Posts tagged superhackers
Digital Logic at the Side of the Everlasting Why...


After meeting some folks from San Francisco’s Tinkering Studio here in Seattle, we sent them either a present or a curse (we’re not sure which). We sent them a package containing instructions and all the parts to build three of our digital logic boxes. Poor Ryan apparently selected the short straw

Building the kit was a good experience, but for me I wanted to mess around with something more basic and easier to understand. I looked up logic gates in Forrest M. Mims III circuit guide books and found a simple diagram of the “and” and “or” switches. I used two momentary switches and constructed two circuit board blocks that could be combined with the rest of the set. However, I am still a little unsure of the “why” behind doing this activity. While programing and systems thinking are interesting topics, I wonder what the intrinsic motivation for people to play with them could be.

Ryan is exactly right. And here is our explanation(ish):

While we recognize that systems and computational thinking may or may not be interesting in themselves, we see them as potentially valuable tools to help us think about our own thinking. All the complex ‘thinking’ computers do can be broken down into a long series of very simple binary 'decisions’, which are basic rules (logic) governing inputs and outputs. Understanding those rules helps us understand how computers 'think’, and understanding how computers 'think’ can help us better articulate (in every sense of the word) our own complex thinking. Essentially, the computer-as-series-of-logic-gates serves a metaphorical function. Just as the chain reaction machine might.

For us, the purpose of putting the logic gate into a black box (of sorts) was to create a puzzle. You know that inside this box is an AND, OR, or NOT gate, and your job is to figure out which one it is. In that sense, the motivation behind the activity is simply problem-solving and is not much different from that which motivates us to solve any other simple puzzle. The tool we offer to do this—the truth table—is simply a way to document the problem-solving process. All that said, we are working to make the problem-solving portion (including the truth tabling) more inherently fun. We want to keep the language ('input’s, 'output’s, '1’s, '0’s, etc) because we think doing so will help provide a foundation for those who want to learn more about computers. But we want to make it more tactile, if possible.

Once we get the basics of how to figure out which gate is inside which box, our next challenge is to connect the gates together to see if we can predict what the output would be, given our inputs. For instance, when we connected the AND and NOT gates together (essentially creating a NAND) at GeekGirlCon this weekend, we asked participants whether they thought the output light of the NOT gate would be on or off if we turned on both AND inputs (for instance). At that point, we’re increasing the complexity of the puzzle a bit—we’re creating a hypothesis and connecting that hypothesis to specific conditions. After they articulated a hypothesis, they then tested it. And if their hypothesis was incorrect, they would then go back and figure out exactly where their thinking had gotten off-track.

Eventually, we want to create an obstacle course (of sorts), where we have an end goal (such as, turn output ON) and certain requirements (such as, use at least 2 logic gates) and see what we can get out of it. We also want to combine our digital logic activity with our binary counting activity to see if we can create and interpret the output of a single bit adder. By using the language and rules of digital logic, we are simply adding a bit of structure to a seemingly complex problem-solving process. Once we have the method down, we think it can be highly portable to a variety of challenges and easily built upon. That’s the goal, anyway.

The broader point is that we have a tough time articulating the answer to a question that our Big Brains ask all the time (when they’re doing their math homework, for instance): “Why?”. It’s important for us to have a 'why’ for everything we do and everything we ask our Big Brains to do, and yet, it’s incredibly challenging to make that 'why’ clear throughout the process. Especially when the task is foreign or complex, if our Big Brains can’t connect it to something they already understand, the experience or knowledge they gain from it is not going to stay with them for very long. Articulating the 'why’ is probably the toughest aspect of instructional design and also the most essential to get right. Which means we have much more work to do.

It's true! SparkFun sparks fun!


A few weeks ago, SparkFun gave a very generous gift to The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. But the truth of the matter is that we haven’t even gotten to those boxes yet. We’ve been so busy soldering connections, stripping wires, and testing voltages with our new SparkFun tool kits that we haven’t yet made our way to the best stuff! Which brings us to the other gifts that SparkFun is giving us: the opportunity, motivational support, and tools we need to work our way toward harder problems.

