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Introduction. (15th January 2011)

It appears that all projects have to have a name, so I finally decided to call this one  "Magic". 

"Magic" was a buzz word that originated in the 1950's and meant 'different, weird, interesting, or not understood'.  At first glance, this project is going to appear to be all of those things.  In perspective, Magic is only one of 64 different projects and another of them is the harvesting of solar energy. The solar energy  project was really my first priority, but it was evident that microprocessors would be required to support it, and thus  Magic appeared first. The overall concept developed from a study I did,  into redirecting wayward children and I recently decided to have a second look at the project, hence this article.

What is a microprocessor ?. The simple explanation, is that it is a complete computer, on a single integrated circuit, or 'chip'. The type of microprocessor I decided to base this course on is the very popular PIC,  manufactured by Microchip. Historically, the  microprocessor course exists in three forms. The first was a 50 module course based on the free version of the Proton Lite BASIC compiler and a development board based on the 16F877 PIC microprocessor.  

Computers do not use English, instead they use a rather difficult to understand language made up of 0's and 1's. So we use a program that will 'translate' the programs we write in simple English, into a form that the computer can work with. We call the translation program a COMPILER.  To reduce costs I originally used the free version of Crownhill's Proton Lite compiler.



The first 40 pin 16F877  training board, plus an 18 pin adaptor for smaller PIC's (There is a 40 pin IC socket under it). The item to the rear is a serial  RS232 programming adaptor. The item to the right is a two line, sixteen character Liquid Crystal Display (LCD).  A variety of switches and LED's were included on this board, that could be jumpered over to the PIC. To do this requires a certain amount of electronic knowledge but would be suitable for ten year old's and above. 


The move to Picaxe.

When tested with children, it was found that they quickly exceeded the 50 line limitation of Proton Lite and I decided I would have to move to the Picaxe Editor, which was free and without line limitations. So I then created a 50 module course based on the Picaxe Editor compiler, with new hardware. By this time I had come to the conclusion that, children would want to continue their new hobby outside of school hours and looked at the problem of making a complete kit of software, hardware and the course available to children, parents, pensioners and schools for under the 'magic' figure of 10.

Research had already shown that it was possible to sit an eight year old child in front of a keyboard and they could write working programs within minutes. So the next step was to develop hardware that did not require the child to have any knowledge of electricity, mathematics, electronics or physics. My logic was that if this was possible then there was no reason why eight year old children, could not easily learn to program microprocessors. I decided to break the task down into two age groups that related to junior and secondary school pupils.


The 10 kit for the 'Junior' board using the Picaxe Editor software.


The 2.50 serial LCD developed for the course, with the junior board running the traffic light program. The strip of LED's is 'plug in' and removable.



Single board concept and the move to Amicus.

For the secondary school pupils, I decided the the 'Senior' hardware had to be capable of taking a child up to and beyond 'A' level. However testing children revealed a problem and that was that an 'interested' eight year old child had the ability to complete all 50 junior modules in much less than a year. I then introduced three 'braking' systems into the course, but it was evident that one had to be very careful in applying the brakes on a child's progress, so as not to cause them to be bored, resentful and lose interest in the subject. The question was, if a child proved by examination that they had fully absorbed the content of a module, could they be allowed to move onto the next module, irregardless of the speed of their progress ?. So a 'virtual' automatic examination system was introduced to test the child at the end of each module. Up to this point teachers were not required to be involved, so that it did not add to their workload (sob!). . It was also realised that a child could very quickly advance to the point where an average teacher could not have a 'useful' involvement, because the child's specialist knowledge would be in advance of their own.

Obviously some children would advance more quickly than others, but in many ways this would be of advantage to the school. If we consider starting a class of 40 children, we would need 40 complete sets of hardware.  If we allow children to progress at their own rate, then it considerably reduces the capital cost of the hardware required. This allows a single set of hardware to service many children. 


Some of the sensor and prime mover boards designed for use with the project.


