It’s nearly two years since Computing became a subject for all children in England to study, and we’re now seeing some amazing work to bring opportunities for digital making into schools. Recently I visited Eastwood Academy in Southend-on-Sea, where teacher Lucas Abbot has created a digital making room, and built a community of young programmers and makers there.
Lucas trained as a physics teacher and got hold of a Raspberry Pi for projects at home back in 2012. His head teacher heard about his hobby, and when the move towards all children learning programming started, Lucas was approached to take up the challenge of developing the new subject of Computing in the school. With the help of friends at the local Raspberry Jam, Linux user group, and other programming meetups, he taught himself the new curriculum and set about creating an environment in which young people could take a similarly empowered approach.
In Year 7, students start by developing an understanding of what a computer is; it’s a journey that takes them down memory lane with their parents, discussing the retro technology of their own childhoods. Newly informed of what they’re working with, they then move on to programming with the Flowol language, moving to Scratch, Kodu and the BBC micro:bit. In Year 8 they get to move on to the Raspberry Pi, firing up the fifteen units Lucas has set up in collaborative workstations in the middle of the room. By the time the students choose their GCSE subjects at the end of Year 8, they have experienced programming a variety of HATs, hacking Minecraft to run games they have invented, and managing a Linux system themselves.
Fifteen Raspberry Pi computers have been set up in the centre of the room, at stations specifically designed to promote collaboration. While the traditional PCs around the edges of the room are still used, it was the Pi stations where pupils were most active, connecting things for their projects, and making together. A clever use of ceiling-mounted sockets, and some chains for health and safety reasons, has allowed these new stations to be set up at a low cost.
The teaching is based on building a firm foundation in each area studied, before giving students the chance to invent, build, and hack their own projects. I spent a whole day at the school; I found the environment to be entirely hands-on, and filled with engaged and excited young people learning through making. In one fabulous project two girls were setting up a paper rocket system, propelled using compressed air with a computer-based countdown system. Problem-solving and learning through failure are part of the environment too. One group spent a session trying to troubleshoot a HAT-mounted display that wasn’t quite behaving as they wanted it to.
Lessons were impressive, but even more so was the lunchtime making club which happens every single day. About 30 young people rushed into the room at lunchtime and got started with projects ranging from figuring out how to program a robot Mr Abbot had brought in, to creating the IKEA coffee table arcade machines from a recent MagPi tutorial.
I had a great conversation with one female student who told me how she had persuaded her father to buy a Raspberry Pi, and then taught him how to use it. Together, they got inspired to create a wood-engraving machine using a laser. Lunchtime clubs are often a place for socialising, but there was a real sense of purpose here too, of students coming together to achieve something for themselves.
Since 2014 most schools in England have had lessons in computing, but Eastwood Academy has also been building a community of young digital makers. They’re linking their ambitious lessons with their own interests and aspirations, building cool projects, learning lots, and having fun along the way. We’d love to hear from other schools that are taking such an ambitious approach to computing and digital making.
Once in a while you come across a project that you can’t help but share. One that exemplifies the way people across the globe are using Raspberry Pi to make a difference in ways we didn’t quite anticipate.
HolaMundo is one of those projects. They’re using Raspberry Pis for the training they describe (click CC for subtitles to the signed and spoken parts of the video).
¿De qué trata el proyecto? Se trata de darles una opción a estos jóvenes con discapacidad auditiva y de escasos recursos. Brindar una base tecnológica a 12 jóvenes con discapacidad auditiva a través de un curso presencial de cómputo y programación dividido en 3 partes: Introducción a la computación y al Internet Diseño de sitios web con HTML5 y JS Introducción al sistema operativo y funcionamiento de Raspberry Pi ¿Cómo vamos a utilizar el dinero?
Alejandro Mercado and his team in Mexico City are currently crowdfunding to build a teaching programme for young people with a hearing disability. The programme aims to help educate them in computing and web design using Raspberry Pi, with the objective of increasing their educational and employment opportunities in the future.
