Why we're tinkering in Swift



It’s ComiCon 2016 in Silicon Valley and Steve Wozniak (Woz) is being interviewed on stage about his early days of tinkering with technology.

‘I liked [technology] because I could know something other people didn’t know… I could build little devices that could trick people,’ says Woz with a laugh.

I find myself tapping the words into my iPhone, the device Woz invented as co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs.

He continues talking about the small steps you take to building technology. Completely in awe, I resolve to keep growing the TinkerTech program I started to help kids do the same.

‘Do the right things and sometimes you can make money,’ continues Woz and I dutifully type it into the Notes app.

Hmmm. Sometimes.

Because the stuff you enjoy isn’t necessarily the stuff that makes you money. Usually it’s the stuff that costs you money. But in the case of TinkerTech, it really could make money for the students who come to class. If kids learn to code, and they like it and can do it well enough, they can get a job. If kids learn to code but they don’t want to pursue it further, it’s still good because they’ve learned a very useful thought process. It’s a mindset that will serve them well in just about anything. Tinkering with technology helps create innovators, the kind who have potential to create something as powerful as the iPhone.

Swift playgrounds on ipad

Swift playgrounds on ipad

There isn’t really an argument against learning to code. Coding, tinkering with code, is problem-solving. Problem-solving is seeking solutions. Seeking solutions is how we’re going to fix a lot of problems. 

The last few years have seen an explosion of great programs encouraging and supporting people of all ages who want to learn to code. In TinkerTech’s previous incarnation as CodemakerClub, we used a fair few of them. But here in Marin in San Francisco’s Bay Area, most of the kids have iPhones in their pockets and family iPads back at home, so I was always craving a program that taught them code on and for the devices they use most. Importantly, it had to work as a group class, encouraging collaboration as the students share their learning experience.

A year ago, Apple brought out Swift Playgrounds. We tested it in class and it was great, but for the impatient types, it seemed like too big a leap from the fun coding challenges to actually building apps - for most TinkerTech students, the final destination in learning to code.

'Code should be everyone's second language,' says Harald Batista of ilumina Tech. 'The Swift programming language is easy and fast to learn, yet it also gives you the most power and impact in today's technology environment.'

TinkerTech Founder and blog author Claire Comins sharing a joke with a waxwork Steve Jobs. At ComiCon Silicon Valley

TinkerTech Founder and blog author Claire Comins sharing a joke with a waxwork Steve Jobs. At ComiCon Silicon Valley

With Apple’s updated education program introduced this year, there now feels like a continuous program and TinkerTech is diving straight in. For the 2017 school year, we’re offering a program that leads students from intro to coding with Swift to using Xcode for building apps.

‘Follow your heart and your instinct,’ says Woz and I’m sure he’s right.

To be the first to hear about TinkerTech’s latest coding classes, sign up here or email hello@tinkertech.me

Hello TinkerTech

May is a busy month for makers and educators in California.

Projects started in class need to come to final stages before the end of the school year, schools and activity centers are organizing next year's programs, and everyone is talking about THE show and tell for makers, the Maker Faire in San Mateo.

It's also a great time to start shouting about new programs - and for me that means TinkerTech, the new name for the classes I've been building as an independent maker educator for the past three years.

The world needs more creative thinkers

TinkerTech uses a combination of cheap maker materials (card, paper, tape, Lego and LEDs) and the best edtech tools (makey makey, littleBits, circuitcubes and Sphero) to help kids learn the skills they need to be a creative thinker.

If students use these skills to become the next great innovator, engineer, or entrepreneur, that’s fantastic as the world needs more people with these skills! If they just like the class because it’s fun and they get to make cool stuff, well that’s what we really like to hear. When kids are enjoying themselves, they are in that place where the best ideas happen.

