Hackerspace « Hackers For Charity

Our JRobotics team visits Kampala

We are so proud of our robotics team in Jinja, Uganda! They recently visited Kampala to compete at the GISU robotics fair and show off for no less than the Senior Presidential Advisor. Here are some photos of the event, and a video showing some of the challenges the team had to overcome!

 

Our Jinja SS “J Robotics” team training for VEX Worlds

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Those of you that have been following our advanced programs in Uganda know that we’ve had a dream for a long time of getting a team into the VEX World Championships in 2017. There are many “robotics clubs” in Uganda, but they are generally reserved for wealthy kids and their programs are generally pretty lame, use old equipment and frankly the skills they use don’t translate into real-world problem solving. We wanted to be different. We’ve always wanted to get a team of typical Ugandan kids, who did not have access to expensive schools and see if we could help them along a path that was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

You guys have donated money and equipment through the years, and although it was a slow start we started training the kids from Jinja SSS in the Hackers For Charity hackerspace in Jinja Uganda and things really exploded when we were joined by the folks at Just Cause Uganda who brought in a much needed desire and skillset in STEM training.

Things are really ramping up now. According to Michelle from Just Cause:

Hi Johnny, we just submitted the Jinja SS kids first two entries into the VEX competition online for 2017 season!! This is the first time a team from Uganda has competed! Thank you for making this possible and taking a chance on these kids, on us and investing both yourself and Hackers For Charity in this effort. The kids worked so hard and loved it. We loved working with them, watching them learn and connecting the students in North America with them to collaborate and share their love of STEM. While I know it’s not perfect in terms of editing, graphics, and content I think it’s an honest reflection of the kids learning and self-taught efforts..It is something they can be proud of. Here is what they put together. I’m so proud of them and I hope you are too.

Thank you Johnny for making this dream come true for these students. This is impact! I hope this brings a smile to your face and you can picture the buzz of excitement that was everywhere from the kids during the most recent exchange as the kids unveiled this final product. Now the next steps are how do we start things in motion to get them to the physical competition in 17 months from now!

This site shows the students’ online submission video and this site is their official REC team entry page.

You can also see their official webpage here, which shows a lot more about the team, including a huge shout out for HFC.

All three of these sites were built entirely by the kids themselves! This marks a huge step for and we are so proud of them!

Thank you all for your continued donations and support. You’re making this happen for team J-Robotics in Uganda! I’ve often stressed out about how much overhead it takes to run our programs in Uganda, but this makes the effort worth it. It’s exciting to see kids taking such major strides in technology, and it’s certainly a first for Uganda.

Geeking out in Uganda!

The staff of Hackers for Charity Uganda ran an expo at Jinja Senior Secondary School! Josh received an invitation as one of the founders of the computer club and demonstrated LittleBits, Edison, Scratch programming and Microsoft Office productivity tips. It was also cool to have other fun things to do including chess, and mancala games.

Our own “J Robotics” team worked hard the night before getting ready to show of their Vex robotics program and their preparation was well worth the effort. Parents and teachers were “simply amazed” at the speed technology has advanced, and many were wide-eyed and speechless because they had never seen these kinds of things before. Everyone left “amazed at robotics”.

The “J Robotics” team and our HFC staff really did an amazing job bringing technology awareness to the community and now many students are interested in learning about technology. This is a big deal because the computer club was very small and quiet before “J Robotics” and HFC started stirring things up.

We have big plans for “J Robotics”. Their drive and passion has inspired us and we hope to get them to the Vex Worlds Robotics championships as it’s first African participants.

Thanks for all your support. You’re making this happen!

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HFC LittleBits training at Jinja Uganda Senior Secondary

We’re big fans of maker skills and robotics, and of course we’re bit fans of LittleBits as well. It offers such an easy way to get into making and inventing, and it’s accessible for kids of any age in any culture. Here are a few photos of our staff teaching the students of Jinja SS all about robotics and LittleBits.

Before I show you the photos, I wanted to show you some of the conditions these students are operating in. Take a look at the antiquated computers these students are using, and how much dust and debris is all over the place. Uganda is very dusty and it’s nearly impossible to keep things clean:

But if you look closely, you’ll see that the students and staff do their very best to keep the working computers clean. Now you see why these new “shiny” gadgets really grab their attention and inspire them!

Clean and shiny!

Clean and shiny!

