Let’s do this

We know. It’s been over a month since our Holiday Fund for the Nerdy drive ended (for us, the holidays go through February). So, let’s see where the Big-Brained Superheroes are now, shall we?

BBS Accelerator is actually happening! By popular demand, we’re experimenting with opening up the lair on Friday evening so that Accelerator members can work on their projects. While regular club meetings are still holding strong on Mondays and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are when the nerdiness goes to eleven.

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Re-Maker Fest happened and we are still working on posting all the things we remade in February. Oh wait, here’s a thing:

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Yeah. Remaking. If it’s being done well and in an innovative way, it takes time and care. And experimentation. Which also takes time and care. In short, a lot of time and a lot of care. And, of course, this means that remaking is an excellent way for our Big Brains to exercise their superpowers. Because sometimes the only thing we can learn to expect is the unexpected.

We’ve also just started a gardening program, in which Seattle Parks provides the seeds, and we design and maintain two planting beds out back of the community center. So far, Jack, our lead gardener sidekick, has worked with Big Brains to weed, fix the beds, and plant some sort of bean. User-centered designed birdhouses and bird feeders are also in-progress for the garden.

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Those tiny tombstone-looking things in there are popsicle stick plant markers. We’ll be posting updates on how our garden grows.

Now that we’ve mentioned some of the Brain building, let’s mention some of the builders. None of these activities would happen without these organizations:

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And then there’s people like you! All the individuals out there who help make our Big-Brained Superheroes grow. Thank you for all you do!

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Upping our Game with Interconnection
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Thanks, in part, to a generous laptop discount from Interconnection, one superpowerful Big-Brained Superhero had the tools he needed to both begin development on his Arduino-driven video game and work on his Powerpoint presentation for his science class, making this Superhacker Saturday one for the record books! Let the games begin.

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(Arduino and breadboard materials supplied by the City of Seattle Tech Matching Fund and SparkFun)

Is it Time to Remake Remaking?
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Re-Maker Fest was great last night, largely because the panelists and attendees were so motivated and inspiring. A commitment to re-making was broad and deep in this crowd, and as such, many thoughts were provoked. When an amazing event participant asked one of our Big Brains what interested her most, that Big Brain’s response surprised all of us BBS sidekicks: she was most interested in turning our defunct Power Wheels into power racers. This response was then echoed by another Big Brain at the event.

Why is the Big Brain power racer enthusiasm so surprisingly relevant? At various points throughout the evening’s discussion, a certain nostalgia about remaking threatened to creep in. Allusions to the past and loss (of skills, reverence, etc) periodically resurfaced in mildly melancholy ways. But our Big Brains aren’t much influenced by nostalgia. Their goals aren’t necessarily to bring something back but to make something new. It just so happens that their default starting point for this endeavor is, thanks directly to one Tamara Clammer of BPT (among others), something old.

In this scenario, the path of least resistance to our Big Brains getting to build a brand new car starts with a used, non-working car. They don’t want to reinvent the Power Wheel, as it were. They want to get from point A to point B in the funnest, most direct, way possible. For them, at this moment, remaking has very little to do with a misty past and everything to do with a bright and shiny future. It’s the small step for one Big Brain that leads to the giant leap for Big-Brained-kind.

Support the Holiday Fund for the Nerdy!

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Power Wheels, bicycles, model airplanes…maybe even a spirograph or plaster of paris kit. Some of these tools of inspiration may have been on your holiday wish list when you were a kid. Well, some of them are on ours today, though not necessarily in a “Yay! Shiny new toy!” kind of way. More like in a “Let’s Big-Brained Superhero up this dusty old toy!” kind of way. And while our Creativity, Adaptability, and Critical Thinking certainly enable us to make a lot with a little, there are some things these superpowers just can’t buy. Which is why we are asking you to help us out with your Sense of Adventure, Teamwork, and Kindness.

Please add Big-Brained Superheroes to your holiday gift list this year, and support The BBSC’s Holiday Fund for the Nerdy!

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Digital Logic at the Side of the Everlasting Why...

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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.

If you’ve been checking out our  Facebook  page, you know that our Big-Brained Superheroes helped Yesler Community Center’s Back-to-School event attendees learn about logic gates and create illuminated notebooks. And if you were at The Museum of Flight’s STEM Back-to-School weekend, you probably saw BBSC volunteers there doing same. In short, we’ve had an insanely nerdy week, and our schedules just keep getting nerdier. None of which would be possible without these exceptional sponsors: 
   guided : Generous donors of such amazing recycled notebooks! 
  Brown Paper Tickets : Batteries and LEDs and Maker Advocate Tamara’s time, oh my! 
  The City of Seattle : The sponsors of our digital logic project that keeps us off the streets! 
  Sparkfun : Also sparking so much digital logic fun! 
 And, as always, Somali Community Services and Yesler Community Center, who keep the lights on for us! 
  Kindness. So much Kindness everywhere. All for the cause of hacking brains and school supplies alike. Thank you so much, Team Big-Brained Superhero!

