Astronomy 101

The FFL's Telescope

Last summer, the Fayetteville Free Library acquired a telescope: a Celestron NexStar 8 SE. We used the telescope once during the summer for a program called Daytime Astronomy which unfortunately happened on a rainy day so we weren’t able to view the sun through the solar filter. For the rest of the summer and into the fall, I eagerly anticipated that days when the sun would set early enough I could run a night-time astronomy program during library hours.

On January 20th, 2015 I finally began a 5-part Astronomy series for teens and families at the library. The purpose of this program was to introduce members of our community to the technology available in the library and to give them an introductory understanding of astronomy. I began each meeting by introducing a concept in astronomy. At the first meeting it was the names and orders of planets in our solar system followed by a description of how telescopes work. We were favored with a clear sky so we took the telescope outside to look at the stars despite the bitter cold. For every day that we had clear skies, we took the telescope outside for at least half an hour. That was usually enough time to set it up, focus on something, view it for 10 minutes, and then go back inside because our fingers were numb and our noses frozen (the average temperature was around 10 F). We got some very nice views of Jupiter and counted at least 5 of Jupiter’s moons.

Here are some of the activities we did:Measuring Craters

Observing Jupiter through the FFL TelescopeThere were at least 9 and as many as 19 participants at each meeting. Everyone participated with enthusiasm and curiosity and worked together for the activities. They all asked questions that I answered as best as I was able, sometimes writing them down so I could research the answer and give it to them at the next meeting. All of the parents who came were just as interested in the activities as their children, participating alongside them instead of the usual passive observation that you get from parents in most family library programs.

Because of the interest in and success of this program, I will be running it again in late October when there is at least an hour and a half of night before the library closes.

Creation Club

Creation Club is an after-school club for middle schoolers who are interested in digital creation. At the FFL we have a room called the Creation Lab. In this room there are three desktop computers (2 PC and 1 iMac). On them we have audio, video, image, photo editing, and 3D modeling software. You can also find cameras, iPads, microphones, a green screen wall, and various other odds and ends relating to digital content creation.

Creation Club meets twice a month after school. There are usually short instructional workshops on how to do or use something in the Creation Lab at the beginning of the meeting and then the teens are given the rest of the meeting time to experiment with this new knowledge. Since spring of 2012, Creation Club has created stop motion videos, photoshopped themselves into their favorite movies/computer games, created 3D models, recorded podcasts, created original videos, and wrote and recorded an original song.

Starting in February of 2014, we changed it up a bit away from the purely digital and delved into how digital designs can be transformed into physical objects. The first week of February began with learning how to use the vinyl cutter in the FFL Fab Lab to turn line art into a decal. We used an image editing program they were already familiar with from the photo editing workshops last year  to create original artwork. Following that were two weeks of exploring 3D design using 2D drawings and the FFL Fab Lab’s laser cutter, and then a whole series on video game design (by popular demand).

Gamestar MechanicTo learn about video game design, we used Gamestar Mechanic. They actually provide an excellent set of teacher resources with lesson plans, so you can just jump right in with the kids having no previous knowledge of game design. For four weeks, the Creation Club played games to learn about game design and then had a chance to build their own games and have their peers playtest them and give appropriate suggestions.

Creation Club is now on break for the summer, but I look forward to starting back up again in the fall with some new and interesting projects.

The First FFL Minecraft Games

The second movie in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire, was released on in theaters on November 22nd, 2013. In anticipation of this exciting event, the FFL had a few Hunger Games programs. Namely, we did a screening of the first movie in our community room and we ran a specially themed Minecraft program. I have written previously about our experience with Minecraft, but this was completely different. I got the idea for this program listening to the boys in my First LEGO League team (more on that some other time) talking about playing Minecraft on various public servers.

These boys were talking specifically about a bukkit server that was set up like the Hunger Games. I did some research and found youtube videos, blogs, and instructions on using mods with Minecraft servers. With Pete’s help (our Director of Technology Integration and all around technology genius), a lot of cursing, hair pulling, and you tube watching, we were able to set up a bukkit server running the World Edit, Survival Games, and Essentials plugins. I learned a lot about commands, permissions, and general Minecraftery.

It took Pete and I probably 20 hours total to set up the server and I am quite proud of what we made, considering it was our first experience designing a Minecraft server. I really wish I had thought to take screen captures of the server when I was done… Oh well. There was a cornucopia of sorts, basically a collection of chests, around a central beacon around which everyone spawned. For the first 20 seconds of the game, nobody could attack other players, but after that there were no rules. When the field was down to only 3 players, lightning would periodically flash to show where the survivors were. At elimination, the player would return to the lobby to await the next round.