A trainer teaches a class at HolaMundo, and a sign interpreter signs for him
For young people in Mexico City such as Jorge (the star of the campaign video), the prospects moving forward for those with a hearing impairment are slim. The programme aims to increase the opportunities available to him and his fellow students so that they can move on to higher education and find jobs that might not otherwise be accessible to them.
Jorge, a fifteen-year-old student taking part in the HolaMundo training, signs to the class
Projects like this remind us of the capacity of our low-cost computer to provide educational opportunities in all kinds of settings. We’re thrilled to see determined educators worldwide using Raspberry Pi to give young people new opportunities and wider prospects.
Project-based lessons are a great way to introduce students to the world of electronics. Clearly Jenna Debois agrees, as she has built a DIY classroom clock based on an Arduino Nano. What’s even cooler is that it’s optimized for teachers!
The device is made using laser-cut wood pieces, NeoPixels, a real-time clock module, and packs plenty of customizable features like:
An additional digit that keeps track of the block or period- an especially useful feature for rotating block schedules
The ability to program holidays into the code to prevent the block from advancing on days when school is not in session
LED digits that fade from green to red as the end of the period or block approaches so that a single glance can convey the remaining class time
A countdown timer triggered 6 minutes before the period ends that flashes between the time and the remaining time- a useful feature for signaling cleanup time
Other light effects that can be triggered during lunch, free periods, after school, or other special occasions
Debois not only created a step-by-step guide, but also shared all the documentation on GitHub and a detailed video of the build process.
Enigma machines are fascinating devices, especially for young Makers looking to explore the world of electronics. Awhile back we featured a similar project from Italy, and we’re once again amazed by the work of 14-year-old Andy Eggebraaten, who built a retro-modern gadget of his own. The project, which was for his high school’s science fair, took nine months to complete.
These electro-mechanical rotor cipher machines were developed in the early 20th century to protect commercial, diplomatic and military communication, used especially by German military intelligence during World War II.
In the video below, Andy opens the machine to show its inner workings: the unit runs on Arduino Mega along with 1,800 other parts and 500 color-coded wires. We can see that he evolved the rotors into electronic modules that plug into D-Sub sockets, and the interface is made using a 16-segment display showing the rotor position as well as an LCD screen to read the plain- and the encoded text.
It’s been a long wait, but our latest single board computer for review is finally here! The BBC micro:bit, given free to every seventh-grade British child, has landed at Hackaday courtesy of a friend in the world of education. It’s been a year of false starts and delays for the project, but schools started receiving shipments just before the Easter holidays, pupils should begin lessons with them any time now, and you might even be able to buy one for yourself by the time this article goes to press.
It’s a rather odd proposition, to give an ARM based single board computer to coder-newbie children in the hope that they might learn something about how computers work, after all if you are used to other similar boards you might expect the learning curve involved to be rather steep. But the aim has been to position it as more of a toy than the kind of development board we might be used to, so it bears some investigation to see how much of a success that has been.
Opening the package, the micro:bit kit is rather minimalist. The board itself, a short USB lead, a battery box and a pair of AAA cells, an instruction leaflet, and the board itself. Everything is child-sized, the micro:bit is a curved-corner PCB about 50mm by 40mm. The top of the board has a 5 by 5 square LED matrix and a pair of tactile switches, while the bottom has the surface-mount processor and other components, the micro-USB and power connectors, and a reset button. Along the bottom edge of the board is a multi-way card-edge connector for the I/O lines with an ENIG finish. On the card edge connector several contacts are brought out to wide pads for crocodile clips with through-plated holes to take 4mm banana plugs, these are the ground and 3V power lines, and 3 of the I/O lines.
It is obvious when compared to other single board computers that this one has been designed with the pocket of a 12-year-old in mind. It’s a robust 1.6mm thick board that is devoid of pins and spiky connectors, and on which care has obviously been taken to ensure as low a profile as possible.
In hardware terms it has an ARM Cortex M0 processor from Nordic Semiconductor, a compass, accelerometer, Bluetooth Low Energy and USB as well as the previously mentioned switches, LEDs, and GPIOs.
