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Education

PicoBricks: plug-and-play learning with the Raspberry Pi Pico W 

 July 13, 2023

By  Peter

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Picobricks is a plug-and-play electronic development kit built around the Raspberry Pi Pico W, designed specifically for maker projects and education. I spend a few days playing with it and am documenting my impressions in this post.

I won’t keep you wondering: I loved it!

Picobricks is a kit on a board built around the Raspberry Pi Pico W

Picobricks reminds me of the Grove system of kits from SeeedStudio (I have created a course on Grove), so I am familiar with the benefits of a single-board kit that is ready to plug into your computer and play. PicoBricks, developed by Robotistan, has taken a similar approach and has delivered top-tier hardware and online plus offline educational materials.

You can use all of the components on the board without any wires, or you can snap each module away from the board and use it in your projects. As with the Grove kits, Picobricks uses Grove connectors and cables to connect the modules with the Raspberry Pi Pico (if you choose to remove the modules from the board).

I perceive Picobricks as a playground for learning and creativity, a launchpad for innovation, and a tool that makes learning programming and electronics as easy as plug-and-play.

A Playground for All

Who is PicoBricks for?

In my view is not just for the tech-savvy or the experienced coder (although experienced makers can use it as a rapid-prototyping tool).

It’s for everyone who is interested in electronics and programming education: STEM teachers, students, tinkerers, and even engineers.

It’s for the curious minds, the creative spirits. It’s for those who’ve never written a line of code and those who’ve been coding for years.

With ten detachable modules included (and more available and easy to connect via the Grove connectors), PicoBricks can be used to create various projects. It’s like a box of Lego bricks, but for electronics. Each module is a puzzle piece, and you’re the one who decides how they fit together.

A nice innovation is that PicoBricks also includes a protoboard that you can use to add your own modules. It’s a canvas waiting for your ideas to come to life.

A protoboard on the board is nice!

Learning to Code with PicoBricks

Coding can seem intimidating at first, but PicoBricks makes it easy. It offers a Scratch-like block coding environment called Microblocks, which is perfect for beginners. It’s a visual way of learning to code, where you drag and drop blocks to create your program. Microblocks works with various microcontrollers, including the Raspberry Pi Pico, the Micro:bit, and the ESP32.

But PicoBricks doesn’t stop at block coding. It also offers the opportunity to explore coding in MicroPython and in C/C++ (a.k.a. Arduino language). Regarding editors, you can also use anything that supports MicroPython, including Thonny and the Arduino IDE.

The Power of MicroBlocks

One of the key features of PicoBricks is MicroBlocks. It’s a coding tool that’s widely known and loved in the maker industry. It’s considered the easiest coding experience for people new to learning to code.

With MicroBlocks, you can go from zero to hero in coding. It’s a stepping stone, a guide, and a mentor. It’s a tool that takes you by the hand and leads you through the world of coding, one block at a time.

MicroBlocks, running in my Chrome browser.

Flexibility and Freedom with PicoBricks

What sets PicoBricks apart is its flexibility. It’s a tool that grows with you. As you learn and evolve, so does PicoBricks. It’s designed to cater to every level of makers, from the novice to the expert.

For instance, the Picobricks eBook (free, online on Github) contains step-by-step examples of MicroBlock programs of increasing difficulty that teach the usage of all hardware on the board. You can start with the LED blink project and eventually build a smart greenhouse. So, whether you’re just getting started or you’re looking to explore new possibilities, there’s something for you.

PicoBricks is an example of a new generation of education tools, and it is more than just an electronic development board. It’s a tool that sparks creativity, fuels curiosity, and makes learning fun.

Key Features and Variations of PicoBricks

Here are some of the key features that make PicoBricks stand out:

Detachable Modules

PicoBricks comes with twelve detachable modules that can be used to create various projects. The base board I played with contains an OLED, RGB LED, button, environment sensor, a relay, a potentiometer, a buzzer and a motor driver. The included Raspberry Pi Pico W also gives you Wifi connectivity. These modules can be connected using cables with standard, easy-to-use Grove connectors. This means you can use just the modules you need for your project, making PicoBricks a flexible and versatile tool.

The contents of my Picobricks Basic kit box

Designed for All Levels

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced maker, PicoBricks will teach you something new. It’s designed to be flexible and adaptable, with a modular design that lets you start with basic electronic knowledge and progress as you learn more. The MicroBlocks IDE, Thonny or Arduino IDE allows you to use both block coding and a code editor feature, catering to different learning styles and levels of expertise.

Portable and Easy to Use

PicoBricks is compact and comes with a cloth carrying case, making it easy to take with you wherever you go. The lack of tangled cables makes it easy to use anywhere, anytime.

No More Wiring Errors

With PicoBricks, there’s no need for complex wiring and soldering. This minimizes errors and lets you spend more time coding and creating.

Documentation

PicoBricks comes with extensive documentation for detailed usage, modules, and development. It also includes a Project Book with tons of great tutorials for beginners. There is an eBook and a full documentation repository on Github with example code, datasheets, and even STL files for printing the parts for a marble machine (one of the included projects).

