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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Phidgets - A Fun, Free, Hands-on Way to Learn Python, Java, and More

Disclosure: Phidgets is an advertiser on this blog.

As the new school year approaches Phidgets is one new thing that I’m excited to use with my students. Phidgets provide a fun, hands-on way for students to learn to program in Python, Java, C#, and Swift. If you’re not a computer science teacher, don’t skip over this post thinking that Phidgets is just a product for computer science classes. There’s no cost to try it out because Phidgets will send you a free kit to get started. And Phidgets has super easy-to-follow instructions that make perfect sense even if you have never written a single line of code in your life.

What are Phidgets?
Phidgets are sensors, microcontrollers that you can program in your choice of four programming languages. You can program Phidgets to do things like turn things like LED lights on and off, to record data, and to automate processes. Come all three of those things together and you’ll start to build some really interesting things like lights that turn on based on a light sensor or build a simple alert system with motion and proximity sensors. Probably the quickest way to see what’s possible with Phidgets is to watch this 90 second video.


Who can use Phidgets?
I’m planning to use Phidgets with my 9th and 10th grade students this fall. I’m confident that 6th through 8th grade students could also have success using Phidgets.

What’s in the Phidgets starter kit and how do I get one?
The Phidgets starter kit for schools comes in a 6”x3”x4” box that serves as the storage container for the kit’s contents and also serves to hold the LEDs and switches included in the kit. The kit also includes a humidity sensor, a hub (where wired connections are made), and all necessary wires and cables.

You can get your free Phidgets starter kit by filling out this short form. After filling out that form you might want to watch one of the recorded getting started webinars for teachers or sign up for one of the upcoming live webinars. The next live webinar is tomorrow!

Getting Started is Easy!
Once you’ve received your kit from Phidgets (mine came about a week after ordering) head to Phidgets.com/start and follow the directions for assembling your kit. Your kit should have everything that you see in my pictures. Those things are two switches (red and green), two LED lights (red and green), a VINT hub (that’s what connects all of the wiring), a humidity sensor, a USB cable (to power your lights and sensors from your computer), and wires to connect all of the components.

After assembling your kit the next thing you will need to do is select the programming language and environment that you want to use to write the programs that will run your lights and sensors. This step will be the most confusing step for those who don’t have any prior programming experience. If you want me to make this step easy for you, just choose Python as your language and Thonny as your programming environment. You’ll have to install Thonny on your computer in order to write programs and make your Phidgets do anything. Fortunately, the Phidgets getting started tutorial includes sample code that you can copy and paste directly into Thonny. Phidgets also includes suggestions on how to change the code to make your lights and sensors do things other than what the sample code provided.

Tinkering with Phidgets
The fun of Phidgets comes once you’ve gone through the tutorials and you’re ready to start tinkering with the programming. Your students can start by just modifying the timing to make LEDs flash at different intervals. From there they might move on to using the humidity and sensor record data and have that data trigger the flashing of an LED. There’s much more that students can do if you give them time to tinker. What I’m excited about for the fall is seeing what my students will come up with when they have time to experiment with Phidgets and Python.