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Freebee Friday: Chromebook STEM connection

Chromebook vernierYou can now use any Chromebook to log, graph and analyze data from many Vernier’s digital sensors. The Graphical Analysis app collects the data and performs linear regression analysis and graphs the data points. An update this spring will add compatibility for the company’s Go series of wireless probes.

Freebee Friday: The Your School App

Ischool box iosForget about settling for an app that does most of what you want when you can build your own. iSchoolBox lets you put exactly what you want onto iOS (iPhone or iPad) or Android screens by building it from scratch. It can accommodate anything from calendars and lunch menus to after school activities and school closures. It can even be used for parents and kids to access grades or confidentially report a bully, but doesn't require a programmer to do the coding.

Freebee Friday: Next Stop, Nobel

3m discovery young scientist logoThe Discover Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge is now taking applications for this prestigious prize. Open to students in grades five through eight, the contest is seeking to honor those who have great ideas and the ability to communicate them. Just make a one to two minute video explaining your idea and submit it by April 21. The grand prize includes $25,000 and a mentoring 3M scientist to help bring those ideas to reality; 10 finalists get $1,000.  


Freebee Friday: Science (and More) Tricks

ExploratoriumSan Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum not only has great hands-on exhibits, but a great Web page with lots of science activities. From turning a pickle into a battery to a time lapse film of a chick embryo growing inside an egg, there’s something for every science classroom. It isn’t all science, though, because the Exploratorium has sections for cooking, language and even a look inside the museum’s machine shop, where the exhibits start.

Big Bags of Ink

Epson WF 8590Forget about changing the ink cartridges every week with Epson’s WorkForce WF-8950 super-printer. It’s based on the company’s Precision Core inkjet technology and rather than using small plastic ink modules, the system uses bags of ink to not only increase the volume to be enough to cover 75,000 pages, but also to cut the cost to the minimum. It can support a group of classrooms or even a small school by being able to pump out 24 pages per minute and hold more than three reams of paper. There’s a scanner/copier with a document feeder that can suck in 20 pages per minute.  The system can be connected via USB, wired networking or WiFi. This first of a new family of printers should be available by the end of the month.

Cut Classroom Clutter

BOX4HDECP.main (1)If wires and cables are taking over the classroom or lecture hall, think about making them disappear with StarTech’s Conference Table Connectivity Box. The box has a hinged lid so it disappears when not in use but contains the most used connectors, including HDMI, power, VGA, composite, mini-DisplayPort, audio and wired networking. In other words the $335 box can be the single connection point for teachers or students.

Robots Invade the Classroom

Copy of dash+dot_front_XLIn science fiction movies, robots may be bent on conquering the earth, but in the classroom their mission these days is to teach kids about programming. A case in point is Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot. The pair work together to teach basic coding skills using one of the simplest interfaces around.

Dash and Dot are two of a kind. Both have lighted eyes and can talk to kids. Dash has infrared sensors front and back as well as two drive motors, an accelerometer, gyroscope and three microphones. Dot is stationary. Unfortunately, neither can accommodate add-on sensors for ultrasonic sound or infrared light, as is the case with MindStorms.

The $349 Wonder Pack that I looked at is a complete kit that would work well in classes from first-grade through high-schoolers. It includes the two robots as well as accessories like a snap-on xylophone for Dash to play, a plow for gathering small items and a carrier for a mobile phone for doing this like using Dash as a roving video camera. You can get the two robots for $259, but the accessories really help to extend the creativity.

Both have micro-USB ports for charging their internal lithium batteries and come with cables, but no AC adapter. They keep a charge for several hours of intense use and will likely need to be charged during the school day if they’re used continually. The robots are made of heavy-duty plastic that should last for several years, but the kit lacks a case to store the items between classes or to carry them between rooms.

Dash dot programmingTo start, unlike many other educational robots, Dash and Dot come assembled and ready to play and teach. In other words, there’s no time spent putting them together, as is the case with Lego Mindstorms EV3, although that can be half of the fun.

Software is the key to getting the most out of Dash and Dot in the classroom, but there’s an emphasis on iPad apps. There are four programs available that need to be downloaded and installed separately and can only be used with the tablet horizontally. The four cover the territory well for iPads with Go (for acquainting yourself with the robots and what they can do), Path (where you can map out Dash’s movement), Xylo (for playing the optional xylophone) and Blockly (for programming the robots to do tasks).

