The $65 DIY robot that moves like a bug
September 5th, 2013
03:30 PM ET

The $65 DIY robot that moves like a bug

By Heather Kelly, CNN

For a tiny bug-shaped robot made of cardboard and plastic, Dash is surprisingly advanced.

The new $65 DIY programmable robot is built for tinkering. It comes with a gyroscope, visible light and infrared sensors, and an iOS app for controlling it over Bluetooth 4.  The Arduino-compatible bots also have LED lights and additional ports for expanding and hacking the Dash.

You can program in your own behaviors, making the robots move in patterns or follow walls. They can operate as a swarm and cooperate, or set off on individual tasks. Add in touch sensors and turn two peace-loving Dash robots into battlebots that fight each other and keep score on their multi-colored LEDs.

"Our goal is to get a robot into everyone's hands because we think they're great educational tools," said Nick Kohut, one of the founders of Dash Robotics.

Conveniently, Dash will fit right into in the palms of those hands. It has six legs, weighs about half an ounce, and its killer feature is being able to move quickly over various kinds of terrain. It can cover five to six feet a second and is able to cross sand, concrete and other surfaces.

FULL POST


Filed under: Crowdsourcing • Design • Education • Innovation • Robots • Tech • The Next List
July 12th, 2013
07:47 PM ET

Creating a school for autistic adults, one student at a time

Editors Note: Dan Selec is the founder and CEO of the nonPareil Institute, a hybrid software company and school located in Plano, Texas that teaches adults on the autism spectrum to write and develop apps, video games and iBooks. Watch his full profile this Saturday at 2:30p ET on “The Next List.”

By Dan Selec, Special to CNN

"You’re doing what?" asked my wife, ”Starting a new company," I said. “Not in my den you’re not,” she replied as she took in the PCs, monitors and chairs that now filled the room. “But you can have the kitchen.”

And so it began. I started the nonPareil Institute to provide technical training to adults on the autism spectrum. The idea was to mentor them to work in teams, and teach them to produce products that we could take to market. The ultimate goal is to build living campuses where my son, and others like him who are on the autism spectrum, can live fulfilling lives doing what they love.

The core issue I noticed was that there were many programs for spectrum kids, but there weren’t a lot of choices for adults after high school. That when they should begin the most productive times of their lives, but instead the group is plagued by very low employment rates, depression and isolation. After looking at the statistics, I knew it was time to get off the bench and make some new life choices.

We formed the foundations of how to accomplish the organization's goals during those early months in our home. The next year and a half was a blur of holding down a very busy full-time job, and training two students each night for two hours, five nights a week. It was the most exhausting period of my life. My eternal thanks goes to a spouse who tolerated so much activity in and out of our home for so long. As she now says, “It was just our new norm.”

Once the nonPareil Institute moved to a new full-time facility, we talked about how much we would miss the day-to-day routine in our home. It’s funny, I think everyone really missed the kitchen and the nightly bustle of our regular home life. We were one big happy family.

This is a core element I wanted to bring to the campus, where we now have 125 people, called crew members  learning and working. Forget technology. It is important to put the human element first, especially with a group of young people who are struggling to find their way in life, much less while also dealing with autism spectrum issues.

I spent much time mentoring, consoling and sometimes even praying with this early group, as they did their best to cope with the world they faced each day. The first nine crew members proved it was a good idea because they were learning and their lives were better as a result of the time we spent together.

Any parent who has a child with a disability walks around with the same question in their mind: "What happens to my child when I'm gone?"

At nonPareil Institute, we focus on three areas that will answer that question: Train, work and live. We provide technology training to adults on the autism spectrum. We mentor them into becoming functioning members of our working product teams. They build products and release them to the market (we have six apps in the App Store now). With parental, donor and product support, our crew members can live on campuses that are built to meet their needs for a lifetime.

Seeing how most of our crew does not drive, the campus environment solves the transportation issues we struggle with today. Building a community around my child that knows who he is, and lets him work on projects he loves, will allow my child to live a safe, productive and fulfilling life.

It turns out, there are quite a few other families who feel the same way. Simply responding to the massive influx of “requests for information” is an overwhelming and full-time job for several people.

At nonPareil, there is not a lot of theory. What is practical, what moves us forward, and what works are all that counts. We are, at our very core, a working software company. Yes, we do provide training in tools and technology, but the bigger part is helping individuals become functioning members of professional software teams.

