BBC Make It Digital

On Thursday 26th and Friday 27th, myself and an army of volunteers students from the Computer Science department at Queens University took part in delivering workshops for 250-300 Northern Irish schoolkids from across the province, as part of the BBC Make It Digital event.

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The event was held at BBC Blackstaff studios in Belfast and ran from the 26th – 28th, although we were only doing Raspberry Pi workshops on the 26th – 27th.

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The kids worked through 2 activities. Introduction to Sonic Pi and Introduction to LEDBorg using ScratchGPIO.

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The feedback from the kids was excellent, with many having to be prised from the Raspberry Pis at the end of the sessions.

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Making awesome music with Sonic-Pi

And they certainly kept the volunteers busy with plenty of questions on how they could expand on the initial worksheets to create even more awesome stuff.

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And they were pretty keen to show off the cool stuff they had made to their teachers!

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Huge thanks to my army of volunteers from Queens University Computer Science department and thanks to the department for supporting the activity!

A few of my awesome volunteers from Queens.
A few of my awesome volunteers from Queens.
Well what else did you think they were for?
Well what else did you think they were for?
The upgraded CERN hat from Farset Labs
The upgraded CERN hat from Farset Labs.

Motorola Lapdock – The ultimate mobile option for Raspberry Pis?

So a while back I heard about the Motorola lapdock. It was designed for the Motorola Atrix phone, idea was it would slot in the back and could be used like a computer.

The idea never really took off so there are a number of people in the world sitting on large warehouses of these.

The Spec

  • 11.5 inch screen
  • Keyboard (usually has English and Hebrew characters)
  • Trackpad (isn’t great, would recommend USB mouse)
  • x2 USB ports via built in powered USB hub
  • 4-6 hour battery life with the Raspberry Pi model B+
  • Battery status LEDs
  • Weights little over 1kg
  • Micro HDMI male port (for connecting to Raspberry Pi)
  • Micro USB male port (for connecting to Raspberry Pi)

Using with Raspberry Pi

With the correct cables, the lapdock is perfect for use with the Raspberry Pi, especially for use with a mobile classroom or one that needs to be packed away at the end of a lesson.

Setup is extremely quick, for Raspberry Pi 1 model B, you only need 2 cables. For Raspberry Pi 1 model B+ and Raspberry Pi 2 model B, you require an extra standard micro USB cable as the newer Raspberry Pis don’t support backpowering over USB.

Cables?

The lapdock requires some pretty specialised/weird cables to use it. You require a male USB to female micro USB and a male HDMI to female micro HDMI cable.

For the USB cable, it is easier to get 2 cables, a micro USB extension cable and a male USB to female micro USB adapter. Both are not hard to find on places like Ebay.

The more complicated cable to hunt down is the HDMI cable. Best source I have found so far is here.

Where do I get a lapdock?

A good question. There are a number of sources you can buy them from. The most direct option is from Israel, where a charity is sitting it seems on a warehouse or 2 of them. A majority of UK sellers will have likely bought it directly from them and are just reselling it a bit higher. You have 2 options, buying in singles or in 6s.

Just a word of warning. Given you are ordering an item in from outside the EU, you may have to pay import taxes, especially if buying 6! I ended up with taxes and charges close to £95 when ordering in 6 recently.

They were still well worth it though!

 

So what do I think?

They are awesome! We can take the 7 we have and have them set up in a matter of minutes, given it is so few cables. The inbuilt battery is extremely useful for workshops where we don’t want to set up a mains network across the room. They are extremely well built and feel solid. They are also great to sling in a bag or suitcase where you know you will need a Raspberry Pi setup. A perfect example is I quite easily brought over 2 to the Raspberry Pi 3rd Birthday celebrations in Cambridge at the weekend with no issue due to them being extremely thin and light.

The keyboard is fine to use, although I sometimes find the spacebar doesn’t register. The keyboard though is completely usable and I have had very few complains from students about it. The trackpad isn’t great, so I would recommend a cheap USB mouse to go with it if using it extensively.

