All posts by @ATXinventor

I am a somewhere-else-born Austinite, of Czech, Polish, Spanish, Native American and Jewish ancestry, hacking and making for already a lifetime or two. Trained as a teacher, I was too long a warden in assorted warehouses for kids, aka. schools, where the one-size-fits-all "education" is the main dish. I learned there that we need to improve what we offer geeks and geeketes in the bud. Among those we need to support better are precisely the ones who actually have the giftings to go way beyond, if given a chance. Geek is where initiative, creativity, engineering come from, all of STEM, yet school "fails" them too often, because it insists in molding everyone to one "best" model, that is not even good enough. It is the future-Makers the ones who will make the Future! They need help. So I set myself to help give them that chance - especially those who need it most - one reason why I insist in "cheap". Failure is a necessary part of learning - your tools need to be cheap enough that you can experiment without fear of what will happen if you break them, and you should be able to afford them yourself. I believe in Quality Education. And uniqueness in every individual. Through Kickstarter I reach out a hand to enthusiasts everywhere, especially those that didn't get the memo that bumblebees can't fly. Being very involved in One Laptop Per Child, Open Learning Exchange and such international projects, I eventually decided to focus in bridging the usability gap: relevant solutions need to take into account that the learning slope needs to be gentle for those starting from zero, which is many, and especially for their already overworked teachers. Most currently available solutions assume that you already have the tools and the knowledge, or else stop short of giving you real-life skills and experience. STEMginery and the STEM Construction Tools are designed precisely to fill that gap. Stuff that can get you going, from a bare ground almost, but with no ceiling whatsoever. Yes, at every stage you have built something - but more importantly, you know that you can go beyond. As a geek, you get a chance to become. I support community and collaboration, freedom to learn, to share knowledge, to keep each other accountable. To be an optimist and seem gullible, and sometimes bite more than I can chew, for the sake of people who care for each other and share this dream of Quality. In education, in life, in the way we relate to each other and collaborate with each other. Together with y'all! Prof. Mtro. Yamandú Zavish Ploskonka y Rivas, DSLL (just call me Yama)

So, What is STEMginery, really?

You mean, what kind of an object?

At its core, connectors – both physical, as in bits of wood and plastic, and metaphorical, as in ideas that link other ideas together.

For ease in sorting things, we call some of the long one- or two-ended connectors “struts” or “beams”, and generally the others are just “connectors” or “hubs”.

Then we snap them together, and build awesome.


Building things is fun on its own, of course. However, the end goal being that STEMginery be a tool for learning, it so happens that “building” stuff with STEMginery can be quite educational.

A non-definitive list evidently includes,

  • principles of truss engineering – compression, tension. The shape of the network of struts and hubs is important. Triangle = good
  • breaking point of a certain material, or best disposition of that material in a network of connectors to achieve maximum strength with least material
  • Angles, patterns, symmetry. The hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle  is longer than the sides, while equilateral triangles have, well, equal sides. If you use right angles you will end up with struts of different lengths…

Going a bit deeper, concepts of crystallography and three dimensional shapes and forms get easier to comprehend. Geometric solids are easy and fast to build.

  • basic shapes – triangle, square, etc., “make sense”. An angle is two segments meeting at a point. One reason that angles have to wait until 3rd Grade is because we teach angles on the whiteboard or printed page. Sorry, that is not an angle – it’s a representation of an angle, thus adding another layer of abstraction to confuse the kids with. Working with soda straws and STEMginery connectors, a 4 year old (and maybe some 3 y.o.) can make sense of angles – what a segment is, what meeting at a point means, how certain angles are different from others and when put together they make certain shapes and not others becomes evident and simple. As my Dad used to say, we can always complicate it later. But at least it’s something easy to understand very early.
  • Next “notch”, let’s build and make sense of geometric solids. Also something within reach of many 4 year-olds. Yes, we run the risk of ruining their “schooling”, as they will be BORED when that “lesson” comes…
  • What about crystal shapes, molecular shapes, viruses, the frameworks of Life and physics and chemistry? easy! To the point that STEMginery might have a role to play even in high-falutin’ academia!