Enjoy the photos, and thanks for making this possible!

The birth of the “Jinja Robotics” team at the HFC Uganda hackerspace!

We met with the robotics students from Jinja SS at Hackerspace for the first time on Monday night. After a quick orientation where we gave a tour of the facility and we went over some newly established rules that we posted for the Hackerspace, some keys to being successful with STEM projects. (We had introduced the idea of STEAM projects to the students last Saturday and they were quick to point out our error on the poster as well as to recite all what each of the letters in the acronym stood for). So we quickly came to the conclusion that these are some bright students who were willing and eager to learn!

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When we left the students on Saturday we asked them to arrive today with some ideas about a team name, logo and colours. We were unsure if they would be able to do this as they did not have any more club meetings scheduled between our sessions. They told us that they had met during their free time and had agreed unanimously that they wanted to form a robotics team and that they had come up with a name and a logo. The name of the newly founded team is J-Robotics, the J being for “Jinja” the town we’re working out of. The logo is still a work in progress and will be unveiled shortly. When we asked if they had all agreed on the name and logo they laughed and said that of course they had not all agreed but they had chosen what was clearly the best one (which we took to mean the ones done by the older kids).

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To begin the students were instructed to open the VEX EDR kits that were donated to Hackers for Charity and on loan to us for the summer. Their job was to conduct inventory on all of the kits. This meant finding all of the parts and matching them to the parts list that we put together to accompany the kits. The purpose of this was two-fold: to ensure all of the pieces are in the kit, as well as to have them identify which components were which. Some of the different sets which included things like mechatronics, gears, sensors, metal stock and robot controllers were much larger than others so as some of the students finished early we started on the other tasks we needed to complete.

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A few of the students finished the construction of the competition field. The one side needed to be reinforced and the lines needed to be taped on the field. The students were very diligent in completing their tasks and were able to troubleshoot some of the problems that they came across. There were two who stayed long after everyone else had finished to make sure that it was just right. We love this kind of attention to detail and identified and corrected a few errors we had made earlier in the process.

The others were given a quick tutorial on how to create a new Gmail account and login into WIX (a free online website builder and host site) to create a team website. They confidently took over and most of them said they were familiar with doing both of these things.

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Between this, selecting some official team videographers to learn film editing software to document their process, and still others starting to follow the instructions to build the VEX “Clawbot” all of the students were very busy for the rest of the evening. All of the students were so engaged in what they were doing and were disappointed when we called it a night after 8:00. They said that they would stay until 10 even if it meant staying up late to complete their chores and homework. We had to shoo them out the door and explain that they needed to be rested in order to give their best performances! Working with students that are this enthusiastic about learning is hard to come by and it is definitely a first for us here in Uganda. We are so excited about the possibilities and feel like we have found the perfect group of kids for this particular undertaking.

We’re so thankful to Just Cause Uganda for spearheading this amazing effort! Please see the original post here!

Exploring CNC routing in Uganda with the X-Carve

Thanks to a very gracious donor and friend Jason, we have an X-Carve in Uganda. That sentence was incredibly short and simple but the story of our X-Carve is anything but. Here’s a quick video teaser showing our little shop:

For those that aren’t aware, the X-Carve by Inventables is a build-it-yourself, open-source CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) router which is capable of cutting or carving wood, soft metals, plastic and many other materials all guided by computer software.

Jason purchased the X-Carve (the 1000 mm version with several upgrades including the ACME lead screw, larger Nema 23 motors, limit switches, a tool kit and loads of spare parts and bits) for us and took it to his home away from home, the Columbus Idea Foundry, where he assembled and tested it. This was a significant financial and time investment and all things told took months of hard work on his part. Once built, he labelled all the parts and disassembled it, packing it carefully for the long trip to Uganda. He even put the delicate rails in a Pelican rifle case for good measure. His packing job wasn’t finished as he, his wife Becky and friend John who were coming with him to Uganda also agreed to bring loads of other equipment to help us out in Uganda.

And they set out on their journey to bring is all over here to Uganda.

On their way to Uganda, they had an overnight in Dubai where the next morning they were met with a nasty surprise: Dubais was charging them full price to check in all their luggage despite the fact that they had already paid for the luggage stateside. Left with no choice, they paid the luggage fees again (not knowing at the time that friends in the community would chip in to cover those expenses).