Wireless Control

PicoBricks (even the base model kit) includes built-in wifi and an infrared receiver and transmitter, allowing you to develop projects that you can control remotely. You can also add a Bluetooth connection with the Bluetooth port.

The Picobricks boards include an IR receiver and a motor driver (there is a relay on the other side).

Programming PicoBricks: Three Ways to Unleash Your Creativity

Let’s focus on the programming aspect of the PicoBrick kit. PicoBricks can be programmed on three different platforms: Microblocks, Thonny, and Arduino IDE. Each platform offers a unique way to interact with PicoBricks, catering to different levels of coding knowledge and project requirements.

MicroBlocks: Drag-and-Drop Coding

MicroBlocks is a block-based programming platform that’s perfect for users with little coding knowledge, younger users, or users who want to develop projects quickly. It allows you to develop projects by moving code blocks to your project page using a simple drag-and-drop method. This visual approach to coding makes it easy to understand the logic behind your code and see the results of your work in real time.

Thonny: High-level programming with MicroPython

Thonny is a coding platform that allows you to develop projects using the MicroPython language. MicroPython is a lean and efficient implementation of Python 3 that’s designed to run on microcontrollers like the Raspberry Pi Pico.

It’s a great way to delve deeper into coding and create more complex projects. Thonny’s user-friendly interface and powerful features make it a great tool for programming PicoBricks.

Arduino IDE: Harness the Power of C

The Arduino IDE is one of the most common programs used for physical programming. It allows you to develop projects using the C programming language, offering a high level of control and flexibility. If you’re an experienced coder or you’re ready to take your coding skills to the next level, the Arduino IDE is a great choice for programming PicoBricks.

Each platform offers a unique way to interact with PicoBricks, allowing you to choose the one that best suits your needs and level of expertise. Generally, most people will want to begin with MicroBlocks, and then branch out to Thonny (if they want to explore MicroPython) or the Arduino IDE (if they want to explore C/C++).

My Journey with the PicoBricks Base Kit

Let me share with you my personal journey with the PicoBricks Base Kit. It was a delightful experience, and I enjoyed the kit’s possibilities.

The high quality of the hardware and the design became apparent during the unboxing. The kit comes with a “Quick Start Guide” that I followed to the letter got me up and running quickly. I found that the documentation and the labelling on the board created a hassle-free first impression inviting me to spend more time with it.

Setting up PicoBricks on my computer was a breeze, thanks to the guide and the Microblocks software. I found that the Chrome browser is the one that works best with Microblocks. The process was straightforward and hassle-free.

The included printed Quick Start Guide is very helpful. and intuitive

Once I had PicoBricks set up, I created some simple Microblocks programs to get a feel of the process. I could display a message on the OLED, control the LED, and even play tones with the buzzer. I did all this without doing any wiring other than connecting the included Raspberry Pi Pico W to my computer. This means I could get from one experiment to the next with zero rewiring. I simply cleared my existing Microblocks program and started dropping the blocks for the next one.

Showing some text and sensor readings on the OLED

Having spent countless hours of my life looking for wiring errors, creating projects on Picobricks was almost effortless. I was creating, experimenting, and learning, all at the same time. It was a testament to the power and versatility of the PicoBricks Base Kit.

Ultimately, my experience with the PicoBricks Base Kit was overwhelmingly positive. It’s a tool that makes learning electronics and coding not just accessible but also fun. It’s a tool that brings out the maker in you, regardless of your experience level. And for me, it was a journey I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone curious about electronics and coding.

Thonny and MicroPython with PicoBricks

For those who are ready to take their coding skills to the next level, PicoBricks, with the modern Raspberry Pi Pico W microcontroller board, offers the opportunity. It’s compatible with the Thonny editor and MicroPython, a combination that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Thonny is a Python IDE that’s perfect for beginners and advanced learners. It’s simple, user-friendly, and packed with features that make coding a breeze. And when paired with MicroPython, a lean and efficient implementation of Python 3, it becomes a powerful tool for programming PicoBricks.

This is my preferred method of using PicoBricks. With Thonny and MicroPython, you can unlock the full potential of the Raspberry Pi Pico W and the hardware included in the PicoBricks kit. You can use any of the thousands of MicroPython modules available on PyPi, the Python Package Index that is now available from within the Thonny user interface.

Thonny is my favourite MicroPython IDE.

You can write complex programs, control sophisticated hardware, and create more advanced projects. It’s a journey that’s both challenging and rewarding, perfect for those who are ready to push their boundaries.

If you’re ready to take your learning to the next level, try Thonny and MicroPython with PicoBricks.

In conclusion…

In the context of electronics and coding, PicoBricks is a versatile, user-friendly, and powerful tool. It’s a platform that caters to all, from beginners taking their first steps into the world of coding to experienced makers looking for a flexible and adaptable tool.

With its detachable modules, compatibility with different programming platforms, comprehensive documentation, and a design that encourages creativity, PicoBricks provides a gentle entry for beginners into the world of electronics and coding. As for more advanced learners PicoBricks offers an excellent tool for rapid prototyping and experimentation.


Tags

MicroBlocks, Raspberry Pi Pico, Review


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