Meet The Makers – Les Pounder

Hello everyone, we’re back and it’s May already, how did that happen? Hopefully it means some better weather is on the way, it definitely means Liverpool MakeFest 2018 is getting a lot closer but it also means something else, it’s the start of a new series we’re calling Meet The Makers. We’ll have regular interviews with some of the Makers involved in this years MakeFest. We’ll discover what they’re planning to do this time but also delve back into how they got started, what inspires them and what it really means to be a Maker. Sound good? I hope so because we’ll also be releasing the interviews in podcast form each week. I’ve dusted off the old Radio MakeFest apparatus from 2015 and I’m pleased to say after a bit of WD-40 it’s all still works.

2 people stood in the discover space, Josha Lowe and Les Pounder
The man himself, on the right Les Pounder, on the left Joshua Lowe who we’ll talking to in the future.

You’ll be able to read shortened transcripts here and if that wets your appetite there’s always the full audio interviews to listen to. We’re kicking off this endeavour with an old friend, Les Pounder. A Maker, journalist and educator who’s working to spread the joy of making to new faces young and old. He also writes for many tech magazines and runs training courses for teachers. We’ll get into all that in the interview, so here goes…..

(Psst if you can’t be bothered to read all this listen to the podcast instead)

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DAN: Les, thanks for joining us. You’ve done loads of stuff in the Maker-sphere and you do a lot around teaching is that right?

LES: I started being a maker in roughly 2013 and when I started I knew nothing about programming, electronics or any of the actual fabrication process. I was really just a civil servant who knew a bit of Linux and could hack around and play. The Raspberry Pi came out, I had gotten myself one the year previous, used it for about an hour because it ran Linux and then just put it in a draw like a lot of people did at that time.

A year later I decided to leave the company I was working for, as you do. I decided to learn programming on the back of getting a gig where I’d said “yeah I can program”. So it sort of went from there. I learnt Python, I learnt Raspberry Pi, I learnt a bit of electronics as I went.

Fast forward to the present day and I’ve taught over 600 teachers across the UK to use the Raspberry Pi, build robot and more through the Picadamy (Raspberry Pi Foundation’s training scheme), I’ve done my own private CPD for clients such as the STEM Centre in York, and one of my greatest achievements is helping kids to take the fear away from learning something new. At school kids are told “you must learn this because it’ll get you a great job, you’re gonna be a banker… a fighter pilot… or something like that” but the kids are often scared to try something new, so by helping them to learn how to fail responsibly and use that failure as a lesson we’ve got a lot of kids now who know electronics and programming a lot better than I do, and they’ve got many years to come where they can learn new skills.

DAN: That’s great and am I right in thinking  the political climate changed suddenly for teachers, for years computing had been run down and not seen as important, then all of a sudden they were told “by the way next year you’re gonna be teaching Python and you’re gonna be talking about algorithms” and that was incredibly daunting, so was it the catalyst for a lot of this?

LES: It was the catalyst for schools yes. People like Alan O’Donahue the infamous/famous Teknoteacher, everyone knows him, everyone loves him, he sort of kick started the computing curriculum in the North West and he’s a big evangelist for making sure kids can learn how to code. As far as the changes from UK government I’m not an expert on that but from my point of view a lot of teachers were ill prepared. The teachers were just suddenly told “ok you’re doing computer science now” and a lot of the teachers who were doing ICT knew how to do spreadsheets and databases, they could go online and stay safe but when it comes to actual computational thinking, it wasn’t being taught. Now that isn’t true for all teachers but it was true for a good percentage.

DAN: It’s hard to give a definitive answer to this but do you think they’re back on track now broadly speaking?

LES: They’re getting there still. Obviously computing is a subject close to both our hearts and it doesn’t stand still, it’s always changing, always evolving. So one minute you’re teaching e-safety, keeping safe online, the next minute you’re teaching the kids 3 dimensional arrays in Python, or anything in between really.

DAN: Or they could be teaching us more likely.

LES: Oh yeah. A lot of teachers are on board and they’re creating their own learning path to understand how it all works, but there are teachers, and I do know a few, who are only a couple of weeks ahead of where the kids are, it’s something that keeps them learning as well as the kids which is also a good thing.

DAN: Yeah it must be, and it is difficult. In case anyone thinks I sound negative towards teachers I’m not at all. As you just mentioned, if you stop with computing you’re lost in no time. I haven’t seriously programmed in 3 or 4 years, I’m probably a dinosaur by now. It IS hard to keep on top of, I understand that.

LES: There’s been a least 5 million Javascript frameworks released since you last programmed.

DAN: Yeah and each one is the best thing ever no doubt. So before we get too off track, part of the reason for this series is to find out from Makers how they got interesting in making. Do you remember what first made you think “I want to do something cool with a computer”?

LES: I got a computer when I was 5 years old, that was a Commodore 16, that’s an old one now…

DAN: I remember the Commodore 64 but not the 16.

A photo of a Commodore 64 computer
You may laugh but back in the 80s this was one hot piece of kit. The Commodore 64.

