All posts by chris

Edge Lit with micro:bit

We’ve still had projects at Castlemakers this summer, even with the Covid shutdown hampering our hands-on education efforts. One that I’m excited/impressed with is a high school student built project that includes programming, electronics, 3D printing and using a laser cutter – all made with items at the Makerspace!

Programming the micro:bit to control the LED light strip using MakeCode, a block based programming language.

Ever since we gave every 6th grader in Putnam County a micro:bit last year, we’ve wanted to do more micro:bit projects to help youth and adults see the power of microprocessors and IoT devices. And to get a chance to expose and use some of the some different fabrication tools often found in a makerspace. This summer Hunter Miller made a really interesting project, an edge lit sign controlled by a micro:bit. It looks a bit like an emergency exit sign with a disco like effect and instead our logo on it.

The design and case was modified from something created at the Cambridge UK makerspace, who was looking to create something to experience the different makerspace tools. We used our 50W CO2 laser to cut and etch an insert for a 3D printed case that with led lighting on the edge makes our logo stand out. Hunter, who was looking for something else to do this summer, then cut a section of a 2m LED strip and after some soldering connected the wires directly to a micro:bit. Then he wrote a micro:bit program using MakeCode that makes the LED strip change color and intensity.

Color scrolling mode using addressable LED strip controlled by a micro:bit.

It’s on display right now in our front window on Franklin St. Stop by and take a look or come in and we’ll show you how it works – the different lighting modes may have you dancing!

Makerspace Improvements

Shapeoko parts before assembly.
Parts that we received to build our latest CNC addition.

With the Covid-19 virus slowing down our activities, we’ve used the time to make some additions and upgrades at Castlemakers. Plus catch up with some of the work it takes to keep an all volunteer, non-profit makerspace running.

One of the more exciting additions has been a larger Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine, a Shapeoko XXL. CNC’s have been used in manufacturing for years to make things in factories. More recently, like 3D Printing, the design, control, and cost of CNC machines has gotten to the point where desktop units are feasible. Although our latest addition is awfully big for a desktop with a 3.5×4’ (1×1.2 m) footprint! 

Shapeoko XXL Assembled with t-tracks and first test part.
Assembled CNC after cutting first test part with v-groove end mill. Red dust hose adapter was 3D printed at Castlemakers.

Prepping the room downstairs has taken some time, including improving electrical, airflow/dust control, and creating a big sturdy table to hold the unit when cutting/machining things. After cutting our first piece on it, the potential is very exciting. Most folks will use it for wood and plastic materials, but the rigidity, precision, and end mill rotating speeds makes metal possible. There’s already at least one member who’s planning to make guitar bodies our new one. And of course we’ll be offering community classes once we can start those again.

One Person’s Trash…

Imported CNC table and parallel controller.
CNC table and controller that was given to the Makerspace.

We’re given a lot of different things at Castlemakers, from old scrap electronics to tools, often so they don’t go to waste or for kids to tear down and learn… and maybe a few adults. Sometimes we can even retrofit the parts into something more current.

Desktop CNC controlled by arduino via USB.
The mini-CNC now uses an Arduino/GRBL based USB to parallel port interface so it can use standard G-code.

In March, Sam Williams of Cloverdale, who had brought his son to our CoderDojo, dropped off a box of parts that included a no-name, imported desktop CNC that hadn’t been run in several years. Where he works, a Terre Haute CNC shop, several folks had bought a few to learn CNCing. He no longer used his so gave it to us for parts or to use. It was an older model that used a parallel printer port and special control box on a Windows XP machine he also gave us.

3D printed case for the Arduino GRBL shield. There is also a print-in-place button in the upper left corner of the case.
Arduino GRBL shield with 3D printed case Ian designed. Captive reset pushbutton is at the upper left corner.

One of our members, Ian, decided to get it running. By using an Arduino and a $15 controller shield, he’s been able to get it machining using a laptop and free open source software via a USB port – a big improvement! He even designed and 3D printed a case which has a print-in-place button to press the onboard reset button.

You can see it if you look at the table through our front window; adding limit switches is the next addition. After that we’ll put it in the front window on Franklin St. for a while before using it in classes, it’s a pretty good machine to learn about CNC’s.

Covid face Sheilds

Thanks to a gift from SeeMeCNC in Ligonier Indiana, we’ve been able to donate an extra 150 face shields to Putnam County Hospital in case they’re needed for a Covid-19 case surge.

Covid Face Shields
Case of Face Shields given to Putnam County Hospital.

Last month we started making face shields for those that needed them, but 3D printing can be a slow process. You can do some things to speed up/optimize print time, but if you need a lot of something it’s often not the way to go.

Steve Wygant at SeeMeCNC/Blackpoint Engineering, who makes 3D printers and designs plastic injection molds (among other things) recognized that problem and did something. Within hours he took an open source face shield headband design used in Europe and turned it into an injection molded piece. Then they took their in-house machines used for 3D printers to make headbands and face shields for others. They even started gave away cases of the injection molded parts to groups like Castlemakers who were making and donating face shields in their local community.

