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IoT and STEM Outreach

Chi Binh Le

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As part of my efforts in STEM outreach, I recently ran a workshop for Year 9 and 10 IT students at a local high school. I wanted to present something that would be interesting and different from what they would normally have from their school classes so I settled on doing a simple IoT demonstration involving Raspberry Pi, Sense-HAT, and Node-RED. The Raspberry Pi is a great way to introduce students to computing and electronics engineering.
The students I was presenting to had little or no programming experience so a visual system such as Node-RED enabled them to program simple tasks. Within 5 minutes of me presenting them the basics of Node-RED, they were quite comfortable using Node-RED and modifying the examples that I gave them. The workshop exercise was to extract sensor data (accelerometer, temperature, humidity, etc) and send it to an IoT platform. They could then view the data that was sent in a web browser in real time. Since we were using accelerometers, I encouraged the students to move the Raspberry Pi around while viewing the graph on the IoT platform to see how the values changed.
I think having a computing system with physical sensors providing real time feedback made the workshop more interesting than just a programming exercise on a computer. The students seemed to enjoy it and I got a lot out of seeing their enthusiasm. IoT demonstrations are a great way to get the next generation interested in building things.



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That's terrific, thanks for sharing.


I ran a community "What's a Smart City?" workshop a while back and put together a similar IoT style, sensor to dashboard kit for participants to experiment with. It was Grove/Arduino/Ubidots based, which proved to be a nice trade-off between simplicity and flexibility. But when I want to "get the point across" on the data collection/marshalling side of things, a Pi running NodeRED is my go to.

There's a local mob here that do a STEM course called StarLAB. Currently in about 50 schools. Very similar approach to teaching Python in this case - there's a highly integrated sensor module and some of the first exercises are to get the sensor graphs appearing on a computer. The module can even be inserted in a custom rover body and of course, it's not long before students are driving it around wirelessly.

I also have a STEM holiday program coming up called MiniSparx. It's targeted at younger Year 3 - Year 6 students, so I'm leaning towards more immediate gratification platforms like Sphero and Ozobot, but you've got me thinking about whether there's an IoT angle with merit too.

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Heh, funny you should say that Tim. Cuts to the core of the motivation behind MiniSparx. The programming industry has been very successful in monopolising the mindshare of the tech/innovation industry. Definitely an important part, but I'm not convinced the world really needs that many people proficient in moving sprites in Scratch.

You might get a rise out of my LinkedIn post:


FWIW, we'll be using the littleBits STEAM kits.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi Heath,

Just followed up on your link. Well done you! MiniSparx sounds like a great initiative. Newcastle based only?

Re Scratch, I don't think there is any issue with Scratch and the demise of the industry in the article you linked sounds more like a law of supply and demand issue. 

My 6.5yr daughter has done four days now on Scratch and has the basic concepts mastered. She still struggles with slight more complicated things. The main point is that she is using a computer screen to create things rather than just mindlessly watch YouTube videos. 

What it has make me think about is progression. By the time she is 9 or 10 she will be beyond basic programming stuff. What would be good is a pathway to progress kids through ever more challenging things such as robots and even the IoT stuff Chi Bihn Le talked about. Ideally this would extend over their entire schooling. I was actually imagining her graduating from highschool with a fully fledged ICT degree. Its not has crazy as it sounds because I'm continually amazed at my daughter's ability to absorb complex ideas and use the tools to create quite sophisticated aps and she is not yet seven. She is not particularly bright either. She just has what every young child has when the learning is fun.

It also has to be affordable. I pay about $40 a day for normal school holiday activities at the local school after ours care. Admittedly that is cheap but I pay about $100 per day for the code camp stuff, so the temptation to leave her in there is great. 

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Yes, Newcastle only at the moment. But now that we've run our first session the feedback has been very encouraging - we now have plans for expansion!

Definitely supply and demand is a factor. Like all these trends the supply tends to overshoot the demand. But I think there's also a element of thin value. By which I mean the dominant marketing message is that coding = skill for the future and that code camps = coding competence. When you sell something predicated on those two shaky equivalences you only have a short period of time before people notice the emperor is wearing no clothes.

So yes, experience with Scratch, using a screen to create rather than consume are very valuable. But I think you also need to get kids off computers and working with things and people. They're the human skills that will always be in demand, particularly in tech and engineering.

I like your progression idea. I suppose the teachers would argue: sounds great, what are you going to give up to make room for it?

I was on a webinar this morning with Jon Samuelson on this topic and it's amazing how often he aligned with these themes. For instance:

  • Advice from game developers: don't worry about making things too hard. Kids disengage from school because it's too easy, not because it's too hard. The challenge is the attractive part.
  • "Coding in isolation without connection to physical environment can be just game creation". He goes on to say boys will often go on for days into their own world creating games and learning nothing, while girls will get bored.
  • "Structured play" is the best learning environment.
  • A 21st century learner should strive to: create, empathise, persevere, communicate, envision, be patient, observe, explore, adapt, collaborate, etc. That is, human skills.

For reference, the webinar url is: http://home.edweb.net/webinar/stem20171011/ and I've attached a couple of his slides.

Those price points are interesting. We went with $159 for two days and $149 for five after school sessions, which seems pretty attractive. Main challenge is that we want to keep teacher:student ratio really high to provide great service so it's a balancing act.

As a 21st century learner.png

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 10.28.47 am.png

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Yes, agree with pretty much all that. I would tend not to be too dismissive of the value of learning the principles of coding. At my daughter's age, the concepts of IF/THEN constructs and all the other coding principles are all very new and worthwhile I think. And primarily at this stage, I think my aim is just to get her enthusiastic about learning, so the scratch level programs have been great and she still has some way to run with it. However, I take your point that she will pretty quickly run out of runway to learn with just coding which is why I am already thinking about what next. 

Your point about teachers asking what will you drop is very valid. They don't teach this stuff in normal school time for that very reason. However, as a parent I have oodles of after school time and holidays to fill which I would like to be as enriching as possible, hence my interest in this. I'm not actually particularly focused on coding or even STEM. However, I did attend a DATA 61 event where one of the keynote speakers was 9 years old and was a little blown away by the potential of young people to create a future using data. As you say, its what you do with the data rather than coding as a skill that will make the difference. However, I think understanding how to manipulate data via coding will be \ a modern day skill that should sit alongside other skills like literacy and mathematics. But how to develop it over time in a reasonable fashion?

I put up a proposal in EA about a year ago to launch a STEM Outreach Community, whereby deliverers of STEM education services such as yourself could collaborate and learn from each other. It hasn't got traction yet but I remain hopeful. 



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