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STEM Academy

4 Posts authored by: Cabe Atwell

(Image credit Pixabay)


It may have taken place ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ but the tech is certainly futuristic, at least that’s how it’s portrayed in the popular Star Wars franchise but has that tech actually become a reality for us here back on Earth? It may not be so fictional considering a lot of Star Trek tech from the series have come to fruition in the last 30 years- mobile phones (communicators), 3D printers (replicators) and VR headsets (Holodeck).


While it’s true you could probably write a book on how much Star Trek technology has come to fruition in one form or another, the same can’t really be said for Star Wars. We are nowhere close to achieving the ability to hyperspace travel (or warp speed for that matter), a true lightsaber will never be developed and building the Death Star would require 830,000 years of continuous steel production and would cost $850-quadrillion (not including a power source). But we’re not here for ‘exact’ functioning replicas, are we? Nope, like Star Trek, we’ll take a look at some tech examples that are similar to those found in the Star Wars universe beginning with the all-to-familiar pod racers-


Aerofex Aero-X low-altitude flight vehicle. (Image credit Aerofex)


Luke sped around on Tatooine with his iconic land speeder, and although we don’t have anti-gravity technology, we do have the next best thing- air power, which makes Aerofex’ Aero-X hoverbike fly. The vehicle has been in development since 2008 and can carry two people 10-feet of the ground and maintain a speed of 45mph with 75-minutes of run-time on a full tank of fuel. According to Aerofex, “It’s a surface-effect craft that rides like a motorcycle - an off-road vehicle that gets you off the ground.”


While not exactly a Pod Racer, it does fit the bill of Land Speeder in a technical sense and has a bevy of outdoor uses, including surveying, search and rescue, ranching, aerial agriculture applications and disaster relief mobility among a host of others. Aerofex says it takes only a weekend to learn how to pilot the Aero-X and controlling the craft is similar to riding a motorcycle- use a pair of handlebars to navigate and lean into the turns. While there hasn’t been any word on production for the hoverbike, it’s supposed to be released in commercial form sometime this year (2017) for $85,000. 


US Navy’s LaWS (Laser Weapons System) mounted on the USS Ponce. (Image credit US Navy via Wikimedia)


Blasters and energy cannons are a weapon staple in Star Wars for both troops and ships, and surprisingly, we have something similar in the form of laser weapons, such as the US Navy’s LaWS or XN-1 Laser Weapons System. Strangely enough, both blasters and the laser platform use light to destroy targets with Star Wars tech using ‘compacted particle beam energy’ while the laser platform uses amplified light. Both can also be adjusted in their intensity to produce more or less damage when fired.


The XN-1 LaWS was designed to handle both airborne and water-based threats, including taking down drones, frying sensor arrays and detonating explosive materials at ranges that are classified. It can also be used to ‘dazzle’ people’s eyes, causing temporary blindness or increase in power to burn through boat hulls and engines. The platform is essentially six welding lasers strapped together and can generate an estimated maximum sustained output of 50kW, however larger, more powerful laser weapons are currently in development.


Robots similar to Star Wars droids are becoming a reality. (Image credit pxhere)


Droids in the Star Wars universe are essentially functioning robots with a varied degree of AI. RD-D2 and C3PO for example, have distinct personalities and are able to think through on how best to perform certain tasks. While we are far from developing that level of AI, we do have robots equipped with rudimentary forms of intelligence with most designed for research purposes, such as RAIR’s (Rensselaer AI and Reasoning Lab) NAO robots with self-consciousness. These robots can ‘deduce’ through simple tests and predefined program parameters that they are self-aware. Of course, that’s the limit of their functionality, but it’s a good step into the burgeoning world of AI.


Other robots, such as Osaka University’s CB2 (Child-robot with Biomimetic Body) harness AI to develop social skills to better interact with the public. In the case of CB2, the robot uses onboard cameras to capture human interaction- in this instance, a mother interacting with her baby as well as facial expressions and uses that data to mimic them. The idea behind the mimicking is to allow robots to learn much like a human infant would, through what it sees. A far cry from R2 for sure but you have to start somewhere and considering robotics outfitted with AI is still in its infancy, the developments are promising and help outline a roadmap that will ultimately bring us the droids we are looking for.


These are just several examples of rudimentary Star Wars tech that has become a reality as there is a host of others that offer some interesting comparisons, including space travel and holograms. That being said, Star Trek tech still outnumbers Star Wars when it comes to the number of real-life technology examples. Perhaps it’s because Star Trek included engineers in their shows, inspiring viewers to pursue an education in one of the many engineering fields or maybe it was because some of that technology (at least in the original series) was already in development. Whatever the case may be, it’s still great to see that tech come to life from both series.  


Have a story tip? Message me at: cabe(at)element14(dot)com

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A partnership between Netflix and the Girl Scouts aims to get girls interested in science early on-and stay there. Girl Scouts meet accomplished women from a variety of companies at Netflix headquarters to learn more about STEM opportunities(via GirlScouts)


Since the late 1980s, the number of women undergraduates pursuing careers in computer science and technology has dropped nearly 20 percent, from 37 percent in 1984 to just 18 percent today. And this despite the fact that computer science and technology fields are booming, with more jobs and higher wages than many other industries. Why is this? Melinda Gates, renowned philanthropist and tech veteran herself, has set out to study the problem. She’s developing a personal office outside of the Foundation to specifically study the issue of declining numbers of women in technology.


