in several forms:

  1. Rubber boots: Our Big Brains don’t have them, and luckily for us, Seattle Parks employee, Anne, thought of that and brought them. These boots also contributed to the freedom for Big Brains to explore. We also had ponchos ready just in case. On our next outdoor adventure, we’ll probably also add spare socks and fleece jackets to our care package, just in case.
  2. An abundance of Brain food: As they frequently acknowledge, Big Brains are highly susceptible to feeling competitive for resources. We’ve seen such competitiveness diminish all areas of a Big Brain’s capacity, including openness to new ideas and experiences, enough to know that food is one area on which we do not skimp. Ever. No stale solitary PB&Js for our Big Brains.
  3. Rewards: There must be a sense of adventure center of the brain because when a reward—no matter how vague or undefined or inconsequential—is on the table, it captures Big Brain interest. As long as there is no competition involved in the process, we use small rewards to help Big Brains feel validated in their superpower-development work. 
  4. Mom:

Mom makes everything better, and we were insanely lucky that Mama Rahima joined in on this adventure. May we always be so lucky!

Input #4: Enhanced Reality


Big Brains love creative adventure and exploration as much as anyone, but enhancing that foundation with profoundly diverse elective opportunities for more in-depth thinking and understanding is really what helps nerd up this and all BBS field trips. In this case, reality was enhanced in two significant ways:

  • Knowledgeable Seattle Parks employees and volunteers were not only part of the Big Brain field trip entourage, but Parks naturalists were also actively working throughout the park counting, measuring, and dissecting salmon right before our eyes. Great in itself, what was more important was that, while they were working, naturalists were always open to being interrupted by questions from Big Brains. For Big Brains, Parks naturalists were like Siri in blue jackets.
  • Big Brains carried iPod cameras in waterproof cases, enabling them to capture and frame their unique experiences in their own ways. Not only do those tools enhance the ability of Big Brains to own their experiences in the moment, they provide another way to build on those experiences in the future.

So, there we go. Our outputs and inputs for a superlative Big Brain adventure. If we had more time, we’d also talk about the process, but we’ll leave that for another day. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to thank:

  • Seattle Parks and Recreation
  • 4Culture
  • Seattle Department of Neighborhoods
  • Seattle University
  • Mama Rahima and all the other Big Brain guardians who made it possible.


Anatomy of a Superlative Big Brain Adventure: 1 of 2 (Our Outputs)

Thanks to a series of dedicated individuals from Yesler Community Center, Seattle Parks Environmental Education, and Seattle University combined with funding from Seattle University, Seattle Parks Advisory Council, Seattle Neighborhoods, 4Culture, and individual contributors, Big Brains got the unanticipated privilege of engaging with our environment in a whole new way in 2017. These diverse interactions throughout the latter part of the year culminated in a truly superlative Big Brain voyage through Seattle’s Carkeek Park one chilly Saturday in November.

What are the outputs that indicate the success of this event? And what are the inputs that helped make it successful? Great questions. So glad you asked!


First, our success criteria for Big Brain field trips are typically:

  1. Did Big Brains have lots of fun?
  2. Did Big Brains nerd it up?

In that order. (We’ve discussed the rationale for this perspective quite a bit.)

Now, for our evidence indicating success on both criteria:

Criteria 1: Lots of Fun indicators include smiles, intense curiosity, and spontaneously expressed enthusiasm:


We also regularly go out of our way to get input from Big Brains who we know to be the most brutal in their honesty. Typically, the feedback from those unfiltered Brains after an event corresponds well with our impressions during the event. In this case, we got an unalloyed, “It was fun!”, from all concerned parties, which was not remotely surprising to anyone.

Finally, we look for clues as to how a field trip may have affected our community after-the-fact. While this story is complicated by external factors, including other things going on in The BBSC or Yesler community around the time of the event, we still like to see BBSC participation and engagement levels increase a bit. But because this particular field trip had to occur during a time we were technically closed for renovations, the clues were slightly tougher to come by. However, when a couple of weeks after the event, we overheard one of our more brutally honest Brains tell his friend that, “Big Brains has the best field trips,” we felt pretty confident that a good time was had by all.

Criteria 2: Nerd it Up indicators include the number and quality of questions asked during the trip and, ideally, some suggestion that Big Brains came away from it with an expanded view of the world/universe and their individual/collective place in it. In this case, Big Brains were armed with 10 iPods and collectively captured over 700 photos and videos of their field trip experience, which, in our view, is a pretty nerdy thing to do. They also independently and enthusiastically peppered Park volunteers and employees with dozens of questions throughout the event:


And while it’s always tough to tell how/if this event expanded our Brains’ view of the world/universe and their individual/collective place in it, early indicators suggest at least some positive impressions. For instance, walking away from the park, one Big Brain spontaneously described herself as “a nature person.” And now that our open house is over, we expect to be referring back to the images that Big Brains captured on this field trip for artistic and technological inspiration in the coming year. So, in that sense, the final Nerdiness score for this event is still yet to be calculated, but because the Lots of Fun indicators were high, we expect the long-term Nerd level to follow in the same direction.

Part Two (Our Inputs) of Anatomy of a Superlative Big Brain Adventure is forthcoming. Stay tuned…

White House National #WeekofMaking Connections

“Being interested and engaged in life is the single most important pathway to success.” -President Barack Obama

Let’s be honest: sometimes you simply just don’t want to do the things you probably should do. Such was the case for us when we learned about the White House National #WeekofMaking happening in June. Our reluctance to engage in this initiative may seem paradoxical given our obvious predisposition toward everything the event was about. But exactly because every week is a week of making for us, making a big deal out of one week just seemed…unnecessary. That, combined with the event’s scheduling conflict with Yesler’s Juneteenth celebrations, inspired little more than hesitation in us. However, the persistent dedication to the event shown by Andrew Coy and the rest of the Making team in OSTP finally compelled us to get over ourselves and get the job done.

In our experience there are two main methods for getting a job done. In one way, Willpower and Persistence are the primary mechanisms for accomplishing the goal, and you just suck it up and do what needs to be done to get through it. We call this “the box-checking method”. The other main way primarily requires Sense of Adventure and Creativity, and rather than simply powering through all the job’s attendant complexities and discordances to find the most direct path to the checked box, you embrace those complexities and discordances and zigzag between them until the box becomes something of actual interest to you. We call this “the fun way”.

(Obviously, jobs can involve both methods to different degrees at different times, but many influencing factors—the type of job, the amount of time and other resources you have to do it, the constraints involved, and your own interests and motivations—can make a huge difference in which method predominates.)

Big Brains generally spend a huge portion of their young lives checking boxes. Go to school; do your homework; read this book; etc. They have tons of experience in that particular method of getting the job done (and often failing to get the job done). Consequently, The BBSC is necessarily designed around doing things “the fun way”. It takes significantly longer and involves way more work, but we, like President Obama, find that learning to do life the fun way is the single most important pathway to success.

For us, doing National Week of Making the fun way involved exploring the unique history of Juneteenth and illustrating the connections between the events and people that eventually made it happen. And so we put together a bunch of materials we had lying around to make an electric circuit out of history:

This is the kind of project that, as one Big Brain succinctly put it, “makes nerdiness cool.” Nearly every Big Brain had a hand in its development and, therefore, had an investment in its outcome. And by viewing the National Week of Making through the Juneteenth historical lens, we not only came away with a more complex understanding of our history, we now have a new (for us) platform for storytelling that we’re already deploying in other contexts.

So, for being an instigator and determined supporter of making, Big-Brained Superheroes would like to earnestly say, “Thanks, Obama!”