Creating an environment of playful learning is key because it's the 'it doesn't work' moments that provide the richest parts of the class. This is where the real learning and understanding of what STEM is all about happens. My background as an educational and creative writer meant fun, themed classes were a natural way to create this environment, building the hands-on tinkering for ages 4-12 (Grades Pre-K - 6 US, Nursery - Year 6 in the UK) around a program that encourages imagination. After a year of hands-on testing in our classes in California, we now have a unique year-round program of activities.

TinkerTech activities are accessible for anyone, 'techie' or not

TinkerTech's themed curriculum encourages creativity, story-telling and collaboration through STEM activities. The target age is K-6 children (UK: Nursery to Year 6) and for now, we mostly work with educators who can use the program in schools, clubs and libraries. The activities are created by teachers who work with children all the time and know what they like. Engineering and science concepts inspire the activities, but educators from a mix of backgrounds - engineering, science and the arts, create them, which makes TinkerTech activities accessible for anyone to use. They are suitable for packing up in a box to take on location wherever your class might be, and are designed to take about one hour plus set-up and clean-up.

Students create projects that are an expression of themselves and that they are proud to share

Our themes range from Superhero to FunFair to Build a City, with each themed project exploring light, sound and motion and designed to be completed to ‘Show and Tell’ standard in about six weeks. Great for schools preparing for a Maker or Open House event - and wonderful for children who use a mix of high and low-tech tools and materials to create projects that are an expression of themselves and that they are proud to share.

We love working with startups creating educational technology for young students and enjoy connecting with maker educators across the world. Just drop us a line at hello@tinkertech.me.

Article by TinkerTech Founder, Claire Comins @clairecomins



Making Ideas Fly on Earth Day

One of my favorite parts of running maker and coding classes for kids is community events. Today's Marinovators Fair at local community college College of Marin is a top event for families to see work by students and create some of their own.


We had a blast at the maker activity table for TinkerTech, the new name for the Rafiakids classes that are growing with each school semester.

Check out the video. And if you'd like a class, workshop or camp near you (or you're an educator looking for help to start a TinkerTech maker and coding club of your own), reach out with an email to hello@tinkertech.me

Claire Comins, Founder, TinkerTech


TinkerTech teacher Natalie  

TinkerTech teacher Natalie  


TinkerTech Founder Claire Comins

Robots For Sale

Rafiakids Founder Claire Comins with robot friends from L to R: Dash and Dot, ozobot (in hand), mBot, another ozobot, and Sphero

Rafiakids Founder Claire Comins with robot friends from L to R: Dash and Dot, ozobot (in hand), mBot, another ozobot, and Sphero

Robots are a great intro to programming for kids of any age. Especially in the run-up to holidays, parents of students often ask me to recommend educational robots. It's a great time to buy as all companies will be doing Christmas gift-inspired discounts. Shop around as you could find your local Barnes & Noble offers as good if not better a deal than the go-to online retailers.

Here are robots I’ve used in my RafiaKids STEM maker and coding classes. I’d recommend them all for different reasons, not least because they encourage kids to look up from their screens. Robots are a brilliant visual representation of code. Watching them zoom about is entertainment in itself - take the controls and you’re one tap closer to being a programmer.

Most off-the-shelf robots sold as educational toys come with a quickstart remote control option, usually an app with a joystick type control that you can use on your phone or tablet. For children who can read, my advice is to try and get off these as quickly as possible and install the coding app because they can do so much more with it. Playing with code is easy with these robots because it’s all block coding - fat colorful blocks that you can move around with your finger and click into position on a smartphone screen. Kids who have done Scratch will have no trouble getting started. The Tickle app is doing a great job at this because it pulls in some of the best educational robot apps in one place. And if you are curious, you can tap further and see the ‘real’ code hard at work underneath.

Dash and Dot
These robots just work. There is no trouble-shooting needed for setting up so they are great with any age and learning ability. I used them in a class of young adults with autism and found them a brilliant way to connect. With just enough character in the rounded blue design to make them personable, these robots prove themselves time and again a best first robot for young children.