If you’ve been checking out our Facebook page, you know that our Big-Brained Superheroes helped Yesler Community Center’s Back-to-School event attendees learn about logic gates and create illuminated notebooks. And if you were at The Museum of Flight’s STEM Back-to-School weekend, you probably saw BBSC volunteers there doing same. In short, we’ve had an insanely nerdy week, and our schedules just keep getting nerdier. None of which would be possible without these exceptional sponsors:

  • guided: Generous donors of such amazing recycled notebooks!
  • Brown Paper Tickets: Batteries and LEDs and Maker Advocate Tamara’s time, oh my!
  • The City of Seattle: The sponsors of our digital logic project that keeps us off the streets!
  • Sparkfun: Also sparking so much digital logic fun!
  • And, as always, Somali Community Services and Yesler Community Center, who keep the lights on for us!

Kindness. So much Kindness everywhere. All for the cause of hacking brains and school supplies alike. Thank you so much, Team Big-Brained Superhero!

Debunking a Superpower Myth

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When we talk about what we do in The BBSC, we sometimes hear, “That’s great that you’re teaching kids Persistence (or Willpower or [insert superpower here])”. We appreciate where this comment comes from, but for a whole variety of reasons, it’s important for us to debunk this myth. We aren’t actually teaching kids these superpowers, and this fact highlights a core precept of Big-Brained Superherodom:

All these superpowers are integral to all Big-Brained Superheroes. And Big-Brained Superheroes simply must exercise their superpowers at some point (they can’t not).

Anyone who has ever watched BBSes play an online video game, for instance, has seen that they already have Persistence (and Willpower and [insert superpower here]). And it’s at least partially their need to exercise those superpowers that compels them to play in the first place.

What we in The BBSC are trying to do is decontextualize these extremely valuable abilities so that we can help isolate them, strengthen them, and prepare our BBSes to intentionally apply them to a variety of contexts. Why is it important for us sidekicks to see superpowers and our goals for them in this way?

  1. Efficiency: We don’t have to be playing basketball to talk about Teamwork and Leadership. And we don’t have to be drawing a picture to talk about Creativity and Sense of Adventure. All of our actions are composed of superpowers, and it’s our job to see these abilities, value them, and reward (or possibly redirect) their use at every opportunity.
  2. Efficacy: When BBSes get off track, it’s important for us to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem as accurately as possible in order to help remedy the situation. Our experience has indicated that BBS challenges are almost always related to either conflicted motivations or any number of various incorrect preconceptions. Lack of ability has yet to be a significant hindrance for any BBS we’ve encountered so far, so misattributing problems to that would hinder our success as sidekicks.

In short, we sidekicks are not teachers. If anything, we’re little more than motivators, facilitators, and sometimes explicators. We all bring our superpowers, and we all help each other exercise them. And while the way we construct—and deconstruct—this process does have its challenges (and yes, even its flaws), it’s the best method we’ve found so far for breaking through barriers and getting down to business tapping into hidden strengths.

This Adventure Made Possible By...

When a young Big-Brained Superhero decided she wanted to go on an adventure in the halls of Yesler Community Center, we knew just who to call. The front desk and administrative staff are frequently the unsung Big-Brained Superheroes of the center. Rather than drawing strict lines around their pre-conceived roles and responsibilities, they’re often looking for ways to exercise their Kindness and Teamwork superpowers on behalf of the community. In this case, when we brought out some cardboard and paper plates, staff member Kris was more than ready to get to work making this adventure possible.

How do you measure the value of this kind of support? How do you measure the power of being able to realize your big idea for a Saturday afternoon adventure within the relative safety of your own little community?

Systems Thanking

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You’ve probably heard by now that, over the weekend, The BBSC hosted our first ever community-building event. There are so many contributors to this event worthy of recognition that it’s almost impossible to name them all. Nonetheless, we’re going to try. And, because we’re big-brained superheroes, we’re going to try hard.

First, our corporate and non-profit sponsors.

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Look at just some of what these folks contributed!

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And the sponsors are…

-> Judkins St. Cafe
-> Somali Community Services of Seattle
-> 4 Fun Dog Training
-> ITSPHUN
-> Ada’s Technical Books
-> GeekGirlCon
-> Seattle Bouldering Project
-> Cellar Door Mercantile
-> SparkFun
-> Elliott Bay Books
-> Renton Computers
-> Lisa Arnold Consulting.

Whew! That’s a lot of love! And we’re not even done yet. Next up, the people who devoted their time and energy (and often money) to making this event a success:

-> Danielle Henderson—our amazing emcee
-> Volunteers from Judkins St. Cafe (including Ed the printer)
-> Volunteers from Somali Community Services
-> The Big-Brained Superheroes who volunteered
-> All the event attendees (aka the adventurers)
-> All the folks who couldn’t make it but bought tickets anyway!

Whew! That’s a lot more love! And yet there’s still more. The BBSC is big on making the invisible visible. And doing so means that, while we might not go all the way to back to Nikola Tesla and Charles Babbage, we still have a lot of thanking to do.

