17 Replies Latest reply on Feb 14, 2018 8:18 AM by 14rhb

    Stretching a school budget

    NigelB

      I am in discussions with a local school about the best way to stretch their budget for buying controllers for robotics and coding projects.

       

      Previous D&T teachers there have invested in "Crumbles"... which seem very poor value and limited in their tools, functionality and IO pins compared to Arduinos or Pi Zeros.

       

      At the moment I am exploring the possibility of using cheap Arduino nano boards, and mounting them on a simple pcb that will improve their robustness, and break out their IO into bigger more accessible terminals, as my D&T teaching contact is happy to make such boards himself using the resources from a different bucket of money, thus minimising the cost of ruggedising the Arduinos on his new equipment budget.

       

      I have also barely started to find out if S4A - Scratch for Arduino - can run on nanos, as a low-level entry way of programming them - but as far as I know S4A is designed for the Arduino Uno, so that might force my hand in that direction). If Arduinos are used, then there are free programming tools out there, allowing different levels of ability to access them for projects. Are there other examples of Scratch for Arduino that might work on a nano? Would someone like to collaborate to make one? The great thing about Arduinos is the huge range of very affordable shields out there, as well as the big community of users.

       

      Pi zeros are another possibility, as they give several levels of complexity possible - from Raspberry Assembler, to Scratch, to GPIO Zero, to Python ... each with their pros and cons - but of course the Pi zero offers the chance to do other stuff far more sophisticated than a "mere" 8-bit microcontroller such as the Arduino. And of course there are a growing number of Pi Hats to interface with the real world.

       

      As always, my time is limited to look into these things, particularly if I am to get something useful out there quickly for them.

       

      So I would be really interested in hearing from anyone who has already been through this loop, who can throw ideas or experiences into the pot, or even collaborate or share what they have already done for their local school. Something far better could be produced as a collaboration, of course. And it would be a shame to duplicate effort, instead of putting more time into an existing project to hopefully expand and improve it.

       

      Nigel

      STEM Ambassador in HANTS since 2012 (working individually, not as a corporate STEM Ambassador)

      PTLLS certified

        • Re: Stretching a school budget
          shabaz

          Hi Nigel,

           

          At university we had a department-produced board which didn't have the microcontroller, but had a small selection of functionality (a few sensors, ADC, DAC, LEDs, connections for wiring to external equipment or meters/scopes). It plugged into a microcontroller board. The advantage of the board was that it was easily repairable (it had DIP socket parts) if something went wrong, and ensured that the students didn't have any wiring mistakes, since they were all using the same board.

          This is not to suggest that this is the way to go, just a data point about an example approach for older students.

          In more recent times, I thought the micro:bit was pretty good, since it has a lot of functionality (due to modern ARM microcontroller) and several programming language methods, and also lots of resources for kids on the BBC micro:bit website. Also it has integrated sensors and LEDs, so it could help in getting started without having to wire up many connections. Again this is just an idea (maybe you have already ruled it in or out), I'm not as experienced as you in dealing with kids.

          There is a micro:bit space here with some great content: BBC micro:bit

          5 of 5 people found this helpful
            • Re: Stretching a school budget
              NigelB

              Hmmm thanks shabaz... I hadn't considered the microbit (perhaps surprisingly)... but it has a neat programming interface, and is relatively cheap, it is true.

               

              In fact the only thing not going for it, if I am not mistaken, is the lack of multiple levels of approach to code for it, to suit different age groups and abilities.

               

              Interesting thought though...

               

              As to using sockets, yes, it is probably sensible, to make upkeep/repair a bit easier, and some DIL sockets are pretty cheap... worth consideration if they don't add too much cost.