In our experience, SparkFun is unique in how far it goes to put its tools and information into the hands of unlikely makers. And they do it with flair (and flare)! When we started excavating all the shiny red SparkFun boxes from our first delivery, word got around the community center rather quickly that something was up. Almost immediately we had more hands helping us than we knew what to do with. And even before our main electronics components had arrived, we were digging out of our stash a discarded CD player motor and other junk with which to play.


Since then, Big-Brained Superheroes have built 12 logic gate modules and a few soon-to-be revealed components of our emerging electric circuits lab. All using the many tools we were able to get thanks SparkFun’s educational discount and Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund. The most exciting aspect of this project, though, is that it’s really just the beginning of something even greater. Each new tool we figure out how to use, each new part we learn about, and each new circuit we build makes our world just a bit more accessible and equally more fun. And all those shiny red boxes waiting for us on the shelf serve as an excellent reminder that we’re just getting started.image

Thank you, SparkFun, for helping make it all happen!

Coming Attractions: Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Digital Logic


Hooray! Hooray! Digital Logic is on its way!

That’s right. Remember all that partying we did oh so many months ago? Of course you do. Well, we’re finally preparing to get our digital logic on and are furiously finalizing our workshop plans.

The Big-Brained Superheroes Club will be offering four series of four (4x4) very hands-on workshops open to anyone and everyone who wants to learn the basics of how computers “think”. Each series will comprise four mission-oriented workshops:

  1. Mission 1: Have fun with Electric Circuits
  2. Mission 2: Have fun with Logic Gates
  3. Mission 3: Have even more fun with Logic Gates
  4. Mission 4: Complete the Logic Gate Challenge!

Workshops will be on Mondays at 6pm at Yesler Community Center starting on these dates:

  1. Series 1: April 28th
  2. Series 2: June 2nd
  3. Series 3: July 21st
  4. Series 4: August 18th.

(More details, including sign-up information, to follow. To get it in your inbox, join our e-newsletter list in the sidebar over there!) –>

As always, big-brained superhero workshop participants will be working in a positive, rewarding, kinetically-rich environment. So, thanks to the City of Seattle and Somali Community Services of Seattle, we say unto you now: Hero! Prepare to do logic!

Big-Brained Superheroes vs.'s #HourOfCode


Around this time last year, our young BBSes spent some time developing Codecademy’s web holiday cards. How did it go? Well…it could have gone better. This year, we spent time with’s Hour of Code. How did it go? Well…aside from a lack of headphones for every BBS coder, it couldn’t have gone better. It went so well that several of our young Big-Brained Superheroes are choosing to go Beyond One Hour. Even without BBS sidekicks around to help them!

And now, for the breakdown. Our BBS population for this exercise was fairly similar to that of last year’s Codecademy exercise, so we’ll skip that explanation and go straight into the review.

The Good:

  • Like last year’s Codecademy exercise, this year's Hour of Code is freely available to anyone with a computer and internet access.
  • Unlike last year’s Codecademy project-based exercise, this year’s Hour of Code was game-based. This particular game-based approach provided much more method to the madness and enabled a leveling up process that was significantly more logical and predictable than Codecademy’s project-based approach. Coders were more motivated to think problems through, and they seemed to grasp much more programming logic as a result of Hour of Code’s game-based approach.
  • The Angry Birds character set is a great example of how broadly inclusive design doesn’t have to be banal or vapid, and the use of Angry Birds in Hour of Code was an obvious draw for our young BBSes.
  • The instructional videos were exceptional in that they were explanatory but didn’t give too much away. They were timed well, and the diversity of the instructors was inspiringly inclusive. Apparently, when Chris Bosh speaks, our Big-Brained Superheroes listen. (When they have the technical capability to do so, that is.) And the written instructions that were provided for those without sound capability eliminated a big obstacle for us.
  • The completion certificate at the end of the game was a nice reward and motivator for some BBSes.
  • Beyond One Hour provides us with a simple way to continue the learning!

