Education Opinion

A Super-Awesome Bookshelf for Makers (With Two Free Books!)

By Justin Reich — December 01, 2014 5 min read
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For several years now, I have been a big fan of the work and teaching of Super-Awesome Sylvia and her online videos series about making, art, and science. Super-Awesome Sylvia is a young woman with a passion for programming and building and a knack for sharing her learning widely with others. I mean, anyone who tweets like this is my kind of kid:

So I was very excited to learn that Super-Awesome Sylvia has a print book out: Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Project Book: Super-Simple Arduino. Sylvia’s book is the first in a series to be published by Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, founded by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager. CMK Press has two other books, which are available for free in Kindle format today and tomorrow, December 1 and 2! More on those two books in a bit, but first: super-awesome, super-simple Arduino projects.

Sylvia’s book presents three projects for the Arduino, a very small computer that specializes in giving instructions to physical objects, like fans, lights, probes, and sensors. The introduction to the book explains the basics of how to acquire an Arduino circuitboard, how to program one, and how to plug things in. The body of the book describes three projects, each of which begins as a simple recipe for making the Arduino do something: powering a strobe light, making the Arduino into a playable instrument, and making a speaker that inputs finger taps and plays them back. For each chapter, Sylvia explains how to plug a strobe light or speaker into the arduino, and then shares some code scripts to be programmed into the Arduino. (The code snippets reminded me of sitting in my basement as a boy, copying BASIC code out of magazines and typing it into whatever Apple II computer we had at the time.) If you follow the recipe correctly, you’ll have programmed a computer to tell a light or a speaker what to do.

These recipes are the starting point, rather than the end. Sylvia follows with some experiments that can be tried in the real world (such as using a strobe to watch water hit a fan), and then ideas for taking the experiment to the next step, like adding a light sensor to make the Arduino with speaker into an air piano. Many of these additional ideas involve playing around with or adding to the code that Sylvia provides. Sylvia is a terrific advocate for playing and hacking, and she does a great job illustrating basic principles of programming so students can make sense of how the basic code snippets work. When I say illustrating, I do literally mean that Sylvia illustrated the book herself, with a playful, artistic style. She has a cadre of robots: SmartBot, CoderBot, DoodleBot and others that explain some of the concepts. For those familiar with Super-Awesome Sylvia’s video series, they will recognize her keen ability to explain complex scientific concepts without resorting to over-simplification.

To extend the projects, Sylvia points readers to example code, stored on the Arduino, that open the door to new additions and adjustments. I suspect novice programmers might need some help with these extensions; if I had one wish for the book it would be that it was a little gentler in pointing future hackers to their first coding experiments, along the lines of “See this variable here; play with this one first.” Sylvia is constant, however, in her exortations that anyone willing to play around and search for help online will be able to go from copying her recipes to cooking up new ones.

Sylvia’s book comes at an incredibly opportune time, as more schools consider the importance of programming and making, and as it becomes increasingly clear that the pipeline for girls into computer engineering is in terrible shape. Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Project Book isn’t a book for girls, it’s a book for any young person getting starting in coding, but it matters a lot have Sylvia’s beaming smile on the cover.

A couple of years ago, I showed some of Super-Awesome Sylvia’s videos to my MIT undergrads, who loved them and proclaimed unanimously that Sylvia would be a sure-admit at MIT. High praise, indeed, and earned again with this new book.

Two Other Titles from Construction Modern Knowledge Press

Sylvia’s book has been preceeded by two other publications from Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, founded by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, which are available for free today and tomorrow, December 1 and 2. Earlier this year, they published The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom: Recipes for Success by David and Norma Thornburg and Sara Armstrong, and in 2013 they published Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. I can recommend the full set of all three books to every school and library. The 3D Printing guide bears a family resemblance to Sylvia’s book. Each chapter is a recipe for a 3D printing project: a fan, a knot, the ubiqitious key chain, and so forth. Each recipe goes through a detailed set of steps for the software and steps needs to program design documents and then print out objects. For any teacher or school who has just bought their first 3D printer to begin to play with, this book would be an excellent companion. The chapters include connections to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, and some follow up questions for inquiry or exploration. These tips and connections are most welcome, though the Thornburg and Armstrong team might consider hiring Super-Awesome Sylvia to do some of their illustrations next time, to bring a little fun and flair to the text ;)

If these two recipe books offer great how-tos, then Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s book Invent to Learn provide much more of the why. The book begins with reflections on teaching, learning, projects, and the history of making. The middle of the book then explores key themes in making for learning: fabrication, physical computing, and programming. The third part of the book gives practical suggestions for bringing making into the school context: what to buy, how to shape the learning environment, and how to get students involved. As the authors note in their “Insanely Brief and Incomplete History of Making,” there is a long history and rich research base around making in schools, and Invent to Learn provides a great introduction to these ideas.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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