Mariah Noelle Villarreal

A mash-up of Minetest & Blockly for kids

  • Published: May 15th, 2016
  • Comments: 1

While working at the Putnam Museum and Science Center, I had the opportunity to lead several after-school programs, workshops and summer camps. In some of these programs, I taught programming to young people ages 6 – 14. We used several tools for this, including Turtle Blocks by Sugar Labs, Scratch out of the Lifelong Kindergarten group, Lubuntu as an operating system and my favorite tool of all: a mash-up/hack of Minetest and Blockly.

It all started when I contemplated using Raspberry Pis running Kano versus refurbished laptops running GNU/Linux. Naturally, I wanted the laptops with GNU/Linux but there were parts of the Kano software that I thought would be a nice touch for facilitating a more informal learning environment. Also….who can resist being able to program a Minecraft environment with blocks?? I found a program called Minetest, free software that resembles Minecraft, which could be used to teach programming in the form of the Lua programming language to create mods. And apparently, Lua was designed with teaching in mind, so I was particularly happy with the find. With me so far? That seemed like a great start but I wanted something that would be accessible to people who don’t have a solid foundation in keyboarding. So, I asked Ruben for some assistance.

He put together a hack of Minetest (free software that resembles Minecraft) and Blockly (the foundation for things like and Turtle). And what he made was a good enough piece of software to use on the laptops running GNU/Linux in after-school programs and summer camps to show the young learners how to do some nice 3-dimensional programming. Win, win, win!

What I particularly like about this nifty tool is that the person writing and running the code can switch from drag-and-drop programming and Python text programming with the click of a button.

Fast forward to today, I’m still using Blockly Minetest with the Boys & Girls Club of Boston members. It captures the members’ creativity and imagination while introducing mathematical concepts. I’ve seen members go from being insecure about how to program a simple cube to confidently crashing their computer, pushing their creative boundaries, realizing the computer has limitations and bouncing back from mistakes in a matter of seconds.

I couldn’t ask for more.


Wonder Freely Launch – Coming Soon!

  • Published: Sep 27th, 2015
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In the next couple of months, I will launch Wonder Freely, a podcast to connect informal educators and learners. So far, I’ve recorded a few interviews that still need editing. I’m constantly looking for more people to interview.

Over the past few years, I’ve found that the informal education community is massive on social media. However, the intimate connection that the podcasting format brings to the community hasn’t been tapped into yet. Broadcasting voices from the informal education community, outside of costly and sometimes inaccessible conferences, would only enhance an already vibrant community.

I hope to engage the community through this media format and encourage anyone interested in being involved to reach out to me!


  • Published: Dec 19th, 2014
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Starting off my day at the Open Education Conference, I listened to Lawrence Lessig talk about copyright law, the need to fundraise and Aaron Swartz. Given the amount of campaigning Lessig has been up to in the past couple of years, I knew to expect these topics. I was reminded of a conversation I had earlier in the year with people at the hackerspace in San Antonio, 10BitWorks, who suggested I invited him to speak at Open Ed Jam. I thought it would be a difficult task given the short time frame and limited budget of the conference. It seemed fitting though to listen to him at the conference in D.C., where just a couple of years ago I met with people who saw potential in my research interests.

Lessig spoke about the powers of the economic elite, organized interest and individual voters. True to his message, he urged the audience to consider fundraising for the cause to shift power through decentralized campaign funding structures. He said the Open Education movement “is an inspiration to me, against all odds, you’re fighting for something that makes sense, that is important, that makes sense.”

So how does the Open Education movement fit with Lessig’s call and fight to decentralize campaign funding?

It starts with copyright law. Within the past 50 years, copyright law has become enacted and enforced in extreme and unprecedented ways. During his talk, Lessig noted how the term “copy” had never been regulated until 1979, 70 years after it was put into legislation. The argument made by Lessig is that the word “copy” itself was most likely a mistake when the legislation in the first place. However, since “copies” have been regulated by copyright law in 1979, the law has been used as a tool to stifle the birth and rise of the internet.