I was basically asking myself, if a child completes the junior course whilst still in junior school, would it be permissible to allow them to start on the senior course ?. I am a SEA under STEMPOINT and my task is to get children interested in STEM subjects at a much earlier age and with that in mind, my answer would be YES !. However, it does mean that the senior hardware must not require any knowledge of electricity, mathematics, electronics or physics, because for a junior school pupil those subjects will not be taught until the child is much older. I think at this stage one has to understand the prime objectives. First to get young children interested in STEM subjects at an early age. Next it is important to understand that this course only teaches children how to program microcontrollers. The only reason we can do that is because it does not conflict with existing curriculums. Yes, it is true that in the process of doing the course they will pick up a lot of other technical knowledge and may become interested in other STEM subjects, but that is simply a peripheral benefit. 

On the other hand the senior hardware must be advanced enough to challenge children in the 12 - 18 year old group, right up to university level, using all known electronic devices.  I have come to the conclusion that it is possible to use only one training board for both junior and senior levels, that will be suitable to take a child from the age of eight, up to and beyond A level. The same board can be used in applications such as autonomous ROBOT's, and other advanced machines. 


The latest Training set using the 18F25K22 microprocessor..


It will be using a 64 Mhz 18F25K22 PIC with 32K of RAM. This microprocessor is so new that it did not go into production until December 2010. It is designed to meet all of the requirements of both the junior and senior courses. Again it has to meet the 10 limitation, for the complete kit including programming cable and battery box. The 18F25K22 was chosen to allow the Amicus compiler to be used with it. Amicus is a single PIC type compiler which is the free version of the professional Proton compiler. Originally the Amicus compiler only worked with the 3.3 volt 18F25K20 microprocessor, which was not suitable for introduction into schools.  Eventually a group of us managed to talk Crownhill into adding the  5 volt 18F25K22 microprocessor, to the free Amicus compiler. This was a quantum leap forward in many ways, as it basically means that a young child can learn and use the same compiler and same training board, up to and including university level. That combination has  produced the best compiler working with a microprocessor that worked like greased lightning !.  We are now equipped to challenge the future.

The Serial LCD.


The above board looks simple because most of the powerful functions on the board and in the compiler are deliberately hidden until the child needs to use a new  one. For example, you do not see a Liquid Crystal display because one is not required until lesson 3, when a  two line, 16 character LCD becomes a permanent addition to the board.  Gradually introducing new functions as required , prevents the child becoming overwhelmed with large amounts of new information. It also spreads the expense for the child, for example if the child wants to buy an LCD he has two weeks to save up the 2.50 to buy it (a serial LCD would normally cost about 14 commercially).

The change to the Amicus compiler and the 18F25K22 microprocessor means a lot of work concerning course material , software and hardware. The new training board is now complete and other material completed up to lesson 7.  The work is on going.


Induction courses.

A one hour induction course is given to each child (plus one parent, or teacher), which will teach them everything they need to know before they start the course. This is very low level stuff, for example what compilers are, pull up's and downs, pin out identities and learning the layout of the training board. This is mainly done with hands on experience and PowerPoint presentations.  During a second hour the child (plus one parent/teacher ) completes lesson one while supervised. After that they are issued with lesson 2 and off they go !.  Each lesson has illustrated setting up information and all the steps are documented, so that no other material is required.  To overcome teachers objections to an additional subject and workload, the course can work without their involvement.


Teaching children microprocessor programming.

I recently received an email from a primary school teacher asking if the project would be suitable for her class.  I had to say no, because at that time I believed that a child needed to be able to read and write, in order to do the course; plus  most 5 year olds have no keyboard skill's either. When I started to think about this, I realised that a five  year old already knew enough compiler 'commands' to begin creating a working program, without being taught anything at all !.  

When writing programs we use 'commands' which are words that we understand. For example to write a program to make an LED light flash on and off we need to use the commands ... HIGH, LOW, WAIT and GO TO. Now carefully consider these words and whether a five year old child understands what they mean ?.  I tried it on a four year old and he showed me exactly what each word meant with his hands !. It is a fact that an 8 year old child already understands those commands / words and can use them logically.  