Making a Face Shield with a Cricut Maker
Cutting face shields with our Cricut Maker.

We took their headbands and then created face shields by cutting overhead transparencies and report covers to make the shield. Thin clear plastic is in short supply everywhere! Our lasercutter works well to cut overhead transparencies quickly, but the slightly thicker clear report covers us a material (PVC) that’s not safe to lasercut. For those we developed a template we could use with our Cricut Maker. I’ll add some details on our covid-maker webpage.


Makers & Covid

Castlemakers window display of covid-19 projects on Franklin street.
Face shields and a 3D printed mask made at the makerspace.

Our blog posts have been running behind lately, but we’ve been busy the last few months. We’ll update with some older entries since like many folks we’ve had more ‘stay at home’ time with the COVID-19 mess that’s been going on.

Even though we’ve stopped having public events since mid-March, there have been things going on inside (using recommended guidelines). Our main 3D delta printer has never been worked so hard in such a short time since we got it 3 years ago.

The picture to the right has some examples of what’s been made there to help first responders and others with the COVID-19 battle. We can’t make things in large quantities, but we can fabricate and adjust quickly – plus worldwide the makerspace community has rapidly stepped up to help people where they can. Longer term existing manufacturers will and are already starting to fill the gap, but it sometimes helps to do locally what can be done until the gap is eliminated. We’ve got a special webpage with some local covid making projects in Putnam County and more details about how the face shields, face masks, and ear savers can be made.

PCMI and the micro:bit

PCMI kits being made
Ian Girvan and Brian Howard updating & testing each micro:bit before packaging.

With the Putnam County Microcomputer Initiative (PCMI) roll out and distributions, October has been a blur and our blog has fallen behind. A lot still happened, like Putt Putnam County and the PCPL annual Halloween party, but we’ll cover it in future blog posts.

The PCMI started in 2018 from internal discussions about the technology gap in rural communities and how to get more folks interested in technology and coding, especially youth. PCMI was born after seeing a demo of the BBC micro:bit at the 2018 Hackathon in Indy – it seemed like a potential solution! Thought why not put a simple-to-use single board computer, in this case a micro:bit, into the hands of Putnam County youth so they could learn and use them?

We set up an assembly line to put together all the parts for over 500 PCMI kits.

After researching the micro:bit further and writing a Techpoint Foundation for Youth grant to get 10 for first hand experience in our CoderDojo, we decided to use a variation of what was done in the United Kingdom. We would give them directly to all 6th graders in Putnam County. The device is already being used in some US school systems, including NYC’s Computer Science for All and some Project Lead the Way classes, but with Indiana’s computer science curriculum under revision we were hoping for a quicker jump start so folks could recognize the significance of physical computing and that it doesn’t have to be difficult!

micro:bit / PCMI kits being distributed at North Putnam Middle School
Matt Couch goes over the micro:bit /PCMI kits in his North Putnam science class. 3 other Putnam County schools helped.

Luckily for us the Putnam County Community Foundation understood the importance and was willing to fund our idea. All four school systems were also willing to help – so we’ve been rolling out micro:bit kits to the 6th graders in Putnam County during October. Our last distribution, to home school kids at Putnam County Public Library, is on 11/4 and we’ll also be having a community session for parents and anyone else interested at Ivy Tech Community College in Greencastle on Monday November 4th at 6:30 pm. Seeing the excitement of the 6th graders getting and exploring their devices has been a real treat!

Circuit Board Collaboration

PCB prototype for a micro:bit accessory.

It started at our Intro to 3D Printing class – Ian who had found us through an Internet search, was interested in makerspaces & signed up for the class. Since he hadn’t seen the makerspace before, gave him a tour afterwards. When showing him our desktop CNC machine, discussed how it was possible to do a printed circuit boards (PCB) but we hadn’t yet tried it. His eyes lit up as he mentioned creating some circuit boards that were sent away to get made. It wasn’t hard to quickly come up with a project.

With a lot of micro:bit work at Castlemakers because of the Putnam County Microcomputer Initiative (PCMI) lately, creating a micro:bit accessory board seemed like a great choice. At our model rocket class in August we tried to launch a micro:bit board to measure acceleration, but the lack of a small battery & SD card prevented it. 

After talking through the features wanted on a board, Ian quickly did a PCB design that became our first test of using the desktop CNC to make an electronic component circuit board. It machined great, but we also learned there had been some assumptions and spacing errors we hadn’t thought of. That’s when DIY makerspace mentality paid off – instead of waiting 10-12 days for another firm to make a new circuit board, after the design change we made the new design in less than 15 minutes! The desktop CNC is really a great tool for testing and making prototypes.

August Events

Estes Alpha rockets built in the Castlemakers model rocket clas
Model Rockets from the class lined up before launch.

Two bigger events this month: a model rocket launch locally & Makevention in Bloomington. After the model rocket building class in late July, we had a good crew come out for the August rocket launch at Big Walnut Sports Park. Like last time, after the first few launches from the class participants, some of the older ‘rocketeers’ started pulling pretty interesting designs to shoot skyward. Hopefully Nick eventually gets his rocket back.