An example

Last night I invited a visitor to out The Robot Group meeting to try out STEMginery sClugs to build a basic truss with plain soda straws, the design with a square normal section. Then we placed a 2-pound XO laptop on top of the truss that was laying on its side. The truss promptly collapsed.

What was interesting of the event was the reactions. Some saw the collapse initially as an entertaining “fail”. Did I mention that the visitor was 9 years-old or so? His reaction seemed to be like a bit of confusion.

Now, I must admit that maybe I did expect the truss to hold. Maybe the kid assumed I knew what I was doing, and maybe what I saw as confusion had to do with his expectation of “success”. And it might be that I am old and mañoso (crafty) that I immediately segued into how we needed a crossbrace perpendicular to the main axis of the truss, and then guided him to do such a crossbrace – very briefly mentioning the issue of the length needing to be longer than the side of the truss.

Crossbrace added, the truss section did hold one XO, but the straws were buckling when a second one was added. This time the peanut gallery was engaged and focused in discussing the whats and wherefores of better design.

Now, I couldn’t have planned it better. I must admit it was serendipitous, but the fact is that the “lesson” went exactly where it should have gone. I totally loooove this thing about graceful failure being an opportunity and a motivator for learning! Maybe, maybe, someone doing this activity will feel inspired to experiment. Like in Real Life trying something out, figuring how it works, how it fails, then trying again (you can learn the fancy names for the Scientific Method later – but if you are doing it already, so much gained). Then getting motivated to research about how the Master Builders through the ages have dealt with similar issues. Then hopefully logging the finds.

That in itself would be worth many, many hours of “class” time.

Contrast this with a close ended “experiment” as seen in any school of the land. Either of, everything is designed to achieve “success” for a given project – a dry, recipe how-to of something, maybe with fancy and very expensive parts. Just like any theory-based cook, you’re shot if you don’t have the “right” ingredients – you never learned substitutions and creative hacking. Or, the structure is built with flimsy marshmallows that, besides being a shameful waste of foodstuff, at best is a representation of a truss as it is unable to actually reproduce issues of tension and compression. And is a total mess if the experiment “fails”.

Graceful failing = Good Thing

As I’ve said it before, it’s in the graceful failing where good learning often is to be found. It’s that “failure” and subsequent search for the “solution” where innovation is born. Responding to practical needs, even if simulated with a toy-like contraption, builds some of the skills and mindset – yes, “hacking” itself – that are at the core of the Scientist. The Mathematician. The Engineer. The Technologist.

And STEM becomes.



STEMginery, the basics

STEMginerylogo is

  1. relevant to the STEM fields
    (or at least to what STEM means to me). This includes being usable to develop abilities in a diversity of STEM and STEM-related areas and skills, especially in several at the same time
  2. affordable
    long story on why STEMginery needs to be cheap, short: failure is an essential part of the learning process. If something is so expensive that breaking it gets the kid in trouble, then it will not get really used. The ability of failing gracefully is part of a good learning tool.
    Being affordable includes the right to copy it under a reasonable set of terms
  3. simple, easy to use
    naked you were born, and there is that first approach to the tool – it has to be something that makes sense from day one
  4. capable of complexity
    as you grow in your skills the tool has even more to give
  5. real life-relevant
    the knowledge and skills acquired have a minimum number of steps from the “toy/learning tool” to something that makes sense in actual, practical, grown-up contexts.
  6. academics-relevant
    culture and education are all about “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Learning from books has its place. It’s called a foundation – good metaphor, do not forget it.
  7. fun


STEM, where it came from, where is it NOT going

President Obama goes on to tell us (link to complete video) how many billions and billions are going to be burned spent in a guaranteed failure effort at solving the STEM “hole” we are told that  America is in.

Bless their hearts. Throwing money at a problem will solve it, right? Like it has worked so well before, right?


Reality is reality, even when ideology “owns” science and tries to reinvent it. Truth is, education today is reaching more people than ever before in history, has more investment that ever, is the bestest ever. In Science, Math, everything. Yet, it is true that one-size-fits-all schooling is not good enough, or, should we stop short? it is no good. Cannot be.

And the STEM fields – and innovation in general – are in decay.