Next, let's get really ridiculous and ask if an 8 year old child could write a program to control a set of traffic light's ?.  The answer is YES. First you put them in front of a real traffic light and ask them to write down the colour sequence. Writing a program to simulate the operation of an automatic traffic light system, may sound terribly complicated and way beyond the ability of most adults and totally impossible for children ... but they can do it!.  Would it change your mind if I told you that the commands required to write that program are ... HIGH, LOW, WAIT and GOTO , exactly the same as we used to write the flashing LED program. 

Does a child know what the word IF means ?. Ie.  If I speak THEN put your hand up !. Does a 5 year old know what AND and OR mean ?. Ie take this apple AND that pear. Or, take this apple OR that pear. Suddenly we are into Boolean algebra !. Now if you asked an adult whether a five year old child knew anything about conditional operators, or Boolean algebra ... they would laugh at you !.  

Children are capable of doing remarkable things ... but are not allowed to achieve their full potential at any age.  Living in a single world is difficult enough for most adults,  so why do we try and force children to live in two worlds, that are completely different, and conflict with each other?. 


The two worlds of the Child.

Young children think laterally and the experts tell me that lateral thinking is essential for creativity. Very young children question everything and  come up with some pretty creative thinking and concepts. The very people who are supposed to love the child more than anyone else, the parents, are usually the first to begin a brain washing process and every adult influence from that moment on is to force the child from being a 'lateral' thinker to a 'vertical' thinker, thus stifling creativity and freedom of thought. 

So how do these terms 'lateral' and 'vertical' come about ?.  The term vertical comes from the fact that the adult world is vertically structured.  The family group is vertically structured with the parents at the top, followed by the children in descending order. 

Next, children are sent to school which is vertically structured, the oldest children at the top and the youngest at the bottom. On the top of this vertical structure are the teachers, with the head master at the very top and this continues until adulthood. Between the youngest child and the headmaster there is a definite pecking order, which the system maintains at all levels.

If you join the services, such as the army, it too is vertically structured and has a rigid pecking order defined by rank. Rank acts as a sort of blinker, ie you can look up a level and look down a level, but that is as far as you have any influence. Privates are positively discouraged from having brilliant ideas, that generals should have thought up. 

If you go into industry, it too is vertically structured, with a boss at the top and a peasant at the bottom. Again, creativity beyond a single level is frowned upon as 'rocking the boat' or 'we have no room for prima donnas here' etc.. It takes a very bold, or very foolish person to try and jump the pecking order and point out to the bosses any serious deficiency within a company, so the wise stay silent. 

The government is also vertically structured, at least until I get time to organise a revolution!.

The rabbit hole concept.  Creativity is required to solve problems. World problems only exist because the vertical world has failed to solve them. If the vertical world failed to solve them with vertical thinking, perhaps we need to reconsider the problems using lateral thought. If I were forced to define 'lateral thinking', I would probably say it is thinking without any restraint. Obviously to think laterally we have to forget all of the restraints imposed in the vertical world, at least for a short time while we solve problems. Then having solved them we then have to go back into the vertical world to implement them.  I often use the Alice in wonderland idea to illustrate this to students. To get into the class room they came through 'that' door. On the other side of 'that' door is the rigid vertical world and the door is really the rabbit hole, that we use to escape to the wonderland of lateral thinking, where there are no restraints. 

In reality, we  have to learn live with a foot in  both worlds, in order to be creative and survive.  That is not an easy thing for a child to cope with. The easy way out for the child is to stay vertically 'tuned' because it is easier and safer for them to do so. The child may not like the situation, but the world is ruled by vertical adults, so even if the child saw a better way, it could not influence things one way or the other ... and thus the child becomes ambivalent, which is a state of mind brought about by two irreconcilable differences. If a child makes the statement, "Whatever" ...  he is referring to your failure, not his!. A child's attitude and behaviour is both your reward and your punishment !.


Motivation of the child.