To use the device, you have the choice of connecting it to your computer via USB, or to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth Low Energy. Sadly none of our devices support BLE so for this review we’ll be taking the former approach.
All programming is performed through a selection of web-based environments, with code editing and compilation performed online and the resulting binary file arriving as a download before being placed on the micro:bit by the user through the filesystem. Since the micro:bit is also an mbed under the hood we’d expect it to be programmable using the mbed toolchain, however that is beyond the scope of this review.
In use, the Code Kingdoms editor is straightforward and intuitive, the code for a simple compass you can see in our screenshot was very quick to assemble as a first effort. Unfortunately though in our browser at least it was extremely slow, at times almost to the point of being unusable. In particular when you wish to remove a code block it starts up an animation of its waste bin opening up which slows the browser to a crawl. It is not a good sign when you load a web page and hear your processor fan spin up.
Following the Code Kingdoms editor is Microsoft’s Block Editor. This is a drag-and drop visual editor in the same vein as the Code Kingdoms editor, except that there is no pretence of building a more traditional coding language and it is a much faster and smoother experience. The interface is broadly similar in layout to the Code Kingdoms editor, except for the compile and run commands which are at the top, above the coding window.
In our screenshot you’ll see a very simple environmental monitor designed to display readings from the micro:bit’s various sensors. Yet again this was a simple and intuitive piece of software to assemble for someone using the environment for the first time.
The third environment is another one from Microsoft, their Touch Develop editor. This is different from the other editors in that it is designed especially for use in touch environments on tablets and phones, so we tested it on an Android phone.
While the Touch Develop editor follows the same idea as the previous two of building code by selecting blocks from menus, it creates something a lot closer to text code, and requires the user to manually enter for example function parameters. We found its help system to be a little difficult on this front, it’s doubtless a useful editor if you know its intricacies but there is quite a learning curve for a first-time user.
The Touch Develop team have made as good a good job of putting a development environment onto a phone screen as they could and it is very usable, however due to the limited screen space it is still a little awkward and crowded. With luck this should be less of an issue for tablet owners.
It is worth pointing out that this editor can be stored as an offline bookmark allowing it to be used without an Internet connection, however it is not clear how any code written in this way might be compiled.
The final editor choice for the micro:bit is Python, in fact a micro:bit build of MicroPython. This editor lacks the software micro:bit emulator, but is much more like the kind of software environment that Hackaday readers will be used to. The main window is a straight text editor ready to type your Python into, and there is no menu of predefined code blocks. Instead there is a comprehensive introduction, tutorial, and documentation of the various micro:bit Python libraries, and once you are armed with those you can step right in and start writing code.
In use if you are happy with Python it is very straightforward. If your code generates any errors they are displayed scrolling across the micro:bit’s LED matrix which can be rather tedious, however at least the errors we generated were informative and led us straight to the points in our compass code which had gone wrong.
Looking at the libraries available in this editor it becomes clear that Python is the most powerful way to control your micro:bit. As well as the simple functions available in the other editors it offers libraries for I2C, SPI, UART, Neopixels and more. It’s immediately obvious that this is where the micro:bit’s “Wow!” hacks are most likely to be created.
Having looked at all the editors, our choices would be Python as the most powerful coding environment for experienced coders, and the Microsoft Block editor as the most useful drag-and-drop environment for beginners. The Code Kingdoms editor is nice but glacially slow, and the Touch Develop editor is a bit fiddly. It’s worth mentioning that all the editors have an option to save code locally, this produces an LZMA-compressed file with raw code in a JSON structure.
Of course, though some of us may benefit from it, this board is not made for Hackaday readers but for children. If it gets the recipe right, in a decade’s time it will be cited by a generation of new graduates as the machine that got them into software, but has it hit the mark? Since the children in question are only now receiving their first lessons it’s a bit early to tell, but the teacher lent us this micro:bit for the review tells us there are only two minor gripes. Not having an on-off switch they go through batteries at a phenomenal rate, and since their failed programs show no LEDs they think they’ve killed it when their software doesn’t work. The first it’s possible the kids will fix themselves by learning to unplug the packs, and perhaps the micro:bit people can fix the second with a software update. If these are the worst things that can be said about it though there can’t be too much wrong with it.