The Less Good:

  • Once our BBSes got the auditory reward for completing a level, they tended to skim through the text that told them they might have completed the level using fewer lines of code. Making that information more prominent (at least the first time around) would have given them stronger cues that there was more learning to get from the level they just completed.
  • Also, it would help if the link to “Show Code” were more obvious or if the lines of code came up automatically in at least one level so coders wouldn’t unintentionally skip over it.

All in all, we are thrilled with how our coding exercise went this year, and we’re continuing to use in our BBSC meetings. For us, it was not just a method of learning some basic programming logic, but it also served as a welcoming, inclusive invitation to explore the world of computer programming. After completing their Hour of Code, several of our coders went on to build web pages using W3schools:


Or played with Tynker and other code-learning platforms directly available through the website:image

In short, even though our coding exercise this year was not holiday-centric,’s Hour of Code provided us with some fine holiday (and beyond) fun!

DISCLAIMER: The BBSC is not affiliated with any of the code learning platforms or sites discussed in this post. However, one of our volunteer brain-hackers (Launchpad McD) does work for Facebook, which is somehow involved with (though we don’t know how, and we didn’t know this before we began exploring

An Amiable Amalgam

Unsurprisingly, today was a busy day in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. And yet, it was all surprisingly simple. Strangely self-organized, even. Our big-brained superheroes showed up and just…kind of…did stuff. Such as…





Multi-person Math:


More Math:




And such. Microscopes and other miscellany even made their appearances. And while nothing necessarily noteworthy or grandiose happened, today left an unusual impression. Sometimes simplicity is sublime.

Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Structure

imageWe Big-Brained Superheroes are always up for a challenge. And sometimes our challenges aren’t nearly as challenging as we expect them to be. For instance, yesterday, Peter Gruenbaum of SDKBridge came by to teach us how to develop a maze game in Scratch. This impending event made a few of us Big-Brained Superhero volunteers a bit nervous for the following reasons:

  1. Peter is fantastically generous with his time, and we were anxious for him to feel that hanging out with us was time well-spent;
  2. Our young Big-Brained Superheroes had just spent all day in school, and we knew that a more formally structured lesson would seriously test our Persistence and Willpower superpowers;
  3. We still hadn’t settled ourselves on how well a more formally structured lesson would fit into our less formally structured club, with our young Big-Brained Superheroes coming in and out as their schedules and needs demand.

In other words, this challenge presented a genuine test for our Sense of Adventure superpower. And yet…it went great! On the whole, our young big-brained superheroes worked assiduously to the end. Huzzah! There. Now that the celebrations are over, we have to ask ourselves: Why did this exercise work so well? Here are some of—what we consider to be—the contributing factors:

  1. Peter is a genuine big-brained superhero. He exercised all of his superpowers in this endeavor, most especially Adaptability. He constrained and simplified his lesson. Rather than spending all of his time at the front of the room lecturing, he broke up his instructions into very discrete chunks and then went around the room helping. When our young Big-Brained Superheroes went off-script, he didn’t even flinch and just rolled with it.
  2. Peter also helped create an environment conducive to concentration. He brought with him a projector and laptop with which he projected his Scratch code onto the big screen. Beyond being a helpful reference tool, the projection served as a useful focal point to which our young Big-Brained Superheroes could turn their attention when they began to get restless. The dim ambient lighting accompanying the projection also seemed to help relax us.
  3. We pulled out all the motivational tools in our arsenal for this event. Successfully completing a Scratch maze became a prerequisite for attending our upcoming roboticized club field trip (details forthcoming). Big-Brained Superhero volunteers were especially generous with the big-brain bucks during this event. And at the end, our young Big-Brained Superheroes were rewarded with flash drives provided by the City of Seattle. (Whether or not we actually needed all these supporting materials for this event is open for debate, but having them at our disposal at least made us Big-Brained Superhero volunteers feel better.)
  4. Finally, it appears that our young Big-Brained Superheroes self-selected into this event, so the preponderance of the energy in the room belonged to the Scratch-curious (or at least to those who didn’t feel absolutely compelled to be running around outside on a beautiful afternoon).

