Jan 15, 2015

What happens when you tell 1st year BSc students to create something using old, broken objects and Raspberry Pis?

We should find the strenght to fight the too frequent it’s not possible feeling that erupts when we expect somebody to perform under what we believe is a too high bar.
Even more, one is biased when asked to believe that 1st year bachelor students are able to achieve great things.
They are. For the Introduction to Management Engineering course, our 1st year BSc students in Computer Science were asked to perform the following task.

Find as many forgotten (not used anymore, often broken) gadgets as you can.
We provide you Raspberry Pis, some tools and accessories, and the capability to perform small purchases.
Create something new from the forgotten.
Oh yeah, you have less than 3 months.

This is a task that requires way more than basic programming and electronic skills. It requires creativity, passion, and persistency.
It also requires time, as there are many other courses competing with our course in terms of time required.
Also, our university does not require the enrolling students to be already skilled with such capabilities. They are supposed to develop them over time.

Maybe forgetting how much enthusiast I was at their age, I admit that my first reaction to the course lecturer (Pekka Abrahamsson) was the following:

It’s not possible.

While I have never doubted that 1st year BSc students can be skilled and good programmers already, this was way too much. Making them look for a thousand forgotten or broken items. Combining them. Creating something new and creative. In less than three months. It was just unfeasible.
How wrong I was.
I won’t provide any technical detail in this post. I think that some (badly) taken pictures and videos are more than sufficient. Here they are, taken in the order I found them on my SD card.

Please note that all the projects here are prototypes. And, be amazed by that.

This ghost was been printed under my eyes, using a printer employing common markers.

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Here is the printer in action.

These are some other printed items. Incredibly good.

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This is a LCD display. You give it a picture and it will be displayed. Otherwise, it will scroll some given text. Controlling is done remotely via a Web app.

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This wooden box takes as input a disc (CD, DVD) with songs or an actual plain old music tape. It converts the audio (yes, even the one in the tape) into a digital format, and it plays it for you. Oh yeah, it even has wheels.

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This controller, to be placed on your bicycle, handles input from sensors and buttons. The sensors are attached to the brakes, and activate the brake light. The buttons are for turning on and off a light and left-right turning signals.

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However, the lights are wearable devices.

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This lovely moka-radio-alarm does what it is. It gradually wakes you up using the LEDs first, then by turning on your favorite song. And it looks amazingly good! For turning the alarm off, you simply close the moka. I want one!

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This box plugs into your network, and it provides a collaborative environment for development. Right now it features and editor, but it will soon provide a Web server and a database for Web development, and a discussion environment.

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See this crazy box? It is able to detect dirt and allergens in the air. If any are found, it sucks them in and it cleans the air. It stops when the air is detected to be clean.

This Arduino-handled LED light can be controlled using a smartphone, for changing its color. Way more, it reacts to Android notifications and it changes color accordingly. For example, it becomes green when a Whatsapp notification is received.2015-01-15 09.16.17

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Another crazy one here. This old radio is capable of playing your favorite mp3s. for adjusting the volume, you rotate the handle bar. As you see in the laptop at the end of the video, the radio is also capable of displaying some custom text messages using an LED matrix. Gorgeous!

Now prepare to be stunned. See this teddy bear?

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It has a speaker inside. Ok, nothing extraordinary here. Now, see this videogame?

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Ok, there is a teddy bear in it. Cool, fine.
Now, what if I told you that the physical teddy bear interacts with the video game? What if I told you that the videogame is for learning languages by solving password and the physical teddy bear suggests you hints in your local language? Now you are stunned. I am sorry that my video fails to actually show the magic, but I will describe it to you. First, the physical teddy bear provides some instructions about the game. Then, the player needs to unlock a door. If the player clicks the word door, the physical teddy bear will say porta, its Italian translation. Wordless.

This xylophone was turned into a keyboard. Each key can be mapped to some functions, for example actual music tones. However, it can be employed for other teaching purposes, such as teaching numbers and sentences. It should also be easily reprogrammable, because it employs Scratch as programming language.

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This mood-enabled radio plays mp3s from a USB stick. The magic is that it enables you to classify your music according to moods. You than choose a mood playlist and voilà, the music is served. It also has a nice retro style.

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This sort of weather station employs renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, to power a USB bank (those external batteries for charging smartphones and tablets). It can be used while camping to provide energy for our previous devices.

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And finally, this elaborate squeezer is remotely controlled by a smartphone App. When you wake up, you can tell it to prepare a juicy orange juice.

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I was stunned and amazed by the creativity and the technical capabilities of our “kids”.
This proves again that, if supported and actively encouraged, everybody in teamwork can produce great ideas and product, regardless of the experience and background.

While I thank everyone who collaborated to this course, I want to thank its creator and designer, Pekka Abrahamsson, for once again showing me that believing in the capabilities of our students and supporting them produces magic.

So, what happens when you tell 1st year BSc students to use old, broken objects and Raspberry Pis?
Magic happens. And, it happens that you are stunned, and proven wrong. I have never been so happy to be wrong.

I am proud of what I have seen today, and I wish the students great success with their projects and their life.

written by dgraziotin

Dr. Daniel Graziotin received his PhD in computer science, software engineering at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy. His research interests include human aspects in empirical software engineering with psychological measurements, Web engineering, and open science. He researches, publishes, and reviews for venues in software engineering, human-computer interaction, and psychology. Daniel is the founder of the psychoempirical software engineering discipline and guidelines. He is associate editor at the Journal of Open Research Software, academic editor at the Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal, and academic editor at the Open Communications in Computer Science journal. He is the local coordinator of the Italian Open science local group for the Open Knowledge Foundation. He is a member of ACM, SIGSOFT, and IEEE.

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