San Francisco Bay Area startup Wonder Workshop has developed a family of apps for Dash and Dot and there’s already a strong community of clubs sharing ideas through competitions. Not the cheapest, but because of their size, an easy robot to share in a school club or when your children’s friends come to play.

'Superhero Dash' gets ready to take a turn in a catwalk show

'Superhero Dash' gets ready to take a turn in a catwalk show

If you’ve seen one robot in the stores, it’s probably this one, with its double-ball headline-catching relation, BB-8. Sphero has basically reinvented the ball, and this is definitely the coolest programmable robot here because, well, it doesn’t look anything like a picture-book robot. With no fiddly parts to break, it’s the most robust and offers the quickest path to programming.

sphero meets swift in the tickle app

sphero meets swift in the tickle app

There are some accessories to be bought (the chariot looks good), but you basically bring your own creativity to this bot. At maker faires, I’ve seen kids remote-control painting with Sphero, making it follow an obstacle course, and promotional videos show it swimming underwater. In my class, the students programmed a simulated zombie attack which was surprisingly delightful to watch.

mBots were some of the first programmable robots I tried with middle schoolers. They were challenging enough to fill one-hour classes, and 3-4 classes was enough to get kids understanding the basic settings, functions and programs. I also based some robot summer camps around them.

Programming mBots in Rafiakids mixed maker and coding class

‘I liked the mBots - you didn't have to do any wiring, it was just programming,’ said Sam, 10, who built and programmed an mBot in a mixed robot programming class.

Out the box, they take about an hour to build. For the original version we got from Kickstarter in 2013, code was only uploaded via usb and it took a while to find and download the right software for Mac. The mBot team in Shenzhen, China, has grown hugely since those early days, the product has improved with apps, and mBots are now a popular choice in schools in Europe, China and the US.

‘mBots are a great intermediary or second robot experience for kids,’ says Sara Bolduc, Innovation Manager of the CEC Makerspace in Hamilton, California. ‘The online interface of the mBlock program itself mimics Scratch and is great for teaching code skills at the same time as robotics.’

Author, STEM enthusiast and CEO of IoT Disruptions Sudha Jamthe agrees that mBot's variation of Scratch, called mBlock, is key to its success for teaching programing. 'It it easy for kids to program visually,' she says. 'mBot comes with many sensors which make it fun for the kids and keeps them wanting to try more things. You can program musical notes or LED lights, or make the robot follow a line. If the students get the easy programming concepts, you can use mBot to teach about variables and functions by creating an obstacle race.'

One of the latest additions to mBot is the Ranger Robot, a larger tougher-looking rover robot that I can see kids really wanting in their toy collection. Like the mBot, it comes in parts with a screwdriver and instructions. In the time it took me to do a google hangout, a middle school student built the Ranger and paired it up with the smartphone app. It was the first time he’d built a robot and he proudly demo’d it in the makerspace.

The following day, Ranger was zooming around under the control of Emily, 14.

‘It looks a bit like Wall-E… And the programming is just like Scratch,’ she said, as she navigated Ranger round chair and table legs and knocked a Sphero out the way.

These tiny robots fit into the palm of your hand. Place them on a line drawn in thick black Sharpie and they zoom along nicely. You can program them to change speed or direction and flash different colored lights by breaking your black line and adding in some primary colored dots. You can also upload code when placed on a tablet or smartphone screen that has ozobot’s apps installed.

‘They’re a fun, easy, quick plug-and-play for younger aged kids,’ says Sara Bolduc.

Ozobot following color codes

Ozobot following color codes

Ozobots are great for table-top entertainment although can be temperamental when it comes to uploading code from the apps. If you run into problems, make sure you have turned up the brightness settings on your screen, recalibrate the bot by placing it on the black circle provided in the box or in the apps, and check the wheels are free of fluff.