Once they arrived and we unpacked, the building process began. It seemed like a great opportunity for the manager of my hackerspace to learn the ins and outs of the machine since the plan was that it would be in the hackerspace and he would oversee it’s operation. I stopped in from time to time as they built the X-Carve in the garage. In retrospect I should not have allowed my crazy schedule to keep me from sitting in on every step of the build because our manager ended up leaving us (and Uganda) to start a new life in Canada.

That combination of bad decisions and circumstances left us in a really tough spot. We had this amazing machine that cost a significant amount of money, time and effort sitting in our garage and I had no idea how to use it. I put too much faith in my manager and let the craziness of more mundane things keep me from that critical week of the build.

The X-Carve sat for months because I didn’t have the faintest clue how to use it and I had absolutely no woodworking experience which meant I was faced with the very difficult task of learning the technology side of the machine (Arduino, GShield, VCarve software, etc) along with the mechanical side (all the belts, motors, pulleys, etc) in addition to the woodworking and machinists side (routers, buts, feeds and speeds, material properties, etc).

This was certainly not the first daunting challenge in my life, but the reality was that I couldn’t drop everything to “figure this out”. I was also afraid that I would break something that I didn’t have spare parts for. In addition, I was really all alone in this. Jason was available for questions but I couldn’t reasonably expect him to hold my hand when he had already invested months of time in the project and it was honestly my fault that I wasn’t able to drop everything to sit with him when he was here.

I started mentioning the machine to several people in Jinja that I thought might be able to help me figure out the X-Carve. I needed a delicate balance of someone that was moderately “technical” but had a strong grasp of carpentry, wood working, or machining. One person I reached out to was interested but was planning a furlough. Then I realized my friend Tim would be a good fit, but he was finishing up degree courses so he didn’t have the time. Eventually though, Tim got a break from his classes and we rolled up our sleeves and dug in.

Our first stop was to the local plywood manufacturer, Nile Ply, the same folks that helped us when we rebuilt Loko Village all those years ago. Situated on the banks of Lake Victoria in the “Industrial area”, Nile Ply is certainly no Home Depot.

Nile Ply is no "Home Depot".

Nile Ply is no “Home Depot”.

As an aside, it’s staggering how much gorgeous waterfront property in Jinja is occupied by the nastiest, smelliest, dirtiest, waste-belching factories.

Although it’s not much to look at from the outside, inside, I was astonished to see that Nile Ply had cleaned up since I had visited all those years ago. They had new loaders, and the wood was perfectly stacked. Even the floor was relatively clean. This did look a bit like Home Depot.

Inside Nile Ply.

Inside Nile Ply.

They showed us the various offerings. I was excited at the variety and the possibilities.

Nile Ply's selection of plywood.

Nile Ply’s selection of plywood.

Selection of MDF/Particle board

Selection of MDF/Particle board

We hired a truck and sent the wood home.

Our tiny rented truck. Johnson looks on.

Our tiny rented truck. Johnson looks on.

We also stopped at a few places in town to see if we could find scrap hardwood. Tim new a carpenter that might have some stock and we found some interesting pieces.

Some old hardwood. Likely Mvule.

Some old hardwood. Likely Mvule.

Finally, after several hours of wood-hunting (things.. take.. a.. long.. time.. in.. Africa….) we headed back to figure out the X-Carve. We set it up, looked for visible damage (there was none) and read step-by-step through the instructions.

Now a leather and wood shop!

Now a leather and wood shop!

Our little leather shop was diversifying, even though the X-Carve took up half of our work table!

The first few days were really funny, and frustrating. We started with the Easel software, which is really a no-brainer and simple to use. The X-Carve, however, was being a bit cantankerous. Our shapes were quite .. odd.

Our sad little test shapes.

Our sad little test shapes.

I have to say I was happy the machine worked at all. I had expected that our cat-sized rats would have completely digested the machine as it sat forlorn in our leather shop garage. I’m not exaggerating. We had to do a significant amount of cleaning in the shop, and we found several nests:

Rats Nest #1

Rats Nest #1

Ever seen baby rats? Strange creatures!

Strange..

Strange..

But we still had a long road ahead of us. As it turned out, just about every bolt had come loose on the machine, the belts were loose and the v-wheels were all over tight or over loose. There was also a burr on one of the rails that would catch, causing the X-Carve to stall. We filed that, tightened everything properly and finally, FINALLY got a reasonably successful profile cut!

