A new computer coding tool created by Northwestern University engineers is enabling kids to build and program sustainable, battery-free, energy-harvesting electronic devices.
They based Battery-free MakeCode on the learn-to-code platform Microsoft MakeCode. The visual program makes learning easy by dragging and dropping pre-made code blocks — similar to the building block video game Tetris — to program electronic devices and create apps.
Battery-free MakeCode allows users to program electronic devices that harvest energy from sources like vibrations, movement, radio frequency transmissions, and the sun. Traditionally, programming battery-free electronics has been challenging and only experienced programmers would do it.
A key issue is the unpredictability of harvesting energy from ambient sources. For example, programs operating on solar-powered devices might fail in cloudy weather, or vibration and movement energy harvesting devices might stop when the user stops moving or pushing buttons. The Northwestern engineers say Battery-free MakeCode ensures program consistency under intermittent energy supplies.
“Our hope is that as students learn to code, they also learn about concepts around energy and sustainability,” Northwestern assistant professor Josiah Hester said in a news release. “We want to enable educators to instruct a new generation of programmers who understand sustainable computing and programming practices.”
The researchers want to expand accessibility to sustainable computing practices with the easy, low-cost platform. The only requirements to access the free tool are internet access and about $40 worth of readily available electronic equipment.
An elementary school in Hawaii is starting to incorporate the platform into its sustainability-focused STEM learning. It will become part of all the students’ curricula by 2025.