STEAM Carnival – Fun and Learning

Isn’t it fantastic when fun is aligned with learning? That seems to be the design goal behind the STEAM Carnival, a production of Two Bit Circus. Recently they staged their event at the Port of Los Angeles to a sell-out crowd whereat all the glory of what they do was put out for the world to enjoy.

Most of these playful exhibits were accompanied by an explanatory sign which detailed such things as how it was fabricated, what skills are required, and what the science was behind it. However, overwhelmingly the biggest feature is fun.

Can you see the fun and learning principles in this variety of video snippets?

What a great way to learn!

Learn while having fun!

Learn while having fun!

Building Atoms with Arduino and Processing

BannerThis post is coming to you live from the Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire being held today at the London College of Communication.

The Atomic Arcade—an atom building game

The Atomic Arcade—an atom building game

The atomic arcade is an atom building game from Springtale funded as a science communications tool by the Institute of Physics. Whilst the game is still in early beta, it’s already made an appearance at the Dundee Science Festival.

I talked to Sonya Hallett—one of the people behind the intriguing game of proton smashing—about the game and why they brought it here to Maker Faire.

If you can’t make it here to the faire, you can also play the Atomic Arcade online.

The Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire is being held at the London College of Communication from 10am till 6pm. Entry is free to children (under 16) and students, tickets are £5 otherwise and available on the door.

3D Printing Using Genetically Modified Bacteria and Orange Juice

BannerThis post is coming to you live from the Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire being held today at the London College of Communication.

The JuicyPrint prototype—here the redder light indicates where the cellulose wouldn't be growing, and the bluer light is where the cellulose would. In this case the 3d bio-printer would be printing an 'H' symbol.

The JuicyPrint prototype—here the redder light indicates where the cellulose wouldn’t be growing, and the bluer light is where it would. In this case the 3d bio-printer would be printing an ‘H’ symbol.

While the field is still fairly quiet right now, biohacking is the next big thing. There’s a grown segment of the maker movement that is talking about it, but not just that, they’re getting on and doing it.

I talked to Ilya Levantis from the London Biohackspace about JuicyPrint a 3d printer that can be fed with fruit juice and used to print out useful shapes made of bacterial cellulose using a genetically engineered strain of cellulose producing bacteria.

The G. hansenii (Gluconacetobacter hansenii) bacteria that the London Biohackspace is using is a  is able to grow on a wide range of  things like fruit juice, tea or even brewing waste. Once completed, building objects with the new printer will require only a computer, and a local a trip to your local market for supplies.

The Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire is being held at the London College of Communication from 10am till 6pm. Entry is free to children (under 16) and students, tickets are £5 otherwise and available on the door.

BITalino (r)evolution: Circuits for Quantified Self and More

We first met Hugo Silva last year when he introduced us to Bitalino, an Arduino-compatible electronics toolkit designed for exploring the various physiological signals that the human body gives off. The latest iteration of the platform, BITalino (r)evolution, is more affordable and capable than ever, but the team still needs backers to get off the ground. From their Kickstarter:

Body signals have hundreds of applications; assistive technologies for people with disabilities, biofeedback for stroke and muscle disorders rehabilitation, or self-management of psychological disorders (e.g. anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD) are just a few examples. Still, BITalino is an unique DiY toolkit, which can be used by virtually anyone interested in creating projects ranging from muscle activated air drones to heart-rate monitoring bicycle handlebars, smart / enchanted objects, interactive installations, or affordable medical devices and personal diagnostics apps. By supporting our Kickstarter campaign, you can potentially be contributing to revolutionise healthcare and biomedical engineering around the world. BITalino has grown to become the platform of choice for hundreds of people worldwide already, but it wasn’t designed with financial profits in mind, hence the reason we need your help now.

If exploring biosignals sounds interesting to you, there’s still an early-bird deal for your choice of application-specific sensor kits for $79 with a projected shipping date of May 2015. These application-specific kits come in variants for sensing heart rate, muscle activity, arousal, and motion. Of course, they also offer kits that include sensors for all of the above.

