Home > Professional activities > Pebbles and kids: Smartwatches in the elementary school

Pebbles and kids: Smartwatches in the elementary school

Virginia Tech undergrads took Pebbles into a local elementary school computer club to show off the capabilities of smartwatches. 2015-02-10 18.07.07The Pebble smartwatch is a low-cost (and low-functionality) device with a low-resolution black-and-white screen, an accelerometer, haptic output, and Bluetooth connectivity. Thanks to a generous donation from Pebble, Virginia Tech received 100 of the classic Pebble smartwatches, presenting to us a great opportunity to use them in outreach events. At the elementary school, we set up stations with three types of apps: a graphics station, an accelerometer station, and a games station.

At the graphics station, students learned about the difference between the high-resolution color displays on computers and mobile devices and the low-resolution black-and-white displays on a Pebble smartwatch. Pebble’s 144×168 display may seem large (24,192 pixels!), but not so much when compared to the more than 2 million pixels on tablets and laptops.  Similarly, you can’t do as much with 2 colors (black and white) on a Pebble as with the 10,000+ available elsewhere. We highlighted this difference with the SelfieWatch app (that is at the heart of a Virginia Tech course-wide programming assignment crafted by grad student Shuo Niu). 2015-02-27 15.52.54 (2)This app allowed the kids to take a full-color picture of themselves with a smartphone and transfer a black-and-white version to the Pebble as a watch face—highlighting the difference in quality on the two screens, and letting the kids explore how faces, posters, words on the blackboard, and more don’t always look the same in reduced form.

At the accelerometer station, the students got a simple lesson in 3-degree-of-freedom accelerometers, learning how changes in x, y, z position can be used to measure steps, gestures, shakes, and more. The kids got to try out a simple step counter created by Virginia Tech undergrad Sonika Singh, as well as a more complex one that differentiated sitting, walking, and running. The kids tested out how many steps it took to walk around the school, and they saw how much the step count varied from person to person. They also had fun trying to “fool” the step counting algorithms by waving the Pebbles around.

At the games station, the students tried out a bunch of Pebble-specific games, both those by Virginia Tech students but also some available on the Pebble store. Most were accelerometer-based, including a version of the popular 2048 game by Sonika Singh in which kids had to tilt the watch to slide the blocks. Another popular app is a Pebble-based synthesizer written by Virginia Tech undergrad Jared Deane, in which a user can control features of music by tilting the Pebble.

This was one of the many wonderful and worthwhile activities sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Computer Science Community Service (CS Squared) student organization. They teach about programming, web apps, and mobile apps at AHarding Avenue Elementary school and other schools in the area; they visit our community center and a senior center to teach local residents about web apps like e-mail, Pinterest, Google Maps; and they participate in a variety of outreach activities around campus. (Full disclosure: I’m the faculty advisor for this club, though the vast majority of the work is done by the students.)

This event is just one of the many things we’ve been doing lately with smartwatches—in elementary schools, in Virginia Tech classes, and in our research efforts. Many were highlighted at the SIGCSE Conference in March 2015, a conference dedicated to computer science education. Links to papers, posters, smartwatch apps, and other resources can be found at http://research.cs.vt.edu/ns/smartwatch.

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