            • Re: Stretching a school budget
              gadget.iom

              If you're looking to get your own boards made you might be able to take some inspiration from the Ruggeduino and make your breakouts more "education friendly".

              https://www.rugged-circuits.com/ruggeduino/

               

              It should also be possible to use Scratch on the Nano according to this article:

              Arduino UNO, NANO connected to Scratch | heppg.de

              4 of 4 people found this helpful
              • Re: Stretching a school budget
                mistermagoo

                In my opinion (and I'm not an educator, so please, take this with a grain of salt), it depends on what you're wanting to teach them first/most. Are you wanting to teach them coding, or electronics, or computer science?
                If you're just trying to teach them how to code, then the cheapest old server with WiFi or internet connectivity would work. There are plenty of apps for most phones that allow connection over SSH/Telnet, and most people are in possession of, if not comfortable with, smart devices these days. It would also allow for students to work on projects without having to be on campus.
                For computer science, as well as coding, then the cheapest WiFi/Bluetooth-enabled SBC you can find would work. It would allow for more low-level experimentation while still allowing users to navigate through a high-level environment (smart device over SSH/Telnet/VNC), as well as teaching configuration options to connect their devices. If you can't afford a board per-student and/if not all of the students can afford a board, they can still connect with their device and work in groups on a single board.
                For computer science, coding, and electronics, the SBC route might still be the way to go if the SBC you decide to use has GPIO. Using scrap electronics from dumpster-dives, Goodwill trips, and garage sale raids is a cheap and easy way to get a fair bit of certain, more expensive parts to experiment with, but for more discrete things like resistors, capacitors, and some transistors, coils, relays, motors, and switches, they're cheap enough that you can buy them in bulk for fairly cheap on sites such as BangGood (though I'd test for lead first TBH), eBay, or Amazon. This ensures fresh new leads and mostly guarantees a working part.

                  • Re: Stretching a school budget
                    NigelB

                    Thanks for your thoughts...

                     

                    I am also not the educator, I am the STEM Ambassador.

                     

                    In the UK we have something in our secondary schools called D&T, which I think stands for Design and Technology. Which means it very definitely isn't about coding, for a large number of the students (age group in this case 11-16), it is about making a product, which can be as much about making the casework, making textiles, and even encompasses "food technology"... And in some cases taught by teachers who used to teach "food technology" and sometimes don't know the first thing about computers (unless you count MS Word). In the schools around here, they seem to have a recruitment problem getting enough teachers to teach D&T, and many of them seem to be supply teachers coming out of retirement, who used to teach woodwork and metalwork. But there are some outstanding exceptions too.

                     

                    Sad to say, I have seen some shockingly out of date attitudes from one or two of the older teachers towards the female students, and their ability or interest in technology and technical subjects. It would be so good to find the kit to motivate the students, and educate the individuals concerned by showing them what girls can do if they are motivated and supported. But another school I have talked to has a woman in charge of D&T, and she is so good - and the gender balance in her after-school club shows how that impacts on the number of girls interested.

                     

                    But when it is electronics and computing based, it often seems to get as far as the idea for an "app" but no real coding for the school kids.

                     

                    We need to bring the tools to build real things to more of the them, to inspire more of them. And the D&T teacher (unfortunately my main contact is off-sick with stress currently at one of the schools I am dealing with!) seeks to do this with the likes of Arduinos, though he currently has "Crumbles" to work with, as a legacy - so that code can be made to control stuff, and make things happen or move.

                     

                    There are of course coding clubs springing up all over the place, in which case that would be fertile ground for the cheaper options that you mention, perhaps - but there is often a sense in schools of minimising risk, and buying from official suppliers - and in this case the school's budget is a meagre £200 - £400 per year at the most, to buy stuff for a large number of students (so it may amount to about £2 per head, or something of that order - so it needs to be reusable.

                     

                    If they can get more "bang for their buck", if they could motivate them, then they might attract more budget, but it seems to be a chicken and egg problem...

                     

                    This school is lucky to have an experienced technician at their disposal, but I think that his options of where to spend the money may be limited as he needs to get other people to approve his purchases - though they seem comfortable with Amazon and possibly even Alibaba... perhaps because they are increasingly well known to domestic shoppers.

                    1 of 1 people found this helpful
                      • Re: Stretching a school budget
                        shabaz

                        Hi Nigel,

                         

                        It is really great what you are doing. Of all the lessons, Design&Technology was one of my favourites at that age (along with Physics perhaps), and it was about the only opportunity we go to be really seen as adults at that age, working responsibly with the occasional machine (milling machine, vacuum forming, soldering etc) but also the teacher was inspiring, always making us become mini-experts for a week on a topic of our choice, as long as it was slightly D&T related, and share reports/research on it each week with the others. That was kind of new for us that we had that responsibility/control at that age. Also, we all (including the teacher) arranged one D&T related outing each, for everyone to attend.

