SenseBoard

Liz: Another day, another expansion board. Here’s a guest post from John Woodthorpe at the Open University, where SenseBoard is being used in teaching along with the Raspberry Pi, which drives it. Some of our forum members have taken the university’s My Digital Life course, which uses the SenseBoard as a teaching tool; you can read what they thought here. Over to John!

One of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s motivations was to promote physical computing, having the computer interact with the real world. Unfortunately, most of the existing physical computing experiment sets, such as Arduino and Phidgets, can be difficult for the uninitiated to get started.

The Open University faced the same problem when we started developing a new introductory module called ‘My Digital Life’. We wanted to integrate computing hardware into our teaching, but nothing on the market was suitable for complete newcomers.

SenseBoard – click to enlarge

So we developed our own device – the SenseBoard – and the Sense programming environment that drives it. The Senseboard is about the size of a Raspberry Pi, and comes with inputs and outputs including a slider, noise sensor, and IR detector. Input sockets allow other sensors to be added. We supply light, heat, and motion sensors, and you can make others that act as variable resistors. Outputs include a bank of LEDs and plugs for stepper motors, servo motors, and an IR LED on a lead. The SenseBoard simply plugs into a USB port.

The SenseBoard gets students, most of whom are new to computing, quickly building physical devices that have real, immediately visible effects in the real world. Based on the Scratch programming environment, Sense makes this possible by including blocks to interact with the Senseboard, as well as reading and writing over internet.

When the Raspberry Pi came out, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. A cheap, simple computer together with a simple, robust physical interaction board opened up many possibilities.

However, getting Sense working on the Raspberry Pi wasn’t straightforward. Sense, and Scratch, are built on an old version of Squeak. We had to go through some shenanigans to compile a Squeak virtual machine for the Raspberry Pi’s ARM chip, and then persuade it that serial devices could exist on USB ports. But we got there in the end!

We’ve been working with several schools who bought SenseBoards from us, helping them to use the board and Sense in their teaching. One of the first schools to contact us was Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury. Graeme George has been using SenseBoards in their Computer Science and Informatics department for almost a year. They’ve created projects like weather stations, data loggers, and games like Pong.

Graeme has also been one of several teachers throughout the country asking us when Sense would be available for the Raspberry Pi. His reaction to being given this development version was to comment that it ‘could make the teaching of programming more mobile and might even mean that the classroom could become more of an experimental room than a traditional ICT suite’.

You can buy your own Senseboard kit through the OU Worldwide shop, but our main target is schools rather than hobbyists. You can download Sense for the Raspberry Pi (and for other Linux, Windows and Mac platforms) from http://sense.open.ac.uk

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