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Really Small Computers may help STEM the tide…

Written By: Mel Lester Jr. - Jan• 07•14

Not that many years ago, the amateur radio hobby inspired several generations of youngsters to learn about electronics by building  much of their equipment from kits.  When micro computers came along, these hobbyists, or HAMs, were among the first to embrace the new technology by incorporating programmable digital components into their projects.

This cross-over effect was particularly apparent in the specialty periodical business when Wayne Green, publisher of 73 magazine which catered to HAMs, began publishing computer related magazines including Kilobaud Microcomputing, 80 Micro and had a hand in the founding of Byte.  All of these print publications, which were extremely successful during the last part of the 20th Century, fell by the wayside around the Millennium.  Declining revenue from advertising and subscribers was arguably related to fewer hobbyists being interested in amateur radio and micro-computing as the disruptive rise of the Internet diverted many potential newcomers towards other interests.

Relatively recently, a perception has arisen that highly developed nations, particularly in North America and Europe, are unable to educate a sufficient number of qualified applicants to fill the demand for highly technical professions.  This shortfall is being mitigated by waves of well qualified technologists from developing and third world countries whose educational systems appear to be more effective in producing students who outperform their peers from more developed nations, including the United States.  This educational gap in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is denoted by the acronym, STEM.

STEM is currently a hot topic in US Education and Immigration circles.  Organizations in the United States such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), US Department of Education and even the Boy Scouts of America are actively working on STEM related programs.

In the UK, the Raspberry Pi Foundation recently developed and released several small, inexpensive (less than $50 US) single board computers designed to augment teaching of Computer Science.  The diminutive but highly successful Raspberry Pi computers and the somewhat similar BeagleBoard products from Texas Instruments have succeed in capturing the imagination of many Educators and Students as well as the interest of Hobbyists, the Do-It-Yourself community and  Makers.

These small computers are characterized by built-in networking, USB ports, well documented digital and analogue interfaces and a plethora of Open Source software that dramatically lowers the barriers for electronic experimentation and discovery.  Over the last several years, publications devoted to this new, small and inexpensive computer format have grown eight-fold on an annual basis.  I will be reviewing some of those publications in this blog space — especially those focused on practical STEM learning projects.

Because the Raspberry Pi and it’s peer products are highly compatible with Open Source software and inexpensive, commodity peripherals, several very practical applications have been migrated to these platforms that should be useful in Small to Medium sized Businesses.  I plan on replacing several power-hungry rack mounted servers with much more economical to own and operate Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black small computer systems and sharing the results here.  The first project will be using the Raspberry Pi as a Network Attached Storage server.  Stay tuned…


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