Generally speaking, children are not interested in STEM subjects, because they regard them as being 'boring and difficult'. This attitude has left UK with an acute shortage of potential scientists, who can tackle the problems that face UK over the next decade. Over 40% of people in technical training in UK are foreigners. In a recent UNESCO survey Britain came bottom of the 22 leading industrialised nations, in preparing and educating children. Since then, Estonia and Latvia have also overtaken UK, in the world's educational league tables !.  Everyone seeks to blame everyone else for this failure, but no-one has any solutions !. 

The number one motivator for children, happens to be exactly the same as for adults, any idea what it could be ?. If you ask a child what they want to do when they grow up, a lot of them couldn't answer the question immediately. They have been suppressed for most of their lives and seem to have little control over their future so what is the point of worrying about it ?. If you dig a bit deeper, many of them don't want to do anything, except gets lot's of money ... for doing nothing ... like becoming a celebrity. It is very difficult to knock this attitude because it is exactly what the Harvard School of Business teach. They ask new students what they want to do to earn money and the correct answer is ... nothing!. After pointing out that we live in a pragmatic world, they are asked to rethink ... and the best answer is ... as little as possible !. Strangely enough, money is not at the top of the human motivators list, so what is happening here ?.  I think the word 'celebrity' is the clue, because young people see it as one way of getting what they really need and want in life and that is simply ..... recognition !. Recognition that they exist, recognition that they have worth and recognition that they are a person in their own right. Recognition is the top motivator for both adults and children. It therefore follows that is we want to get children interested in STEM subjects, there must be recognition in it for them. Taking that to the extreme, we need to use a child's involvement in science, as a way of making the child a real celebrity. Yes I am talking about real articles in newspapers, TV and radio appearances ... the whole thing.  What would capture the interest of the media would be the child doing the impossible !.  This 'impossible task' concept, has been built into the course from the very beginning. 


An example of an 'Impossible' Task.

Magic. They tell me that hot air rises, is that true ?.

8 year old. Yes, that's how hot air balloons work !.

Magic. That's  interesting, so if I heat some air up in this room, where does it go ?.

8 year old. Up to the ceiling I suppose.

Magic. Then where does it go ?.

8 year old. Well some of it leaks through the ceiling.

Magic. And warms the world up ?.

8 year old. I suppose it does.

Magic. Hmmmmm doesn't sound right to me !.

8 year old. Why not ?.

Magic. Well you are telling me that we spend all that money heating up the air in the room and the hot air goes up there !.

8 year old. Yes !

Magic. But we are down here !. All that hot air up there is being wasted !.

8 year old. Yes !.

Magic. You know what that means ?.

8 year old. No !

Magic. That means that every central heating system in the world is .....

8 year old. ...... upside down ?.

Magic. Right !. Hey ....  do you know how much hotter it is up there than down here in this room ?.

8 year old. No, but you are about to tell me ......

Magic. No I am not, here is an electronic thermometer, I want you to measure the difference between the floor and ceiling temperatures every hour for 24    hours and then come back and tell me what you found !. Then I want you to invent something that will get all that wasted hot air at the ceiling, down here to warm up my feet !


Note . UK power companies claim that if we can lower the thermostat setting by one degree it will save 10% off the heating bill. If you can lower the setting of the thermostat by two degree's then it will reduce the bill by 20%. Of course we need to still have the same level of perceived warmth. If you asked a child to invent something to get that hot air at the ceiling down to floor level again, how much do you think you could save ?.

One winter the clock above my desk said that the room temperature was 21 C, but my feet were freezing. So I used an electronic temperature gauge calibrated to 0.5% and measured the temperature gradient in the room. Depending on the time of day, and where we were in the heating cycle, I measured 3 degrees differential .... at another time I measured 5 degree's and first thing in the morning I measured 8 degrees differential between floor and ceiling. I have ten inches of insulation above that room .

It costs 68 pence to run a small computer type fan for one year. If we used the fan and a cardboard tube, sucked the hot air from the ceiling and pumped it out at floor level ..... what would be the total savings for your countries power bill ?.  An apparently impossible task for anyone, let alone a child, but with lateral thought, one that can be solved. The solution would also be newsworthy, because it not everyone who can come up with an idea that would save the country billions of pounds on the national power bill. Remember that UK is a net importer of every kind of energy !. 