All in all it was a terrific couple of days. I’m so thankful to Tim for the assistance and friendship. He was a huge encouragement and made me realize how much I missed being in “community”.. being around other smart and driven folks who have crazy idea and talents. I’ve spent seven years being “the teacher”, the one people come to to learn things and I’ve had very few opportunities to collaborate and take on complex tasks and challenges. It’s like a part of me has re-awakened, the hacker in me that used to thrive daily on conquering ridiculous problems.

I’m also thankful to Jason, Becky and John who really gave of themselves to make this happen. They, like other donors are more than just providers, they are family, and part of this amazing community that thrives on helping others and are thrilled to help. I certainly couldn’t have done it without them.

Also thanks to Goal Zero for generously powering our shop!

This post took a few weeks to pull together, as things have been really hectic. Look for fun updates about the X-Carve soon!

3D Printing, Robotics and Electronics “Road Show” in Kenya

When we first came to Uganda seven years, our goal was to put computers in schools because we knew that technology training was not only a necessity, it’s fun and inspirational, especially when the students have had limited (or no) access to equipment.

However, installing computers in classrooms was a problem because teachers and staff couldn’t properly maintain the equipment, and weren’t properly trained in it’s use. We eventually consolidated the donated classroom equipment into our Computer Training Center to help raise the bar and prepare teachers and students for the future of technology.

Basic training is great, but as hackers, our heart is for advanced technology and we know that it can inspire and motivate students in astounding ways. We decided to try our hands at a hackerspace, but that model had problems as well and it became impossible to find trusted staff to maintain it.

I go through cycles here in Africa. I get excited about an idea, try it, see what happens and revise, or try something else. At times it feels like I’m reinventing the wheel, but we’re in uncharted territory most of the time. Although it’s taken longer to bounce back from the hackerspace failure, I am bouncing back none the less.

The goal is straightforward: we, as an organization, want to introduce teachers and students to advanced technology concepts to inspire them and eventually we would like to find a way to get them the basic gear to continue to explore and learn. The format would be a several hour-long traveling tech “variety road show”, or a longer format two-day “tech camp”.

We’ve been pursuing this idea for about a year now, as we are lined up for STEM/STEAM grants to do exactly this in the United States. (More on the US initiative later!) It’s a fun idea, but it’s also somewhat daunting because we want to provide hands-on training in 3D printing, CNC fabrication, robotics and electronics. To that end, I’ve put together some course material for these topics and I’m doing some test runs here in Africa.

I attended Rift Valley Academy in Kenya this past week to put on a road show and also do staff development.

RVA's Kiambogo building.

RVA’s Kiambogo building.

It was a lot of work.

I spent a few weeks preparing the slides and also doing some demo prints. The cellular vase was a big hit (a 9-hour print on our full size Ultimaker 2):

Cellular Lamp

Cellular Lamp

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The Raptor reloaded prosthetic hand demo was also a hit. This is a small demonstration sized hand that’s completely 3D printed (except for the finger adjustment bolts and the fishing line).

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It’s designed for patients who have lost some or all of their fingers, and it straps to the forearm with medical-grade foam and velcro. When the patient bends their wrist, the hand closes, allowing them to grab items:

The space wrench was another big hit.

This wrench was designed by “Made in Space” and sent to the International Space Station. What’s super cool about it is that first of all it was PRINTED IN SPACE, but also it’s a print-in place, working 3-in-pound ratcheting socket wrench:

"Made in Space" wrench

“Made in Space” wrench

The wrench works really well, especially considering that it came off the full-size Ultimaker 2 all in one piece:

And of course the cube gears are always mind-bending fun. Like a twisted, mechanically amazing Rubik’s cube, it starts as a cube shape:

The cube gear, as a cube

The cube gear, as a cube

Then, the magic happens when you rotate the corners:

I took our Ultimaker 2 Go printer, which is perfectly suited for traveling, but I packed it in the travel case as well as the box for our larger Ultimaker 2 for added protection. I even took the time to add big “Fragile” and “This end up” signs. When the printer arrived in Nairobi, it was right side up and already on a cart. IT was handled extremely well. However, when I returned to Uganda, the printer wasn’t handled nearly as well, but thankfully it survived both trips.

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We were set up in a big “video room” where I had two tables, one for the printer and another for the LittleBits and Edison robots.

