As Cabin Fever sets in here on the East Coast, it’s only natural to start thinking of the great outdoors. This month’s post will focus on technologies and tools that are rough and tough enough to endure the elements and smart enough to make sense what’s going on in our environment. One of the reasons to focus on these technologies is to strike the importance of observation being translated into action. There is an endless amount of data that our natural surroundings provide us with and so only it’s natural that there are a plethora of devices designed to help us decipher the world around us. I encourage students, parents, and educators to explore what is important to them – chances are there’s a sensor for that!

A colleague of mine recently attended BETT in London (‘tis expo season, indeed!) and tipped me off to the Pi-top [4] – a Raspberry Pi powered computer designed to help solve real world problems. The core itself can be connected to an array of accessories and sensors to capture data. Ever want to send your Pi high in the sky to track temperature and pressure changes? Some of the soon-to-be-available kits can let you achieve that by converting the small computer into a drone or weather balloon stocked w/ environmental sensors. Like most products highlighted in these posts, the Pi-top [4] hits home on one of the key components of a good learning technology (compared to a merely cool toy or gadget): versatility. Indoor or outdoors, the pint sized processor allows for easy interaction and is compatible w/multiple OS including the big players of Windows, Mac, and Google Chromebooks.

Pi-top is only part of the rich community that shares a DIY approach to gathering data. Vendors like SparkFun and Makershed offer cheap (depending on your design outcomes) bits and pieces to help you develop your projects. Note, these will often need careful and thorough design around weatherproofing. A lesson in how difficult that can be is highlighted every year in the various Land Air Sea Challenges hosted around our nation.  

Analyze Data

Switching from hardware to software, it’s great that we can record all this data, but it’s another thing to decipher and really learn from what’s going on. A current project at Carnegie Mellon University’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) is designed to help do exactly that. While currently showing massive datasets gathered from around the world including topics like coral bleaching and fires at night, you’ll soon be able to import your own data sets and produce stories. This tool is important because it lets us ask, “Is this happening?” and leads us to “What do we do about it?”

TLDR; We’re processing millions and millions of data points every second and every day, but we’re not recording and analyzing them. Technology has come around enough to offer relatively cheap ways to gather information about the world around us. Software has been developed to help tell the tales that our surroundings have to share so that we can ensure there will be plenty more stories to come.