                        So for example one person arranged a trip for us to Canary Wharf to see the skyscrapers (he actually went on to become an architect) and I think I arranged a trip either to the Science Museum or something like that, I can't recall. The teacher arranged a trip to see inside a Concorde, and it was so popular that even non-D&T students came along that day, whoever could fit in the coach : ).

                        I believe (I'm not sure) that things related to sensing physical properties and "doing" something with them (like displaying it, plotting data, etc) are quite interesting, because it makes one learn more about the world. For example low-cost temperature sensors, etc.

                        Also, with the current SpaceX excitement, perhaps small sensors on model rockets could be fun. I think that sort of thing could be really inspiring.

                        I'm glad you're thinking of ways to get most interest in engineering for the limited funds. Teaching is so important, it is a real shame it is so underfunded in the UK. I'd lose no sleep if taxes had to increase to provide twice the salary to teachers and to attract new teachers. It is woefully inadequate, and the better paying positions require one to be a regional teaching expert, which is crazy - such salaries should be available for every school to offer.

                        • Re: Stretching a school budget
                          mcb1

                          what girls can do if they are motivated and supported

                          You may want to look at the 'wearables' and technology that can be incorporated into more fashion related.

                           

                          zengirl2 (Leslie Birch) did some excellent work and posted it there.

                          Adafruit is probably another that is well worth exploring and even discussing with Limor Fried   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limor_Fried

                           

                          For what it's worth, our observations are that the females are quicker at picking up coding and the concept, than the males, however they need to be interested in what they are trying to achieve.

                           

                           

                          Mark

                          3 of 3 people found this helpful
                            • Re: Stretching a school budget
                              zengirl2

                              Thanks for tagging me in this conversation and I've actually been doing some teaching for a broad age range--teachers sharing STEM with Jr. High/High Schoolers and college/adults. I've been very pro-Arduino all along as that is my foundation. I also come from a strong wearable tech background using conductive thread and other crafting materials. What I have found is that nowadays students (esp younger ones) have a hard time with attention span. So, teaching them one or two skills at a time is doable, but trying to do more than that gets complicated. So, teaching sewing, or breadboards and soldering as well as the normal electronics and coding becomes crazy. It's too much for people to grasp in a short amount of time. However, then along came Adafruit's Circuit Playground Express. Full disclosure that I freelance for Adafruit, but as soon as I saw this thing I knew it was going to allow me to share my passion and be successful with students of all ages.

                               

                              This Arduino compat. has many sensors on-board as well as a ring of Neopixels that give it instant likability. The real deal is the fact that it can be coded three different ways--Arduino, CircuitPython or MakeCode. I can tell you I'm very stubborn because I feel like people should really learn Arduino coding. In fact, I'm currently teaching an Arduino 101 for mostly architecture students at a university (most have no coding experience) and I originally was going to make them all learn traditional Arduino code. However, one look at the MakeCode web page and I was sold. No installing stuff and the drag and drop makes perfect sense (and it even has a toggle to see the Java!). Right now most of my class is doing the MakeCode, but a few are experimenting with Arduino. Some that started with MakeCode are seeing how things translate to Arduino, too. I've started with fun projects like "design your own emoji" (the on-board lights can make smiley faces if you are imaginative) and also "design your own hat" (some students did lights/music for sports teams or more serious experiments that involved sensors looking at posture, just using the Arduino on their hats!).

                              Honestly I'm so blown away and I'm even thinking I should write a book about this. One of my students sent me an email last week with a video of a light up sign she made in a metals class that incorporated the Circuit Playground Express as a switch. I recently had private interviews with my students for Checkpoint 1 (there are a total of 4 checkpoints for the class). Here are some of the comments I got: "I so wish I had learned about this when I was younger", "I'm not sure how this fits into my major of Facilities Mgmt, but I really want to do more with Arduino", "I like this Arduino so much more than other ones I've tried before", "Can we make a giant SoundCloud like that artist made?". Again, these are students with no comp sci or engineering backgrounds and they are going wild. I also introduced them to using copper tape and an external LED using alligator clips, as the microcontroller has fat pads that make it easy to do quick experiments. Next week I'll be taking them to a maker space at the school to learn soldering to complete their copper tape drawing/experiment. This class meets 2x/week and it started in Jan. They've grasped in a few weeks what took me about a year. So, I can really stand behind this.