Before humans took to the skies in metal tubes powered by jet engines, there was a gentler mode of transport that we used to conquer the skies: the humble balloon.
The Montgolfier brothers’ first human-crewed balloon takes off at the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, on November 21, 1783
After the success of last year’s launches, we are giving you another opportunity to blaze a trail across the sky and become a pioneer of aviation with the return of Skycademy, our High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) training programme.
Skycademy is a FREE, two-and-a-half day CPD event that provides experience of HABing to UK-based educators, demonstrating how it can be used as an engaging teaching tool. We’ll help you take ballooning to a whole new level (literally), where the hot air of Victorian era ballooning is replaced with space-age Helium to send your balloon soaring into the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 35 km. Fun fact: that’s around three times the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747!
Attached to the HAB is the payload consisting of a Pi-In-The-Sky GPS tracker board (developed by the wonderful Dave Akerman and Anthony Stirk), and a camera module, both controlled by a Raspberry Pi. You will use these elements to capture the balloon’s epic voyage and collect data to use back in your classroom.
Read more about last year’s adventures, mishaps, and balloons that were lost somewhere over the North Sea here.
See the earth from a whole new perspective.
At this point you might be thinking: “That sounds pretty cool, but I’m new to ballooning and nervous about launching into our airspace. Do we just get the kit and roll with it or do we get training?”
EnterSkycademy. Thirty lucky attendees will be guided through the steps to running a launch and, weather permitting, get hands-on experience of a real flight, so you’ll have all the experience you need before taking it back to the classroom. The event is free to attend and will be held from 8–10 August 2016. While the course is based in Cambridge, launch day will require you to travel to the launch site and then drive to recover your payload.
Day 1: Planning and workshop sessions on all aspects of HAB flights.
Day 2: Each team launches their payload, tracks, follows and recovers it.
Day 3: Teams gather together for plenary morning.
A team prepares their HAB for launch.
Sharing the fun
Attendees are supported throughout the course by experienced HAB enthusiasts and the Raspberry Pi Education Team. However, the 2.5 days of training is only the start of a longer process where educators are expected to run launches at their own schools. Skycademy attendees will therefore receive the support and equipment needed to achieve this as part of a twelve-month programme. The ultimate aim is to get young people excited and inspired by the project, and about all the STEM skills around it. A great example of this came from a successful launch by Queen Margaret’s School for Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival 2015:
As part of WOW 2016, a girls school will use weather balloons to send a small payload into near space, at altitudes of around 30km, where atmospheric temperature drops to -50C. The satellite carries a Raspberry Pi computer transmitting images of the WOW hash tag and the curvature of our planet.
Launch Day Butterflies
Seeing your HAB ascend majestically into the sky is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Skycademy graduate Sue Gray knows this feeling all too well after she launched at Elsworth, Cambridgeshire in May 2016:
“It was quite scary letting it go! Once it was let loose, there was no turning back. If anything had been forgotten, it would stay that way! The balloon and payload sailed off into the bright blue sky and grew smaller and smaller as it flew away. A fantastic sight indeed.
Then it was time to pack up the launch box, wish the other teams good luck and set off on the chase. A quick phone call to Mr Verma confirmed that he was receiving the telemetry from the payload and could see it moving across the map.
We got to Bourne a little ahead of the payload but…something was wrong. It seemed to be hanging in the air just to the east of Peterborough and we hadn’t received any telemetry for over twenty minutes. We stopped to take stock (and grab some food and drinks), Mr Verma confirmed that he too was not seeing any movement although he’d seen the balloon change to a parachute on the tracker – indicating a burst!”
After tracking the payload to a general area and searching the surrounding farmland, the team had to give up the search. As luck would have it, someone continued searching on their behalf and tracked it down!