Entries Categorized as 'Technology'

Getting Started with a Raspberry Pi

February 9, 2014

Student wires the breadboard attached to a Raspberry Pi.

Student wires LED’s to a circuit on a breadboard attached to a Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi‘s are small computers that are remarkably easy to use if you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, I did not quite know what I was doing. On the other hand, fortunately, I had Mr. Schmidt available to give me the kick start I needed to get going. In this post, I’ll outline, in as much detail as possible, how we got started; how we helped a student put together a synchronized LED light and digital sound project.

You should just be able to plug your Pi into a monitor using the HDMI cable that comes with the starter kit (like this kit by Adafruit) and power it up. However, we did not have a monitor that could take an HDMI cable, so we had to connect the hard way: by plugging the Pi into an ethernet cable and finding it on the local network. This is what’s called a headless setup — with no monitor and no keyboard — and I followed a lot of Robert A. Wood’s instructions on headless setups.

Install the Raspbian Operating System for remote access

First you have to make sure you have a bootable operating system on the Pi’s SD card that will allow you to connect remotely through the internet. The card that came with the starter kit had the basic NOOBS operating system installed, but NOOBS does not allow remote access by default.

I downloaded the Raspbian raw image to my computer then copied the image to the SD card using the terminal program dd. Follow this procedure with caution because you can do a lot of damage if you copy the image over your computer’s hard drive (which is remarkably easy to do with dd). The procedure follows:

1) Once you plug the SD card into your computer it should mount automatically. You need to detect where it is mounted using (on a Mac running OSX) the diskutil program:

> diskutil list

This should give you a list of all of your mounted disks. Identify the one that is the SD card. It should look something like this:

Output from 'disktuil list'.

Output from ‘disktuil list’.

It shows my 4 gigabyte disk located at ‘/dev/disk1’.

2) If you’re absolutely sure you’ve identified the SD card you need to unmount it:

> diskutil unmountDisk /dev/disk1

3) Now if you’re still absolutely sure you have the right location of the SD card copy the image. Note that in the example below the option ‘if‘ means input file, while ‘of‘ means output file:

> dd if=~/raspberry/raspi/2014-01-07-wheezy-raspbian.img of=/dev/disk1

I had the devil of a time trying to install the raw image of the Raspbian operating system. After a few hours of frustration I finally pulled an SD card from my small camera and lo-and-behold the copy went through easily. So make sure you have a good quality card.

Talking to the Pi

Plug the SD card with Raspbian installed into the Pi, plug the Pi into a power outlet, then and plug an ethernet cable into the Pi. The Pi should boot up and connect to the internet automatically. Now you just have to find it from your computer. Mr. Schmidt helped a lot with this step, but I also used Pete Taylor’s instructions as well.

The ifconfig command will tell you your computer’s IP address. Look under the section en1.

> ifconfig

My IP address turned out to be

To find the Pi I had to download and install nmap to locate all things on the local network. Once installed I used:

> sudo nmap -sP

You should find something labeled ‘Raspberry Pi’ with an IP address that’s almost identical to yours except for the last of the four numbers. I found mine at

Now, you can log in to the Raspberry Pi using the username ‘pi’ and the password ‘raspberry’:

> ssh pi@

And, ‘Bam’, you’re in.

Configure and Update

I used the configuration utility ‘raspi-config’ to expand the root file system to take up the entire SD Card: expand_rootfs:

pi> raspi-config

Update the software using the two commands:

pi> sudo apt-get update
pi> sudo apt-get upgrade

You can also set up the Pi for remote window access by running a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) server and using a vnc client (like Chicken on the Mac). I installed ‘tightvnc’ and started the vnc server on the Pi with:

pi> sudo apt-get install tightvncserver
pi> vncserver :1

We never did end up using the vnc window, however.

The light circuit

We hooked up the LED circuit to the output pin GPIO 17 in series with a resistor and then back into a ground pin of the Pi, pretty much as the Gordon’s Projects page describes.

Talking to the Circuits/Pins

In order to get the Pi to operate the LED lights you have to control the pins that communicate in and out. Our starter kit came with a ribbon cable and breakout board that connects the pins from the Pi to a breadboard, which makes it easier to build circuits.

But first we have to be able to control to the Pi’s pins. I tried two different methods. The first was to use wiringPi, which is a set of command line tools, while the second was to use the Rpi.GPIO library for the Python programming language. We found it was much easier to use Python for its ease of programming.

Command line: wiringPi:

To get wiringPi, download it with ‘git‘, go to its directory, then build it (Gordon’s Projects has the instructions):

pi> git clone git://git.drogon.net/wiringPi
pi> cd wiringPi
pi> ./build

Now you can manipulate pin 0 (GPIO 17, which is labeled #17 on the breakout board) by: 1) setting to output mode; 2) turning it on, and; 3) turning it off:

pi> gpio mode 0 out
pi> gpio write 0 1
pi> gpio write 0 0

The following short script (red-light-flash.s) turns the light on and off ten times:


# a single blinking led light attached to gpio0
# based on 
# https://projects.drogon.net/raspberry-pi/gpio-examples/tux-crossing/gpio-examples-1-a-single-led/

for i in `seq 1 10`
gpio write 0 1
sleep 0.5
gpio write 0 0
sleep 0.5

The script needs to be given execute permissions:

pi> chmod 777 red-light-flash.s

then run:

pi> ./red-light-flash.s

Python: Rpi.GPIO

As I mentioned above, it’s much easier to write programs in Python than to use shell scripts. So we’ll install the Python library, RPi.GPIO, to that allows us to communicate with the Pi. To get RPi.GPIO we first need the Python Development toolkit:

pi> sudo apt-get install python-dev

Then install Rpi.GPIO:

pi> sudo apt-get install python-rpi.gpio

To operate the GPIO-17 (turn it on and off every half second) we use the following program:


