A consumer, not an engineer

There is a reason that I am not an engineer. Well, I’m sure there are a whole list of reasons, but I’ll focus on one such reason here. Last fall in my previous life, I was tasked at working with a Raspberry Pi. During my adventures, I tried to 3D print IMG_1690a case for the Pi, and I blogged about it. The project went to the back-burner when the person I was interning with went AWOL, but I continued to mess around with the Raspberry Pi without a case, because I wasn’t having much success designing one/finding one that someone else had designed to use. Well, last week, I went to the Ribbon Cutting for the Sigma Lab at Charlottesville High School. While on my self-guided tour of the lab, I saw that they had some Raspberry Pis out on display so that they could show off all the cool engineering stuff they’d be doing in the room. And what did these kids have? A case for the Raspberry Pi.

These high school kids are a lot smarter than I am when it comes to engineering and rapid prototyping. They recognized that someone had already made something that was great, and they just bought it. I probably spent just as much money on plastic making my multiple failed cases as these kids (or their teacher) did to buy the one endorsed by Raspberry Pi. So smart.


Sigma Lab at Charlottesville High School

Last night I attended the Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting of the Sigma Lab at Charlottesville High School. The Sigma Lab is the result of a joint partnership through the UVA’s Curry School of Education and the School of Engineering, Piedmont Virginia Community College, Charlottesville City Schools, the City of Charlottesville, and other donor organizations like Lenovo and Battelle. It is a part of the project that I’d been working on with my former advisor, Glen Bull, and an extension of the Lab School that opened at Buford Middle School last fall. The Sigma Lab was beautiful, and a product of both backwards AND intelligent design. Architects based their designs on the designs of students from Charlottesville High School who took engineering classes and were a part of “BACON,” CHS’s Best All-Around Club of Nerds.

I didn’t take a whole lot of photos because there were plenty of other people there doing the same thing, but I’ll share mine here.


CBS 19 from the Charlottesville Newsplex was at the opening and they have a small mention of it today on their website.

There were a lot of very important “grown-ups” at the event, as they called themselves. The Mayor of Charlottesville and most of the City Council were in attendance, the Charlottesville Superintendent and School Board, principals from several Charlottesville Schools like Erin Kershner of Venable Elementary and Eric Johnson of Buford Middle School. The head of PVCC was there, as was the Chair of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at UVA.  Representatives from the Virginia DOE were also present, but I didn’t catch their names or titles because I was overwhelmed by the space. All of those grown-ups who spoke did a great job of pointing out that it was the students who were responsible for this lab space– it was their space, they designed it, and they were the ones who were going to benefit from it. It was a nice event and I was happy that I got invited to attend it.

Coding for Kids

A few years ago at an EdTech conference at Randolph-Macon College, I went to a session by John Hendron on computer programming with kids using Scratch. The program was a lot of fun, and I tried to introduce it to my niece and nephew, but never with my class. But now at UVA, we are working with Scratch regularly, as it comes pre-installed in the Raspberry Pi software that we’re using. It has been fun using the program again, especially with some of the more advanced sensor inputs we’re including.

These sorts of programs are great ways to introduce kids to computer programming and coding. I really enjoy coding, personally. In high school I learned a little bit of HTML so that I could make websites on Geocities for my friends. I also took a class on TrueBasic in high school and C++ in college. This summer when I had a little free time in June, I logged into CodeAcademy.com and worked my way through a few lessons for fun. Code Academy has a popular app out now, “Hour of Code,” that has gotten some decent reviews.

One of my third-grade colleagues, Toni Hoosier, shared this link with me about Coding for Kids from Edutopia, 7 Apps for Teaching Children Coding Skills. It’s a great place to start for teachers (or parents!) who want to introduce their kids to this important skill.

Rapid Prototyping

I finished printing my case, version 1. It has not been too successful. Nigel watched me try to shove the Pi into the base of the case but the holes don’t seem to be big enough. He suggested using a razor blade to make the holes bigger for the HDMI port. In Tadge’s presence, I later tried to put it together with the top of the case first. That seemed promising, but when I tried to put the two pieces together, I ran into the same problem.

Tadge then tried to make some adjustments and broke the case. It just snapped in a little spot by the Ethernet and USB ports, so not a big deal, but it cracked nonetheless. He was busy with his pocket knife trying to shave some edges to make things fit better, but was then directed to build a telegraph key for Courseware tools.

I knew I was going to have to print another case and that this design wasn’t going to be the best thing for me (because I need to have slots for the camera and other sensors), so now I’ll start looking for another design before I try to design my own.




Using this website that Tadge sent me, we were able to install a VNC server on my Raspberry Pi. So now I can view it from a PC. The program we’re using doesn’t seem to run on Macintosh though, which I think will be a problem in the long run. But it is progress. Also, we seem to be accessing a different desktop. So for example right now, I have the Pi plugged into our HD-TV and I am also running the VNC viewer on my PC, but the desktops are different, and I cannot control the desktops from the other device.

We are getting there.


Months later, I’ve started working with my Raspberry Pi. With electricity and Ethernet ports a hot commodity in my office, I’ve had to unplug some things to make room for it at my desk for the moment. I’m borrowing the outlets for the office display computer (both electricity and Ethernet) as well as the display itself and the wireless mouse and keyboard. So it is almost like I’m just using that PC, except it isn’t a PC, it’s the Pi. And there are more cords running over my desk.


Tadge and I met today to talk about some of the things that we have to get done. He was able to get a VNC (I hope that is the right thing) set up on his Pi, because Dr. Bull wants the NSF Einstein Fellows to be able to see the Pi over a network connection. So we’re going to meet tomorrow for him to teach me how to do that as well.


We talked about one of the difficulties of working with the Raspberry Pi (and the SparkFun PicoBoard for that matter) is that they’re so vulnerable and out in the open. So I’ve decided to get case for the Pi off the Internet and 3D print it. I found one with Google that I’m going to

try. Looking at it, as the first design I found, I like it. I already know one problem though, that it doesn’t include any gaps to run the camera or our other sensor peripherals. But that is OK, maybe I will try to design one that has some extra slots, after I see how this works out.

What is really bothering me now is that the clock isn’t correct. I have the thing plugged in to the network, and it is authenticated through UVA’s network so that I can access the web, but the clock isn’t working. I’ve done a quick web-search for solutions, but the code that I’m finding isn’t basic enough for me. It says things like “edit your etc/ntc.conf file,” and I don’t know how to do that. I will keep looking but this may just be something that I ask Tadge how to do.

Otherwise, this thing already has Scratch installed. But I have Scratch installed on my other computers, so that isn’t novel.

Raspberry Pi

Today I started working with an incoming doctoral student in computer science named Tadge Dryja. My advisor has paired me with Tadge to assist/learn from him as he sets up a server to monitor the air quality of the 3D printers we’re setting up in the Buford Middle School Design Academy. The plan is to have a Linux server running 12 Raspberry Pis that are installed into an enclosure around the printers. The Raspberry Pis will have a number of sensors attached to them (camera, optical dust sensor, thermometer, etc.) so that we can monitor the air quality.

Today we installed a Linux server onto one of the machines in our storage closet and ordered two sets of Raspberry Pis + sensors to get started on the  prototype. We also got a 16-port switch and a second Ethernet card to install into the server so we’ll be able to monitor the sensors externally. Our projected end date for this task is September 9, so we’ll hope to get these first two up & running quickly and then order another 10 for replication.

We have to wait for things to arrive (in a few days I suppose?) and then we’ll get to work programming. I’m looking forward to it!