For our donors, this is the most compelling kind of gift to give; a gift that, over time, allows an individual on the autism spectrum to no longer need outside support. We provide community and satisfaction for our crew, now at 125 strong. They are seeing real results for their efforts, which will allow them to contribute to their own success.

Ultimately, nonPareil is more a mission of love than technology, and it has to be a solution for the lifetime of our children. This is the one central objective that all of us as parents remain focused on: providing a lifetime answer for our kids.

Next time you bust out your mobile phone, head to the store and search for “npi” to buy an app from nonPareil Institute. Our crew will thank you.


Filed under: Education • entrepreneurs • Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers • TV • Video
May 17th, 2013
01:41 PM ET

Stanford's unique approach to teaching problem solving

Editor's Note: Jim Patell's full 30-minute profile will air on CNN's "The Next List" Saturday, May 18th, at 2:30 P.M. ET.

By James M. Patell, Special to CNN

Last week, at the invitation of my niece Alexis, I video chatted with a sixth grade class in the South Jefferson Middle School about a unique course I teach. Design for Extreme Affordability is a graduate-level course at Stanford in which interdisciplinary teams design new products and services, together with the associated implementation plans, for the world’s poor.

The class, offered jointly by the Graduate School of Business and the Mechanical Engineering Department, is now finishing its tenth year; by this June, we will have completed 90 projects with 27 partners in 18 countries. Cumulatively, these projects were conducted by 365 students from 27 programs across Stanford, including all seven schools: Business, Earth Sciences, Education, Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, Law, and Medicine.

One thing the middle schoolers wanted to know was why we had chosen to mix students from various fields to work on the projects instead of limiting it to just engineers.

They aren't the first to wonder. Conducting a truly interdisciplinary course is challenging for the instructors and for the students. The various schools have different grading systems, different registration systems and so on. Even the simple logistics of finding a class time-slot is difficult, because each department has its own norms that dictate which times of which days are reserved for required courses and other mandatory tasks. Why bother?

Having fresh eyes and child-like curiosity is important. Seeing the world through different lenses also is important. Our engineering students recognize systems of forces and flows, while our business students see intersecting webs of potential consumers and producers. Medical students envision vectors of transmission for disease or treatment, while our international policy students identify competing interest groups. The different frameworks that they use to model causal relationships, and the different “mental filing systems" and vocabularies they use to store and express their impressions, allow us to gain “3-D empathy” for our users, before we conduct the first brainstorm or build the first prototype.

One of the founding tenets of the d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) is human-centered design. Rather than beginning with shiny new technology, we start by trying to establish deep, personal empathy with our users to determine their needs and wants. We must fill in two blanks: Our users need a better way to ___ BECAUSE ___. The because portion is a big deal.

We are working across cultures, across geographies, across political systems and across myriad differences in the contexts of daily life. The hardest lesson for designers to remember is that we are not designing for ourselves. We must listen carefully and we must watch carefully. We must ask polite but probing questions about those elements of our users’ lives that strike us as "curious.”

We cannot assume we understand their preferences. We cannot assume that they can articulate those preferences in terms we will understand. We cannot assume that our users will emphasize elements that are so deeply ingrained in their daily existence that, from their perspective, "go without saying." And we cannot assume that they are aware of the full menu of possibilities from which they could be choosing new ways of doing and living.

Getting interdisciplinary teams to work well is not easy. We try to model the behavior we need in the teaching team, which consists of a business school professor, a mechanical engineering professor, a business entrepreneur, a practicing clinical psychologist and a recent graduate of the medical school.

I am the Business School representative. My colleague Professor David Beach is a revered teacher in mechanical engineering and the patriarch of the Product Realization Laboratory - the "machine shop" in which our teams' physical prototypes become real. Mr. Stuart Coulson is a high-tech serial entrepreneur who founded and sold two companies before volunteering to join the teaching team five years ago.

Dr. Julian Gorodsky has been a psychological counselor to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and companies for several decades, and previously served as a field assessment psychologist for Peace Corps trainee groups. Dr. David Janka took the course as a fourth-year medical student two years ago, and then joined the teaching team as a design fellow, the sixth Design for Extreme Affordability alum to do so. Ms. Joan Dorsey and now Ms. Rita Lonhart have been the coordinators who keep the course on an even keel.

As with the students, even finding a time we all can meet is a challenge, but we have come to appreciate the different perspective that each member brings in selecting course partners, deciding which students to admit, determining where we need to up our game as teachers, and especially in counseling teams who are struggling.

