Big Data and Education

bigdataDo a Google search on Big Data and Education.  Go ahead – I’ll wait for you.  What did you find?  If your search was similar to mine, what you found was information on how to use Big Data for classroom data collection, educational data mining, learning analytics, or improved research, analytics, and accountability.  Some even claim that Big Data is supposed to “fix” education.  Let’s get real.  If Big Data is really the wave of the future, instead of just collecting data on students shouldn’t we be teaching them WHAT Big Data is, WHY it is the wave of the future, and HOW they can benefit from it?

WHAT is Big Data

What is Big Data?  It is huge amounts of data collected, both structured and unstructured.  Big Data can be collected via social media, medical or school records, shopping or rewards cards, internet documents, and many other means.  The amount of data collected is huge and permeates almost every aspect of our lives.  It allows those who use Big Data to leverage information about their clients and customers, providing for a more personalized and targeted experience at school, work, the doctor’s office, even online.


Big Data has allowed companies like UPS to save over 8.4 million gallons of gas by analyzing drivers’ routes, and Visa to reduce fraud, saving roughly $2 million annually.  Manufacturers can maximize output and quality while minimizing waste, banks can prevent fraud, governments can reduce crime, and doctors can see a patients’ complete health history.  However, only a small amount of the data currently being collected is actually analyzed.


WHY Big Data

Why is Big Data the wave of the future?  Almost every industry can benefit from the collection and analysis of Big Data.  It is currently used by governments, healthcare industries, schools, retail establishments, and manufacturers.  Many businesses and organizations use Big Data to identify opportunities and issues not possible through traditional techniques and tools.  Those companies and industries not using Big Data will soon find themselves lagging behind their competitors.  In fact, the real importance of Big Data is not in how much is collected, but in the ability to analyze and use the data that is collected.

Companies and consumers both benefit from the collection and analysis of Big Data.  Tom Davenport, Director of Research at IIA, interviewed more than 50 businesses to find how they used big data. Here are the top 3:

  1. Reduced Costs. Big data technologies provide large cost advantages when it comes to storing large amounts of data. They can also identify more efficient ways of doing business.
  2. Faster, better decision making. Using Big Data, businesses are able to analyze information immediately and make decisions based on what they’ve learned.
  3. New products and services. The ability to gauge customer needs and satisfaction brings the power to give customers what they want. More companies are able to create new products to meet customers’ needs.


How Can We Benefit from Big Data

How can students benefit from Big Data?  An internet search on Big Data and education would have you believe that students benefit from data collection because their education can then be personalized.  However, I believe schools are missing the mark. Personalized education is only valuable if it prepares students for the careers that will be waiting for them upon graduation. Teaching students how to collect and analyze data will prepare them for jobs in almost every career field including computer science, psychology, medicine, retail, and education.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, “”The United States alone faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical expertise and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to understand and make decisions based on the analysis of big data.”  These statistics don’t even mention the jobs available in the computer industry for Big Data programmers.

According to Forbes Magazine, “Big data jobs requiring VMWare expertise spiked in 2015, increasing 798.19%.  Additional skills in high demand include expertise with open source technology (333.66%), data warehousing expertise (209.13%) and Python programming expertise (197.19%).”  Glassdoor Inc.’s 25 Best Jobs in America report in January 2016 ranked data scientist as No. 1, with more than 3,300 job openings and a median salary of $118,709.


Big Data Education

If you or your child want to really benefit from Big Data, get involved in Big Data analytics or programming.  Until recently, this was incredibly difficult and expensive.  Roughly 100 universities offer some kind of Big Data education, including classes, certifications, or degree programs.  Your options in K-12 education are much more limited.

Those wanting to study Big Data have discovered several obstacles.  First is finding a way to store the data they want to analyze.  Second is learning a distributed Big Data platform like NoSQL or Hadoop.  Third is finding a computer system with affordable parallel processing and clustering options.  Gaining access to a data center is very pricey or not an option.  Many Big Data students and teachers have crafted virtual data centers on their computers, giving them an affordable, albeit faulty, data center replica that overcomes some, but not all, of these obstacles.

PicoCluster to the Rescue

You don’t need to hack something together anymore in order to learn Big Data.  Designed by a Big Data programmer, a PicoCluster doesn’t just try to replicate a data center environment – it IS a data center.  Compact and affordable, a PicoCluster can fit any budget and space requirements.  For about the same price as a laptop, you can now own your very own data center!  PicoCluster has developed data centers with as few as 3-nodes to as many as 100!  A PicoCluster can run all of the popular Big Data software including Hadoop, Apache, and NoSQL.  You can also learn Linux, Python, and other programming languages.  You can collect your own data and learn how to analyze it.  Big Data is now available to everyone!

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Pico Appeal: Aaron Berger

We asked new PicoCluster owner Aaron Berger a few questions about his experience with the PicoKit – our Do It Yourself (DIY) version of the PicoCluster.  Here are our questions and Aaron’s answers:

PC: How did you hear about PicoCluster?

Aaron: I saw a tweet about the PicoCluster and loved the idea. I inquired about buying a kit and supplying my own boards as I had some Odroid devices I wanted to use instead of Raspberry Pi’s.  Kits were made available and I purchased one.

