Strange Loop 2015: What Happens When You Mix Kids, Technology and Farming

Strange Loop 2015

Recently, I attended Strange Loop 2015 with several of my coworkers. While there were plenty of interesting and insightful presentations, one stood out in particular because of CQL’s recent work with BitCamp, teaching kids how to code.

That presentation was ‘Teaching Kids Programming at the IOT Farm,’ by Jessica Ellis and Jesse Phelps.

The pair met when Jesse expressed interest at another conference about using technology in agriculture and was later introduced to Jessica. Jessica works at the Boys and Girls Club of San Diego where she runs the healthy lifestyles program. The Club has a garden and wanted to find ways to apply technology to the garden while teaching the kids about technology. 

According to their presentation, less than 10% of schools currently offer Computer Science curriculum and less than 1% of students actually attend those classes. Together, they wanted to produce a curriculum that could help change those numbers by using code in a way that would interest and engage kids, instead of teaching programming for the sake of programming.

Working together, they developed several projects that would allow the kids to collaborate, learn about technology, and see the ways technology can be used to solve problems. They wanted to find ways to get the kids interested in technology by putting that tech in a context the kids were already engaged in. They also wanted to normalize boys and girls working together in technology rather than have them working separately. 

Because the healthy lifestyles program had a garden, the kids were already interested in planting and raising crops but they also had an interest in the larger problems facing their community. Being in California, one of the major problems right now is the drought.

Jesse and Jessica realized that the kids are concerned about these larger problems and wanted to make a difference, but didn’t know where to start. By providing them with the tools and resources, the team was able to give the kids a direction and empowerment so they could, even in a small way, work to solve these problems themselves.

Using Intel Edison as a platform, they started a project to monitor the moisture content of the soil in the garden. They wanted a way to control watering based on the needs of the plant instead of a timer. When the moisture level was low, it would trigger a watering system for a given period of time and only water the plants when they actually needed it.

They decided on Intel Edison because it had wifi built in and would be easy to get a connection. Plus, because it’s similar to Arduino there is already a large, existing community with a library of code for the moisture system they could pull from. Unfortunately, this choice proved too difficult for the kids. They had focused too much on making sure the code would be simple that they didn’t realize the set up itself would be the challenge. The goal was to develop a project the kids would be able to replicate at home entirely on their own, which was not the case with the Intel Edison.

For the next project, they chose a different platform called Electric Imp. Learning from their previous project, they wanted something that set up and delivered quickly. After testing it this past summer with over 80 kids, they consider the platform a success. All the kids loved it and were successful in creating their first project.

The Imp’s built-in ability to auto-configure wifi (termed BlinkUp™) by holding its photoelectric sensor to a mobile device’s flashing screen (using acoded pattern of black and white screens set by an iOS containing access point connectivity settings) mitigated a majority of the setup challenge.

With essentially no installation, it’s much quicker and easier to use and is now their go-to IOT device.

On Pi Day this year, they wanted to integrate cooking and technology. They created a project where the kids would bake raspberry pies and then protect them using motion sensors and a Raspberry Pi.

Working in Python and using infrared proximity sensors, the kids were able to create the alarm, record a message to play when the alarm triggered, determine when the alarm should be triggered, and assemble the hardware. After the projects were finished, the kids were able to show their parents what they’d created. The parents were stunned at the complexity of the project and that their kids were able to do it on their own.

Overall, the team said they’d learned some important lessons about how to engage kids with technology. For example, they realized that kids need to see a payoff quickly and want to interact with technology in a context that’s already important to them. Kids want to be solving problems and using technology to develop solutions, not just writing code to write code. They want to see the hands-on, practical side of technology.

They also agreed that a huge factor in the success of the activities came from the mentoring of their teen camp leaders. They chose a teen boy and girl to work together to lead the activities. Jessica and Jesse realized that this strategy worked well because the teens were only a few years older than the students and they viewed them as role models and could connect with them more easily than they might have with adults. Plus, seeing a male/female counseling team working together in technology, respecting each other and getting along, provided a great model for the students to do the same.

Additionally, they found significant benefits to having the kids work on these projects in groups. The students really wanted to work together. Failing alone, particularly for middle schoolers, can be difficult and discouraging.  Failing together as a group, they found, wasn’t a big deal to the students. If a project didn’t work or they needed to try something else, they were able to move on. For this reason, and others, working together was a big part of the projects. 

The presentation provided really great insights into how to get kids interested in technology and what kids need to get engaged with projects like this. It seemed like a unique way to make coding more hands-on and take it from the computer screen to the real world. This way, kids get to interact with technology in a tangible way.

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