LES: So I had that and it was really just a games console. I had no idea what programming was but the Commodore 64 came and I got some magazines, copied the code in from those to try and make games work. You’d spend 45 minutes copying the code to make a gunshot sound and then forget how to save the code.

It wasn’t until the Amiga came out that that I got more interested in programming but that was really only the terminal interface. I got into that and made my own little magazine disks, back in the day, so perhaps I’ve always been a journalist at heart.

The Amiga led me to do more computer stuff but not quite programming yet. The programming, and this is the truth, was really only 5 years ago with Raspberry Pi and Python. Before that I could do Bash scripts maybe but that’s not something that’s taught in schools.

DAN: So is it still Python that you focus on or do you use other things?

LES: Yeah Python is still the main focus because it heavily used in schools. It isn’t the only language out there, I love messing with Node-Red which is like a process or event driven programming environment where you connect these boxes with wires and it demonstrates how input and output work.

DAN: So you’ve done all kinds of things around computing and technology, you write for magazines, go to events and so on. Has it taken you to places you didn’t imagine?

LES: Yeah, when I first started this journey 5 years ago I was just a person sat at home with my laptop on the sofa thinking “what the hell am I gonna do?”, I had no idea. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to go to PyCon UK, MakerFaire, I’ve been all around the UK with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, I’ve been into schools chatting to kids about how they can become Makers and understand the world around them. Just next week I’m going to be in the United States with what I call my protégée, Joshua Lowe hehe. He’s a prolific Python programmer but he only started about 3 years ago. He’s been asked to keynote at PyCon in America.

DAN: Wow! Fingers crossed Josh is going to be a future guest on this series. You’ve also been designing some kits for teaching kids, so tell us a bit about that.

LES: In the middle of last year a company called Maker Life approached me to create a series of kits for kids. These were all based around the Raspberry Pi Zero W, the small £15 Pi that has wireless and Bluetooth. They wanted to create something easily accessible at the right price point for a parent or relative to buy it for a kid as a present. So we started off with the Hello World of physical computing, controlling an LED. Traffic lights, turning them on and off. I’ve always said if you can turn on an LED you can turn on a motor, and if you can do that you can build a robot. It’s the gateway into being an electronics person. We tested out the first one at a school in Altrincham (near Manchester) and it went down a storm.

Here’s the initial kit Les designed

We’ve also got a second kit out now which is a weather station… this is starting to sound like a QVC pitch, if you ring now you can get this…

DAN: Only while stocks last!

The Raspberry Pi Zero W kit designed by Les for Maker Life UK.

LES: So the weather station kit is the same components that were in the official Raspberry Pi weather station that’s no longer available. You can measure wind speed, temperature and humidity, and it can send the data wirelessly to wherever you want it to go.

I keep going on about this 5 year journey but 5 years ago I really had no idea what I was going to do, now I’ve got companies coming to me with projects like this and I have the skills to be able to do it. That’s a real testament to the community. Not my learning skills or my intelligence, it’s asking questions. People like the Raspberry Pi community, the Arduino community, the Microbit community. Asking questions that you might feel a complete idiot asking. Ask the question, nobody is going to think you’re an idiot. They’ll answer it and also give you the knowledge to take it further in future so you can then share it on. That’s really all I’m doing.

DAN: So you’re going to be at Liverpool MakeFest of course, people can come along and say hello. What will you be up to?

LES: I’m going to be there along with Joshua Lowe and the Micro:Bit foundation. We’re going to be playing around with lots of Micro:Bits and Neopixels to control our signage. We’re going to have some laser cut signage – which I haven’t done yet – we’ll be showing you how to make that do cool things. We’re also going to be using Josh’s project EduBlocks to control the Micro:Bit and just showing off how you can get into being a Maker and how it doesn’t have to be expensive. That’s important for kids really, you want to know what they can do with very little money. Don’t get me wrong cardboard is still the best hacking material!! Cheap too, just go round the back of ASDA, or Sainsburys as they’re now known hehehe.

DAN: Sounds great, we’re gonna have loads of people there, it’s free to attend, it’s family friendly, come along and get involved. So Les you’re gonna be there with a gang by the sounds of it and we look forward to seeing you. Thanks for talking to us.

LES: No worries, thanks Dan. I shall be there!

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A big thanks to Les Pounder for joining us. Don’t forget you can listen to the full audio on the podcast. It’s just under half an hour and has some very funny moments which I left out here.

You can even subscribe to the podcast very easily by clicking the box on the top right of the page, then we’ll deliver fresh episodes whenever they’re ready.

You can find Les via Twitter: @biglesp

Or on his blog: http://bigl.es

He’ll be in the Discover room during Liverpool MakeFest if you want ask him any questions yourself!

We hope to see you there. Grab a free ticket from Eventbrite. If you have questions you’d like me to put to future guests you can always email lpoolmakefest@gmail.com or ping us a message via social media, links at the top of the page there.

I’ll be back next week talking to another Maker about their journey to Liverpool MakeFest 2018, join me then.

Dan Lynch

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