Jeff Ellenbogen shares his ideas on technology in education.

CMK14 – Constructing Modern Knowledge – Reflections

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Wow! Wow! Wow!

I am at the airport in Manchester, NH having just finished four amazing days of learning with peers from around the country (and the world). Constructing Modern Knowledge (www.constructingmodernknowledge.com) is a conference with very few rules and very little structure, and frankly isn’t really a conference. It’s more of a week-long MakerFaire workshop.

The conference starts with a brief introduction and then a prompt. “What do you want to make?”. Lists were created around the giant warehouse sized “un-conference room”. Ideas like — “I want to build…” a talking plant, an interactive Bellagio-style water fountain, automated chicken coop, art/data visualizations, animatronic animals, interactive musical environments, and many, many more. Attendees were asked to write their name under any of the suggested ideas that they might want to take part in. We all wandered around the room looking at the crazy ideas presented by the group, trying to decide which idea to try. Then we took a step back, and they asked one person under each idea to commit to at least starting the idea as a “beacon” for others to join.

It was go-time, we had to choose to start somewhere.  I chose to try the Las Vegas-inspired, interactive water exhibit. 8 of us found a place in one of the side rooms of the hotel and started gather materials from the ridiculous assortment of Arduino, MakeyMakey, Hummingbird, LilyPad and other micro controllers, servos, LEDs, wires, batteries, Little Bits, in addition to lots of arts and crafts supplies. We didn’t spend long discussing how we were going to get started. We just did. Some people began playing with a windshield wiper reservoir and pump, trying to figure how they could use it to spray water in fantastical ways.  Others investigated controlling servos with Arduino so they could potentially make tubes move back-and-forth to spray the water. I found an Arduino add-on called a Pixy which is a small camera mounted to a circuit board with that can track and identify objects based on their hue. My challenge was to take the raw data collected from the Pixy and use it to adjust the servos’ rotation, thus spraying the water in various directions.IMG_5687

The Pixy gave us access to x and y coordinates of the object and a signature based on the objects’ hue.  We “taught” the Pixy to identify different color balloons.  Using the pixy data we eventually got our Arduino to rotate the servos based on the current location of the balloon in front of our display thus spraying water in the direction of the balloon and to light up matching LEDs based on the color of the balloon. Red balloon = red LEDs, yellow balloon = yellow LEDs, green balloon = green LEDs, and blue balloon = a pre-programmed light show of all three colors of LEDs.

As the week progressed, our group added more and more features to our interactive water display.  We eventually built a wireless controller to turn on and off our water pump which needed A/C current coming from a wall plug.  We used LittleBits wireless transmitter and receiver modules to achieve our goal. (http://littlebits.cc/bits/wireless-transmitter and http://littlebits.cc/bits/wireless-receiver).


I enjoyed the organic, leaderless nature of our group. People investigates ideas that interested them and brought their discoveries to the group. Ideas bounced around and some of them landed in the final project. We constantly tweaked our code to add new features. Some ideas failed. We tried combining all of the components from two separate Arduino projects ; one running a LCD with a “Welcome to ManchVegas” slogan and another controlling the servos and lights.  The challenge we faced was that the two projects used some of the same digital pins on the Arduino boards. We tried altering the ports being used and rewired the whole project onto on board.  After lots of testing and revisions, we couldn’t get it all to work. We adjusted after it didn’t work and separated the two parts into distinct parts again.  It didn’t feel like a failure. It felt like we pushed our understanding and tried something hard. Putting it back together was hard too.

On the final day, we added the final touches to our project, calibrated the Pixy to the final location of our display, filled our pump with plenty of water and got ready to share our work with the rest of the group at the CMK MakerFaire.  The group split up with some of us demoing our work for other while the rest of the group checked out the inspiring work of the rest of the groups.

Here’s a link to our final ManchVegas Interactive Water Display.




CMK provided the time, space, and resources to inspire over 180 educators to push their understanding of what it means to learn.  We weren’t given an assignment. We were asked what we wanted to make and we set out to try to do it. What an empowering way to learn!

I hope to be back to CMK next year and if I have it my way, I’ll be bringing as many colleagues as I can.

Check out these CMK resources….



Links to speakers from CMK14…

Pete Nelson – Master Treehouse Builder
Pete gave an inspiring talk about finding one’s niche in the world and developing a career based on following our passion. He was a warm, positive, and enthusiastic speaker who seemed to be inspired to be talking to us about getting students excited about discovering passions and talents of their own.




Cam Perron – Tulane student researching Negro League baseball players

Cam is now a 19 year old business major at Tulane. He told us about how his desire to collect baseball memorabilia led him to discover the negro baseball leagues from the 1930s – 1960s.  He decided to try to find players who had receive very little recognition and has since found over 120 players and organize reunions for these player to come together each year in Birmingham, AL. He has also helped many players get pensions from MLB by researching the players and proving they played at least 4 seasons in these leagues. His story was originally documented on HBO’s Real Sports.




One thought on “CMK14 – Constructing Modern Knowledge – Reflections

  1. Pingback: Reflections on CMK 2014

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