We have a straightforward mission statement: every student deserves a great educational experience, and every course partner deserves a great new product or service. We are convinced that interdisciplinary teams, of both students and instructors, give us a better shot at achieving those goals.


Filed under: Design • Education • entrepreneurs • Social change • The Next List
May 14th, 2013
10:42 AM ET

Addressing tough poverty problems with innovation and design

Editor's Note: Jim Patell's full 30-minute profile will air on CNN's "The Next List" Saturday, May 18th, at 2:30 P.M. ET.

Few people in our lives are as influential or important as teachers. The truly great ones not only educate their students, they infuse them with excitement and inspire them to make an impact on the world.

Jim Patell is one of those teachers. For the past 10 years, he has given his students a unique opportunity to learn real-world skills and use them to improve the lives of the desperately poor.

Patell is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is also the founder and driving force behind a groundbreaking graduate course called Design for Extreme Affordability. The course, offered at Stanford’s d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), is part education, part adventure and part entrepreneurship.

Over two semesters, Patell and his team challenge the students to design low-cost products that can solve tough problems in the developing world. Forty students from across Stanford’s schools - engineering, medical, business and others - pair up with global partners who have concrete projects to tackle. The goal is to deliver nuts and bolts solutions, a way to implement them, and the means to sustain them over the long haul.

“We’re asking students, are you willing to take a leap of faith?” says Patell, “Are you willing to commit yourself to something for which the solution is not immediately apparent and to take a shot, to give it the best you’ve got.”

So far, the "Extreme" students, as they are known, have taken on 90 projects with 26 partners in 18 countries, and the results have been spectacular.

Here are some of their innovations:

Embrace blanket – It’s a kind of sleeping bag for premature infants equipped with technology that helps them maintain normal body temperature for up to eight hours. The company has been in India for four years with pilot projects in nine other countries. They say they’ve saved 5,000 babies so far.

d.light solar lanterns – These lanterns replace kerosene and candle light in villages with no electricity. D.light’s president says the product has “enabled 10 million people worldwide to upgrade from kerosene lamps to solar lighting.”

AdaptAir – A new device to help treat childhood pneumonia. A team of Jim’s students invented an adaptor for a nasal cannula (a plastic tube for delivering oxygen) that provides a custom fit for babies and children of all sizes. Getting the right fit is critical to treating pneumonia effectively.

Over the years, Jim Patell and his team have developed a kind of formula for success - a way for his students to become what he calls creatively “accident prone.”

“It’s not, if I just squint and concentrate, that idea will come to me,” says Patell. “It’s, I don’t have that idea now. I don’t have that insight now, but I can go through a set of activities that I can execute, when I want, to enhance the probability that the great idea is going to occur.”

By gaining deep empathy with their customers, brainstorming with partners and team members, and producing many prototypes quickly, students learn what works and what doesn’t.

Ultimately, Patell says, “what the course produces is young men and women who we aspire to be able to drop down into any messy situation, have them land on their feet and make progress.”

Jim Patell and his team and his students put their hearts, souls and backs into designing "just right" solutions to enduring problems for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. He is not only helping to transform the lives of the sick and poor but giving a many of his students the experience of a lifetime.


Filed under: Education • Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
Testing touchscreen tables in classrooms
May 8th, 2013
05:28 PM ET

Testing touchscreen tables in classrooms

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Forget tiny iPads - the classrooms of the future might turn entire tables into interactive touchscreens.

Given that many children can sit rapturously before a glowing touchscreen for hours, such gadgets seem like a natural for the classroom. But as with any new teaching technology, it's important to make sure it actually helps students learn and teachers teach before getting caught up in its "cool" factor.

A recent study by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK took touchscreen tables into the classroom for some hands-on tests and found the technology (and training) still have to improve before they are fully effective. The researchers say theirs is one of the first studies of this type of technology in actual classrooms, instead of lab situations.

The tables were used in real classrooms over the course of six weeks for lessons in geography, English and history.  The five teachers involved in the study prepared the projects based on what the kids were currently learning in class. Each table was used by two to four students at a time, though the table's creators say it can hold up to six students. On the screen were a collaborative writing program and an app called Digital Mysteries, which were designed specifically for large tabletop PCs.

These types of tables are already commercially available and can be seen in the wild in locations like museums. SMART Technologies, for example, makes a table with a 42-inch, 1080p display for $7,749. The prices for these interactive tables will likely come down in the future, but they will still remain a big investment for any school district.