We planned the program for 30 players in 2 hours because we had 10 laptop computers we could set up and we were sure that 30 players could play at least one round each within a 2 hour period. The community room was set up something like this:

The ten players would sit at the laptops set up on tables in a kind of square and those waiting for their turn would sit in the seats surrounding them. Each wave of the game would have 3 rounds of 10 players each so that everyone would get to play at least once before anyone got a second chance. Pete set up a spreadsheet where we recorded every player’s name and kept score by who were the last players standing. One point for being third to last, 2 points for being second to last, and 3 points for the winner. Scores were really only being kept for bragging rights, since there were no prizes to be won. The rules were easy: 10 players at a time would fight until eliminated, there was to be no name-calling or foul language, everyone would get to play once per wave and we would play as many waves as we had time for, and they were to have fun doing it.

First FFL Minecraft GamesOn November 21st, 2013 at 6pm, the First FFL Minecraft Games began. We had 29 teens and children (one had to be asked to spectate only for violating the foul language rule) and several parent and friend spectators. On the projection screen we kept the list of names and scores. It took about 10 minutes to explain the rules of the game and how the server was set up and then we played one practice wave so everyone could become familiar with the arena-style gameplay. By 8pm, each player had participated in 4 games which means that we ran a total of 12 individual rounds not including the practice. Players formed alliances with others while waiting their turn to enter the arena and negotiated strategies. They even tried to persuade me to allow 2 winners per game, like in the Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I attempted to announce the goings on a’la Caesar Flickerman, but the action happened so fast I was having trouble keeping up, also I lost my voice after the first hour. I set my laptop up at one end of the playing area so I could spectate (and moderate) within the game as well as watch the players at the tables. After the first wave, most of the waiting players were hovering behind the current players to watch the games and call out advice and warnings. I had about 5 kids watching over my shoulder once they realized that I was spectating.

At 8:05pm, the First FFL Minecraft Games were over and all of the players returned, alive, to their parents. Many of them left having formed new friendships and with promises to meet in the Teen Computer Lab at a later date to play MinecraftEdu together. Every single one of them asked me, either that night or the next time they saw me in the library, when the next Games would be. I can tell you that as a first-time Minecraft arena game creator and as a novice player, I was personally proud of having made my first try such a success. I can also tell you that as a teen librarian, the First FFL Minecraft Games was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. By 8:10pm, I had already begun planning the Second FFL Minecraft Games.

Minecraft in the Library

Minecraft at the FFLLast summer began my (and my library’s) odyssey into Minecraft. As my desk is in the teen space and my primary responsibility is to serve teens, I had been overhearing a lot of chatter about Minecraft. So, I determined that this was something the library should look into since it was not only entertaining, but educational (so much STEM I could talk your head off). The biggest problem I saw was that you needed to purchase an account in order to play it with others. But hey, you can play the free demo on their webpage and we have a bunch of laptops so… let’s play it in the library! Every Friday of our summer reading program in 2013, I pulled out the library’s laptop computers and all of our iPads for drop-in play. If there ever was a crash course in Minecraft and network infrastructures, this was it. Things I learned:

  • Gold is called butter or budder. It is important to understand the proper terminology.
  • Monsters only come out at night.
  • Teens love to show you what they made and how.
  • TNT is “da bomb.”
  • You can download the full version of Minecraft on your computer and play it offline without having a Mojang account – BUT you can’t play multiplayer without one. 
  • There is actually a maximum number of devices that can be simultaneously connected to the library’s network.
  • Nobody likes it when they can’t access the internet.

At the end of the summer our library had discovered that we had opened a veritable Pandora’s box. Teens and children had developed a taste for Minecraft and they wanted more and they wanted it now and they wanted it (most amazingly) at the library. The rest of our patrons wanted what they always want: the internet on their preferred computers or devices at the library. In order to provide access to Minecraft and to prevent overtaxing of our network, we came up with some solutions. Firstly, we invested in an organizational license for MinecraftEdu and several Mojang accounts for library use. Secondly, we increased the number of individual licenses our network was able to manage. And lastly, we installed the MinecraftEdu launcher on the computers in the library’s teen space enabling access to Minecraft without taking up any extra licenses.

sxC6sSo what’s MinecraftEdu?