I don’t know anything out there that could beat it for the price and ease of use combined! Including cables, they work out about £75 each if you get hit by import taxes and ordered in 6s. The screen is extremely clear, the build quality is excellent and the battery is a much welcomed added bonus.

If you need a solution for your Raspberry Pi that you can throw into a bag for Raspberry Jams etc, this might just be  it.

Motorola Lapdock hooked up to a Raspberry Pi
Motorola Lapdock hooked up to a Raspberry Pi

BETT 2015 – Come say hi!

I will be traveling to BETT 2015 this year and will be there on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th January.

Over the 2 days I will be giving 3 talks so if you are free, feel free to drop by and grill me with your questions!

Date – Time Talk title Where?
Friday – 11am Effectively managing Raspberry Pis using the free and open-source Raspi-LTSP Exa Networks – B228
Friday – 3pm The potential of MinecraftEDU in the classroom Exa Networks – B228
Saturday – 10:30am Effectively managing Raspberry Pis using the free and open-source Raspi-LTSP Raspberry Pi foundation stall

I will also be floating about the rest of the time, so if you want to say hi, drop me a tweet – @gbaman1.

andrew-jamboree

Victoria College First Lego League 2014 – We won!

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For the past 2 months I have been working with a group of excellent year 9s (also known as year 8 in England and Wales) from Victoria College, Belfast on the First Lego League competition.

I have competed in the competition as a student now 3 years running and as I am now too old, decided I would love to mentor a new team, preferably near Queens University, Belfast.

After chatting with W5 (Northern Ireland STEM centre and regional organisers) and  a rather surprising and unpredictable set of events, I ended in Victoria College, just 5 minutes down the road from Queens accommodation (Elms village).

The team

By the time all of this was organised and we got started, it was the 4th of October, putting the team 1 month behind all the other teams in Northern Ireland who received their kit at the start of September.

The students chosen to take part were 21 year 9 girls in a “Learn to learn” class. This will be ringing alarm bells with First Lego League veterans as the team sizes are limited to 10 students. As the class was this size, they were split into 2 groups to work with the final decision on those representing the school in the team of 10 being taken the day before the competition. The 11 additional students not on the team (got a day off school and) came down to W5 to support the 10 on the team.

Through their learn to learn classes, the girls were provided with 90 minutes a week to work on the competition, but any First Lego League team will tell you, that is nowhere near enough! So on top of this, the girls in separate groups (project, robotics, programming) came to after-school sessions and also a number of Saturday afternoon sessions to get the needed work finished.

It was great to see the girls build their teamwork, programming and presentation skills throughout the competition.

The competition day

So on 2nd of December we arrived at W5 in the Odyssey arena as by far the single largest group and were informed we were on first!

Robotic games

The robot going to throw the ball into the net
The robot going to throw the ball into the net
Making sure it is perfectly lined up
Making sure it is perfectly lined up

On the first match of the day, the girls scored 185 points. This stayed the highest score overall till after lunch when Dalriada School and Magherafelt High School both also got 185 points bringing it to a 3-way tie.

In the end, the winning team was decided by their second highest score.

The girls also had a number of other sessions (each weighted 25% in the overall award) including.

Robotic Design

Showing the Robotic Design judges the robot
Showing the Robotic Design judges the robot

Core Values

Core values judge asking the girls about their teamwork
Core values judge asking the girls about their teamwork

Project

A lot of work (and conductive thread sewing) went into making their project, Rainbow the dog. Given the competition is still ongoing, we will not be releasing full details on Rainbow, but will say she contains a Raspberry Pi. The judges were extremely impressed with the overall idea and loved the prototype. They were also impressed with the breadth of research conducted by the girls including a number of surveys.

Taking questions from judges
Taking questions from judges
Two rather impressed judges
Two rather impressed judges
Rainbow the dog
Rainbow the dog

The Result

In the award ceremony the girls were awarded the

Robotic Games award

and were awarded…..

