KIDS GET A CHANCE TO GET HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE OF THE WONDERS AND POSSIBILITIES OF TECHNOLOGY
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