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Focus On: Carl Simmons' Interactive Art Workshop

Gareth Halfacree

Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the first Liverpool MakeFest event on our behalf, talking to the thronging crowds find out what's hot in the maker world at the minute. This series of Focus On features takes a look at some of the event's exhibitors, finding out what they're up to and what makes them tick.

Dressed in the blue uniform of the self-titled Edge Hill Geek Squad, a smiling Carl Simmons leads his team in the set-up of a table filled with what at first glance appears to be nothing more than laptops next to unfinished children's colouring sheets. "We're bringing drawings to life using Arduinos," he explains. "Children can come and either colour or draw a picture of their choice, and they can create, essentially, pressure points on the drawing that will activate things like sounds and lights and motors.

"We've got a dog which wags its tail or growls if you touch its bone, gargoyles that scream at you if you touch them, we've got an Elsa that casts a magic spell, we've got a pirate that looks for if you're touching his booty and his eye follows you around the picture," Carl recites, ticking each off his fingers as he recalls the drawings on offer. "What else have we got? We've got a Minecraft Steve, so if you touch the TNT then he mines the TNT and it then explodes, that kind of thing."

The child-friendly workshop, located on the top floor of Liverpool's Central Library, seems an odd choice for a university like Edge Hill - but there's undeniable method in the team's apparent madness. "It's trying to get kids to think imaginatively about microcontrollers," Carl explains, "rather than just kind of the boring 'light a light' type stuff. It gives you a kind of magical power over the world, to control what goes on, and it gives them that sense that they can use microcontrollers to effect a change in the world, and although this is a small change they can then go on to think about bigger problems that they can solve using this sort of technology. It's also the kind of skills they're going to need throughout their working lives, in terms of understanding some of the key computing principles that are behind this in whatever role that they go into."

Although Carl's Geek Squad is no stranger to family-friendly events, having run several at Edge Hill University for the local community, its training traditionally comes at one remove. "We run workshops for teachers at the university," Carl explains, teaching the teachers how to interest their pupils in electronics and programming - a task made much easier by the Arduino platform. "We've got a perfect storm of electronic components that are cheap with microcontrollers that have good user interfaces built around them. It's really good for this because it's cheap, so people can buy a kit of this stuff for about £20 at home. Also, if you blow an Arduino you've only lost £8 or so, so that's great, you can just buy another board. They use really versatile power, too, so things like the Raspberry Pi need specific power supplies, but with an Arduino you can use a nine-volt battery, or you can use a power pack, or you can power it from a laptop."

Carl is effusive in his praise for the MakeFest event, turning as he speaks to take in the crowds and his fellow workshop organisers as the sun streams in the windows. "It's exciting to be part of a big event where there are lots of different makers," he grins. "Not only do you get to help people to learn about this stuff but you get to meet lots of cool people who are doing interesting things as well, and then that makes your own practice better. It's just nice to be involved to be in such a large event - and also one so close to us, because it's the first one in Liverpool. So yes, it's nice to be in at the beginning!"

Teachers interested in participating in Edge Hill's training programmes, families wanting to know when the next kid-friendly workshop will take place, or any other interested party can get in touch with Carl via Twitter as @Activ8Thinking or email at carl.simmons@edgehill.ac.uk.



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