Bringing makers back to the Lab

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Scientists working in a lab are just folks. Like motor heads with cars, we have our favourite makes and models. Except with scientists, it’s all about the lab equipment, and the pros and cons of various models and brands are debated in the bar after work with as much heat and your average motor head when they’re talking about engines and transmissions.

The main problem with lab equipment is that it’s expensive. Often the next model up from what you can actually afford is the one that does what you need, and frustratingly the only difference is that the one you can afford and that one is that it has features disabled in software. Like everything sold to “big business” differential pricing comes into play with a vengeance when it comes to lab equipment.

But universities are only big businesses in abstract, the individual researchers—the people that actually buy the lab equipment—usually are trying to eke out the last remaining scraps of a grant when they actually buy the equipment

So there’s a grand tradition of making do with bailing wire, twine, and of course, gaffer tape. Almost inevitably then in recent years, the arrival of the maker movement has meant that the gaffer tape has been joined by Arduino boards.

It was only a matter of time before people started taking Arduinos and building the lab equipment they wanted.

Back in September at Maker Faire NY we talked to Charles Pax of Pax Instruments who successfully crowdfunded the first of what he promises is going to be a range of open source lab equipment, a four-channel thermocouple temperature datalogger.

Talking to Charles Pax at Maker Faire NY in September.

Of course Charles isn’t alone, also at Maker Faire were Carbon Origins and their Apollo board. Built by a group of college students who moved to the Mojave Desert, bought a house, painted it white, and turned it into a makeshift lab—and then they went out to launch rockets.

But they ran into problems, when they launched their latest rocket,

“Our rocket exploded, and we didn’t know why, we needed a data logger …”

So they built their own.

Talking to Amogha Srirangarajan from Carbon Origins.

Until recently there wasn’t much discussion in the maker community about calibration. Most of the sensors you can buy off the shelf from places like Adafruit or Sparkfun aren’t calibrated, or at least not calibrated with the requirements of scientists in mind—this is especially true of things like gas sensors that would require calibration test chambers with known amounts of the various gases.

There seems to be a number of different data loggers turning up right now, and time will tell whether these are going to be as useful to professional—and amateur—scientists as they could be. However it’s interesting to see discussions around calibration, and absolute rather than relative measurement, starting to happen in the maker community.

How Lobster Eyes Inspired a Radiant Heater

Crayfish. Photo by Bee Collins.

Crayfish. Photo by Bee Collins.

If you have ever been at the checkout counter of a warehouse-sized Home Depot in North America, you may have stood under a biomimetic product without even knowing it. Next time, look up. You might see a heater with what looks like an insect’s compound eye. It’s a HotZone™ radiant heater with the patented lobster-inspired IRLens™.

Roger Johnson is the inventor of the technology behind the radiant heater. His inspiration started with a question: “Why are things shiny?” and more specifically, “How does nature make things, like fish schownature_frog_make02ales and cats’ eyes, shiny?”

Johnson spent much of his childhood living in the Amazonian jungle. Without television and other activities available to youth in the US, he spent time learning how things in nature work. Johnson later received a Bachelor of Individualized Studies at the University of Minnesota that included engineering and cultural anthropology, an unusual combination that reveals his interest in people as well as mechanisms.

Meanwhile, he retained his interest in learning from the natural world, including reading Scientific American. It was a 1978 article, “Animal Eyes with Mirror Optics,” by Michael F. Land, that took him back to his curiosity about shininess.

He learned that lobsters, crayfish, and shrimp have compound mirrored lenses at the outer peripheries of their eyes. These lenses operate to “stack” incoming light at points on the retina, intensifying the dim light in their natural habitat to enhance their vision. For more details and an illustration, see the AskNature strategy.

Closeup of crayfish eyes. Photo by Bee Collins.