Ultimaker 2 Go Printer Table

Ultimaker 2 Go Printer Table

LittleBits and Edison table

LittleBits and Edison table

The classes were a huge success, and we had a massive reception, working with hundreds of kids from 3-12 grade.

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I had the elementary librarian find me later on the second day to find out what the excitement was all about. Apparently, she was being inundated with kids asking for books about robotics, 3D printing, and electronics! This is exactly why we do these events. We want to inspire kids to create and learn.

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The excitement was pretty contagious, and I realized how much I missed working with and teaching about advanced technology, and more than anything I missed being in the amazing position to inspire others.

This trial run was an absolute blast for me, and for the students and faculty. I’m excited to have done this first run, and even more excited to do many more of them, all over the world!

Thank you so much to the donors that stepped in to make all of this possible. We wouldn’t have any of this equipment without you and we certainly wouldn’t be able to travel around inspiring others with it!

Continuing Education with Littlebits at the Jinja Computer Training Center

I strongly believe that the work of the hackerspace must continue, even without someone to act as a full-time manager/steward for the dedicated space. So I’ve decided to try an experiment and begin training our Computer Training Center (CTC) Staff in some of the technologies previously offered at the hackerspace, and hopefully they can, in turn, begin teaching other students.

I’m starting with three basic courses which will include robotics (with the Edisons) and electronics (with Littlebits and Arduino).

I’m encouraged by the staff’s progress so far, but I fully realize that most of this technology will require someone dedicated full time to learning (and teaching) the courses. Our staff is hard working but they are dedicated full time to functional courses (in topics like Office, Adobe, etc) which are more geared towards providing basic skills for jobs and advancing folks in their careers.

This is an experiment for right now, but one I am so far encouraged by.

Here are some photos of the first orientation classes with Littlebits.

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HFC Hackerspace in Jinja, Uganda Closing.

As our regular followers may have already guessed, we are closing our hackerspace in Jinja, Uganda. We still have all the equipment that was donated for this amazing space, and it’s locked up in storage right now, but the actual hackerspace office is closed.

The reason for this is that we lost our manager to his own personal endeavors and because I (Johnny) put too many eggs in one basket (a mistake which I will never again repeat), we were left without anyone to manage and oversee the space full-time. Unfortunately, I am not able to commit to that full-time job because I am simply busy managing and juggling too many things.

This obviously puts us in a very bad position, and frankly we are scratching our heads about what to do about it. We need help, in the form of a “Westerner” who would be willing to come in and help us run this. If you know of anyone that’s interested in helping run a fully-stocked maker/hackerspace in Uganda, let us know. I’m looking for a “Westerner” because I need someone who has a foundational knowledge of many of the technologies available in the space (or has a capacity to learn them given our instruction), who is fluent in English (not simply conversant) and frankly we need someone who sees this as an opportunity for what it is, not someone who will simply take our instruction then immediately take off for greener pastures.

We’re paid ahead on our rent at the hackerspace and have made some “infrastructure investments” as well including satellite dishes for Outernet, an alarm system, electrical power protection and air conditioning units. Even though the space is sitting empty for now, I have some ideas about how to recoup the investment in that space by using it for something slightly different and will likely redirect some of that equipment to the CTC where it is desperately needed.

The staff at the CTC has been fiercely dedicated and loyal these past six years, and they are doing amazing work teaching foundational computer skills and helping people get jobs, so my “Plan B”, which I’ll discuss in a future post, will leverage the staff and space of the CTC to continue the vision of the hackerspace.

I’m excited by the amazing response of our volunteers and donors who backed us in this risky endeavor and rest assured that your contributions will not be wasted. We will still continue the vision of teaching advanced technology in Uganda, but with a slightly different format.

Instead of an ending, I’m viewing this as the start of a new chapter. I’ve learned a lot of painful and valuable lessons, and I hope to use that knowledge to do better things.

Thank you for your understanding and unwavering support!

Why do we teach robotics in Africa? This is why.

Some people ask why we “even bother” when there are “starving kids in Africa”. Forgetting how loaded with ignorance that question is, my response is summed up in this video.

We team up with organizations that care for kids, in this case, street kids, get them into a safe environment, provide healthcare, education, food and more. We come alongside these organizations and provide experiences that no one else in the country (even the rich kids) have access to.

This video with the Mirembe girls really sums it up.