onsdag 8 april 2015

Butiá Fing - Open Technology for Independent Learning

It is the last hot summer days in Montevideo at the end of March, it's 30°C, and school just begun a couple of weeks ago. I'm going with Andres Aguirre and his two students, Bruno and Rodrigo to have a "Taller Butiá" - Butiá workshop at a school in the project Butia Fing, a robotic project for schools. We manage to get hold of a small taxi, load the huge box with the equipment and off we go at high speed along Montevideo's busy and bumpy boulevards.

Butiá Fing began in 2008 and is run by the Facultad de Ingeniería at Uruguay's University (hence Fing, Butiá is the name of a palm tree and butar the local expression for boot) and is a so-called extension that is a joint learning process with external actors as part of the university's community involvement and learning. Teachers and students at Fing are working with software and hardware design in collaboration with schools, teacher training and workshops at schools and with students. The project has been widely spread, there are 500 Butiá schools and last year the project hold workshops for 5,000 students in collaboration with the state telephone company Antel.

Escuela No. 255 is located in Malvin Norte, a working class area in the north of Montevideo, where the city ends and the Pampas begins. All lamp posts and curbs are painted in black and yellow, the football team Peñarol’s colors. After the initial greeting kisses with the staff, Andrés and his students start the workshop. They present the concept of robot and how it is controlled by programmed code. The discussion is lively and loud, very relaxed and a thermos with Yerba Mate is passed around. All questions are answered and all views are heard. When concepts are explained they show how you can control the Butiá robot with code, this is directly shown to the pupils and you can really see how they enthusiastically understand the connection between the abstract and the concrete.

In small groups they go through the Butiá robot consisting of pupil's XO laptop positioned on Butiá´s robotkit - a platform with motorized wheels and a USB4Butiá micro control card which controls the motors.

The XO computer, that is part of the 1-1 national project Plan Ceibal, is made so that it can be used in harsh environments. Headphone input can measure voltage and resistance, the computer has built-in sensors for magnetic field, temperature and light so that it can be used for experiments and it is easy to connect the actuatos and microcontrollers, even those ones manufactured locally.

The application used is TurtleBots which has visual blocks for various commands like in Scratch. TurtleBots is a further development of Turtle Blocks with plugins to handle the Butiá project’s own developed USB4Butiá micro controller board. It can also be used with Arduino, Lego Wedo and Fisher Robots. Also the XO computer webcam can be used as a sensor.TurtleBots is developed in dialogue with schools for their equipment needs.

TurtleBots is intuitive and groups of pupils quickly get the idea of how it works and try and retry and debug through committed "learning by doing", which is the basic idea of ​​the project. They test various commands and check how the robot behaves, and then they redo,develop and receive immediate feedback on their learning. Their own computer has now turned into a robot! From time to time the class teacher Pablo intervenes with unplugged programming to clear out how the various commands work.

USB4Butiá is open hardware and the board and devices are built from standard components that should be easy to come by even in remote parts of rural areas (school standards are different here, especially in escoulas rurales, pupils might even ride a horse to school) and it must be possible as a part of your learning to build what you need with the technology you have at hand.

The learning philosophy in the Butiá project is that if you control and are engaged in your learning in your social context then you learn effectively and for real. This philosophy also includes the hardware and software. Everything is open, both source code and hardware in order to be able to have full control of your equipment and to be able to change the technology in an authentic learning adapted to the social environment you live in. Open design is a prerequisite for empowered learning and basically John Dewey’s and Seymour Papert’s thinking in a nutshell: You learn by doing and the more you do, the more you want to learn.

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