Whichever robot you choose to buy, the important thing to remember with kids is that for anything to become something they return to, it needs to be fun. 'There's something about being able to touch and hold something like a toy that engages kids,' says Sudha Jamthe who has taught STEM to middle schoolers. 'I enjoy seeing the amazement in kids. They think creatively about what else they can do and keep learning more programming, all while having fun.'

For free updates on other fun stuff that goes on in Claire’s rafiakids classes, subscribe at rafiakids.com or check out the class twitter, youtube, and facebook.


A great community day out at Marinovators

Wonderful to meet so many families at the College of Marin Kentfield Campus on Saturday. It was my third year at Marinovators but the first year for children from rafiakids classes to show their projects: Superheroes el-wire badges from the class at Kent Middle for grades 4-6 and Superhero transporter vehicles by children in the grades 2-3 class.

Thanks to everyone who stopped for a chat, a mini lightbox-making session and to enter our raffle. We will be in touch with the winners by the end of this week, May 5th. Thanks to lecrify.it and tinkering labs for providing the prizes.

New classes starting Wednesday this week at Kent Middle and Larkspur Rec.

Summer camps booking now.

Video from Saturday here. Happy making and see you soon!



What's so exciting about maker?

Rafiakids had the chance to be part of an exciting new local event this week. On Tuesday, over 200 families met in the Bacich community centre for a fun night of making, socializing, and discovering the great atmosphere that can be created when families gather in a creative environment. 

Rafiakids Founder Claire Comins took the opportunity to interview the organisers of the event, and the principal and Innovation and Integration specialist of this local public elementary school to hear what they think is so exciting about maker. 

'Maker activities encourage our children to be creative, ind ependent thinkers, and courageous in trying new things. And it is fun for all ages!”

Sarah Killingsworth, KSPTA Parent Ed committee and co-chair for Family Maker Night

 'It’s especially exciting because kids get to share this experience with their family and maybe make some discoveries with new materials, tools, or arts and crafts supplies.' 

 Annalyn Chargualaf-Peluso, co-chair for Family Maker Night

 'I think a hands-on approach is always beneficial in education. It really helps to give kids a conceptual understanding of the subject matter before branching off into the abstract. Plus, making taps into kids’ natural creativity and allows them to take ownership of their learning.'

Kevin Cutler, Innovation and Integration Specialist, Bacich Elementary and Kent Middle Schools

 'There’s something magical about bringing school families together for a parent-child event. We have such a wonderful school, that these moments allow us to feel the special bond that we have as a school community. The energy is so positive, and the challenge of working on a maker projects allows for our moms and dads to see their children in action and really engaged in creative learning – together.”

Sally Peck, Principal, Bacich Elementary School


Rafiakids student with inspiration for the class el-wire project we'll be taking to the Marinovators Fair at College of Marin this April

Rafiakids student with inspiration for the class el-wire project we'll be taking to the Marinovators Fair at College of Marin this April

Sharing projects and passing on new knowledge is a big part of the maker mindset. These students are great at that!

Sharing projects and passing on new knowledge is a big part of the maker mindset. These students are great at that!

Elementary students taking a break from hands-on craft to program tiny ozobots at the rafiakids table

Elementary students taking a break from hands-on craft to program tiny ozobots at the rafiakids table

littleBits are a great quick entry to making - and class videos show children what can be done with them

littleBits are a great quick entry to making - and class videos show children what can be done with them

What is rafiakids.com?

⦿ the home website for rafiakids coding and maker classes and camps in Marin County, California. 

⦿ a growing source of tried and tested maker ideas and coding challenges for children at home, in after-school clubs, libraries and makerspaces. 

⦿ the place to find reviews of the latest kits and products to help your child learn to make and code with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths) core age: 7-11 (Grades 2-6 in the US, Years 3-7 in the UK)

⦿ the best place to start to find entry-level engineering, STEAM (Science, Technology, Art and Maths), and maker projects that are easy to source and quick to start.