All in all, this event was a hugely empowering experience for us. We all learned something useful and demonstrated that we can manage more structure when called upon to do so. How far we will take this awareness is yet to be determined. We’re still holding out hope that our young Big-Brained Superheroes will eventually perform a coup and take this club for their very own. In the meantime, however, periodically interrupting our normally scheduled pandemonium with a little bit of structure is a good thing. At the very least, it proves we can meet a serious challenge. With quite a bit of help from our big-brained superhero friends, that is.

Many thanks to Peter at SDKBridge for the help!

The hands seen here adding up 0s and 1s* belong to one of our big-brained superhero 4th-graders. We love to see how this particular BBS recovers from her mistakes. Rather than getting flustered and frustrated, she remains calm, cool, and Persistent to the end. All the way up to a hundred.

* = This binary counter was designed and developed by one of our big-brained superhero volunteers who received high praise yesterday when one of our young BBSes, after a scrupulous examination of the apparatus, earnestly pronounced said volunteer to be “really good at electronics”.

Big-Brained Superheroes v. @Codecademy's Web Holiday Card


Over the holiday break, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club experimented with Codecademy’s Holiday Card project, and here are our thoughts about the experience…

On the evening of December 24th, about 12 big-brained superheroes (+a few interlopers) got together in the Yesler Computer Lab to put together a gingerbread house kit and create web holiday cards. Most of our ages ranged from 8 to 11, while there were some as young as 5 and some as old as 12 (not including two big big-brained superhero volunteers). Typically, most of us spend about an hour or two a day on the computer but do not have a computer at home. Much of that computer time is, apparently, spent killing our friends on the internet. Of this group, 6 succeeded in creating and sharing some version of a Codecademy holiday web card.

The Good:

  • The project was freely available…no sign-up or other barriers to entry (just like The BBSC!).
  • The code card was a discrete and fairly relevant project that enabled BBSes to produce immediate results.
  • The card background and object graphics were varied enough that pretty much everyone in our diverse group could find something that didn’t repel them.
  • There were few prior knowledge requirements. If you could read english and had some familiarity with the computer and the internet, you could start producing cards.
  • Theoretically, the card you create is limited only by the time, effort, and creativity you put into it. While there are set pieces, the overall outcome is up to the individual.

The Less Good:

  • Browser compatibility was a challenge. For whatever reason, IE and Codecademy cards didn’t always get along super well in our lab.
  • The instructions and conceptual context were separate from the specific activity of creating a card. Beyond figuring out the cutting and pasting (a challenge in IE) and gaining some level of familiarity with the terms “CSS” and “HTML”, it wasn’t abundantly clear to our big brains how all the pieces fit together. (Even our big big-brained superhero technogeeks didn’t really get it.)
  • Once we got through the cutting and pasting of code for objects, we fell off a cliff (metaphorically speaking). It seemed as if getting text onto the card was like entering a whole other world with virtually no transition from the object world into the text world.

All in all, we love the concept of this project, and our big-brained superheroes didn’t exactly despise it. And its open-endedness could have easily worked for our group of diverse ages and backgrounds. However, it seems that, if this project is ever going to be designed for kids (and us older volunteers, for that matter), it should be revised to incorporate more conceptual framework and process scaffolding into the actual activity of card creation. Audio explanation could be helpful here or maybe pop-up descriptor balloons that address specific processes and concepts. In short, the project would have worked better if users were constantly reminded where they were, where they were going, and how they were going to get there.

That said, creating these cards was still a mildly engaging experience for us, and at the very least, it gave us a break from killing our friends on the internet.

The Big-Brained Superhackers Club inaugural meeting may have gotten a late start last night, but that didn’t deter a few Big-Brained Superheroes from sticking around an extra two hours to see the inside of a computer tower for the first time ever. Our Sense of Adventure was all systems go!

The Big-Brained Superhackers Club inaugural meeting may have gotten a late start last night, but that didn’t deter a few Big-Brained Superheroes from sticking around an extra two hours to see the inside of a computer tower for the first time ever. Our Sense of Adventure was all systems go!