The Open Education movement aims to increase access to educational resources through various measures, including using free licenses (a hack on copyright law), creating culturally relevant instructional design, and increasing use of digital tools as a means to spread information quickly and (relatively) cheaply. As of late, there are people that consider themselves part of the movement who are political in nature, educators, designers, hackers, librarians, academics, legislators, and high-level administrators. Of course, this doesn’t encompasses the entire Open Education movement, but these are particular pieces of the movement that seem to be prominent.

Where is the diversity we seek?

  • Published: Oct 28th, 2014
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First off, congratulations to FIRST’s new Executive Advisory Board members. It is obvious that they have been long time, supportive members of the FIRST community.

“Individually, their experience is quite impressive. Combined, these three new members offer knowledge and resources to FIRST that is unmatched”

I’m positive that is true. However, I want to take a moment to express another perspective.

These appointments of the new Executive Advisory Board members show how FIRST continues not to seize opportunities to incorporate diversity of experience and thought.

Out of curiousity, I searched the profiles of all of the FIRST EAB members. Names found here:

Of the 23 EAB members, only 4 are white females and only 1 is a minority (Asian) male.

No Black board members, no Latino board members, no American Indian members?

This is ridiculous. I’m disappointed.

From an international non-profit, I expect more. FIRST says it wants to be “massively adopted”. That’s nice and all, but it takes more than what’s already being done at a high-level. Until FIRST starts mindfully making diverse placements on their boards and within it’s salaried workforce, it can expect a much longer, rockier path to massive adoption.

I find the work that I do serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with FIRST fulfilling, especially given how transformative FIRST can be in a young person’s life.

That’s why I wish FIRST would take advantage of the high-level opportunities to diversify.

Step up.

Recap of the Camino de Santiago

  • Published: Oct 27th, 2014
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After over seven years of wanting to do the Camino de Santiago, I can finally say that I’ve done one of the routes. I ended up walking the route with Ruben from Ourense to Santiago, which is about 113 kilometers (or 70 miles), in five days. Mind you, I had barely any training, so I knew going into the camino that it may be more difficult than it seemed. That said, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Here is a link to the photo album I’ve uploaded to my Flickr account.

What is great about the route we took is that it isn’t all paved roads like the more popular route, Camino Frances. Even more, the route is definitely one of the less travelled which made it feel more solitary and adventurous.

The hike on the second day was the most difficult and most breathtaking. I wish that the pictures we took could show the depth of the scenes. Alas, we couldn’t bring along a more professional camera because you know….weight. The night before we actually hacked my backpack to make it more suitable for hiking. Let’s just say that neither Ruben nor I were the most prepared for this trip. It definitely made it more interesting though.

The third day I ended up getting a pretty gnarly blister, so I threaded a needle through it to let it drain. Fun stuff. This day was particularly long. I was glad when I was able to put my feet up and relax.

I met some interesting people on the trip and found everyone to be particularly helpful. One of the ladies who ran the private albergue that we stayed in the last night was absolutely wonderful. If you ever decide to do the Camino from Ourense, I would highly suggest staying at her place. Great company, service and outstanding food. <<I’m going to edit this later and include that information.>>

Once we arrived in Santiago, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I ended up seeing the same people that started in the same place on the same day in Oursense while I was waiting in line to get the Pilgrim’s Passport stamped. That was a neat experience, because we all took slightly different routes and walked at our own paces, yet ended up at the end of the journey together.

After dreaming about walking into Santiago for so long, I couldn’t help but to feel completely overwhelmed with joyous emotion. The journey there was a beautiful one. I hope the pictures give at least of glimpse of that. What topped off the whole trip was when I was actually waiting to go through customs back in the U.S. One of the men standing in line saw my Camino de Santiago shirt with the yellow arrow on it and so warmly told me, “Buen camino”.