Closeup of crayfish eyes. Photo by Bee Collins.

Johnson took this idea and turned it around to design a radiant heater. Whereas the lens of the crustacean eye intensifies incoming light on the retina, the radiant heater focuses heat outward, on an area below the source of the heat. The design uses reflection of radiant energy, which enables transmission of as much as 85 percent of the source energy directed at the area to be irradiated, compared to 40 percent transmitted by the more typical quartz lens that relies on refraction of the heat source.

The Seattle Public library check-in desk is near the front doors. HotZone heaters keep the staff warm.

HotZone™ heaters keep the staff warm near the front doors of the Seattle Public library.

The design also allows the coverage to be customized, providing a wedge of heated area, circular spots, and even linear patterns. This allows workers at the checkout counters near the front of the Home Depot to feel comfortable because heat is focused on them. Roger created a $1 million-a-year business, Radiant Optics, designing radiant heaters for various large spaces. In 2008, he licensed the company’s assets to Schaefer Ventilation. Their website lists some advantages of the HotZone™ heater, including that it increases delivered heat by 300 to 500 percent, reduces total heating costs by half or more, doesn’t heat areas that don’t need it, and increases reliability due to lack of moving parts.

Johnson has spent a lot of time thinking about why some ideas catch on, or stick, while others don’t. In the case of radiant heat, there have been few innovations in the last 40 years. While focused lighting has caught on, the standard for heating remains to heat a whole space, even though spot heating would save a tremendous amount of energy. He has also found that with each sale, he had to go through a whole education process for the potential purchaser. Sometimes that paid off, such as with an old balloon hangar on the Olympic Peninsula that was converted to a performance hall. Sometimes it didn’t, like an outdoor football stadium.

Early in my interview with Johnson, he told me of his long-standing and deep desire to do good for people with limited resources. So his inventor’s mind is busy learning more about nature’s strategies and applying those ideas to challenges throughout the world.

If you would like details on the design, take a look at the patent. There are two things I hope you notice. First, in biomimicry, you sometimes learn from the organism, but then turn the idea around. Second, notice that Johnson gave credit to the organism that inspired his design. This doesn’t always happen and I’m gratified when I see inventors sharing credit with nature for great ideas.

Chameleon Jacket Project Aims to Let People Experience The World Like An Animal

The Interacket from Drap og Design that mimics chameleons.

The Interacket from Drap og Design that mimics chameleons.

Four Students from Oslo School of Archetecture and Design decided to enter a cool project into the Hackaday competition. Their project, called the Interacket, attempts to give the user an experience of how animals experience and view the world around them.

It would be hard to recreate a bats power of sight through sonar using technology, so this bunch has decided to mimic the way chameleons blend in with their environment. It is a simple and effective design that gives an inkling of superhuman possibilities and can change your perspective of the world around you. They have a video of their Interacket in action on Vimeo

A diagram of how the Interacket works.

A diagram of how the Interacket works.


The picture above show the design for the Interacket and the components involved. Two Arduino Unos are used as the micro-controllers for the jacket (one for each arm) alongside 9v batteries to power the board and the LEDs. LED strips are housed inside the jacket, down each arm. Adafruit’s neopixel libraries and code was used to control the LED strips based upon data obtained from the RGB color sensors worn on each hand of the user.

They used TCS34725 from Adafruit as a RGB color sensor with IR filter and a white LED. All of this allows the user to touch objects within their environment to change the color of their jacket: blending into their surroundings like a chameleon. If nothing else, it would make a great novelty.

The Arduino Uno and LED strips that are housed inside the jacket.

The Arduino Uno and LED strips that are housed inside the jacket.