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For instance, our digital logic and circuit board activities wouldn’t exist without:

-> All the Big-Brained Superhackers
-> The City of Seattle Technology Matching Fund (including taxpayers like you!)
-> Somali Community Services (again)
-> Xbot Robotics
-> Sparkfun (again)
-> The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio where we got the great circuit board platform idea
-> And even the folks at REStore who cut our wood for us.

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Plus, there are those who contribute the basic stuff that rarely gets the love and attention it deserves, such as:

-> Yesler Community Center—where we hold our meetings and build much of our cool stuff
-> Julianna from SPACE who so long ago donated the paper products we’re still using today
-> And all the Big-Brained Superhero volunteers (past and present) and friends who are often thinking of us and joining in to lend many hands when needed most.

And the list goes on…

What we’re getting at is that, while we Big-Brained Superheroes work incredibly hard every day to make cool things happen, we recognize that we’re just a tiny pale blue dot in a vast universe of amazingness that expands around us all the time. Stepping back and appreciating this universe every so often underscores our responsibility to deal kindly with each other and to preserve and cherish our own place in it.

It's true! SparkFun sparks fun!

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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.

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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!

Everyone is Family and Big-Brained and a Superhero...
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For several reasons, we’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how to characterize The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. Yes, we have many, many meetings and do many, many things. But what do we really do? No matter how many times we turn the problem around in our heads, we keep coming back to the same conclusion: Explaining things is complicated.

Sometimes, we, ourselves, try to explain The Big-Brained Superheroes Club through analogy: “Think Boys & Girls Club—but nerdier—meets Big Brothers Big Sisters—but in a community setting.” Nope.

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Sometimes, those who observe and value what we do every week try to offer up their own analogies: “Imagine a science flash mob,” or “They’re…an…afterschool tutoring program…yeah…kind of…”. Nice try, guys!

As always, our young Big-Brained Superheroes are really the best at understanding and explaining the club: “Everyone is family”. True. And as good as that explanation is, it’s simultaneously too complex and too simple to be sufficiently illustrative.

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Expand on the family theme with Einstein’s belief of what education should do—“The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service to the community their highest life problem”. (Third rule of explaining things: If you need to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable ideas, start by quoting Einstein.)

And then, add to Einstein’s ideals for education our profound reliance on real-life superpowers, and you’re beginning to capture the essence of what it means to be a Big-Brained Superhero.

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Simple, right?

Big-Brained Superheroes Fight an Epic Battle

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He comes back in the room, slaps his half-done homework onto the table in front of him, and puts his head down. It doesn’t take much Empathy to see that he’s feeling defeated, disenfranchised, downtrodden. So, what do we do? Do we reinforce his hurt and insecurities by criticizing him? Tell him to: Suck it up, kid, because learning how to multiply is way more important than whatever is going on in your brain right now?

Big-Brained Superheroes fight epic battles every single day. Some of the battles we all fight every now and then; some of them are fought relentlessly—without truce—by a precious few. Those Big-Brained Superheroes get dispatches, overt and covert, every single day telling them who they are and who they are not. Telling them what they are and are not capable of. And mostly, what they should and should not expect from a world that doesn’t always concern itself with tapping into their hidden strengths. Like the Avengers and like the X-men, they get it. It takes superhuman strength to fight for a world that doesn’t seem to fight so much for you.

Which is why sidekicks exist. Sidekicks may not have all the answers or know exactly what to say or do to defeat the villainy. We may even get distracted from time to time with our own battles. But, by default, we always come back to knowing who our priorities are. And no matter what, when we see a Big-Brained Superhero losing the battle, we know our job is to fight alongside—not against—him. So that when he raises his head, both victory and completed homework in hand, we can be there too. Right by his side. Helping show the world all the amazing things Big-Brained Superheroes, when we work together, can do.

Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

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OK. We were going to take a bit of time to talk about how busy we are, but we don’t have any time to talk about how busy we are. So, here’s the deal:

Sunday, June 8th, at 5pm: You should come to Judkins St. Cafe to eat and drink, play games, build stuff, and support The Big-Brained Superheroes Club! We were going to regale you with exclamations about how excited we are for this–our first ever fundraising event–and how it’s going to be an amazing time, etc, etc…Whatever. Just come. You’ll love it.

Digital Logic: Still happening. The exciting news here is that we’ve decided to open up at least one of the later series to the general public with our young Big-Brained Superheroes leading those workshops. If you (or people you know) want a fun, hands-on environment in which to discover the basics of how computers think (which is actually everyone, even if you don’t know it), prepare to sign up. You’ll love it.

Big-Brained Superheroes Club Meetings: Oh yeah. We’re still doing those. Though now we’ve moved into a special room in Yesler Community Center (currently known as “the art room”). There are actual cabinets for us to store materials in. This is very exciting. If you want to join any of our Monday or Wednesday meetings, show up from 5-7pm. Volunteer an evening or two. Just for fun! You’ll love it.

There’s so much more to announce (some big stuff, even!), but that’s all we have time for now. In summary, the current state of Big-Brained Superherodom in a single photo:image

We love it!