STUDENTS in Mayfield Community School are reaching for the stars… quite literally.
Two teams from fifth year Computer Science have entered the European Space Agency’s AstroPi competition.
This competition asks students to design experiments and to programme code onto Raspberry Pi computers.
These tiny computers are extremely cost-efficient. They are also very powerful and can run on a desktop computer. Raspberry Pis are used in the International Space Station.
The first stage of the competition entails students designing an experiment, which is judged by the European Space Agency. The successful students are then allowed to progress to the next stage, and they receive Raspberry Pis to work with.
If they are chosen as winners, the students’ code is uploaded to the International Space Station and runs for three hours or two orbits.
Mayfield Community School (CS) already won this competition in 2017, and they were the first Irish students to have their computer code running in space.
“One of the things which can be very useful in getting the kids motivated is to enter them into competitions,” says Mr Liam Begley, Computer Science teacher at Mayfield CS.
Mr Begley says there are two elements to the AtroPi competition. “Secondary schools can enter teams, who come up with experiments. They have to do two experiments using the Raspberry Pis and get data from them. Then the experiments would run in space if they were good enough.
“The first experiment was a set one, they had to use the sensors on the Raspberry Pi to detect when an astronaut entered and left the Columbus module [the European room in the International Space Station].”
The students had to code the humidity sensors to detect someone’s breath and the temperature sensors to pick up on body heat. They also had to code the Raspberry Pi to display this information on its 16-inch LED display.
The second part of the competition requires students to get creative.
“They also have to come up with their own experiment. What we did was test anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field, using the gravitational sensor on the Raspberry Pi,” Mr Begley explains.
The Mayfield students were incredibly successful. “The kids had to learn about Python coding and Raspberry Pis from scratch. Last January we got word we had been accepted. We were the only school in Ireland to have our code running in space.”
The Mayfield school is hoping to emulate this success with its current fifth years.
Mr Begley says an advantage this year is that AstroPi fits into the new Leaving Cert Computer Science curriculum. Mayfield Community School is one of 40 pilot schools for this new subject.
Mayfield’s fifth year Computer Science class were divided into two AstroPi teams, and both of their ideas were accepted. They are now onto the second round of AstroPi - making their experiments work.
In one of the last classes before the Christmas break, the students are required to get the humidity and temperature sensors on the Raspberry Pi working, through the use of an emulator. They then have to print off the results.
All of the students are enthusiastic about the competition, as well as the subject in general. Many are in the process of fixing up their computers at home, so they can continue coding after school. Some are even building their own computers with the help of their teacher.
Student Séan Barry says he really likes the subject. “It’s good because its the only computer one we have.”
He says the competition has been tough so far. “We had to decide what we were doing, and getting the temperature [sensor to work] has been a bit tricky.
“Sir will teach us, and we have to go away and code it ourselves, on our own file on the computer. Then we save it to the Raspberry Pi and it’s stored on it.”
Séan is also building his own computer so he can practice at home. “It’s tricky. I bought the parts online and Sir is helping me put all the parts together. Then when I am done, I can donate all my old parts from my old computer to the school, so they can re-use them.
“I’m nearly done now, I just have to do all the cables and fix those up,” says Séan.
Colm Drake and Jason O’Regan tell The Echo that this their favourite subject. “It’s fantastic. It’s the fact you get to use computers as well,” says Colm.
The pair are excited about the AstroPi competition, despite the challenges it presents. “It can be hard. You could be there for ages, for the better part of a double [class] trying to get the coding to work,” says Colm.
“It’s so satisfying when you do get it… the best feeling in the world,” says Jason.
Colm says the tiny Raspberry Pi computers are “pretty amazing”. “It’s just this little block on the table that has so much power.”
A lot of the students are learning to code for the first time because of this subject.
“Everyone enjoys it. Coding is something very new for me. I did a small bit of it in fourth year, but I hadn’t really done it before,” says Ryan Myers. “It’s a brilliant feeling when you get it to work. There are always problems, but when you get it fixed it’s just an amazing feeling.”
Teamwork is an essential part of the AstroPi competition.
“If you’re ever stuck, you have someone who can help you,” Ryan says. “You feel more confident in the team then too. It’s different to other subjects where you’re completely on your own.”
Amy O’Leary is a sixth year Computer Science student and she is the only girl taking the course. “I had no choice but to take this subject, but I actually really like it, I thought I’d hate it.
“The coding part is challenging but once you understand it you feel so good. Sometimes I’d be snapping and nearly walking out the door because it gets frustrating.
“I love working as part of a group. It’s open learning, we are all talking and helping each other.”
Amy says she would potentially consider a career in coding because of the subject. Mr Begley says that the key to getting students interested in STEM, and to encourage them to enter competitions like AstroPi, is teaching coding from an early age.
“We [Mayfield CS] were already involved in numeracy and literacy schemes with the primary schools in the area. We were also doing coding with them, so fifth class would come to visit our school and our students would teach them how to code, but this was on an ad-hoc basis.
“There is a School Excellence Fund for Digital [initiatives]. We thought why not formalise our coding and try to get funding for it? We applied and were given the grant, which is spread out between all of the schools.”
Mayfield CS work with St Mark’s and St Brendan’s in The Glen, as well as Scoil Mhuire agus Eoin and St Killians in Mayfield.
Mr Begley says this early years learning is particularly important to increase women’s participation in STEM.
“Now we have young girls in The Glen getting interested in coding and seeing they can do it too. The girls in the co-ed school in Mayfield are the same. So, they all will have been exposed to coding by the time they come into secondary school.
“We also work with the primary schools on Lego Robotics League.”
Mr Begley says this means when students enter second level, they already have an understanding of coding.
“From the bottom up, you’ve increased awareness of the subject, and the competence of the students coming in has increased too. We won’t be starting from scratch in TY or fifth year.”
The new Leaving Cert course isn’t just for “high tech nerds” either, explains Mr Begley.
“There’s an ordinary level and a higher level. Some students might not turn into the next Bill Gates, but it will give them an appreciation for computational thinking, logical problem solving and an overview of the ethics of technology in society.”
Mr Begley says he hopes that eventually, there will be kids coming into his class who are better coders than him. “Kids are already really creative, so coding is no mystery to them.”