Makevention Castlemakers Area.
The Castlemakers space at Makevention.

Also always enjoy participating in Makevention at the Monroe County Convention Center, we had a good crew to help at the booth. It seemed bigger than ever, heard an estimated 1200-1500 people; do know all day there was a steady stream of folks playing our Putt Putnam County mini-golf holes.

Makevention is an event where people show off things they’ve made, demonstrations of creative making, hands-on exhibits, and workshops. This year for example you could learn how to make chainmail, try your hand at soap-making, learn how to pick locks, and make reusable shopping bags out of old clothing. This year there seemed to be more puzzles and puzzle making; the traditional amateur radio crowd was there of course, along with quite a few robots and robotic devices.

The mini-golf holes were popular with kids at Makevention.

Besides the mini-golf holes Castlemakers had model rockets, Raspberry Pi projects, and some micro:bit things we’ve been making. We got lots of questions about the makerspace and Greencastle. Thanks to Bloominglabs for the good location, their volunteers, and of course Jonathan, Brian, Alice, Bella, & Rebecca for the booth help.

2019 Coderdojo Hackathon

2019 CoderDojo Hqckathon opening session at Developertown

July 20th we participated in the 3rd Annual Indiana Youth Hackathon in Indianapolis. This was the 3rd year our CoderDojo attended and this time, several of us were volunteers also. The 2019 event was bigger than ever, even people from the CoderDojo and Raspberry Pi Foundation flew in from California to attend. The CoderDojo movement, which started in Ireland, is now in 102 countries and is an international organization. Many people don’t realize Indiana has more CoderDojos than any other state in the US!

Castlemakers CoderDojo Participants Rebecca, Hunter & Ty at the 2019 Hackathon (Alice & Mason not pictured).

Attending a ‘hackathon’ might sound a little intimidating to some, but it’s really a fun event where kids can meet, work with other kids (and adults) to learn and show off their computer coding skills. While there are judges and trophies involved, most of it is a non-competitive event where you can learn and ‘show off your stuff’ to others. Giveaways (and there were a LOT), t-shirts & stickers, free food… no wonder there was a waitlist to attend this year.

MoonHack activity in the afternoon session.

There were three programming tracks this year: Javascript, Python, and Scratch. Youth worked on a series of challenges and received points for completing the task & for the best solution. Trophies were awarded to those with the most points. The kids did not need to know their chosen programming language in advance; many were there to just learn more about the language. Along with the programming challenges there was also a project expo this year, where people could show off what they have done.

CoderDojo for Parents session was led by Chris Hebb with help from Christina Foust from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

There were also drop in sessions – for example a morning session for adults wanting to learn more (CoderDojo 101 for Parents) and an afternoon session called Moonhack. Moonhack was a challenge/task to program a lunar buggy to travel across a lunar surface (that day was the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing after all) in Scratch or Python with lots of volunteers there to help them complete the coding. Parents 101 was as it sounds, a session to explain CoderDojos and answer questions. We even had a few that were interested in starting one where they lived.

What happens at Castlemakers

We often get questions about when to visit Castlemakers; the best place to start is our events webpage. You can drop in during Open Shop or also attend one of the events listed.

4th Graders from North Putnam learn coding on a micro:bit
Putnam County Kids Count catapult design testing with fruit, candy and marshmallows.
Kids test their designs with different size & weight projectiles.

For people not familiar with makerspaces, they may not realize everything going on. For example, limited ‘retail’ hours (what we and other makerspaces often call Open Shop time) reflect the volunteer nature of them. There are lots of passionate people and activities going on outside those times, often working individually and with other organizations.

Attaching bridal to tetrahedral kite before testing at Putnam County Kids Count.
Two teams combined efforts to build a 10 cell tetrahedral kite.

For example, in the last 2 months Castlemakers worked on a number of youth-oriented events not listed on the webpage or on social media. Just a few weeks ago we were out at Heritage Lake working with over 50 kids at Putnam County Kids Count helping younger kids build and test catapults, then the older ones build and fly tetrahedral kites!

Another outreach event involved 2 other organizations in early May: Castle Arts and Putnam County 4H. Thirty North Putnam School Corporation 4th graders came to downtown Greencastle to learn about computer coding. While one group learned and used a robot at the 4H office to sort and count chips, the other group was at the Makerspace.

This robot was coded to put each color chip in a different bin.

Christian Destremps did a fabulous job teaching them algorithms/coding around the corner at the 4H office using Lego EV3 kits built into a color chip sorting robot. Castlemakers helped with assembling his robot design and 3D printing bins to catch the different colored chips.

Learning how G-code is used in 3D printing.

At the Makerspace we showed them how coding is used in 3D printing, laser cutter/engraving, and CNC machines. One section saw the coding (G-code) in action with our makerspace fabrication tools. At the same time the other section programmed a micro:bit, a small micro-computer board, using a block-based coding editor.

It really demonstrates what can happen in our community when different organizations pool their resources together. You’ll be hearing a lot more about the micro:bit board in the next few months here in Putnam County.