The Internet of Things and Education

We talk coding, creativity and kits with Dr Duncan Wilson

Dr Duncan Wilson is the director of the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities. He and his team are leading research into how connected technology can be used to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of urban areas. Much of his work has crossed over into education, and he also volunteers at a local school running a Code Club. We sat down with Duncan to talk about his work with schools.

Intel: Firstly, can you tell us about your role at ICRI Cities?

Duncan: I’m Director here at ICRI Cities, which is a collaboration between Intel, University College London and Imperial College. We run a number of projects but they’re all looking to establish what types of technologies will help us make the most of urban living. The internet of things (IoT) has been a buzzword for a few years now, but we’re looking at what technology we’ll need to build and scale networks of devices that record what’s going on in cities, whether that’s weather data, environmental data, transport data, or anything else.

A lot of your projects have been done in, or with, schools. Why is that?

One thing we like to talk about is “citizen driven content”. If citizens can be part of the process of creating and “owning” the data that comes from these connected devices, then that should lead to higher levels of citizen participation. Education is a key entry point for us to get people involved. One example of where we’ve done this is the air quality monitoring scheme we ran with Enfield Council in North London. With the children we built devices to monitor air quality and put them in the school where they’re very visible. Then the pupils can look at air quality throughout the day as part of lessons. If they then understand that there are more air pollutants during the school run, for example, and then pass this information back to their parents, it’s a more powerful tool to discourage short car journeys than existing campaigns, because the children are fully engaged in the data.

Do you see lots of teachers wanting to follow your example?

We do, but we see a lot of challenges. Teachers have enough to deal with, so they need very easy-to-use kits which tie in to specific parts of the curriculum, along with lesson plans that enable them to quickly incorporate it into their teaching. Back in 2012 I worked on the Internet of (School) Things project where we developed kits based on the Intel Galileo platform and accompanying lesson plans. Looking back, it was probably a year or two too early, and we didn’t get a second round of funding, but Helen Steer who worked on the project has now developed the kits into her own small business—Do It Kits.

Can you tell us about the EMF Festival?

It’s a weekend-long festival in Guildford that brings together people from the maker community. Helen and I ran a two-hour workshop where we built weather-monitoring stations and used them to track environmental conditions over the weekend. As well as being a fun session in its own right, we used it as a bit of a trial to see what materials you’d need to provide a teacher with the resources to run that type of project with their class.

We had a really good response, but the audience is slightly biased because it’s young people and their parents who are self-professed enthusiasts. It’s much more of a challenge to try and engage people who aren’t necessarily into technology.

You also run a Code Club at your local primary school. How did you get into that?

At the time my son was at the school and I was keen to get involved with helping teachers deliver the new computing curriculum. I had the benefit of having worked with schools before, but I just wanted to be able to show a broad range of students how to make and code.

In the first term we use Scratch, the visual programming environment designed for children. In the second term we build websites using HTML, CSS and some Python, then in the final term we look at physical computing.

The resources for Scratch are excellent, because it’s designed for education. When it comes to the HTML lessons my role is usually just pointing the pupils in the right direction, because they want to know how to move or position parts of websites, so it’s quite a creative process. But I think the final term is the hardest. There’s very little information out there to teach the simple concepts behind some of the physical computing projects we do and tie those into broader learning points. I’m still trying to get it just right.

And is it rewarding?

It’s very rewarding in two senses. At the Code Club I run we make a point of attracting a mix of gender and abilities. So some of the pupils can come and just get on with their work, but others find it more difficult and need one-to-one help. But it’s when you see those pupils suddenly get a concept, and you can see them learning in front of you, that it becomes really rewarding.

Secondly it’s seeing kids understand that coding isn’t “geeky”; it’s a creative process. One of our pupils last year made a website that let you design different shoes, but it was this bizarre, wacky, Monty-Python-esque creation. It just makes you think ‘Where did that come from?’ It wasn’t so much that his code was spectacular or anything like that, but that he had a creative outlet for his ideas.

Watch Duncan in action on BBC Click where he and the students of Code Club use Intel’s Galileo Soil Sensor to understand and measure soil moisture in real-time, or find out about embracing the maker movement with our great resources.