The Champions award!

 

This is the overall Northern Ireland FLL award meaning they now progress on to represent Northern Ireland in the UK and Ireland finals in Loughborough in February 2015.

 

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A well deserved celebration by the team from Victoria College
A well deserved celebration by the team from Victoria College

 

A huge congratulations to the girls! Their hard work and commitment really has paid off.

 

Thanks

A few thank you’s are due.

First, huge thank you to Kanios Software, the team sponsor for Victoria College. Without them, we would not have been able to get the robot and pay registration fees.

Next, huge thanks to W5 and especially Aideen Johnson who works tirelessly to organise sponsors for every team, NI registration and then organise the big event in December. Basically none of it would happen without Aideen. Thanks also to W5 for some of the above photographs.

Finally, to everyone else who we ended up chatting to along the way (especially the project) and threw ideas at us (or answered our surveys), thank you!

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Thanks girls for the awesome card
Thanks girls for the awesome card

Should you learn to program before university?

This is response to Ryan Walmsley’s post recently where he concluded the answer to the above question to be no. Here is my response.

Scratch

Ryan brings up a number of interesting points on how he believes MIT Scratch should only be used with kids up to the age of 11. I highly disagree with this statement. Scratch is  an amazing platform for a beginner of any age! I have taught kids as young as 5 to even a 70 year old with Scratch. I really don’t think age has anything to do with it as a beginner is a beginner.

Like many universities, the Open University is faced with the issue that 90%+ of its students have never coded before. Although I don’t believe the module should be a full year, I guess it depends on the number of hours expected every week (is a full time course vs part time etc).

The Open university is far from alone in teaching using Scratch. Many universities in the United States use Scratch to teach their first year students. Code.org has produced a great video explaining why.

In the first few months, it is in my opinion more important to teach students the constructs and problem solving associated with computer science than teaching syntax. Syntax is different for every language, Scratch lets you move onto any language after where as jumping straight into a text based language may lock certain syntax into students heads as being associated with for example an if statement.

Although I will admit Scratch 1.4 is not a tad limiting for use with university students after more than a few weeks, Scratch 2.0 adds objects and a number of other items, making it much more suitable. Even better though would be Snap or byob.

Should we discourage students from learning programming before the course?

This though is the bit I personally disagree with most. Ryan concludes no, we shouldn’t be teaching kids to code.

Computer Science already has the highest dropout rates in UK universities (9.8%). Is this because it is just too hard for 9.8% of students? I don’t think so, I believe the high dropout rates are due to the students being misinformed about what Computer Science actually is. At school you already get a chance to study modern languages, art, business studies, history etc. All these subjects have direct follow on subjects at university and have much lower dropout rates. The students picking them have a rough idea what to expect given they may have been studying them for 7 years already at secondary school. With a majority of students, Computer Science is not an offered subject, how are they meant to have a clue what to expect if they don’t get a chance to try it out beforehand in school?

Many students do Computer Science as they believe it will follow on from A-level ICT, something which they then discover is very far from the truth.

Chicken and egg

It is a chicken and egg scenario though. If enough students study Computer Science in school, universities can add it to the requirements, but given it is statistically seen as a harder A-level, students won’t take it unless they are really interested in the subject until they need it for universities.

Some universities have taken the first step, I have to applaud my own University, Queens University Belfast who provide lower entry requirements for students studying A-level Computing. It is currently in the minority though in doing this, but more are starting to follow suit.

Pick a course that is right for you

It is ultimately up to the student though to pick the correct university for them. It is their job to read the fine details of their course and decide if the course content is right for them. If it isn’t especially in England, perhaps consider looking into a different university given there are quite a few with most having similar fees.

To conclude

To conclude, do I think students should be given the opportunity to code from KS2 onwards? Yes, it gives them a better ground to make a decision on a university course.

Do I believe MIT Scratch is worth using in universities? Yes, although would recommend Snap over Scratch due to more functionality.