I was selected to attend the Raspberry Pi foundation’s #Picademy in Denver of 2018. Over this past year I have tinkered a lot with physical computing and I have taught students physical computing with Makey Makey’s, Microbits, and even the Hummingbird kits. I love physical computing and students are super excited about it as well. I also notice that it makes computer science (CS) more accessible and appealing to students that have been historically under-served in CS classes. I think the biggest positive about it is that you see instantly if your code or program works in a physical tangible way, the light lights up, the robot moves, the temperature sensor takes a reading, etc. Since it focusing on making and creativity, a different type of student is drawn in by it. Needless to say, I was pumped about attending.
It was a 2 day workshop. Day 1 we explored different uses of the Raspberry Pi. Day 2 we worked in teams on a Design Thinking project. We started at the very beginning with assembling a Raspberry Pi 3b+ and getting it to work. We did a quick block based coding exercise using offline Scratch, built into Noobs, the rPi OS. Then we started learning how to code in Python and began trying on different Raspberry Pi hats with different sensors. These activities gave us a wide range of ways the rPi could be used, and how we might approach our design thinking project.
We used the ExplorerHat which allows us to control motors with the rPi. We used the SenseHat which had sensors for barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, etc. My favorite part of the SenseHat was the 8X8 LED grid, it was like Microbits on steroids. We used the PiCamera module to learn how to take photos and videos, including time lapse and stop motion style. We used SonicPi to try making music with our rPi’s and give live mixing a shot. We learned that using AstroPi, an rPi was sent into space and sends data back to earth. There are truly an unending list of potential uses of a Raspberry Pi (rPi). Day 1 was a great overview of all that is possible, truly possible for even total beginners, so it set the stage for Day 2’s design thinking focus.
I won’t review everyone’s Day 2 projects. Suffice it to say, there were many creative projects. Some groups were able to produce an MVP (minimally viable product) and others were not, mine included. Of course, an MVP is just icing on the cake. My group learned so much even though we were not able to make something as functional as we had hoped. Here is our project. One group member has chickens in a coop at their school. Some predators get in and they wanted to see what was getting in, so they could design better barriers, using the camera kit. Some chickens were dying as a result of the heat as well. We tried to make a machine that would measure the temperature and humidity, and if either got above a certain threshhold, send the owner a message, so they could go out to the coop to check in on things. We were told the Gmail API was complicated so we should think of another way to send a notification. We chose Twitter, thinking the owner would have a Twitter account, and could enable notifications on their phone, so they’d get a notification when the temperature was dangerously high. We got this part to work. We also wanted to use the SenseHat to show the LED display depending on the state of the coop. This worked too, though it conflicted with the sensors we needed for other parts of the project and we were not able to resolve this conflict. At the end of Day 2 all groups had to present their projects.
What I loved about #picademy was that the focus was on making things, then learning the programming needed to achieve that, not the other way around. I think in CS education we often explicitly teach what a loop is and the variety of loops you can use, then explore uses. I think we lose people along the way. I liked the focus on cool projects you could build, then reverse engineering them, to figure out what concepts you need to learn to make it. It feels more intuitive to me, and what I actually do when I’m tinkering in my studio at home. 90% of my projects fail, or don’t result in an MVP, but I learn tons along the way. I don’t think at the end of some experimentation, this isn’t a product I can sell, so therefore I failed. I usually marvel at all the things I learned along the way. I think this appeals to our students as well.
One piece of feedback I’d give would be to maybe have some kind of lab aid or table cards. There were times when the pacing was quick, and I didn’t get all the programming done, when a slide changed. While I appreciated the faster pace, it could be frustrating if you aren’t ready to move on, and things are building sequentially, so you know you can’t just add the next bit of code, since you are missing a chunk of the previous code. I don’t think the presenters should slow down, the pacing was great, there should be some cheat sheets for each part that get distributed to each table group so anyone lagging behind can get caught up, without making the whole group of participants wait. It’s what I do in my classes for my students.
Overall I had a really positive experience. I am definitely planning on attending their Coolest Things get together in Santa Ana in September. I can’t wait to see what people make for that. I’ve also sought out an rPi group in San Francisco so I can keep learning and tinkering, but with occasional meetups, so I can ask questions of live people when needed. Speaking of learning:
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