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.

How to Clear Your Chrome Browser History and Stored Passwords


On a fairly regular basis I get emails from teachers who are disappointed that a website I demonstrated in a video or wrote about in a blog post doesn't work for them. Sometimes the trouble is with the website, but often the trouble is on your end. After you've tried the steps I outlined in this post, you might want to try clearing your browser's cache of cookies and stored passwords. That's particularly true if you're having trouble resetting a password on a website. In the following video I demonstrate how to clear your stored information in the Chrome web browser.



Preparing for the Worst With Zoom, Dual Monitors, Microphones, and More

In the last couple of weeks I've received a bunch of emails and Tweets from people who are panicking about going back to school and having to simultaneously teach students in their classrooms while also live-streaming and or recording their lessons for students who are staying home. I think it is completely unrealistic to expect teachers to be able do this. It's hard enough to keep a group of kids engaged in a physical classroom. It's even harder to keep a group kids engaged in an online classroom (especially if those kids don't want to be there). All that said, there's a good chance that I might end up having to do that this fall (my school has not made any official decisions). Here's what I'm doing to prepare for that potential situation. Hopefully, this helps some of you too.

Zoom
Until Google actually rolls-out all of the new Google Meet features they teased in June, I'm anticipating starting the year using Zoom for virtual classes. In the set-up for my Zoom meetings I'll enable the option to mute all participants on entry, use meeting passwords, and enable the waiting room option. My district doesn't want us recording live meetings. If your school district allows it, I'd do it.

Dual Monitors/ Dual Computers
I'm fortunate to have access to high quality laptops and desktops in my classroom. My plan is to use one for monitoring the live broadcast and one for instruction. An alternative is to use two monitors connected to one computer. If you're a Windows user, follow these directions for setting up a dual monitor display. If you're a Mac user, follow these directions for setting up a dual monitor display. Hopefully, your school is willing to at least invest in a second monitor for you. One that's adequate for the purpose can be had for under $75.

Microphone
For many years I've used Blue Snowball microphones when recording videos and hosting webinars. But being tethered to my computer won't work when I need to be able to move around my classroom and broadcast my audio for those participating remotely to hear. So I've invested in a wireless microphone and receiver set-up that I can plug into my laptop. I just tested it this morning and it worked for recording while up to about 50 feet away from my computer. That should be adequate for my classroom. I am a little worried about potential for interference if a bunch of teachers are using the same set-up in their classrooms. But my bigger worry is forgetting to mute the microphone when I don't need to broadcast (those of you who are my age or older may be haunted by this infamous Leslie Nielsen scene).

Bottom Line
As the new school year get closer I'm more nervous about the first day of school than I was on my first day of teaching nearly two decades ago (gosh, where did the time go?). I hope that we call can adjust to our new normal as seamlessly as possible.