In Advance of Troubleshooting


I’m working on a new exhibit that will be using an Arduino (actually, a Teensy++ 2.0) to talk to an application running on a PC via serial data. The Teensy will be sending one byte to control the application’s behavior. This is an upgrade from an older version where the Teensy just sent keystrokes to the application. The nice thing about sending keystrokes is that it was very easy for anyone to troubleshoot because they could just open Notepad and press some buttons to see if they were sending any output. The bad part was that if a normally closed switch was open, it would just stream characters to the computer, which could make things hard to troubleshoot for some people.


To deal with the troubleshooting issue (which will eventually come up, as it always does) and make it easy for non-technical people to view a serial data stream, I wrote a simple application in Processing that reads the byte and displays the value, along with the status of each physical control of the exhibit.


The exhibit should always have the Teensy plugged into COM3 on the PC, but again, once something leaves the shop we never know what strange things might happen. When the application starts up it will present a dialog showing the COM ports, and asking you to select the correct one. If you select the wrong one it will just display nothing. This should be enough to help troubleshoot things via phone or email.

The trickiest part was the code to choose the COM port. (I know, we don’t call them “COM ports” on Mac OS X, and yes, the application works fine on Mac OS X, that’s another thing I love about Processing.) The code for choosing the COM port came from this forum thread How to let the user select COM (serial) port within a sketch?.

I did have to install Java to get the application to run, but it looks and functions like any other Windows application. Here’s hoping this all works and never has to be used, but is there just in case…


Makerspaces and Science Centers


I attended a session at ASTC 2015 titled Are Maker Spaces Killing the Traditional Science Center? Is That a Bad Thing? and while I’m new to the museum world, I’m not new to the makerspace world, but this whole idea of “makerspace in another space” is what the session was about. This post is really just going to be a stream of my own thoughts after the session.

Hooley McLaughlin from the Ontario Science Centre was the moderator and he was anti-makerspace in the context of a science center, where (he believes) the real spark of science can be ignited in young minds. I don’t know much about science centers or the people who work there, but Hooley seems to place “science” (or perhaps just the teaching of science) in this ivory tower, and separate “Science” from other forms of exploration and discovery. The things than happen in a “tinkering” space or a “maker” space are not real science, and there isn’t true learning.

I’ve been involved with Milwaukee Makerspace for nearly five years, and before that I was part of Bucketworks, which is/was a quasi-hackerspace, and I’ve had this idea that BAMspace at Betty Brinn Children’s Museum) Makerspaces tend to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with everything available to members at any time. 6am on Sunday morning? 3pm on a weekday? Saturday night from 10pm to 4am? Those are all valid times to be at a makerspace working on things. Spaces in an institution are typically limited by staffing, just having people available to be in charge of things. And people like to go home and sleep every now and then, and not work 24 hours a day… also, when people do work, they like to get paid. So the first big disconnect is “makerspace open all the time to members who are self-serving” versus “makerspace that is available during only specific times with staff to guide things.” I’m not saying the second option can’t work, it can, but for people who know what a makerspace is as it exists outside of an institution, reconciling how they operate inside an institution may difficult.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of managing expectations. If the first exposure to a makerspace is within an institution, that can set the stage for what one is, and how it works. (There’s the issue of the term “makerspace” being co-opted or misunderstood, but I won’t get into that now.) Limited access due to hours, staffing, etc. can definitely affect the reach of a space/program, but as most of the institutional makerspaces seem to focus on kids (or families) maybe it’s a non-issue.

Ultimately, my favorite comment during the session pretty much summed things up. “We shouldn’t care how kids get interested in science, as long as they get interested.” My own take on that is, I try things, and make things, and fail, and learn, and in the end, I share those things. I share them with others, and if they get inspired, even just a small bit, than it’s a success. If someone gets interested in robotics, or looks up what an Arduino is, or asks a question about 3D printers, then that’s good enough for me. It’s a spark, and a spark is the start of something. It may not be the spark that (certain) people at science centers are hoping for, but it’s a success in my book.


ASTC 2015 Conference

ASTC 2015

I’ll be attending the 2015 ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) Conference, and learning a lot more about how museums work, at least how they work in relation to technology, which is good, since I’ve been involved in the technology at Betty Brinn for the past six months.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve traveled for any work-related conferences, and the fact that it’s in Montreal, Canada is extra-exciting! I’m hoping that besides all the conference things I may also get a chance to stop by Helios Makerspace and Foulab. (I’m always looking to add to the list of spaces I’ve visited.)

I’ll also attempt to find out more about the Museduino project, which is an open source Arduino-based development kit for museum exhibits. I traded a few emails with Miriam about it last year.

(And since I’ll be traveling with some electronics it’s worth mentioning a conversation I had with others a while back on the subject.)


Museums and Making and Work (and Fun!)


Since the semester wrapped up at UWM and left me with a summer of no work or classes, I thought it best to get a job and return to the “normal” world of work. (I know, supposedly academics take summers off and don’t do anything. Kidding!)

I’ve accepted a position as “Technology Project Manager” at the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. I’ll be working on developing a number of exhibits as well as a few other things, not the least of which is helping plan Maker Faire Milwaukee coming up on September 26th & 27th, 2015. This is pretty darn exciting for me. I attended my first Maker Faire just a few years ago and now I’m helping organize the largest Free Featured Maker Faire in the world. I’m passionate about people showing off the amazing things they create, so helping make that possible is pretty amazing. (Also, I’m now dealing with some of the folks I’ve known for years at Make in a day-to-day capacity. Neat!)

MakeShift MKE

I’m also helping out with things like MakeShift MKE, which is an adults-only event we have at the museum once a month which involves things like fire, drinking, making, and hacking. This takes place in BAM Space the “Be A Maker” Space within the museum. (Web site coming soon!) It’s basically a mini-makerspace that does programming for kids, but also caters to adults and families. It’s still in development, but it’s going to be awesome.

Oh, and because I never finished the multiple posts I started writing, this all came about due to some work I did with the museum last fall to develop a part of their Word Headquarters exhibit. At some point I will post more about that. I promise. Also, I’m working with Arduinos and Raspberry Pis and doing all sorts of prototyping, at work, and they pay me. I think. (I’ll find out next week. Kidding again!)

Basically, it’s gonna be a great summer!


I Love The Eisner

The Eisner American Museum of Advertising & Design is holding it’s “I Love The Eisner” event on February 20th, 2009 and it will be featuring the “250 Square Feet of Art” exhibit.

The description says: “250 Square Feet of Art” gathers the work of local artists who each received a square foot of plywood with which they could create a work of art.

I submitted a piece this year, it’s titled “Crayons” and it looks like this:


I believe they auction them off to help raise funds for the Eisner, though I’m still not sure if there are more than 250, and only 250 get selected, or if they all get auctioned off, or what… Yes, I’m short on the details.

Anyway, if you happen to be there, keep an eye out for my piece, and let me know if you see it there… Thanks!