Like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the beginning of her philanthropic enterprise starts with research and data-gathering. Understanding the problem is key to implementing a solution. The decline of women in technology has been compared to a leaky pipeline-multiple leaks means more women leave tech or become disinterested earlier.  Another reason may be the male-centric gaming industry, which designs video games directed to a predominantly male population. There appears to be a correlation with the advance of male-centric gaming with the decline in women seeking careers in programming.


Another reason could be the lack of role models and resources available to very young girls, who may simply not even consider careers in STEM because it seems so foreign and inhospitable to them. That’s one thing that a new partnership between Netflix and the Girl Scouts is seeking to address. With the premiere of its network-original show Project Mc2, which features girls who solve problems with their science and technology skills, Netflix invited Girl Scout troops to its headquarters to meet with accomplished women from a variety of technology companies. Girl Scouts got to watch the new show and meet representatives with surprising stories about how they found their careers.


By providing examples of women in STEM career paths, it’s hoped that younger girls will think of those vocations as possible and accessible to themselves. In addition, the Girl Scouts has launched an ongoing campaign of connecting interested girls with STEM opportunities across the country. For parents and mentors, they’ve published a guide online with suggestions on how to cultivate curiosity and confidence in science and technology in girls at a young age. Regardless of what career someone ultimately chooses, that can only be a good thing.


Have a story tip? Message me at: cabe(at)element14(dot)com


Kano kits teach kids the basics of programming and electronics with camera, speaker, and light board kits. All the kits work with one another

(via Kano)


With endless campaigns, programs, and websites dedicated to teaching kids the basics of programming, the concept doesn't seem as wild as it did a few years ago. Every month there seems to be a new program or device hoping to get kids interested in programming. And this month is no different. Kano, a computer company based out of East London, is currently funding its latest kit, which uses different devices to teach the younger generation the basics of programming.


Kano's new project features three different kits that allows kids to learn how to make their own camera, light board, and speakers. Each kit is sold separately and comes with a step by step instruction booklet along with the necessary parts to complete the project. Once the camera or speaker is put together, you can then code it via a series of online challenges and handy guides. Using Kano Code, you can program the camera to flash, change the timer, and build various apps to make it unique.


What is Kano coding? It's the company's own coding that breaks down complex programming concepts and makes them simple to learn. It's a series of challenges, games, and lessons to learn about the basics. Once you get the hang of it, you can move onto to actual coding languages, like Javascript. The more better you get at it, the more challenges, games, and badges you unlock. You can then take what you've learned and create your own apps. Or you can check out the apps made by others in the Kano community.


The speaker is a similar kit, but perhaps the most intriguing is the light board aka the pixel kit. This kit introduces the basic of electronics to kids. With this, you can add features to the board, like buttons, joy sticks, a case, and battery. You can even add a tilt sensor and play community created motion based games. As the name suggests, the lights embedded in the board also lets you make innovative and cool pixel art to share with the Kano community.


Though Kano offers these different kits, they didn't want to limit kid's imagination. To encourage you to think outside box, all the kits work together. Mix different parts from the various devices to create a unique device. The process is made simple since everything snaps together like Lego bricks. Each of the kits starts out at $99 and it's not just for kids. Whether you want to teach your little ones or have fun creating your own camera, Kano wants to make programming accessible.


Kano takes concepts that are complex and tries to simplify them. It's a cool, innovative idea but these are kids we're talking about. They're known to be notoriously fickle when it comes to toys like these. Kano's high priced kits run the risk of being entertaining for a while and then collecting dust on the shelves. If you're looking to get one for your kid, just make sure it's something they actually want to do instead of hopping on this programming trend.

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I recently put together three easy to build  projects - that are awesome - with younger builders in mind. We are talking breadboards, glue, hand-files, heatshrink tubing kind of easy. These projects seem complex, but they are surprisingly simple. You could probably build one of these in an afternoon with the help of your favorite kids.


Let's go up the coolness scale:


First off is my Shake Activated Water Bottle Night Light. What's running this is two 555 timer ICs on some breadboards. Can't get easier than this. See the whole project build here: Shake Activated Water Bottle Night Light


Next up is somewhat a cosplay item... I built a "Electro-Flare" from the 1993/94 PC game called X-COM: UFO Defense. This is essentially a few dozen high power LEDs connected to a battery. The coolest part about this project is it's wirelessly activated with a magnet. It's a reed switch, for those wondering. See the whole project build here: Electro-Flare ...from X-COM: UFO Defense


Finally, my favorite... LED Floodlight truck risers for skateboards. Skating at night means one thing... you will hit a rock you can't see. These floodlights will solve that problem for you. I used a wireless relay to turn them on and off. And yes... that is me skating! See the whole project build here: DIY wireless floodlights for a lit skateboard


Like these projects? Send me some ideas... geared towards kids, and I will make it happen!


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