The intention of making an effort is good. However, investment in one-size-fits-all schooling cannot produce quality. Goes against the laws of nature. It might work for the majority (ahem, not even that…), but, those kids who could and should develop the STEM fields as they grow up are not “the majority”. They are the few. They are different.
They are needed. We need them – whole, fit, able, not shell-shocked for surviving a hostile school environment where innovation is not welcome.

The STEM-able are badly served by one-size-fits-all schooling. It kills them, or at least leaves them by the side.

It’s not just about kinesthetic

I mentioned kinesthetic learning in a previous blog post. Score one more for those shameful simplifications that we teachers make, simplifications which rightfully earn us the scorn of the population that notices. Making schooling into a kinesthetic-based one-size-fits-all model would barely improve STEM development.


  • Each student is an individual
  • Each teacher is an individual
  • Learning often has very little to do with from what is being taught
  • Learning is an individual thing.

The best that a teacher can do is the agricultural approach:
provide a fertile ground, light, a good environment, support.
And watch them grow and flourish.

And how they amaze us all.

The worst s/he can do is “teach”, as in, “I have the truth and you are ignorant and when I am done with you you will be ignorant no mo’.” Or its alternative “everything goes, you are validated, whatever, whatever. Now be social!”

Is STEMginery the solution?

Good point you make, ATXinventor. Should we then adopt STEMginery, and have it fix everything?

Won’t work!
Are you listening? There is no one solution.

Proverbs 22:6
Proverbs 22:6

Every child has a path – a nature, giftings, talents – hidden or not, whatever you want to call it. Grownups are supposed to guide the child on that path. And stay out of the way, except when maybe helping clear the road ahead.

What STEMginery can do (and so far it seems it can do it very well) is to be one among other useful tools that fit that individual hunger for the particular kinds of stimuli where building stuff is an important element of the learning process of some children. It might even best many other attempts or tools so far. As with anything when we are aware of reality, it will be a total disaster for some and so-so for most, but for some, the best.thing.ever.

It all depends – on the child, parents, environment, but more than anything on the individual child (or maybe on the grownup using it – STEMginery has no age limit).

While I would like to make a decent living out of it, I am not really looking for the established schools to buy it.

My goal is to serve those that can benefit from it. Do you have one of those? follow my Kickstarter!

I am reasonably convinced that a great proportion of those children who will make a difference in Technology, Math, Science and Engineering do benefit from building the kind of strengths that STEMginery reinforces.

STEMginery, the story

Jiskawiracocha somewhere in La Paz, c. 1964

STEMginery started somewhere around here ———–>

My parents were very kinesthetic. Mom an international accomplished ceramist, Dad making his own carved violins as if it were easy.
Is it genetic that I am kinesthetic also? or is it that both of them encouraged me to meet the world hands-on, and I just got used to it? In the picture I am at a Bolivian native crafts market, sometime in my first year, back from representing Bolivia together with Mom in the first World Crafts Council that took place in New York, as part of the World Fair of ’64.

Textures, materials, tools, parts, components, structures, balance, assemblies, elements, shapes, properties, density… All of those are – or not – “natural skills”, the potential giftings of a kinesthetic person – and useful, essential for STEM!

(OK, maybe a software engineer or a theoretical mathematician can get away with having a dozen thumbs, but, a doctor? an architect? a manufacturing industry engineer or technologist?)

Having natural giftings or talents doesn’t mean they will become…
They do not just “happen” . there is a potential – that potential needs support to grow.

Kinesthetic Learning

Kinesthetic learning (also known as Tactile learning) is a learning style in which learning takes place by the student carrying out a physical activity, rather than listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. People with a preference for kinesthetic learning are also commonly known as “do-ers”.

Wikipedia, Kinesthetic Learning

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that about 5% of learners are kinesthetic. Aha! that’s exactly where the cookie crumbles.

What happens is that out of mental laziness and tradition and cost concerns the 12 years of hard labor that kids are condemned to serve within enclosed walls for the crime of being kids (more years added for good behavior) is based on the one-size-fits-all model of schooling. Whatever they say about individuality, leadership, adaptable, when it comes to how a classroom operates it’s a bunch of each one unique kids that actually have to pay attention or else to a hopefully at least well intentioned individual (because teachers are each one unique, also!) who usually treats them as if they were the same.