The journey isn’t over…walking the entire Camino Frances (500 km) is next on my list of things-to-do. Perhaps, next time :)

A debrief about organizing OpenEd Jam

  • Published: Aug 2nd, 2014
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Now that OpenEd Jam has officially happened. I’m going to take some time to reflect on what led up to the event, people’s reaction to the event, and my plans (as of only this moment) for the future of OpenEd Jam. Until now, I haven’t mentioned much about OpenEd Jam on my blog. I figure now that the first event has happened, I can barely start to reflect on it. The following is a short debrief on how I went about organizing it including some sticky situations and general lack of understanding on my part.

Planning and executing OpenEd Jam was an experience I never imagined having. It all started from a message I sent out to friends. I just wanted to sit and discuss ideas about freely licensed software/hardware with some friends. Well, that turned into something much larger. Someone offered the idea of making a confe rence on this theme. Before I knew it, I was planning a full blown conference on freely licensed educational materials. And this was in the middle of December, in the midst of the holidays, basically six months before the event took place.


Since I had never done anything like this before, I think it was a little easier for me to go with the flow about it. Throughout the initial weeks I would think things like, “We probably need a logo. One of my friends is a designer…maybe they’d like to help out with a logo. I’ll have to remember to ask him next time I see him.” I asked people I knew for help, reached out to different communities through email to try to connect with people who might like to speak at the event, created a Twitter account, tweeted from the account, helped create a fully freely licensed website for the event, set up “Planning Committee Meetings”.

And sure enough, people were responsive. I saw this as a good sign that this idea of bringing together the community surrounding freely licensed education materials was actually doable and wanted.

The first few months, I really was just stumbling upon different ideas and going with them. I saw that Open Education Week was in March so I figured I’d tweet a bunch about OpenEd Jam and host an Open Education Week event in San Antonio to try to gain momemtum and hopefully get people in San Antonio aware of the Open Education movement. I think this worked well. People started engaging with me online about the event and asking questions. People’s curiousity about the event kept the idea alive.

Then, I started to feel overwhelmed. Having never done this before, I didn’t really have systems in place to handle all of the communication with people and had to make lots of stuff up as I went along. Thank goodness for the internet and friends. I would’ve failed miserably without them. I had little to no clue about about project management, writing a press release, determining an appropriate location, fundraising generally, and “how the heck are we going to funnel the money?” ‘Fiscal sponsor, duh.’ The world of non-profit event planning eluded me.

It still does.

Anyway, people started submitting session proposals in April. That was such an awesome feeling. All of these amazing people were interested in coming to this event to meet people who were interested and doing things in the Open Education field. I couldn’t believe the amount of proposals we got.

I had initially said we would try to fund travel scholarships for people who couldn’t afford the trip (being an AmeriCorps VISTA, I know all about that). Unfortunately though, I quickly realized that we would simply not have enough funding the first time around. This was quite a disappointing thing for me. I wish I could’ve raised more funds, so people who were genuinely amazing could come to the event without killing their wallets. San Antonio is a hard place to travel to.

Hopefully, the next OpenEd Jam will be able to fund some travel scholarships for these exemplary people.

I will leave this post as it is now. I’m mostly covering logisitics in this post to get it out of the way, so I can focus more on what happened at the event and how it can be improved for next year in my next posts. I hope this post gives you a first glimpse into my process for organizing the event, failures and successes all.



On OpenEd Jam – two weeks to go!

  • Published: Jul 14th, 2014
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It’s a conference that will be happening in less than two weeks here in San Antonio. I’ve been a bit quiet about this, I suppose.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been researching free licensing within education systems. There has been an increasing trend to create and use freely licensed material on an international scale. There have been a multitude of small and large organizations that have taken on these principles and adopted them for their libraries, schools, musuems, etc. The topic of freely licensed material is gaining positive reinforcement in some sectors of the the corporate and political worlds.

Communities like these understand the value of freely licensed resources and intertwine in such a fascinating way. The desire to learn new information, create and modify artifacts and expand on previous thought drives these communities. What better way to foster that desire than with freely licensed resources?

By gathering this community of hackers, makers, educators and librarians, I hope that people will not only see their similarities in the way to approach licensing in education, but also amplify their work on this topic in an effective way.

