Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Harnessing the Power of the Internet of Things

by Kristen Senz
December 2017 • CoolStuff

IoT short course classroom
Thayer's "Winterim" offers skills-based short courses to students who remain on campus during December break. They're open to all Dartmouth students and are designed to supplement the academic experience. (Photo by Doug Fraser)

They may not be faster than a locomotive, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but a group of Dartmouth students found that they could sense and control physical objects with a few lines of code—a kind of superpower inherent to the Internet of Things (IoT).

This power, with its multitude of potential uses, is at the heart of a four-day Thayer short course on the IoT during the “Winterim” break between fall and winter terms. Using a tiny $35 computer known as a Raspberry Pi and a breadboard, about a dozen students wired their own circuits, starting with LEDs and buttons and progressing to cameras, buzzers, motion sensors, moisture detectors, and more. They programmed their systems to sense and actuate, including via web servers running on the Pi.

“This makes me want to take a lot of engineering courses here, so I can understand how things actually work, rather than just writing the code.”

“This is so cool,” says third-year student Dave Lacroix as he discovers he can program a $16 camera to automatically take and email a series of photographs whenever it detects motion. “It’s like a superpower, in a way, because you get to create something and then see it in action.”

Mark Franklin ’83 Th’85 heads the IT department at Thayer. His team, working with engineering professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor, created and has run the IoT course for the past three years.

The course, which students can take without any background in programming or electronics, provides a hands-on learning experience in engineering that is designed to encourage and excite students early on in their education. Bonfert-Taylor and members of Franklin’s computing services team provide personalized instruction and lots of time for the students to tinker and explore.

“You don’t learn how to swim by watching someone else swim,” says Bonfert-Taylor. “You will never be able to swim that way. You need to get in the water.”

Sunbir Chawla ’21, a theoretical math and computer science student, installed Amazon’s Alexa on his Pi, created a remote server for his video collection, and programmed a set of computer-controlled decorative lights to turn on and blink.

“Once I have software control, I can basically do anything,” he beams. “This makes me want to take a lot of engineering courses here, so I can understand how things actually work, rather than just writing the code.”

The final day of the course featured a talk by Dartmouth computer science Professor Sean Smith, author of The Internet of Risky Things. Smith discussed the potential social advantages of the IoT, as well as security concerns, including the need for regular software updates and the potential for hackers to gain control of cars and airplanes, among other wired “things.”

“If we build the Internet of Things and this new future the way we built the current one, we’re going to have a lot of problems,” Smith cautions.

By putting the power of the IoT in the hands of Dartmouth students, Franklin says he hopes to help train a new generation of technologists who will have the knowledge and skills to shape a future that benefits society.

“I love building things and seeing how they work,” says Franklin, “so to be able to get these students interested in doing that and knowing that we are engaging them in something that is so critical, that’s the best part of it for me.”

A look at last year's IoT short course:

Tags: curriculum, extra-curricular, projects, STEM, students

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