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Summer Program(ming), Raspberry Pi and Python

The 2015 IT campers with Illinois State staff.

The 2015 IT campers with Illinois State staff.

From June 21–26, the School of Information Technology was noisier and busier than any other week during our placid summers.

Besides a few students taking one of the two courses offered in-person, the school was home to 29 high school students taking part in an event called IT camp, part of Illinois State’s Illinois Summer Research Academy (ISRA). The ISRA participants choose a science program to take part in; those with computer interests chose the IT camp.

IT camp participants learned about many aspects of IT and technology. Each day, students went to several different classes on the following topics:

  • Python programming
  • Arduino projects (a small microcontroller board that interfaces with the physical world)
  • Lego NXT (Mindstorms) robotics
  • Building a computer
  • Basic web development

Each camper received a Raspberry Pi 2 (a small, $35 single-board computer) that runs Linux, and is best programmed in Python. They used the board for their programming exercises, and also for the Raspberry Pi projects.

Campers working with the Lego robot.

Campers working with the Lego robot.

At the end of the week, the Raspberry Pi was theirs to keep, and hopefully keep them programming. The Pi is eminently suited to being used as a media center, talking to other electronic devices (I have one running my garage door via a webpage!), or simply being used as a PC.

During the week, the students got a chance to do some of those same type of projects, making the Arduino sense temperatures, display them on an LCD screen, and then passing the data to the Pi via USB, which then tweeted the temperature to the world. The Lego robots were also a big hit, and the best projects were able to find and push four colored cans out of the circle in about 20 seconds. In programming, students learned to make objects and structures in Minecraft with Python code, write a simple game, and make the Pi talk to the real world via the GPIO pins.

On Thursday night, the students (including those from other ISRA programs) were able to blow off steam in a LAN (local area network) party hosted in the school’s labs. The event was a big hit according to both campers and the ISU student chaperones.

Campers are seen programming Arduinos

Campers are seen programming Arduinos at the Illinois Summer Research Academy.

At the end of the week, after the closing demonstrations, the greatest compliment to the week was that several students expressed an interest in coming back next year, not as participants but as junior counselors. We plan to implement that, with previous campers helping to teach and aid next year’s students with projects.

A special thanks goes to those who helped arrange and coordinate and teach; Cris Embree and Jolene McDowell for procuring and scheduling for the event; the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMAST) and Amy Bloom for the main ISRA arrangements (like residence halls!); and Todd Thomas, Joe Holland, and Andre Diawa for the IT lab reconfiguration.

Teachers were Billy Lim, Glen Sagers, adjunct instructors Terry Plickebaum and Dean Plumadore, former IT student David Nolan, and Thomas, our lead computer technician.

Finally, the School of Information Technology would like to thank our corporate partners for helping support the event and providing generous scholarships which paid the way of all our campers, most of whom were students from Chicago Public Schools. We’d love to see your daughter or son, and their friends, for next year’s event.

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