Recapping The Recharge! Summer Program

If you've been following this blog, or our social media channels, you'd be aware that over the past three weeks we've been running an intensive summer program for high school and college students called Recharge!  The goal of the program was to create an opportunity for students with a demonstrated interest in electronics, computer programming, 3D printing and other related topics to learn from experienced mentors and work on interesting projects.

We've now concluded the Recharge! program.  Last Saturday marked the final day, with a public open day at the Battery Shed from 11am to 4pm.  Before we opened our doors, we really had no idea how many people would come to see what we're up to at the Innovation Circle, but we shouldn't have worried.  By 11:15am we had 50 members of the public on-site, and that steady stream of visitors didn't let up all day.  All in all, we estimate we had 350 visitors to the Innovation Circle during our open day, which exceeded even or most optimistic of expectations.  If you're reading this and you came along to our open day... thank you!  It was great to see so much interest and support for what we're doing at the Battery Shed.  If you'd like to get involved or learn more about what we're all about, get in touch with us via our contact page.

With all of that said, we thought it would be a good idea to provide a bit of a recap of the Recharge! program we ran this January, particularly for those who might consider participating in a program like this in the future.

Before we get started on that!  Lots of them!

Throughout the program we've been keeping a journal of sorts using our Instagram account and a photo album on Facebook.  If you'd like to run through the Recharge! program as it happened, day by day, then those social media accounts are the best place to do it.

For the purposes of this post, we'll look more generally at how the program ran and what it was all about.

The Recharge! program ran for three weeks, with participants on-site at the Battery Shed three days per week (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) from 10am to 4pm.  We broke our days into two pieces.  In the morning session (10am to 12noon), we had a guest speaker, a tour of the museum, or covered some basic skills that would be required later in the program.  Then we'd break for lunch (generally 12noon to 1pm), before diving into a practical workshop session in the afternoon (1pm to 4pm).

If you're interested in how the program actually unfolded, here's a very brief summary of what took place on each of the ten days.

Day 1:  Andrew Johnson (QVMAG Museum), Guided Tour of the Museum

On the first day of the program, we had a guided tour of the QVMAG Museum with the exhibitions curator Andrew Johnson.  The purpose of this tour was to get the students thinking about how museums create experiences for their visitors and what sorts of digital interactives we might be able to prototype during the course.

In the afternoon, we worked on basic skills relating to the Arduino platform that we would be using to build our interactives as the program progressed.

Day 2:  Troy Merritt (Bitlink), Introduction to 3D Printing

In the morning of the second day of the program, Troy from the Innovation Circle mentor team ran through a crash course on 3D printing, which included some detailed demonstrations using the 3D printers we had on-site at the Battery Shed.

In the afternoon, we continued to cover basic skills, both for the Arduino and for the 3D printers, which also require some knowledge of 3D graphics software.

Day 3:  James Riggall (Bitlink), Evaluating Ideas

On the third day, it was time to get serious about selecting some ideas to pursue for the rest of the program.  We visited the museum again the students came up with over 40 different ideas for digital interactives that they'd like to build.  Then, it was time to distil those ideas down to a short list that would provide the greatest possible value, while still being possible to prototype within a couple of weeks.

By the end of the day, we'd settled on a short list of six ideas, then carved that down to two.  The ideas left standing at the end of the day were Train Sim (a basic driving simulator for one of the trains in the museum's collection) and Project Kilo (an interactive kiosk system to help visitors to the museum find their way from one exhibit to another).

Day 4:  Steve East (QVMAG Museum), Constructing the Thylacine Skull Interactive

Day four started with a presentation from Steve East, a volunteer at the QVMAG Museum who has built a digital interactive that enables Museum visitors to explore a 360 degree view of 3D modelled replica of a thylacine skull that the museum has in their collection.  Steve was responsible for scanning the skull, creating the 3D model and building the application that enables visitors to use a touch screen to rotate the skull in space and view it from any angle.  Steve walked through the process he went through on this project and provided some insights into lessons learned along the way.

This was also the first day that the students really started working seriously on their new projects.  Now that we had the ideas pinned down, it was time to start planning, experimenting and prototyping.  From this point forward, the workshop sessions in the afternoons were buzzing with activity as everyone in the program worked collaboratively on the two projects we'd decided as a group to tackle.

Day 5:  Stu Smith (UTAS), Technologies for Healthy Living

The fifth day began with a guest lecture from Stu Smith, a professor at the University of Tasmania.  Stu's currently doing a lot of work with technologies for health, including tech that encourages healthy lifestyle choices, and tech for rehabilitation.  However, he's also had a wide and varied career which has included working on all manner of interesting projects and a few years working at NASA in Mountain View.  Stu talked about his career so far, technologies for health and provided a whole heap of advice on how best to break into a technical career and keep ahead of the pack.  Stu also demonstrated a number of tech products that he's either developing through his research program, or which are being developed by industry partners.

After Stu's talk, we dived back into the projects, which were already starting to take some sort of shape.  Even though we were only a couple of days into working on these particular projects, we were quickly establishing an understanding of what sort of functionality we could build within a couple of weeks and how best to tackle the various tasks that would be required to see a working prototype through to completion.

Day 6:  Martin George (QVMAG Museum), Behind the Scenes at the Planetarium

On the last day of the second week, we visited the QVMAG Museum Planetarium and were treated to a planetarium show, followed by a behind the scenes tour of how the planetarium works its magic.

In the afternoon, there was more project work to be done!  By this point, both projects had moved through the design phase and were being actively prototyped.  Each project had a mentor assigned to it (John or Andrew) who helped to keep things moving and made sure that bumps along the way didn't cause the teams to completely lose momentum on their projects.  By this point in the process, Troy was also in high demand, bouncing from one group to the other and making sure that both projects had access to all of the materials and resources they needed to see their project through.