Virtual Tutors and Examiners.

To make this kind of project at all acceptable to teachers, it must not involve any additional workload for them. Also it must not require them to have any specialist knowledge in the subject.  To make this possible, the hardware and software required for each module must be able to work itself, and not require any adult assistance. Within any group, assistance will be required by some, but that can be provided by child peers, already excelling in the same subject.

It is proposed to create an online virtual examiner.  The idea is that when a child has completed a module, they can elect to sit a closed book, short multi-choice test, set by the virtual examiner, from a national random question data base. If the child passes, a credit is awarded for that module and the virtual examiner notifies the virtual tutor to issue the next module to the student by email. Special arrangements can be made in the case of religious sects that do not allow children access to the internet etc.. I have simplified the explanation of this, but safeguards are built in to prevent impersonation and cheating.


Project Support Groups.

When talking to professionals it was generally thought that parents were partly (or solely) to blame for the bad behaviour of children, particularly where inter-family relationships had broken down. It was generally accepted that it could only be beneficial to involve the child's immediate family, in the child's activities. It was realised at an early stage that when a child became interested in this subject, they would also want to pursue the subject out of school hours and to this end buy their own set of hardware. The first problem was that the complete set of hardware had to be affordable and I set the total cost at not more than 10, to bring it into the pocket money bracket. One method of reducing cost was to supply kits of components and then get the Project Support Group to assemble them, as that would also bring people together. The assembled training board, complete with battery pack and programming cable, would be enough to get the child started on the first few lessons, which only required a few LED's as extra components. The project support group could also act as facilitators for senior projects, material procurement, provisioners of specialist skills etc..

The course covers all common transducers, sensors and prime movers, including ROBOT vision and working flying saucer detectors and loggers. Most of these additional components are mounted on small plug in PCB's. As each PCB would be required for only that single lesson, I felt that was not economically viable for the child to actually purchase these PCB's. Instead a complete set of these PCB's would be purchased by the school, held in the school library and issued out on loan for 24 hours in the same way as books. Doing it this way incurs no additional financial burden on the child or the parent. However if a child wanted, for example,  to buy a pair of plug in LED's then these could be made by the support group and sold in the schools shop / library.

There was also the possibility that a school might want to make their own printed circuit boards, which are normally made using a photographic method, which is quite slow.  I spoke to several professional printers and we came to the conclusion that it would be possible to screen print the pad and track acid resist onto the bare copper clad board. To do this the Printed circuit board has to be single sided, so all of the PCB's I have designed for the course including the training board are capable of being screen printed in this way, before being etched.  


The end result.

Originally I started this project as a way to re-direct wayward children, particularly the extreme cases, where torture and mutilation was involved. The question in my mind was ...  could anything be done to stop this happening ?. The clues really come from the young perpetrators of the crimes, who when asked why they did a certain thing, would reply ...."We were bored and did not have anything to do".  If we can believe that, then one solution would be to keep them fully occupied by giving them interesting things to do, particularly personal challenges.  By accepting these challenges and meeting them, it not only keeps the child occupied, but enhances their own level of self esteem,  and  also brings recognition from their parents, social authorities and their peers. In effect they get rewarded for doing 'The Right Thing'. By doing the 'Wrong Thing' they are denied those rewards. 

By the time the child has completed all 50 modules, they will be in a position to build and program their own autonomous machines such as ROBOT's. Each module is in effect a building block, that combined with others, can be used to create  real solutions, for real world problems. 

During the course each child may be presented with one or more of the 'impossible tasks', which will all be based on real world problems, some like the conservation of energy, are of national importance.

The child gets the recognition it earns.  

On the successful completion of the course, the child will be presented with a certificate of competence in microprocessor programming, which would give them a jump start at technical job interviews.

Children become their own role models.

The world gets a second chance !


End. 25th January 2011. All rights reserved. John Kent.