The Shed - - Contents - By Ray Cleaver Pho­to­graphs: Rob Tucker

Opunake is where you will find the ‘Uni­ver­sity of Shed’

In a garage in Opunake, a small coastal Taranaki town, is the ‘Uni­ver­sity of Shed’, where young peo­ple can learn about elec­tron­ics in a prac­ti­cal way.

The shed is the brain­child of An­drew Horn­blow, and his ‘uni­ver­sity’ is where schoolkids pick up some new skills by cre­at­ing de­vices that they use for stud­ies as di­verse as the re­mote mon­i­tor­ing of lit­tle blue pen­guins in their nest­ing boxes through to mak­ing robots and cre­at­ing in­ven­tions for com­pe­ti­tions.

As a school sci­ence tech­ni­cian, An­drew has spent nearly 20 years work­ing with schoolkids en­cour­ag­ing a love of elec­tron­ics and tech­nol­ogy.

Teach­ing kids the ba­sics

An­drew gets a real kick out of pass­ing on his knowl­edge to stu­dents.

“Kids are pretty quick to pick up the essence of elec­tric­ity — the whole plus mi­nus / pos­i­tive, and neg­a­tive ba­sics,” he says.

He tries to keep his teach­ing at the low­est level pos­si­ble so they can see and feel things go­ing on. He likes stu­dents to be able to use and prob­lem-solve “re­al­world stuff”.

“I am happy see­ing kids get a ba­sic lowlevel idea like pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive with a coin cell and an LED, or see­ing the re­ac­tion when a mo­tor and a few cog com­bi­na­tions start whizzing around mak­ing scream­ing or fart­ing noises as teeth slip, or they chew up pa­per, or spin milk bot­tle tops, fling­ing wa­ter or blobs of Blu Tack around the room,” he says with a grin.

He stresses that mi­cro­elec­tron­ics and mi­cro­con­trollers and what’s avail­able have come a long way in the past 10 years. Sold­er­less cir­cuit boards (‘bread­boards’) can now be cheaply fit­ted with mi­cro­con­trollers and many other com­po­nents and parts have come down in price.

“You can get an eight-pin con­troller for $3 and build sim­ple lit­tle cir­cuits from scratch on a sold­er­less bread­board for un­der $5,” he ex­plains. “Add a PIC mi­cro­pro­ces­sor, which is re­ally a minia­ture com­puter, and you have a sim­ple set-up for kids to get re­ally cre­ative at low cost that can have many func­tions.”

Mod­i­fy­ing is easy

An­drew demon­strates for us how you can add lit­tle sen­sors, like a ther­mis­tor

He likes stu­dents to be able to use and prob­lem-solve “real-world stuff”

for tem­per­a­ture; light-read­ing sen­sors; mois­ture, touch, sound, move­ment, hu­mid­ity, and wa­ter-level gauges; or re­sis­tance sen­sors. “You’ve then got many op­tions,” he says.

An­drew says that kids can work on their own bread­board and add rel­e­vant parts and play ‘what if?’ with wire po­si­tions and sim­ple changes to lines of code.

Th­ese op­tions de­velop concepts of data cap­ture, stor­age, down­load­ing to Mi­crosoft Ex­cel spread­sheets, or send­ing the in­for­ma­tion wire­lessly for cap­ture.

He says that this is great for the pen­guin mon­i­tor­ing, which school kids re­ally en­joy, and it also has many other pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“Sen­sors can also be put into wildlife­track­ing tun­nels to mea­sure preda­tors rather than phys­i­cally hav­ing to check them,” he ex­plains.

Soil mois­ture can be mea­sured re­motely or wa­ter lev­els mon­i­tored. This is done to­day com­mer­cially but now schools can af­ford gear for pupils to work with.

The tech­nol­ogy can also be used for fun. An­drew teaches how to make robots, in­ter­ac­tive LED, and ki­netic art­works.

The mi­cro­con­troller chips can op­er­ate a ro­bot, and you can use items as di­verse as elec­tric-tooth­brush mo­tors to make it move.

“There’s now so much state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy avail­able for mi­cro­elec­tron­ics from the UK, or any­where on the in­ter­net,” An­drew tells us.

“You used to get a good range of the ba­sic com­po­nents from Dick Smith shops, but they’ve gone. How­ever, there is still Jay­car, Sur­plus­tron­ics, and sev­eral ed­u­ca­tion whole­salers.”

The mar­ket is chang­ing and there’s a lot more gear avail­able on­line th­ese days

An­drew has many roles

An­drew works with Zealan­dia (Welling­ton) and Ro­tokare (Taranaki) wildlife re­serves. He helped a year-13 stu­dent put to­gether a sys­tem at a Dunedin sanc­tu­ary to send sig­nals out if gates were left open.

He also worked with Welling­ton stu­dents on a sys­tem to pho­to­graph bats with an in­frared beam and ul­tra­sound sen­sors that trig­gered a cam­era.

He works with Cu­ri­ous Minds, a govern­ment ini­tia­tive that en­cour­ages and sup­ports New Zealan­ders to ask ques­tions, solve lo­cal prob­lems, and uncover in­no­va­tive sci­ence and

He also works with Cu­ri­ous Minds, a govern­ment ini­tia­tive that en­cour­ages and sup­ports New Zealan­ders to ask ques­tions, solve lo­cal prob­lems, and uncover in­no­va­tive sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions

tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions for a brighter fu­ture.

This year he will be work­ing with schools and Cu­ri­ous Minds tech­nol­ogy to de­velop a sys­tem for mon­i­tor­ing the health of streams, lakes, and ri­par­ian mar­gins on two sites in Taranaki.

They are re­motely ob­serv­ing and mea­sur­ing wa­ter lev­els, wa­ter, ground and air tem­per­a­ture, and soil mois­ture, and can send warn­ings to peo­ple if things are not right.

The shed at­ti­tude

Th­ese sys­tems in­volve Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity — the wa­ter lev­els are mea­sured with plas­tic wa­ter pipe and a length of un­der­ground elec­tric-fence ca­ble us­ing ca­pac­i­tance.

“Sim­ple also means a sen­sor typ­i­cally will run draw­ing a few amps off three AA batteries for over a year, or by some cre­ative hack­ing of a re­cy­cled $2 so­lar gar­den light,” he ex­plains. An­drew calls it his ‘Naki Me­ter’. “You can pay up to four fig­ures for a com­mer­cial set-up or use a home-made sys­tem for a frac­tion of that. It’s much more an in­vest­ment of time, as well as learn­ing cre­ative mak­ing, cod­ing, test­ing, and [the] cal­i­bra­tion process. There’s great au­then­tic, deep learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he says.

An­drew gives hands-on ‘shed talks’ to groups of stu­dents at schools or to those vis­it­ing his Uni­ver­sity of Shed.

“There’s so much new tech­nol­ogy around, and I re­ally en­joy ex­plor­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and pass­ing it on,” he says.

A sec­tion of un­der­ground elec­tric-fence ca­ble — a cheaper way to mea­sure wa­ter lev­els

Be­low: A se­lec­tion of some of the sen­sors and com­po­nents avail­able for ex­per­i­ments An­drew check­ing data on his com­puter

A Raspberry Pi com­puter, for cap­tur­ing and send­ing data

At­tach­ing the bread­board to the com­puter

At­tach­ing a sen­sor to the sold­er­less bread­board

A ba­sic bread­board set-up with LED light

The mois­ture probes at­tached to the bread­board

A sim­ple de­vice for mea­sur­ing ground mois­ture

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