Category Archives: FamilyFun

Vibrobot Workshop

I’ve been working with a number of area librarians to create maker and STEAM workshops for their libraries. In preparation for some more advanced workshops, I worked with Nina Taylor, the teen librarian at the Morse Institute Library in Natick, Mass. to put on a vibrobot workshop.

The kids were great, and some immediately took to experimenting, decorating and creating wild things, while others needed getting used to the idea of doing something beyond following directions. Almost all of them said they would come back to do more, so I consider it a resounding success.

In addition to making Bristlebots (invented by Evil Mad Scientists) and sold as a kit by Makershed, we also made “drawbots” for which I made vibro-packs from salvaged motors and battery packs.

The Makershed kit is great, in that wires are already attached to the batteries, making assembly very easy.

For the drawbots, we taped markers around a cup as legs and then attached my vibro-packs. You can make any motor vibrate by attaching a weight off center to the shaft.

As you can see in this picture, I made one by taking the propeller off a bubble blower toy, and hot gluing a screw in.


I didn’t love this, and was scratching my head when I thought “doh!, I have a 3D printer!”


I created a very simple model in Open SCAD, that was adaptable to the various salvaged motors..

scad screenshot


You can download the source here, or from Thingiverse. You can use the customizer widget on thingiverse, but it’s much faster if you have OpenScad installed and you tweak it yourself!

I’m most proud of the the free fan (ok, I lost the fan part) from a local bank, but it makes a great, all in one battery pack, switch and motor!


It’s a fantastic introduction to making, so try it yourself!

Debut of the DuckyBots!

Charlotte, Mason and I hopped into Cambridge last Friday for the Mini Maker Faire at the Cambridge Science Festival. They helped me set up a table to introduce DuckyBots! to the attendees. We had probably close to 500 kids (and a few adults) making ducky bots in the 4 hours of the Faire, and almost got into trouble because people didn’t want to stop. We were the last ones to shut down. An unqualified success! (more details after the picture)

Photo by Chris Conners

The idea for duckybots started from a conversation at the Boston Robotics Meetup with Meredith Garniss.  In addition to trying to involve kids in robotics, we thought it would be good to inspire the adult robotics crew to create for kids.

Programs like FIRST robotics, and school programs are already full of people interested in STEM and robotics, and we wanted to find something that would turn kids on to the joys of Science and Engineering.

The basic idea is to use turning rubber ducks into robots as a platform for experimentation, creativity and learning.
We thought we could apply this at many ages and levels. Really young kids can exercise their creativity by decorating ducks (drawing, gluing on.)

The middle level would concentrate on mechanical physics, making ducks move, maybe racing (but also have to offer non-competitive challenges for kids scared of  competition.)

To keep the ideas coming in, we can also have an advanced level, perhaps Sumo ducks (on water!)

For their first appearance, I needed an activity that could be be done by hundreds of kids in a short period of time, so I focused on “making them Move”

Rather than presenting them with a blank slate, I put together some modules that represent different propulsion types.

I created a fan unit from a toy motor, a AA battery box (with switch) and a fan propeller sold as a spare for snap circuits.

I also had some playmobil underwater motors, and lots of Duck(!) tape (especially yellow).

As kids strapped on the motors, and found the ducks tipping over,  presenting an engineering challenge! I also had some closed cell foam (from packing materials) that they could use for floats, and outriggers.

There was lots of inventing, trying, doing things “wrong” (turns out those air fans work fine underwater!)

I was thinking that this was a good test to see if I should spend any more time on this, and I think the answer is yes!

These ducks have legs!

Photo by Chris Conners


Black Friday? No! F.A.T. Yes!

For the third year, our family entered in to the mad-crazy collaborative experiment that is  the Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction at MIT in Cambridge. I think the main idea is to create, and not consume, and I love not only being there with my family creating, but also seeing the brilliant creations of everyone else.

As usual we weren’t super prepared (even th0ugh I spent most of the day on Thursday building) and spent almost till the last minute preparing and fixing, and our run wasn’t without the “Hand of God” helping it along, but it was fantastic!

I didn’t get very many pictures, but I’ll tell you about what we did.

The event is emceed by Arthur Ganson, artist in residence at MIT, and Mechanical genius. He has a whole room of his sculptures at the MIT museum, and it’s worth a trip just for that. He also generously helps people out, encouraging everyone, and builds the final link with some sort of theme. This year (the 14th) the theme was Sonnets, and his final piece dropped ostrich feathers one at a time with lines from a sonnet he wrote (it was beautiful!)

Each link is triggered either by a string pull or a golf ball entering your contraption. This year we decided to go for the additional challenge of the golf ball for the first time. We reused a ball run I made for last years event, and added an elevator for the ball made out of Knex.

Here’s the sequence:

  1. First the ball lands in a “chair” made out of Knex, and presses a Lego Mindstorms NXT touch sensor under it.
  2. This triggered the NXT to supply power to a short section of Lego 9V train.  The train steamed forward to…
  3. A brilliant Lego pneumatic switch mechanism design by our 11 year old neighbor and friend Jackson. This pneumatic contraption then fired his new high power laser pointer which….
  4. Popped a black balloon holding steel balls which
  5. Fell on a plate over a switch which triggered an Arduino controlled Silly String shooter. Getting to make this was some of the most fun. Before the event, I hooked it up to a motion sensor and surprised my kids with it. I got the idea while at Walgreens walking down the toy aisle. I thought, hey, I can probably rig a servo to spray that! Of course, googling it first, It’d been done! And cleverly too, so not one to reinvent the silly string shooter, I copied the design (though not the code…) Here’s the instructable that I used: by Instructables user Eric Kingston
  6. The silly string sprayed onto a paper plate (decorated as a target by Charlotte!) which pressed a microswitch that triggered another Arduino that used an Adafruit motorshield to run a KNex motor which I spliced into to run the winder to lift the golf ball. I use this shield a lot, for whenever I want to make some scavenged motor move something. For example I once built stuff from cd-rom drives for the kids to interact with in their classroom. Very handy.
    When the golf ball reached the top…
  7. The same Arduino started spelling out a message on the super bright 8×8 LED panel from Modern Device that I picked up at Maker Faire in Rhode Island. It scrolled FAT.. This board has a fabulous library, is super bright, and really easy to use.
  8. The golf ball rolled down several ramps to a makeshift ramp between tables and on to the next table.

Our neighbors contraptions put ours to shame, both in terms of mechanical cleverness and overall finish. The one before us was an elaborate mechanism that shuttled brightly colored golf balls along a track to fall into a bucket, the weight of which eventually powered a putter to put the travel ball on to our section.

I encourage everyone to come and to build! It happens every year, and it doesn’t take much to participate (some links are little more than domino runs) and it certainly gets you away from the shopping crowds into a much better crowd!

Afterwards, we hung out in the empty gym and flew our new Air Swimmer (which I highly recommend!)