Hackaday Prize Entry: Worldwide Educational Infrastructure

The future of education is STEM, and for the next generation to be fitter, happier, and more productive, classrooms around the world must start teaching programming, computer engineering, science, maths, and electronics to grade school students. In industrialized countries, this isn’t a problem: they have enough money for iPads, Chromebooks, and a fast Internet connection. For developing economies? That problem is a little harder to solve. Children in these countries go to school, but there are no racks of iPads, no computers, and even electricity isn’t a given. To solve this problem, [Eric] has created a portable classroom for his entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

Classrooms don’t need much, but the best education will invariably need computers and the Internet. Simply by the virtue of Wikipedia, a connection to the Internet multiplies the efforts of any teacher, and is perhaps the best investment anyone can make in the education of a child. This was the idea behind the One Laptop Per Child project a decade ago, but since then, ARM boards running Linux have become incredibly cheap, and we’re getting to a point where cheap Internet everywhere is a real possibility.

To build this portable classroom, [Eric] is relying on the Raspberry Pi. Yes, there are cheaper options, but the Pi is good enough. A connection to online resources is required, and for that [Eric] is turning to the Outernet. It’s a system that will broadcast educational material down from orbit, using ground stations made from cheap and portable KU band satellite dishes and cheap receivers.

When it comes to educational resources for very rural communities, the options are limited. With [Eric]’s project, the possibilities for educating students on the basics of living in the modern world become much easier, and makes for a great entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

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One Dollar Board Targets Students

The Raspberry Pi was made to be inexpensive with an eye toward putting them into schools. But what about programs targeted at teaching embedded programming? There are plenty of fiscally-starved schools all over the world, and it isn’t uncommon for teachers to buy supplies out of their own pockets. What could you do with a board that cost just one dollar?

That’s the idea behind the team promoting the “One Dollar Board” (we don’t know why they didn’t call it a buck board). The idea is to produce a Creative Commons design for a simple microcontroller board that only costs a dollar. You can see a video about the project, below.

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Open Robots with Open Roberta

Kids, and Hackaday editors, love robots! The Open Roberta project (OR) takes advantage of this to teach kids about programming. And while the main focus is building a robot programming language that works for teaching grade-school and high-school kids, it’s also a part of a large open source robotics ecosystem that brings a lot more to the table than you might think. We talked with some folks at Google, one of the projects’ sponsors, about where the project is and where it’s going.

csm_Roberta_9e1215fc57Building a robot can be very simple — assembling pre-configured parts or building something small, quick, and cute — or it can be an endeavour that takes years of sweat and tears. Either way, the skills involved in building the ‘bot aren’t necessarily the same as those it takes to program the firmware that drives it, and then eventually the higher-level software that makes it functional and easy to drive.

OR, as an educational project, makes it very, very easy for kids to start off programming robots, but it’s expandable as the user gets more experienced. And since everything is open source, it’s part of a whole ecosystem that makes it even more valuable. We think it’s worth a look (along with something significantly more complex like ROS) if you’re playing around with robotics.

System Architecture

openRoberta.dotOpen Roberta is the user-facing middleware in a chain of software and firmware bits that make a robot work in a classroom environment. For the students, everything runs inside a browser. OR provides a webserver, robot programming interface and language, and then converts the output of the students’ programs to something that can be used with the robots’ firmware. The robots that are used in classrooms are mostly based on the Lego Mindstorms EV3 platform because it’s easy to put something together in short order. (But if you don’t have an EV3, don’t despair and read on!)

The emphasis is on ease of entry for the students and the teachers supervising the class. Everything runs in a browser, so there’s nothing to install on the client side. The students connect to a server that directs the robots, communicating with the robots’ own operating system, and uploading the students’ programs.

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Hacklet 106 – Robots That Teach

One of the best ways to teach electronics and programming is with hands-on learning. Get the concepts off the computer screen and out into the real world. Students of all ages have been learning with robots for decades. Many older Hackaday readers will remember the turtle robots. These little ‘bots would drive around drawing shapes created in the logo programming language. This week’s Hacklet is all about the next generation of robots that teach electronics, mechanics, programming, and of course, hacking. So let’s check out some of the best educational robot projects on Hackaday.io!

edubotWe start with [Tom Van den Bon] and Edubot Controller (Benny). Buying one or two robots can get expensive. Equipping a classroom full of them can break the bank. [Tom] is hoping to make robots cheaper and more accessible with Edubot, his entry in the 2016 Hackaday prize. Edubot rides on a 3D printed frame with low-cost gear motors for a drive system. Edubot’s brain is an STM32F042, a low-cost ARM processor from ST micro. The micro and motor drives are integrated into a custom board [Tom] designed. He’s has even begun creating lesson plans so students of various ages and skill levels can participate and learn.

microbotNext up is [Joshua Elsdon] with Micro Robots for Education. Big robots can be intimidating. They can also cause some damage when hardware and software created by budding engineers doesn’t operate as expected. Tiny robots though, are much easier to wrangle. [Joshua ] may have taken tiny to an extreme with these robots. Each robot is under 2 cm square. The goal is for each one to cost less than  £10 to produce. These micro bots have big brains with their ATmega328P micro controllers. [Joshua] is currently trying to figure out a low-cost way to produce wheels for these robots.

