Combining science inquiry and making for only $5

The awesome folks over at Raspberry Pi (RPi) recently announced their newest version of the RaspberryPI, the Pi Zerro, coming in at only $5!!!

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To me this really signals a shift in small, inexpensive hobbyist computing and offers huge potential for classroom and informal maker-style learning environments. Up until now if you wanted to get a classroom started with making you would have to shell out $25 for a full-fledged Raspberry Pi, which in addition to being much more expensive is significantly bulkier. And while Adafruit carries the similarly sized Arduino Pro Mini and the Arduino Gemma, both of them are about twice the price (and I know $5 vs. $10 doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re outfitting 40 kids in a classroom it begins to add up!), don’t have much in the way of storage space, and getting them to communicate back and forth over a network can be a huge hassle (as I learned in one of my earlier projects).

Ok, now that we have a pretty powerful computer in a teeny tiny package what do we do with it? Well, one of the things that I’m passionate about is inspiring kids to ask questions about the world around them and engaging in practices that are authentic to Science, Technology, Engineer, and Math (STEM) careers. And while I’ve done some projects (such as the smart prosthetics workshop) where participants designed and built things, they never were released “into the wild” – mostly because until now the hardware was too expensive and it was difficult to store and retrieve the data in a reliable way. This meant that students were often forced to use “black boxed” sensors and devices… and to me this only gives students half the experience.

But at only $5, the Pi Zero has made things very, very interesting!

With its ability to connect to WiFi, having HDMI video out, and the ability to use a wide array of sensors, we finally have a cost-effective way to have kids design and refine the tools that drive their investigations! For instance, we could task a class with designing a tool that tests how “good” their neighborhoods are for growing a garden. We can let them decide if they want to build a tool that captures an area’s sunlight, moisture, pH levels in the soil, or even take pictures to see if there are “predators” (like rabbits that will eat their crops!). By doing this we get to give students agency, which is critical for engaging them in sustained inquiry. And by leveraging the WiFi capabilities,  all the data can be broadcast back into the classroom, to be aggregated and visualized for the students to examine (AT ANY TIME!!!). This is a big deal and offers true ubiquitous “always-on” opportunities for learning.

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Now there are still hurdles to overcome – making some of these tools can take a bit of work and they still have to be programmed – but with the rise of visual programming languages (such as Scratch or Blocky Talky from CU Bolder) we are nearing an exciting point in learning where students are in the driver’s seat throughout the inquiry cycle: asking the driving questions; designing the tools to answer them; implementing them in their classrooms, homes, and neighborhoods; capturing the data; answering questions; and refining their designs.

Personally, I can’t wait to get my hands on a pile of these and start working with teachers and makerspaces to develop some exciting hands-on constructionist activities!

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