By contrast, only Blockly and Go are available for a small group of Android systems that includes the Nexus 7 and 9 models as well as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 and Galaxy Tab 3 8.0. There’s nothing for using Dash and Dot with PCs, Macs and Chromebooks.

Plus, the four programs each have a different look and feel and require a few minutes to scope out and get used to. Blockly is the gem of the bunch and uses Google’s drag-and-drop visual programming interface for moving premade chunks of code around. You’ll never see a line of code, but each block has a quickie description of what it does.

On the surface, it seems simple, but Blockly can be used to create complicated programs and there’s no limit to the number of blocks that can be assembled. On the downside, you need to grab each block separately because there’s no way to copy existing items or groups for reuse.

Copy of dash_front_XLExpect that it will take a couple of minutes to get started. After pairing the robot with an iPad, Dash and Dot get very personable with start-up greetings. For instance, when you set Dash to spin, it squeals and at times bobs its head up and down.  When they haven’t been used in several minutes, they yawn and go to sleep. 

There are several premade projects to explore how Dash and Dot work. On the downside, there’s no software simulator for trying out programming sequences before loading them on the robot as is the case with Mindstorms EV3.

The robots use Bluetooth connections between an iPad and the robots and a class can use 20 or 30 of them at a time without interference (CHECK). After using the robots with a trio of 17-year olds, I found that using Dash and Dot works best in groups of two or three with the kids exploring their capabilities and then diving into programming. In other words, set aside a get-acquainted period. We played with them for a while to get the feel of the controls, used the xylophone attachment to play a crude song, programmed Dash to plow marbles across a floor and then had it move around in a spiral pattern. A word of warning, Dash works best on the floor because if you’re not careful it can drive right off the edge of a table.

Copy of dot_front_XLWhile the robots and software work well together, there are no lesson plans included. The company is working on creating curriculum and a forum for teachers to share their ideas and favorite robot routines. There should also be a software development kit coming for others to add new capabilities to Dash and Dot.

The variety of projects you can make with Dash and Dot pales compared to Mindstorms, but Dash and Dot have an ace up their sleeves. With the optional $19 Building Brick Connector, the robots can have Lego bricks attached to their heads.

Overall, using Dash and Dot to teach the basics of programming not only provides instant feedback for students but is less daunting (for student as well as teacher) to try out, use and become engrossed in.


Dot dash

Wonder Workshop Dash and Dot

$349 Wonder Pack

+ No assembly

+ Nice accessories and options

+ Flexible programming interface

+ Inexpensive

+ Includes lots of apps


- Better software for iPad than Android

- No online lessons

- Lacks case





Mimio Goes Mobile

MimiomobileWith the latest updates to Mimio Studio and Mimio Mobile, the teaching software now runs on Android and iPad tablets.  In addition to providing a classroom space for collaboration, MM3 can control an interactive whiteboard and put any student’s system on the big screen as well as let kids answer quizzes using MimioVote. It’s a free upgrade for Mimio users.

Instant Teaching Space

Zest deskToday, learning happens wherever there’s room for teachers and students to meet, and the ZestDesk will be able to turn just about any surface into a desk or a lectern. The fold up desktop is available on pre-order for $385 and has a 22.8- by 25.1-inch work surface with an adjustable monitor or notebook stand; a second stand can be added for under $100. ZestDesk’s work surface can move up or down by six inches and it all quickly folds up into an easy-to-carry bag. All told, the aluminum ZestDesk weighs 12 pounds.

Freebee Friday: Free Windows

Win 10 previewFresh from the Windows 10 preview event, there’s news that every school will want to hear: the next version of the computer operating system will be free. Does it sound too good to be true? For those schools still using Windows XP, it is because the free upgrade applies only to those who have licenses for Win 7 or 8.

Windows10_Continuum-1C-500x299The software continues the company’s move towards a more tactile approach to computing, which works best with touch screens. One big change is the ability to not only to divide the screen into horizontal segments but to do it diagonally, as well. In addition to holographic goggles, Windows 10 will usher in a cool touch-screen interactive board called the Surface Hub that should open new vistas of instruction. The two big questions that remain are, what happened to Windows 9 and when will the new software appear? While Microsoft might be playing a name game with numbers, company insiders say the new software should be ready later this year.



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