And before schools invest heavily in these kinds of tools, the study's authors say that more in-class research and tweaks to the software should be done.

Read CNN's education blog: Schools of Thought

A few of the issues raised were the same that come up in most group work. Some students would complete tasks faster than others, while others would lose focus and fall behind. Teachers in the study found they couldn't always tell when students were working versus just pretending to work and moving items around the screen.

Suggested improvements to the tools included more detailed progress indicators for the individual students. Researchers also recommend that the apps add more flexibility so that teachers can control, change and pause the lessons. In an old-school twist, researchers also recommended that the programs include an option for exporting kids' progress so they can print it out.

Researchers also emphasized the need for more teacher-friendly features and control over the apps, plus proper training for any educator who plans on integrating these types of tables with their regular classroom curriculum.

"To make the most use of them teachers have to make them part of the classroom activity they have planned – not make it the lesson activity,” said Dr Ahmed Kharrufa in a statement.

In other words, even the most advanced technology won't be able to replace good teachers.

[Via PhysOrg]

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Filed under: Education • Future • Innovation • Internet • Tech • The Next List
March 8th, 2013
10:57 AM ET

Making mind-controlled exoskeletons a reality

Miguel Nicolelis is a professor of neurobiology at Duke University. For more on Nicolelis and his work, watch "The Next List" this Sunday at 2:30 pm ET on CNN.

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis: “In our lifetime, we will see a paralyzed person walking the streets of New York or Sao Paulo.”

Who he is: Nicolelis is a neuroscientist and pioneer in the brain-machine interface, a technology that allows people and animals to interact with computers and other artificial devices using nothing but their thoughts. It may sound like a scene out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," but it’s happening today in the Nicolelis Lab at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering. That’s where primates spend hours each day playing video games just by thinking about them.

Why he matters: By decoding the electrical signals of the brain, then sending them to artificial devices, Nicolelis has blazed a trail in an emerging field called neuro prosthetics.   His goal: to help paralyzed people walk again. In just 18 months, he plans to “shock the world” by unveiling his mind-controlled exoskeleton - a sort of “wearable robot” - at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  There, with hundreds of millions of soccer fans looking on, a paralyzed teenager will don the exoskeleton to literally kick off the opening ceremony and, Nicolelis hopes, teach the world that science knows no bounds.

Nicolelis is not the only neuroscientist to experiment with mind-controlled prosthetics. But he insists his brain-machine interface can engage far more brain cells,  or neurons, than others have even attempted. The result is a more finely tuned prosthetic, one that sends motor commands while simultaneously receiving sensory information: touch, for example, and temperature. These are the signals that help us make sense of our world.

For that teenager at the World Cup, it means she’ll not only walk across the soccer pitch, she’ll feel every step she takes. FULL POST

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Filed under: Education • Innovation • Science • Social change • Tech • The Next List
January 11th, 2013
10:54 AM ET

Insane Membranes

Written By Heather M. Higgins, CNN
Video Edited By Nina Raja, CNN

A video of rainbow-pigmented cells opening and closing to the deep bass beats of an iconic 1990s rap hit has 2.1 million views on YouTube - all because a Michigan-based neuroscientist is using it to teach a new generation of young people about the brain.

“If you have an idea that involves the nervous system and electricity you can do that with very, very cheap parts – that’s the insight,” said Alex Wiltschko, a PhD student at Harvard University.  “So you can clip a wire onto a squid and pump in Cypress Hill into this squid’s membrane and see its colors react, see the chromatophores open and close to the music.”

The science behind this phenomenon is explained by Greg Gage, the co-founder of Backyard Brains, the company he created to democratize neuroscience education.

“The reason why it’s dancing to the music is that at that frequency, the low frequencies have long wave forms. Those long wave forms allow current to pass by, which causes an action potential, which causes the muscles inside the chromatophores to open for that brief moment of time,” Gage said.
FULL POST

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January 8th, 2013
11:18 AM ET

Greg Gage: Let's start a neuro-revolution

Editor's Note: Greg Gage is a globe-trekking neuroscientist, engineer, teacher and entrepreneur. He's the co-founder of Backyard Brains, a Michigan-based company that wants to revolutionize how science is taught by putting neuroscience in the hands of young people. Watch Greg Gage's full 30-minute profile this Sunday at 2 P.M. ET. on CNN’s “The Next List.” 