Next we have [shamylmansoor] with 3D printed mobile robot for STEM education. Robots are expensive, and international shipping can make them even more expensive. [Shamyl] is shooting for a robot which can be made locally in Pakistan. 3D printing is the answer. The robot’s chassis can be printed on any FDM printer. Wheels,and tires are low-cost units. Motors are RC servos modified for continuous rotation. The brains of the robot is an Arduino Mega 2560, which should provide plenty of inputs for sensors. [Shamyl] even included a solderless breadboard so students can prototype circuits and sensors right on the robot’s body.

 

plobotFinally we have [Rodolfo] with Plobot. Plobot is a robot designed for the youngest hackers – those from four to seven years old. [Rodolfo] designed Plobot to be programmed with RFID cards. Each card contains a command such as move forward, turn, start, and reset. Many of the language mechanics are inspired by the Scratch programming language. Plobot’s processor is a Sanguino, running [Rodolfo’s] custom code. An ESP8266 allows Plobot to be connected to the outside world via WiFi. [Rodolfo] has even created a custom over the air update system for Plobot’s firmware. Plobot has already been tested with students, where it made a great showing. We’re hoping both [Rodolfo] and Plobot do well in the 2016 Hackaday Prize!

If you want more mind hacking goodness, check out our brand new educational robot list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Brazillian Class Creates Digital Board Game

A class in Brazil was given the assignment to make a board game. [Marcelo], presumably, heard his son lamenting how lame it was going to be if the board was just cardboard with some drawings on, and came to the rescue.

 fusion between Operation and one of those disease transmitters at the doctors office
A match meant to be.

Working with the class, they came up with the rules of the game. We’re not certain what those are, but it involves a regular game board, a flashing light circle with numbers, and a fusion between Operation and one of those disease transmitters commonly found at the doctor’s office. You can try to puzzle them out from the video after the break.

The brains of the board is an Arduino with an external EEPROM for all the sound effects and other data needed for this construction. Everything is laid out on a beautifully done home etched PCB. It’s too bad the other side of the board isn’t visible.

We’re sure the kids learned a lot working with [Marcelo]. It would have been nice if a traveling wizard came to some of our earlier classes in school and showed us just how much cool stuff you can do if you know electronics.

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Punch Card Reader for the 10 Types of People in the World

Punch card data input is so 1890 US Census, right? Maybe not, if your goal is to educate kids about binary numbers and how they can encode characters. In which case, this paper clip and metal tape punch card reader might be just the thing you need.

Built as part of the educational outreach efforts of the MakeICT hackerspace, this project allows kids and adults to play with binary numbers and get some instant feedback. The reader itself is a simple affair of wood and plastic; bent paperclips make contact with a foil tape strip and LEDs show the state of the five input bits. A card is provided to students with spaces for the letters of a word that they want to input, along with a table to translate each letter into a number. Students use a paper punch to encode each character in binary. As the card is pulled through the reader, the letters are spoken by the Pi in turn and the whole word is pronounced at the end.

We’ll no doubt hear quibbles with the decision not to use ASCII for the character set, but we can see the logic in keeping the number of bits to a minimum and not distracting from the learning process. What’s cool about this is that it engages kids on so many levels. They learn about binary numbers, encoding systems, interfacing a computer to the real world, and if they care to delve deeper, they can learn about the code behind everything. It’s a great hook into the hacking arts.

And once the kids learn a thing or two, maybe they can use this punch-card Twitter interface to tweet their new-found knowledge.


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BBC Micro:Bit Gets An App

It’s a small, cheap, British single board computer, and nobody can get hold of them. Another Raspberry Pi Zero story, you might think, but no, this is about the other small cheap and difficult to find British SBC, the BBC micro:bit. Samsung UK have produced an app for the micro:bit that allows owners to write code on their Android phones, and upload it to their micro:bit via Bluetooth.

The micro:bit story has played out with agonising slowness over the last year, but it seems that there may now be light at the end of the tunnel. The idea is a good one: give a small but very capable single board computer to every Year 7 (about 12 years old) child, and watch them learn something more useful about computers than how to use a Windows application. It has echoes of the BBC Micro 8-bit computer for schools sponsored by the UK government in the 1980s, and the hope is that it will help reproduce the same technical literacy enjoyed by 1980s kids.

The plan was for the youngsters to receive their boards last October but the project as been plagued by a series of delays and the latest estimate from January was that the boards would reach the kids after the school half-term. In other words within the next couple of weeks, depending on which part of the UK the school is located in.

We recently had a brief opportunity here at Hackaday to examine a micro:bit in the wild. It is a capable little board in its own right, being at heart an mbed, however the recommended web-based micro:bit IDE and compiler differs from the more usual mbed toolchain. One thing that caught our attention in the demo we were given was the micro:bit’s use of USB to deploy code; since schools lock down computer hardware to the n’th degree we were concerned that the micro:bits might not be visible on school USB ports. Easy Bluetooth deployment through the Samsung app promises to bypass that barrier, which can only be a good thing.

We’ve been watching the micro:bit story here at Hackaday from the start, most recently we noted the arrival of Python on the platform. If it has a formative influence on the generation of developers and engineers you’ll be hiring in the mid-2020s then we expect it to feature in many future stories.