So, I decided to go for it. I’m quite excited about the line up of speakers and all of the sessions that have been confirmed so far.

Assembling the Matchbox Puzzle Box Pt. 1

  • Published: Apr 16th, 2014
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A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take on puzzle boxes. So, I found kits designed by Bruce Viney and bought a pre-cut one from Myer’s Crafts.

Since I have very little experience with puzzle bIMAG0044oxes, I figured assembling one might be a good way to learn how they are designed. As I’m moving from place to place right now, I also don’t have normal access to tools for wood cutting. This is another reason why this kit is a nifty way to learn about puzzle boxes. Not tools necessary! Well, almost…I didn’t realize how necessary sand paper would be.

To the left, you can see the puzzle box pieces after I dumped them on the table and the design instructions on my laptop.


What I like about the puzzle kits designed by Bruce Viney is how simple he makes them. These kits seem to be a low-barrier way for someone to enter the mechanical wooden puzzle world. On the right, you can see the wooden pieces layed out with the outlines that indicate how to glue them together.

IMAG0047I mentioned earlier how I didn’t realize how necessary sand paper would be. This is another reason I will have to wait until tomorrow to complete the box.

I tried attaching the sliding panels to no avail (not pictured here). They didn’t quite fit due to variance. Then, I decided with all of my wonderful wisdom to try to sand the pieces down with a plastic knife. Don’t try that one at home. You just end up being frustrated with the plastic knife….and yourself.

I’ve worked on the Matchbox for about an hour. I was able to glue the base together as well as the sliding panels. I am going to wait for the pieces to dry completely and continue to work on the puzzle box tomorrow.

[sorry about lack of photo quality]

Serving with a community center

  • Published: Apr 16th, 2014
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For the past six months, I have been working with a local community center in San Antonio. What an experience! When I first reached out to the local area community leaders, I had really no idea what I was getting myself into….as with most endeavours of mine.

The community leaders were excited about the idea of having a mock competition for the community center kids since the registration deadline had already passed for First Lego League. We thought it would be a great way to get the kids’ hands dirty and feet wet with robotics.

So, I went on a quest for resources. Luckily, one of people who is also serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with FIRST, Clare, was interested in helping with the project. Without her, I would not have been able to see it through. I thought I could and quickly realized I was out of my mind to think I could single handedly start 12 robotics teams in the community center.

Once Clare was on board with the project, we were able to gather resources more effectively and efficiently as well as communicate with the different people and organizations involved. Together, we’ve been able to secure so many in-kind donations and volunteers.

The kids at the community center are ecstatic about the robotics teams we’ve built with them. Some kids had never heard of robotics, let alone though they could do it. With the help of some amazing volunteers from the University of Incarnate Word and local middle school students, the kids at the community center have built some top notch robots for their upcoming competition. They will be competing against themselves, as there are three solid teams that have formed from these efforts.

The mock competition will be happening on May 3rd at a local high school. It should be quite the event! I’ll post some photos and a wrap-up once it’s all over.

So this is happening….

  • Published: Mar 30th, 2014
  • Comments: None

I‘m coordinating a 3-day event called OpenEd Jam (

One night I was incredibly bored. I decided to send a message to some of my friends to see if they’d like to meet up and talk about free software and hardware in education. Little did I know that the meeting would turn into something much bigger than sitting in a circle talking about education freedom with friends.

Somehow we managed to find a whiteboard that was completely covered in dry erase marker. I mean, the kind of dry erase marker that’s been sitting on a whiteboard for at least weeks, probably more than several months. Naturally, there was no other way to get the markings off the whiteboard without another dry erase marker and carefully going over the markings then quickly erasing them… This was somewhat effective, though time consuming. It ended up being smudged anyway. I wish I had a picture of the white board… I actually don’t think anyone has used it since then… Hmm….

Anyway, somehow I ended up writing ideas down for an event and everyone at the meet up was starting to contribute to this mess of a whiteboard. A free and open education meet up in San Antonio ended up becoming a 3-day international event. I suppose everything is bigger in Texas.

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