MinecraftEdu is a modified edition of Minecraft that is primarily designed for schools and educational institutions to use as a teaching tool. I’m not even going to go into all the things educators are using Minecraft to teach, you can read about that at the MinecraftEdu website. We chose to implement MinecraftEdu so that we could provide access to Minecraft without inadvertently providing access to content that is in violation of our own patron code of conduct. With MinecraftEdu, our patrons can play multiplayer in our library-hosted server with other players in the library. Our server can only be accessed from within our library, which means that we can be sure no outside player can troll our server. That also means that we are able to moderate our server easily; the players must be within the walls of our library to enter, so if there is a case of griefing the culprit can be easily identified and asked to modify their behavior to abide by our patron code of conduct.

Long story short… it’s Minecraft and it’s in the library.

What’s about network licenses?

Our library has one adult computer lab, one teen computer lab, two computer areas in the children’s room, and additional desktop computers in various places throughout the library. These computers each need a license to connect to the internet through our server. Additionally, every cell phone, tablet, laptop, etc. that is brought into the library and accesses the internet through our free wifi network uses a license. Before last summer we had never (to my knowledge) had a case where there were more computers and devices accessing the internet through the library network than we had licenses for. I admit that I am not entirely sure what it means, but I do understand that there is a max number of things that can connect to the internet through our network and we went over. When we had 16 laptops and 4 ipads using the library’s wifi in addition to the existing computers during the summer at peak times (more people with more mobile devices), we had so many connectivity errors in the Minecraft program and out in the library which caused so many complaints and frustrations, that every Friday afternoon just before these programs we would go through and clear out the cache of connected devices just so we could attempt to get the laptops online.

Should you contemplate incorporating Minecraft into your library offerings, I recommend that you have a discussion with your IT person(s) about what this might mean and anticipate the problems so that you can solve them easily. We have since increased the number of active licenses our network can carry (which was especially important since we wanted to use the laptops for programs more often).

Playing TogetherI really love that we have been able to provide Minecraft to the teens and children in our library. Not just because I love overhearing them talk about chickens in the bathtub and zombie pigmen attacks, but because of the STEAM literacies they are building through play and they ways in which they use their fandom to other areas of their lives. In the course of 5 months, teens in our library have built 7 civilizations that I am aware of each with a government system, a currency, a real estate ownership method, and a justice system. They have formed alliances, participated in government coups, fought together, and made peace. They have made truly creative structures which are controlled through a specially designed series of redstone circuits and switches. I am awed by what they have and are creating and I can’t wait to see what they decide to do next.

STEAMPunk Club!

Steampunk Digital Sign

The inspiration for this club is an indirect demand in our community for more STEM subject programming for teens. The community that supports us is home to one of the highest scoring school districts in the state for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and we have seen a push to promote STEM subjects through the adoption of Common Core standards in schools New York. In the Fayetteville Free Library, we like to add the A for art and make it STEAM instead. We have had success with programming for teens based around our maker culture and using the materials for our Fab Lab. We have also had outstanding response to our LEGO robotics programs. So, we decided to put some of those ideas together to create an ongoing afterschool club that will touch on all of these things while still involving literacy and reading.

The STEAMPunk Club gets its name from the steampunk YA genre and from STEAM subjects. STEAMPunk Club meets twice a month and every month is inspired by a steampunk YA novel. There are discussions relating to the book and then there are hands-on projects based on the book.

For example, our first month is inspired by Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld:

Description from Goodreads: Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

In Leviathan, there is a girl masquerading as a boy so that she can be an airman and you have a princeling who has lost his kingdom. You also have world powers who use Darwin’s theories of evolution to engineer living creatures who can be used as war machines (Darwinists) and you have world powers who rely on engineering and physics to build mechanical wonders that are used as war machines (Clankers).

In our first meeting, we examined the creations of the Darwinists, specifically Leviathan itself, a massive air-beast that is reminiscent of a whale but flies through the air like a zeppelin. Obviously, we are unable to genetically engineer a Leviathan for ourselves in the library in 90 minutes, we we did discuss how it is that Leviathan and other flying ships work. After doing an experiment with water to illustrate clearly how hot water/air rises and cold water/air sinks, we then applied this principle to making hot air balloons from tissue paper. Unfortunately our hot air balloons were less airworthy than Leviathan, but we did enjoy making them nonetheless. My coworker and I had so much fun trying out the water experiment in advance, if you have any jars, I highly recommend it.

In our next meeting, we will discuss the meaning of bravery and compare Deryn’s definition with our own. And then we will go the Clanker route and build mechanical Walkers using LEGO Mindstorms. Our walkers will have four legs instead of two, but they will still give the club members an opportunity to understand how a simple walking machine works to give them an appreciation for the engineering involved.

So far, we have met only once and there were 4 teens who showed up. I hope that those who come will have so much fun they will spread the word among their friends and classmates. My goal is to have a core group of more than 10 teens show up to each meeting by May.