#!/usr/bin/env python
from time import sleep
import RPi.GPIO as GPIO

cpr = 17  ## The GPIO Pin output number

GPIO.setmode(GPIO.BCM) ## Use board pin numbering

GPIO.setup(cpr, GPIO.OUT) ## Setup GPIO Pin 7 to OUT

for i in range(10):
	GPIO.output(cpr, True)
	GPIO.output(cpr, False)

We run the program using the command:

pi> sudo python flash.py

Addendum: A Student’s Light and Sound Project

During our Creativity interim, one student chose to use the python program flash.py as a starting point to make a program to combine light and musical notes.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2014. Getting Started with a Raspberry Pi, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Flying Robotics

February 27, 2013

A fascinating demonstration of using modeling to maneuver flying robots (quadrocopters).

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Flying Robotics, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Dissecting Computer: Building a Hovercraft

February 20, 2013

Extracting the hard drive from an old computer.

Our school was recycling some old computers, so my students convinced me that it would be worthwhile o dissect a few of them to see if there was anything worth saving. It was quite remarkable to see just how interested they were in examining the insides of the machines — a few desktop computers and a monitor — but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, it’s getting harder and harder to open up their iPods and other electronics, and even more difficult to repair and repurpose them, so I can see why students would jump at the chance of looking inside a device. Also, they tend to like to break things.

Pulling apart a monitor.

To get them to think a little more about what they were seeing, I got a couple students to draw a scale diagram of one of the motherboards, and write up a report on what they’d done.

Diagramming a motherboard.

Some of the other students spent their time trying to make all the motors, LED’s, and lasers work by hooking them up to 9-Volt batteries. Then they found the fans… and someone had the brilliant idea that they could use it to make a hovercraft. Using a gallon sized ziplock bag and some red duct tape, a prototype was constructed.

Hovercraft prototype.

The fan would inflate the bag which would then let air out the bottom through small holes. I convinced them to try to quantify the effectiveness of their fans before they put the holes in by hooking the bag up to one of our Vernier pressure sensors that plug into their calculators. Unfortunately, the sensor was not quite sensitive enough.

Attempting to measure the hovercraft’s bag pressure using a gas pressure sensor connected to a calculator.

This was not how I had planned spending those days during the interim, but the pull of following the students’ interests was just too strong.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Dissecting Computer: Building a Hovercraft, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.


October 21, 2012

View Larger Map

I’ve been using Google Maps on this blog and for a lot of my applications (e.g. Mariner A.O.), but I’ve just come across OpenStreetMap, which I should be able to use instead. It has an API, nicely embedable maps (including significant topographic coverage), but most importantly, is free and open-source.

Now I just have to see if I can get it to work reliably.

Carl Franzen on TPM Reddit

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. OpenStreetMap, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Practicing Plotting Points on the Co-ordinate Plain

August 25, 2012

Pre-Algebra class starts next week, so in preparation for one of the early lessons on how to plot x,y co-ordinates, I put together an interactive plotter that lets students drag points onto the co-ordinate plain.

Students practice plotting points by dragging the red dot to the coordinates given.


The program generates random coordinate pairs within the area of the chart (or you can enter values of the coordinates yourself):

  • Clicking the “Show Point” button will place a yellow dot at the point.
  • When you’re confident you understand how the coordinate pairs work, you can practice by dragging the red dot to where you think the point is and the program will tell you if you’re right or not.

About the Program

This interactive application uses the jQuery and KineticJS javascript libraries. The latter library in particular is useful for making the HTML5 canvases interactive, so you can click on points on the graph and drag them.

When I have some time, after classes settle down, I’ll see if I can figure out how to embed this type of app into this (WordPress) blog. KineticJS is based off HTML5 canvases, which is what I use for the other interactive graphs I’ve posted, so it shouldn’t be terribly hard (at least in principle).

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Practicing Plotting Points on the Co-ordinate Plain, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Audacity: Editing Sound for Free

July 26, 2012

For free, easy editing of sound (audio) files, the free, open-source, program, Audacity, is excellent. It’s also a good complement to Switch for generating sound for the web.

Screen capture from Audacity.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Audacity: Editing Sound for Free, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Switch: Converting Audio Files for Sound Effects

July 26, 2012

Adding sound to webpages is pretty easy with HTML5’s Audio tag (as Jean-Baptiste Jung demonstrates), but since different browsers can only handle certain, different types of sound files, you’ll often need to convert your sound into .wav, .ogg, and .mp3 formats so they can work for everyone.

Switch Sound File Converter does just what it says, and is free for non-commercial use.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Switch: Converting Audio Files for Sound Effects, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Plugging Latex Equations into Webpages

July 8, 2012

I’ve figured out how to put latex equations into this WordPress website, but have been struggling trying to get it on my other math based web pages, like the parabolas page.

Now, however, I’ve discovered CodeCogs, which provides an excellent Equation Editor that allows the inclusion of latex equations on any website (html page).

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Plugging Latex Equations into Webpages, Retrieved January 21st, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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