CAN it Compute? The Internet of Things!

Here at Firia Labs we practice what we teach. Of course you know that we develop awesome curricula, innovative software, and super-cool hardware for the education market. But you might not know that our team also provides software and hardware engineering services for some of the world’s most innovative companies in a wide range of market segments! We help build new “Internet of Things” (IoT) products that are transforming industries in areas like solar energy, smart agriculture, machine health, and asset tracking. This stuff is seriously cool, and we love what we do! We’re in the “edtech” business because we sincerely want to share that enthusiasm with students and teachers.

IoT? Internet of WHAT?

When I speak to groups of teachers and students, I often ask if anyone has heard of the “Internet of Things”. Usually I’m met with blank stares… That really surprised me at first, because the technology world of wireless sensors and embedded electronics in which I’ve worked for over 10 years now has been all about the IoT. It’s part of what’s sometimes called the "4th wave of computing". Everybody say oooh...ahhh... In case you missed them, those "waves" are:

  1. Mainframes
  2. Personal Computers and the Internet
  3. Mobile Phones and wireless networks
  4. IoT / Cloud / Machine Learning

Wave-3 has happened already - nowadays just about everyone is carrying a connected computer in their pocket! The IoT is a big part of Wave-4, and it's happening now, right under our noses! And it will continue to evolve for some time. Our students will create many of the IoT applications we haven’t even imagined yet!

One way to think about IoT is “embedding computers in places you’d never expect a computer to be”. An enabling technology for this wave is the advent of low-cost computer chips with the ability to connect (often indirectly) to the Internet. It’s now possible to add “monitor and control” capability to a product for less than $1 of additional manufacturing cost.

With that in mind, look around you and consider the “unexpected” places in which you could embed a computer that might add some meaningful value. This is a game I often play with K-6 classrooms. I call it “Can it Compute?!”

Can it Compute?

Why might you want to add “connected computing capabilities” to the following ordinary things in the classroom?

Trash Can -

Probably my favorite “thing” to grab in a classroom setting while issuing a challenge to the kids: “Can it compute?” Smart trash cans? Aw yeah - students shout out lots of creative ideas!

  • Add a sensor to measure how full the trash can is.
  • Report wirelessly to an app on your phone to notify when trash needs to be emptied.
  • Track how much waste is being created over weeks/months/years in each room. (Or food waste in a kitchen setting!)
  • Automatically sort recyclable items

Potted Plant - could a computer make your plants smarter? Smart flower-pots?

  • Sense soil moisture and notify wirelessly when plant needs watering.
  • Sense light level and warn if it’s not appropriate for the selected type of plant.
  • Connect to an automatic watering system.

Dry erase marker - seriously, a tiny computer in a marker?

  • Sense when the cap has been left off and the marker is not moving, beep and flash a warning.
  • Wirelessly report ink level, and automatically order new marker of same color when near empty.

Overhead Lights - a computer in every light bulb?

  • Automatically dim the lights if there’s bright sunlight coming through the windows.
  • Sense where people are in the room, and turn on lights to follow them around.

The above may seem like fanciful ideas, but some of them are being implemented now! Take a moment to think about how the same concepts apply outside our homes and schools. Stores, restaurants, farms, factories, hospitals, and other places where people spend time and money are prime candidates for connected IoT computing.

Not Your Father’s Computer Scientist

If the IoT is changing how we think about “computers”, it also changes the notion of what a “Computer Science job” looks like. In this field, you might be figuring out how to embed computing and sensing into football helmets, musical instruments, medical equipment, or wildlife management environments. You’re going to spend a lot of time with end users as well as fellow technology collaborators. The exciting thing is that as the number of CS jobs grows, so does the diversity of fields of interest where the opportunities exist.

For our students, I’ll reiterate a point from a prior blog post:

“Whatever your interest, the potential to creatively apply technology to it is here now - and it’s likely to transform some of the things you love. So why not be a part of that change?”

Teaching with IoT

IoT applications offer a wonderful opportunity for CS educators to attract more students with diverse interests. But we have to show them that “physical computing” devices are more than toys, and coding is not just about games. I'm super excited about Firia Labs' role in the movement to make this a reality for our students. Happily, the abundance of IoT applications provides fertile ground for us to give students authentic learning opportunities based on real-world problems.