The photo above shows the Arduino Uno and LED strips functioning outside the jacket. The jacket itself is made very simply of painter coveralls lined with aluminum foil to reflect the light of the LEDs outward. Hopefully the jacket didn’t get too hot for the wearer either. They are currently working on the Interacket 2.0. Check out their page or

Makers Against Ebola – Proximity Alarm

Face To Hand Proximity SensorUnconscious habits can kill. It’s via our mucus membranes that Ebola most often infects the body: eyes, nose, and mouth. Do you think about it before scratching your nose? Do you deliberate before adjusting your goggles? No, we all have unconscious habits which in the context of Ebola can result in deadly exposure.

To help address this risk I posted this idea at Fighting Ebloa.

This idea is to put reusable wrist bands on caregivers which will trigger a warning chirp if they get within 12 inches of their goggles where a proximity sensor with speaker will be attached. Both wristbands and goggle proximity sensor should: – be reusable after immersion in a mild disinfectant – run on inexpensive, long life industry-standard batteries – have increasing rate and pitch as the distance closes This would be a fairly easy hack but it needs to be small and elegant.

The above short description is the core of my idea submission. It’s short and sweet but perhaps the root of a life-saving solution. Got an idea? Take a moment. We can make a difference against Ebola.

Only nine days left for YOU to post YOUR ideas! Submissions close on 11/7.

Makers Against Ebola – Flash Sensor

Wearable "Flash Sensor" to Measure Heat/Humidity Inside Protective Suits

Wearable “Flash Sensor” to Measure Heat/Humidity Inside Protective Suits

Attention sensor fans! The protective suits worn by Ebola caregivers in West Africa get HOT! The heat and moisture buildup reduce work time to a paltry 40 to 60 minutes per shift. Maker solutions such as this Flash Sensor, prototyped by Kailey Shara, are helping.

Caregivers on the front line of the Ebola crisis are torn between two competing priorities. On the one hand they want to help the sick as long as possible; on the other hand they need to limit their time inside the protective suit. With the buildup of their internal body temperature they get fatigued, their judgement becomes impaired, and eventually they can suffer from heat stroke. The impulse to keep working can lead to bad consequences and the results can be tragic. Mistakes will be made.

Rather than the caregiver managing this for themselves why not reveal their thermal conditions to the people around them? By making this information visible to others, the caregiver community can watch out for one another and keep each other safe. That was the idea at the core of the project.

Nicole Daphne Tricoukes and Kailey Shara

Nicole Daphne Tricoukes and Kailey Shara

The starting point for this project was Carbon Origins’ Apollo micro controller board with eleven sensors, wireless (BLE and WiFi) and a little OLED screen. Since Kailey designed this board she was quite proficient with it. Using Apollo’s temperature and humidity sensors she wrote code to display these metrics on the little 128 x 64 pixel screen. The idea was to slip this into an inside pocket in the suit behind a transparent window so it could be seen outside but still detect conditions inside the suit.

When the caregiver puts on their protective suit is when they would activate the sensor. Under safe heat and humidity conditions the Sensor Flasher would display numbers as seen above while pulsing an audible tone. As conditions worsen in the suit the pulse rate would increase in pitch and frequency. When conditions become dangerous the display would begin to flash alerting the people around them that action needs to be taken. With the Flasher Sensor the caregiver community is empowered to take care of their own.

This is just one wonderful example of what could be done with sensors, actuators and micro controllers to help Fighting Ebola. More could be done to improve conditions with protective suits. More could be done to provide care while reducing direct exposure to the sick. More could be done to remotely measure, collect and analyze patient data. A wide range of problems could be addressed by those with ideas and electronic prototyping skills.

We have less than a week to go in the Grand Challenge against Ebola. This is a rare opportunity for makers to have significant impact. Let’s show the world how we can help! #FightingEbola

Mobile Air Monitoring with AirCasting


We have all smelled it: smoke from burning wood. Whether it’s from wildfires, campfires, or fireplaces, trillions of tiny particles float into the air when wood burns. In my neighborhood in northern California, most of the particle pollution in the wintertime originates from my neighbors’ burning wood in their fireplaces not for warmth, but for aesthetic reasons.