Day 7:  Andrew Jones (UTAS Computing Student), Introduction to Unity3D

At the start of the third and final week, our introductory presentation for the morning was from Andrew Jones, one of the Innovation Circle volunteers and a mentor in the Recharge! program.  Andrew spent the morning providing a broad overview of the video game development toolkit Unity3D.  This presentation was particularly useful, as the Train Sim group were starting to dig into using Unity3D for their own project.

In the afternoon it was, you guessed it, time for more work on the projects!  

Day 8:  Bruce Wolcott (Bellevue College), Environmental Storytelling

The eighth day started with a guest lecture from Bruce Wolcott, who we beamed in via videoconference from Bellevue College in Seattle.  Bruce teaches media theory and has a particular interest in how stories are constructed in video games.  For his guest lecture, he spoke about the Seattle games industry, environmental storytelling in games and also provided some behind the scenes insights into how things work at Valve Software (the creators of Half Life, Portal and Defence of the Ancients).

After Bruce's lecture was over, it was back into the projects.  At this point, both projects were really starting to take shape.  The Project Kilo team were busy soldering wires and building models for their interactive kiosk and the Train Sim group had all of the basic input and output running through their Arduino board and were starting to focus on tuning their simulation and adding some extra 3D models to the environment the train moves through.

Day 9:  Mike Cruse (Definium Technologies), Building Embedded Systems

Our final presentation for the course was a demonstration from Mike Cruse of Definium Technologies.  Mike talked about his career so far and showed the students how he designs and builds circuit boards in Launceston using a robotic pick and place assembly machine.  Mike's presentation was a rare opportunity to learn about the lowest level of technology design and development, where a circuit board is built from scratch to address a particular problem or set of requirements.  The overarching message of Mike's presentation was that there's no reason that we can't run technology companies in Tasmania, or build custom electronics here for export to foreign markets.

After Mike's presentation, there was a quick rush back to the main workspace where the two projects still needed some work before the rapidly approaching open day.  Before the end of the day, the Train Sim was in pretty good shape, but the interactive kiosk still required some work (the sheer volume of LEDs, over 70, that needed to be wired up was proving to be slow work).  Nonetheless, even without a completed working prototype, there was undoubtedly enough for an effective demo the following day; we'd just need to shift the focus from the project itself to ongoing work on the project!

Day 10:  Innovation Circle Open Day

After a frantic day on the Train Sim and Interactive Kiosk projects, we all showed up at the Battery Shed again one last time for our public open day, which was organised as an opportunity to demonstrate the work that had been done in the Recharge! program, as well as some of the other projects and equipment at the Innovation Circle.

Just about everyone arrived early, which was a good thing, because the Battery Shed had become quite...cluttered...during the previous three weeks of working on electronics and boutique manufacturing projects.  But, many hands make light work, and we were quickly able to turn the Battery Shed around and get everything set up for the Open Day.

After the transformation, the Battery Shed was outfitted with demo stations for both of the Recharge! projects, as well as a station which was set up for exploring Minecraft while wearing a virtual reality headset.  We also had some gesture-based interface demonstrations set up and a few more virtual reality headsets.  In the other room, we had some more hardware focused demos, with a couple of 3D printers running throughout the day and Mike doing a guided demonstration of his robotic pick and place assembly robot every 15-20 minutes.

It's a good thing we hustled when we did too!  When 11:00am rolled around, there were already people waiting to get into the Battery Shed and by 11:15am, there were already 50 members of the public on-site.  From that point onwards, we had a steady stream of visitors, with around 40 on-site at any given time throughout the day.  Overall, we estimate we had around 350 visitors between 11:00am when we opened our doors and 3:30pm when the last members of the public left the shed.  To say that this exceeded our expectations would be a huge understatement; before the doors opened, we had no idea whether we'd be sitting around twiddling our thumbs all day, or whether we'd be pretty busy.  But even the most optimistic of the Innovation Circle crew hadn't expected such a fantastic response.  All in all, it was a pretty good day for everyone involved!

After the Open Day was over, we remained in the Battery Shed for another half an hour for some closing speeches from the course organisers (James, Troy and Mike) and the presentation of certificates to all of the fantastic participants in the pilot.  We couldn't be happier with the group of students we had for this first run of the Recharge! course -- every single one of the students pulled their weight every day and made a substantial contribution during the 10 days of the program.

We were also very fortunate to have the support of some fantastic volunteers and some incredible support form the Queen Victoria Museum staff.  In particular, we'd like to thank John and Andrew, who worked with the students every day on their projects and provided invaluable mentorship and advice throughout the program.  Joe also deserves a special mention, for reorganising his work life so that he could spend Fridays with us during the program.  We might have only had him for one day a week, but he did the equivalent of three days worth of work for every day he spent in the Battery Shed.  We'd also like to thank BJ, Kellie, Mark, Martin, Steve and Andrew from the Queen Victoria Museum for providing some fantastic hands-on support during the program and for helping us get the whole thing organised in the first place.

Finally, we'd like to thank the students who enrolled in the program and who proved to be exactly the sorts of people we were hoping we'd get for our first cohort.  Without such a great group of students, we wouldn't have been able to achieve so much or have such a smooth run.  By the end of the course, the students were pretty much driving the ship, and James, Troy and Mike were able to largely fade into the background.

All in all, we're ecstatic with how well our first Recharge! program went, we really couldn't have hoped for a better outcome for a pilot program.  If you have any questions about Recharge! that aren't answered in this post, or if you'd like to be notified when we're running another program like Recharge! then please just get in touch with us through our contact page.