If that individual, unique teacher’s style fits the learning style of the kid, oh joy. Otherwise, pain, boredom, trouble and failure of all kinds.

Most kinesthetic teachers don’t last long, or eventually are radiated towards “arts” classes, or maybe labs, if lucky. That is to be expected: they make 95% of kids feel out of place – while being an uncommon blessing for those few kids whose learning style is actually a match with the teacher, they are a pain to the rest (majority), and to the administrators.

Thus, that minority of students (and teachers) will not “fit in”. Hopefully the grown up will move on to where he can find accomplishment, but by the very nature of “school”, the kid has no choice. If s/he has support at home, things might be sort of OK, but don’t be surprised that the “not fitting in” eventually has a heavy cost. Dropping out is often the lesser of many bad comsequences.

STEMginery is pre-pre-Kickstarter!

kickstarter-logo-lightI am planning for a Kickstarter for  STEMginery on June 4, 10 am.
pending: get Kickstarter’s approval to the draft, submitted yesterday. It appears it takes several days to even get a response, and sometimes even longer if they dislike something.

DIEimageThe Goal is very modest: $650, with the intent of using that for a die-punching rig. Currently I manufacture STEMginery connectors using the ATX Hackerspace laser cutter. The average cost per connector is somewhere around 6¢, where laser time is about 85% of the cost. Die punching (not a bad name for a movie) would reduce the cost to somewhere between 1¢ and 2¢, and expand possibilities for using other materials, for example ABS plastic.


#Geodesic #Domes

Geodesic domes are some of the strongest structures ever, and a very good start for understanding some of the basics and some of the fancy of engineering, and of science, math, technology…

plus, they are quite fun and really useful.
I have been working on a 19-foot geodesic dome, as a proof of concept of a habitable structure built with STEMginery parts. All the parts, believe it or not, fit inside the a Priority Mail Flat Rate box. $15 to ship a 19-foot structure anywhere in the States!

2v.3v geodome – STEMginery connectors, color straws – 6 foot diameter. 555 straws, 9 kinds
with Tim, our Director of Facilities @ATX Hackerspace. A great professional and friend who volunteers his time to keep our systems running. Both pictures by Clio Dunn, another outstanding member of ATXHS, our volunteer Head of PR

Here I am enjoying making a smallish one, just 6 feet wide.

Do you want a Guinness World Record? (Austin TX only, sorry)

guinnessBetween one thing and another I came upon an official “largest…” Guinness World Record[1] which happens to be currently at 14 feet. I know we can reach 20 feet easy.

So now I am looking for a local school, Scout group, homeschooler coop, church youth group or other youth group that would care to set the 2014 Guinness World Record in that particular record title.

Why get a record?

Uh, why not? I mean, isn’t that the coolest thing, to be, on official record, the “mostest” at something in this 7 billion people and change world?

OK, let’s be practical.

  1. I am sure any organization, club, business, can benefit from some good PR, visibility, press, media
  2. Besides being known as the best in the world at something, even if that something is somewhat silly (and this one is not that silly), said club or school could probably benefit from a fundraising opportunity
  3. hopefully, that group also has a community-oriented mission, and a significant intake of funds could mean being better able to do it.

So, what is that record you want us to attempt?

Ha! not so fast. For one thing, if I put it in a public blog like this one, what I have in mind is so easy that anyone would take it. And I’d rather be you, dear reader, than anyone else. So, we’ll keep this  between ourselves for a while at least, OK?

A couple details that might make it easier for you to become more interested, or maybe opt out: it is something faith-based, Christian to be precise. It has a strong STEM connection – which is related to my business. It can be achieved by a team of about a dozen kids in maybe a few days, between practice and final execution, but needs a preparation time of about two months. It will cost about $200 in materials, though the way I see it, it will be a way for your group to do a successful fundraiser of several thousand with not much effort.

What happens next?

There are several conditions I have set. See if you fit. If you do, then email me. Hopefully the conditions are just hard enough that only one group, the right one, that is, yours, contacts me.