It matters because when particles are inhaled, they cause health problems ranging from asthma to heart attacks. And if you think your chimney sends the particle up, up, and away from your house, you’re wrong. A study (Pierson et al., 1989) showed that 70% of the particle pollution that goes up the chimney re-enters your home or impacts your neighbors. So you’re just polluting yourself.

While I don’t want to out people in my neighborhood for burning wood, my geeky, let’s-measure-everything curiosity got the best of me. So I decided to set up a mobile wood smoke monitoring system in my car. I mostly wanted to see if I could detect which streets were more polluted. So, armed with a decent (yet expensive) particle measuring instrument, an Arduino, software, and two spare weekends, I created a system that worked quite well. This post will briefly describe the system and present the results.

carsetup1 carsetup2

I chose to use a mid-cost ($5,000) particle measurement device and a bunch of DIY items. This helped ensure particle measurements of sufficient quality to draw conclusions from, yet provided a system where lower-cost particle sensors could replace the expensive instrument someday. The setup consisted of:

  • Nephelometer for measuring particles and estimating PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less in size). This unit, manufactured by Thermo Scientific, uses a pump to draw air into a chamber, where particles scatter light into a photo detector. The light scattering is proportional to the amount or mass of particles in the air.
  • Cyclone inlet that spins the air to remove the larger particles and creates an airflow with only the smaller, unhealthy particles (less than 2.5 micrometers).
  • Copper tubing that guides the inflow air from the Cyclone inlet to the Nephelometer.
  • DTH temperature and humidity sensor mounted outside on the copper tubing. Measuring humidity was important because during moist conditions (>85%), water condenses onto particles and falsely causes more light scattering, and thus higher PM2.5 measurement.
  • AirCasting, an open-source platform for recording, mapping, and sharing health and environmental data using your smartphone.

The Arduino received inputs from the nephelometer and the temperature and humidity sensors. Measurements were averaged every second and sent, via Bluetooth, to the AirCasting app running on my Android phone. The real-time data streamed into the app’s screen, which helped me confirm the smoky and clean streets in my neighborhood in real time, while I was driving around.   When I finished driving the route, I saved the measurement session with all its data and uploaded it to the website. I’ve driven hundreds of miles in northern California with this measurement system. On one night, November 10, 2013, I repeatedly drove a route in my neighborhood.

The data showed lots of interesting things (as shown in the figures below). Conditions in the afternoon (1400 PST) showed good air quality levels throughout the neighborhood — no burning yet. By early evening (1800 PST), one residential area right next to Santa Rosa’s major hospital showed very high PM2.5 levels from wood burning. In fact the PM levels were over 150 ug/m3, which is Very Unhealthy on EPA’s air quality index. This is approaching levels that you would commonly see in polluted cities like Beijing. It’s remarkable how localized the smoke can remain. Notice that on one street the air quality levels are healthy (or Good), whereas on Parker Drive the air is Very Unhealthy.

day earlyevening lateevening

By 1900 PST, the wood burning continued at homes near the hospital. Air quality on other streets was at Moderate levels due to isolated burning and due to a weather condition called a temperature inversion. The temperature inversion acts like a lid on the atmosphere and traps pollution (in this case smoke) near the ground. By 2000 PST, light and variable winds slowly dispersed the smoke near the hospital hundreds of feet to the southeast. One hour later, at 2100 PST, the air quality levels were Moderate throughout the area, and the hot spot near the hospital had dispersed. But the particles just didn’t disappear; while no longer concentrated and unhealthy, the particles were just pushed to some other neighborhood by the slow and gentle overnight winds.

Post script: I haven’t ratted out my neighbors, but I have let some of them know that we are only polluting ourselves.


Pierson W.E., Koenig J.Q., and Bardana E.J. (1989) Potential adverse health effects of wood smoke. The Western Journal of Medicine, 151(3), 339-342, September. Available at