Exploring the outdoors through the lens of computing

By Amy O'Meara. Posted

Showcasing the Robotic Garden at Coolest Projects USA 2020

Amy O’Meara speaks to Coolest Projects participants about their outdoor-themed projects and learns about the aspects that are most meaningful to them.

Computing is often thought of as an indoor subject, with all activities taking place in front of a screen, far removed from the natural environment or the surroundings beyond our doorstep. In truth, there is a great deal of interaction between computing and the outdoors in everyday life, from irrigation systems and temperature controlled greenhouses to street lighting.

Most educators will agree that valuable learning can take place outside of the classroom, and this is true of computing education too. There is a wealth of inspiration to be drawn from the outdoors, as well as opportunities for students to engage with themes that are meaningful to them.

Coolest Projects is a technology showcase for young people, with flagship events held yearly in Ireland, UK, and USA. The main event was held online this year due to the pandemic.

Preserving fragile ecosystems

Amy, 16, attended Coolest Projects International in Dublin back in 2017 with her project, Amy’s Buzzy Hive. The project involved placing a Raspberry Pi with multiple sensors inside a real beehive in order to track bee numbers and identify potential causes for their decline. Amy spoke about the importance of harnessing the power of code in order to address environmental issues:

“I think it’s a great opportunity for young coders [...] to find ways of helping our environment and nature, and also to educate young people about the problems facing them. When we were all coming up with our Coolest Projects ideas, there was a lot of talk in the media about bees and how they are dying out. I was very lucky that a volunteer at our CoderDojo was a beekeeper and was able to help me, and the ideas began to grow from there. I think bees are a perfect example of animals in nature that do so much for us in our everyday lives. To see [their numbers] decreasing is very sad.”

Speaking specifically about the challenges of creating an outdoor computing project, Amy shared: “One challenge of designing a project intended for outdoors was building something that could withstand the different weather, and would be so waterproof that you could have non-waterproof materials in it, for example the Raspberry Pi. I overcame these challenges with the help of my Dojo to find solutions, such as placing the Raspberry Pi in the beehive, instead of outside."

Amy with her project at Coolest Projects International in 2017

Everyone can play a part in the protection of wildlife, and this was the aim of Lara’s web-based project, Another Purpose for Eggshells. Lara, 13, was a participant at Coolest Projects USA in 2019. She was concerned about the diets of pond birds — due to well intentioned people giving them bread and other unsuitable feed — and the resulting negative effects on the birds themselves and their natural habitat.

“Many people feed suburban and urban wildlife (especially waterfowl and other birds) human foods with good intentions. Human foods are unnatural and harmful to birds and other wildlife; [...] they cause health problems, from malnutrition to botulism. Feeding wildlife can also cause problems in our parks and ponds.”

Computing projects can open the door to new ways of communication and engagement. In Lara’s case, this took the form of an educational website where people can learn about a specific environmental issue. This type of project brings computing and the outdoor environment together by encouraging people to engage with their surroundings in more positive ways. As Lara shared, informing people to make small individual changes can lead to a larger impact:

“It is important to create projects about nature and the environment to raise awareness and inform people. Many people have good intentions and want to do good for the environment. [...] Policy change by our government is very important, but individual actions can also collectively make a huge impact. When the public is informed, their actions will push our policymakers to pass laws and acts to protect the wildlife and nature for people now and in the future.”

Lara at Coolest Projects USA 2019

Creating memories with code

Capturing memories of iconic landmarks is something that is central to 13-year-old Dillon’s project, Anseo Digital Passport. Anseo is “a digital logging service for the Wild Atlantic Way” — a scenic 2,500 km tourism trail spanning the west coast of Ireland. Using the service, visitors can log locations along the famous coastal route, upload images, and write comments, creating a personalised digital memento of their trip. Dillon first presented Anseo — which means ‘here’ in the Irish language — at Coolest Projects International in 2019, and has continued the journey at Coolest Projects 2020. As well as being an enthusiastic coder, Dillon is a keen mountaineer, having completed Ireland’s 32-County High Point Challenge for charity at age nine. Dillon’s passion for the outdoors and engagement with the local environment are reflected in his project, highlighting the importance of young people working with themes that are meaningful to them.

