Educator Spotlight: Paul Treadwell

Minecraft + littleBits = Out of the Box Learning

August 7, 2014

Today we shine the educator spotlight on Paul Treadwell, who works with Cornell University on a variety of technology related projects. Paul recently used littleBits modules with a 4-H group to recreate digital circuits from Minecraft in the physical world, helping his students to understand an abstract idea in more concrete terms. Read more about Paul’s experiences with littleBits below:

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Tell us about your current teaching experience.

My most recent teaching experience with littleBits came as part of a large 4-H program on campus at Cornell University. For the past twelve years I’ve worked with 4-H youth on a variety of technology centered projects – from prototyping mobile devices to digital storytelling. This year, my focus shifted to a more maker oriented program. Kids are swimming in technology, but it is mostly a black box. I wanted to do something that opened that box, at least a little bit.

littleBits came to mind immediately as I began the process of planning for this session. I wanted to provide a range of activities of varying technical skill levels, in order to accommodate a mix of technical facility in my participants.

One of the ground level learnings I wanted to facilitate was a basic understanding of how components fit together to create something. This may seem a bit facile but over the years, and over a range of topics, I have found that kids can work quite well with technology without more than a surface acquaintance of what makes things go zoom. littleBits provide a fun and easy way for kids with no prior experience or understanding of circuits to grab a  handful, sit down with minimal guidance and begin connecting things to see what happens. 

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In the past I have found some of the most powerful learning happens when I provide a loose framework (there have to be some boundaries), reliable tools and technologies and a safe environment. During this session we worked with littleBits and Minecraft (among other tools). My mandate to the kids working with littleBits was vague – “Create a redstone circuit in Minecraft and then build it in the real world with littleBits” – because I viewed this as a kind of beta test. I had no set mappings of Minecraft to littleBits circuits (that component is coming soon!), just an intuition that Minecraft could be an easy entry into the world of circuits out here in the real world.

The results were surprising. During the course of our time together (the whole session lasted about 14 hours spread over three days) the littleBits group ( 5 youth) created 3 separate circuits in Minecraft, mapped them out and replicated them with littleBits modules. An intense amount of discussion and negotiation occurred as they created and then reasoned out how to re-create the interactions. Minecraft became an opening door that lead to a real and tangible world of components that could be combined to create something physical.

How did you discover littleBits? What drew you to our product/company?

It might have been two years ago via Make magazines podcast with Ayah Bdeir in 2012 – though I wouldn’t bet the bank on that. I keep an eye out for new and interesting developments so it could have been via a tweet or somewhere else…but I’d been aware of littleBits for a while.

What drew me to littleBits? I think the easy, snap together like Legos nature of the components, the amazingly creative things people are doing with them, and the fact that littleBits is one of a new wave of projects/companies that are front and center in the process of breaking the gender stereotype of technology innovation.

That last point is perhaps an overly delicate way of acknowledging the woman/girls in tech and computing world shift that is happening.

What is your favorite littleBits project? 

Not to seem too overly self-focused. but my current favorite is mapping Minecraft to littleBits. I’m working with several colleagues to develop this into a more focused program and curriculum that we can test a bit more and then unleash into the wild. See a video on our work here: Redstone to littleBits: Mapping virtual circuits in the real world

Describe littleBits in your own 3 words

Tactile, tangible and magnetic

If you could challenge your students to make anything with any amount of littleBits, what would you have them create?

Well…not any one thing. That’s a broad imaginary mandate but I’d frame it as a challenge to create things that can monitor and interact with the world and be able to map them (whatever changes are being monitored) online. My gold standard would be to have them create sensors and communication systems that would interact with the natural environment to create histories and records of changes in the world.

What advice can you offer teachers who are new to littleBits?

Trust in the bits – they are magnetic in more than one way.

 

Thanks Paul for sharing your story and unique application of littleBits with our community!