  • Must be local – I am in Austin. Say no more than 20 miles from 78757. I will be volunteering many hours of my time, let’s not make it too hard on me.
  • Your grown-ups must be 100% supporting you wanting to get a record. Since I will only communicate with them, that becomes a practical necessity besides a good thing in general.
  • Besides at least two grown-ups solidly supporting this and very good at using email, from your side the thing must be youth-led. This is kids achieving the record, with some help, but substantially by themselves.
  • Must have access to a gym or other such enclosed, large space. While the final attempt will be in an open field with TV cameras and public, practice and success must have been achieved before, and, as I said, this is about 20 feet in size. You will need access to that gym for about a total of 5 days, maybe one single week.
  • Must have or feel able to have a solid service mission, ideally among the international refugees that now call Austin home, but not necessarily. As an example, be able to start or support members of that population to join the BSA.
  • Must feel comfortable and ready to dedicate the necessary time in contacting prospective supporters that would participate of the record attempt by donating money to your group and to the non profit mission you do. This part is the one that will take about two months and will need several hours per week for your whole team!
  • Needs to become familiar with how this works from the side of the Guinness people, like by following this link
  • Must get going now. It takes over 10 weeks to Guinness to recognize a record, unless you pay a lot of money. This means we must be done and wrapped up by September at the latest – that means working hard over the Summer, which is great as there is no homework to serve as an excuse for not doing this right, yes? By July we are in full movement building interest and supporters, and we do it and get it in by September.
    Let’s say it takes me one month to find the right group to partner with, and that’s it for 2014…
  • I am generous of my time and knowledge. I prefer working with people that are that way also. Before writing to me you must send this on to at least 5 other people who could participate, but would not have found out unless you gave them the chance.

Why are you doing this?

It is good advertisement for my company, Also, when I was a kid I wanted to have a Guinness World Record. Maybe some kid wants that, and I can help that become possible. More than anything, what we achieve might be of some use to the refugees in Austin. Very little is being done for them by most youth groups, and I feel that can change for the better.


[1] Guinness, the logo, etc., are trademarks, copyrighted properties, etc. Pictured here without implying any endorsement.

Is UDL more than the latest Edu buzzword?


Well, maybe. My first reaction was that, if it has the word “Universal” in it, it is again another attempt at one-size-fits-all schooling. If you hadn’t heard it, I consider One-Size-Fits-All Schooling a delayed form of a crime against humanity.

It didn’t help that my first encounter with UDL was the Learning Wheel of Maryland, which is somewhat confused (and has a peculiar nc in their CC, even though they admit it was totally paid by taxes?!?!) No blame Maryland. They possibly got it from this “official” source, material that makes even less sense to me (for starters, just notice the word “how” is used in both the “what” and the “why” columns, but not in the “how” column…)

Anyway, the wheel had a helpful link to a National Center On Universal Design for Learning, which eventually gets me to something called CAST, which happens to be a private nonprofit.

Aha!, a who’s who of Ancient-IT backers, and, interestingly also Creative Commons is listed though so far nothing by CAST is CC? (some stuff by other authors is CC within the CAST servers)

Anything worth rescuing? well, one quote, Did You Know…? The ‘universal’ in Universal Design for Learning does not imply a single optimal solution for everyone. Instead, it underscores the need for multiple approaches to meet the needs of diverse learners. OK, so far so good, sort of. And this “graphic organizer“. Which, just in case you were wondering, is clearly labeled “all rights reserved”, while confused whether it’s v1.0  (in web page) or v2.0 (pdf). Either way, being proprietary, it is compromised and thus useless for a community of learners, just one more example of some “expert” work that should be accepted as-is by its believers.

Bottom line

UDL empowers independent, capable citizens?
Doesn’t look that way to me – UDL appears so far as something designed to continue dependency in Media and Technology fashioned by the Establishment.

Despite its encouraging concerns for diverse learning needs, UDL does not seem to care about the overwhelming need for individual paths to learning, but just one main set path (“Universal”), that is then adapted to how different learners can address it and absorb it. There is a deep concern for Special Needs – which would be great, if it were to build individual paths. Otherwise, oh well – I guess that better something than nothing, but, can’t we do it right, some day? Please?

As is, it’s maybe an even more dangerous One-Size-Fits-All than anything we have seen so far, which, misusing somebody else’s words, appears as made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.