“I enjoyed the idea of promoting the outdoors that I myself love so much. I think that Anseo will help promote people to get out and discover what Ireland really has to offer. I also think that Anseo’s feature which allows people to write comments and upload images for each individual log would help people create memories that will last a lifetime.”

The About page of Dillon’s Anseo website

You can see Dillon’s website at anseodigitalpassport.com.

Bringing the outdoors inside the classroom

A team of five students from California brought a programmed ‘garden’ to life with their project, Robotic Garden — a diorama using Scratch, servos, vibrating motors, lights, and craft supplies. Jayden, Tatiana, Nattaly, Noah, and Nicolas attended Coolest Projects USA 2020, along with their teacher, Tonya Coats. Tonya shared how the Robotic Garden was a cross-curricular activity inspired by a real garden they had been nurturing in the classroom.

“We have a small indoor greenhouse in our classroom. Our class loves to work as a team to take care of plants and watch them grow throughout the year. Gardening gives students real-life meaning... This garden was an exciting way to make our curriculum come alive.”

As Tonya explained, creating the Robotic Garden was an extension of what the students had been learning about nature. The project was a creative and engaging opportunity to express what they had learned, both in the classroom and outdoors.

“Using their background knowledge of how insects and plants behave in nature, students pushed themselves to engineer and design real-world elements. They enjoyed learning how to use different robotic mechanisms and code to mimic how insects and plants move in nature. Bringing outdoor elements inside the classroom was exciting.”

Conservation in action

Many young people are combining computing and conservation as a response to growing environmental concerns. One such project is A Smart Community Sprinkler System, which was developed by 15-year old Adarsh and presented at Coolest Projects USA 2019. Adarsh built the project as a way of conserving water during drought conditions in California. Using a Raspberry Pi, he built a moisture sensor-based smart sprinkler system that integrates real-time weather forecast data and Twitter feeds to dispense appropriate amounts of water in compliance with city water regulations.

Adarsh working on his project at home

Like many young people, Adarsh is concerned about destruction of the environment and the negative consequences that this may have for his generation if actions are not taken.

“I would implore all young innovators today to pursue environmental projects, as the destruction of the environment will affect our generation the most. If we as youth choose to ignore the problem, it will only magnify until it can no longer be solved. By setting our minds to developing innovative solutions that help the environment without drastically changing one’s life, we can little by little overcome such worldwide issues. It is imperative that we start to create projects aimed to help, protect, or sustain our planet immediately.”

Creating an outdoor computing project is not without its challenges, and Adarsh needed to prototype the sprinkler system at length. “I set up a simulated environment in my home using a potted plant and an LED. The LED light represented the sprinkler, and it turned on instead of the sprinklers when the moisture content was low.”

Adarsh shared some further advice for creating outdoor-based projects: “For designing projects intended for the outdoors, my advice would be to first isolate parts of your system or circuitry that need to be protected, and ensure that the design takes into account protecting these parts. This extra step of planning is crucial to preventing system-wide failures in your project that would require you to start all over again. By being careful and deliberate with your setup, you can design an elegant and functional project that is sustainable and scalable.”

Supporting students with outdoor-themed projects

Educators can support their students by encouraging them to explore what interests them about the world outdoors. As we have seen from these examples, there are a huge number of themes being explored that are specific to each child’s individual interests and local environment.

Many projects with an outdoor focus, particularly those relating to nature and the environment, also require research, and this is another area where educators can provide support, either by reaching out to local specialists or by arranging site visits or talks. For her Another Purpose for Eggshells project, Lara sought support from many birding and conservation groups, such as, “Sea & Sage Audubon, the Southern California Bluebird Club (SCBC) and its members, who have supported my project by allowing me to monitor nest boxes, and Cavity Conservation Initiative”.

Adarsh received valuable feedback from mentors and educators in his community regarding the importance of research: “They coached me on the importance of conducting research before embarking on such projects. They advised me to research the internet, join forums, and interview people from regular households and water company management. If it was not for them, I would have just been content with a moisture sensor-based sprinkler system. While they pointed out a problem, they also showed a path forward.”

Whether a project is designed to exist outdoors, like Amy’s beehive and Adarsh’s sprinkler system, or aims to get people outside, like Dillon’s digital passport, there is opportunity for engagement. I hope that these stories will inspire educators to design outdoor-themed computing projects with their students. As Tonya Coats from the Robotic Garden project shared, “It is exciting to bring outdoor elements into the classroom.”


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