                               

                              As for robotics, I've taken my experience to the engineering building at the same university to see how things may work. They are currently working on an outreach project for schools with a rover that has to go through a maze for students in lower schools as well as upper schools. They started with a very complicated classic Arduino with all sorts of sensors and four servos as well as laser cut pieces. I told them it looked too scary because for younger students with no exposure it was too much going on (and pricey!!). They want things to be accessible and have already changed to making a cardboard chassy. So, now they are trying to see if the Circuit Playground could work, at least for the younger students, since it has MakeCode capability. I'm not sure they can get the powerful servos for this set-up to work, but I know there is a simple tutorial for a bot with round cardboard wheels on Adafruit's site. So, if you are looking for robotics usage, I can't guarantee that this will be a solution. However, if you want something that is graspable by students and adults, and has much capability for growth, then this is your baby. Over the summer I taught a class to adults using the previous Circuit Playground board, and one person came up with a bicycle safety design prototype that he was going to pursue as an invention. So, do no be put off by tutorials for magic wands and light games. Once people understand how the sensors and data work, their imaginations can run wild, especially because they will be able to handle the code. Sorry for the length of this post, but all of this is fresh in my mind as I'm teaching the course now.

                              1 of 1 people found this helpful
                                • Re: Stretching a school budget
                                  NigelB

                                  I will definitely look into wearables - which are fun anyway, but provide a way of grabbing the interest of both genders, I would have thought.

                                   

                                  And I must take a close look at the Adafruit community, they seem to have extensive blogs that look very interesting!

                                   

                                  Thanks for your wordy contribution!

                                   

                                  Nigel

                          • Re: Stretching a school budget
                            mcb1

                            NigelB

                            It's great that schools are looking to expand their budget by seeking alternative solutions.

                            I've seen too many local schools spend their entire budgets on expensive and limited resources, which IMO doesn't stretch the pupils enough.

                             

                            We've been using Arduino in it's barest form and had no issues. We've certainly not destroyed any, BUT we've tended to stick with USB power.

                             

                            As mistermagoo  said it all depends on what you're trying to teach them.

                            For our Introduction to Arduino we have stuck with C++ rather than drag and drop style interfaces.

                            Yes it can be a little trickier but once the pupils have the basics of what they are trying to achieve, they soon fly into it.

                            I'm sure that there a few basic examples that can be provided to help ease them into it.

                             

                             

                            I've posted here before but ITEAD Studio provide the most cost effective 'bricks' that simply plug in, which eliminates wiring issues.

                            https://www.itead.cc/prototyping/electronic-brick.html?dir=asc&order=price

                             

                            Cheers

                            Mark

                            4 of 4 people found this helpful
                            • Re: Stretching a school budget
                              rsc

                              Hi Nigel,

                              Most manufacturers will donate boards for classroom use.  Both TI and Silcon labs have donated MCU eval boards for my classes.

                              Here's a link to Silicon Labs University program:

                              https://www.silabs.com/products/mcu/mcu-university-program

                              Here's the link to TI University Program:

                              https://university.ti.com/en

                              When I go to electronics trade shows, I always leave a card with manufacturers and distributers and let them know I can use any "surplus" eval boards they want to donate.

                              Sometimes a random surprise package will just show up full of goodies.

                              Good luck,

                              Scott

                              5 of 5 people found this helpful
                              • Re: Stretching a school budget
                                14rhb

                                I would opt for Arduino Uno and get your DT colleague to make a breakout board for that. If there are a few inevitable hickups during practical sessions the board can likely be repaired as the ATMEGA328 is mounted in a DIP socket.

                                 

                                That said, the programming IDE and C may appear quite 'boring' to some students when compared to something more graphical like Scratch. However, once over the initials I think that an Arduino provides a much better opportunity to learn how computers/microcontrollers work as you will be almost down at the base level (only Assembly and Machine Code left).

                                1 of 1 people found this helpful