Why he matters: Gage has come up with an innovative way to inspire future generations in neuroscience. As the co-creator of Backyard Brains, Gage created the “SpikerBox,”a small DIY kit that helps young people understand the electrical impulses that control the nervous system. He brings cool hands-on experiments to schools so students can see and hear brain signals, or “spikes” from the living neurons of insects like cockroaches.

Gage is passionate about coming up with ways to change neuroscience education, because, he says “when it comes to the brain, we’re in the dark ages. One out five of us will be diagnosed with a brain disorder that still has no cures. By getting more people involved ... we can inspire those interested to become neuroscientists, and perhaps cure brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Why he cares: The inspiration for Gage's work as an educator came from a realization that the advanced equipment he used as a PhD student could be made at home for a fraction of the price, in less than a day.

"Our equipment that we were using cost $40,000," he said. "We set off on a self-imposed engineering challenge to see if we could replicate our expensive lab equipment with something affordable by consumers.”

Gage ended up with the $100 "SpikerBox. It can be used with a smartphone, iPad or computer to monitor brain activity in real time. After a few minutes, amateurs can begin to understand the basic principles of how neurons encode information, and how remarkable the brain can be.

FULL POST


Filed under: Culture • Education • Innovation • Smartphones • The Next List
January 4th, 2013
02:35 PM ET

Lino’s Lesson

Editor's Note: Jim McKelvey is an engineer, entrepreneur, artist, environmentalist, co-Founder of Square and Third Degree Glass Factory and general partner of Cultivation Capital. He is a man who embraces challenge in many forms. Tune in Sunday, January 6 at 2 P.M. E.T. to watch The Next List's full 30-minute profile on McKelvey.

By Jim McKelvey, Special to CNN

Most glassblowers agree that one man, Lino Tagliapietra, is the best.

Who’s the most skilled programmer? Who’s the most talented singer? Who’s the smartest attorney? Who knows? But in glass, we all agree that this 80-year-old Italian dude is the best in the world. Imagine what you can learn from someone who is undisputedly the best in the world.

I got to study with the “Maestro” at a time when he took only 10 students a year.

During the week I spent with Lino, every student got to ask him one question. It could be anything. Lino always knew the answer.

Your one question was a big deal. Students either asked ultra-complex technical questions or requested that Lino make the glass behave in ways nobody thought possible.

My question was elementary. I asked the world’s best glassblower how to properly center a foot on a bowl.

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DIY Africa: Empowering a new Sierra Leone
November 14th, 2012
08:36 AM ET

DIY Africa: Empowering a new Sierra Leone

Editor's note: David Sengeh is a doctoral student working at MIT’s Media Lab.

By David Sengeh, Special to CNN

(CNN) - When Kelvin Doe, a then-13-year-old from Sierra Leone, saw that off-the-shelf batteries were too expensive for the inventions he was working on, he made his own at home. Kelvin did not have the privilege to do his project in a school environment. Rather, he was compelled to act by necessity and for the joy of solving practical problems. Kelvin combined acid, soda, and metal, dumped those ingredients in a tin cup, waited for the mixture to dry and wrapped tape around the cup to make his first battery. He failed several times before completing a final, working prototype. He hasn’t purchased a battery since.

Next up: A generator. Kelvin made one of those by hacking an old rusty voltage stabilizer he found in a dustbin. The generator’s motor, plug, and other components are either homemade or picked from the garbage. In addition to providing electricity to his home, where neighbors come to charge their mobile phone batteries, the generator powers Kelvin’s homemade FM radio station, fully equipped with a custom music mixer, recycled CD player and antenna that allow his whole neighborhood to tune in. Now 16, Kelvin has expanded operations: he employs his friends as reporters and station managers, tasking them to interview spectators at local soccer games and keep the calendar of requests for his DJ services at parties and events. The average age of his crew is 12.

I am a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab working on developing the next generation of prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces. I am motivated to do this work by the needs I have seen in my country, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. At the MIT Media Lab, I have access to immense resources and expertise. But it has become apparent to me that when I take the prostheses back to Sierra Leone, the machines and technologies needed to maintain them will be left at my lab. And, as important, the recipients of the technology will not have participated in finding solutions to their problems nor shared in the joy of creation. FULL POST


Filed under: Design • Education • entrepreneurs • Future • Innovation • Robots • Social change • The Next List • World
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