PC: What compelled you to buy a PicoCluster?

Aaron: The ability to build a small cluster on my own. The DIY kit was a great selling point!

PC: What have you done with your PicoCluster so far?

Aaron: So far I have used it to build a system for processing data sets. It has also cleaned up my work space.

PC: What are some of the projects you plan on doing with your PicoCluster in the future?

Aaron: I plan on continuing using it for playing with distributed programming languages.  MPI, etc.

PC: Do you have any suggestions for us?

Aaron: One suggestion I have would be to add either vent holes and/or a place for a fan.

PC: Will you send us pictures of what you are doing with your PicoCluster to share with our community?

Aaron: Got my Picokit from PicoCluster. My Odroid C1,1+,and 2 have a new home.


Aaron: My Odroid PicoKit is up and running.

odroid PicoCluster

Aaron: This is a photo of my PicoCluster.  It contains 3 Odroid boards: Odroid C1, Odroid C1+, and an Odroid C2.  I added OLED displays for each board and attached them to the case side.

AB Odroid Cluster


The PicoCluster Solution

Last month the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, released the results of the first ever national test of technology and engineering literacy in the United States.   (See an overview here )  A staggering 57% of American 8th graders are not proficient in technology and engineering skills.  While many are celebrating after comparing the results to those in reading and math, as a country we still have much work to do.

The results of this test point out several areas where improvements can be made.  And PicoCluster can be a real solution in many of these areas.  Let’s start with the lead-in from the Washington Post article – Girls Outscore Boys on Inaugural National Test of Technology and Engineering Skills.  As a woman, this doesn’t surprise me.  But somewhere between 8th grade and college, many girls are either losing interest in technology or are feeling inadequate.


A PicoCluster can help solve both of these issues.  First, unlike other computers a PicoCluster is cute.  It is fascinating to watch it work.  Because of its small size, it is portable, too.  Second, a PicoCluster is a social computer.  While it can operate as a big data cluster, it can also work as several individual computers allowing for group collaboration both on and off the computer at the same time.  No other computer on the market offers this.  Girls scored particularly well on the collaboration portion of the test, so having a computer that encourages that skill will boost both interest and self-esteem.  Third, PicoCluster encourages learning.  Not only can you learn programming in Python, Java, and other languages, you can also learn Big Data software like Hadoop, Apache, and NoSQL.  And you can use these languages to create a media center for all your dvd’s and music, create wearable electronics, even make digital art (here’s how to make a digital garden)



There were large socioeconomic and racial disparities noted on this test.  For example, only 25% of students who received free or reduced lunches at school scored proficient, compared to 59% of students in higher income categories.  Private school students had an advantage over public school students – 60% scoring proficient vs. 42% of public school students.  English language learners, black students, and Latinos also scored lower than their white and Asian counterparts.  PicoCluster can be a solution here, too.  While many private schools and public schools in more affluent areas can afford to purchase laptops and iPads for every student, many schools in poorer areas struggle to get enough working computers for a computer lab.


A PicoCluster is very cost effective.  For the price of 6 or 7 iPads you can get a 20-node PicoCluster where 20 kids can be on the computer at one time.  With free monitoring software, a teacher can see what each student is working on at any given time.  He/she can step in to help immediately when a child is struggling, or move a child ahead when a subject is mastered.  PicoClusters come in a variety of sizes – 3-node, 5-node, 10-node, 20-node, even 100-node clusters are available.  You can connect clusters together to make your own configurations, or we can customize a solution for you at minimal cost.  Some schools we are working with are experimenting with students using individual Raspberry Pi’s at home that can be put into a clustered environment while at school, giving children access to technology wherever they go.  With the PicoCluster learning platform, schools will have access to educational materials designed to help their students succeed.

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PicoCluster isn’t just for educators.  All of us at PicoCluster LLC have at least one PicoCluster in our homes.  My son has 4 girls ages 3-10 and has a 5-node PicoCluster in his home.  I love it when the girls come in from school or playing outside and say, “Let’s go play on the PicoCluster!”


Students who took this technology and engineering test were asked about their main technology teachers.  Two-thirds of them said family members were who they learned technology from. That’s a huge percentage!  How can you help your children excel in this world filled with smart phones, smart tv’s, smart appliances, and computer chips in cars, watches, and even clothing?  Start with buying a PicoCluster.   It’s the only computer you can build from a kit or purchase already built, expand as needed, comes with its own learning platform, and can be used by 3 or more people at the same time.  Kits start at only $129, so it’s affordable, too!


Summer STEM Fun for Families – Math

Of all the ways we can help our children with STEM, math is probably the easiest.  What?  “Math” and “easy” are not usually words that are used together.  But math is all around us.  We use it every day, most of the time without even realizing it.  Here are a few fun and easy ways to help your child with their math skills this summer.

Count Down

This is particularly effective for younger children, but it works with older children, too.  Using a calendar or some other method, figure out how many days until a significant event over the summer – a family reunion or vacation, a holiday, a birthday, or the beginning of the new school year.  Count down the days until that event.  Every day you can cross a day off the calendar, making it one day closer.  You can use this time to count forwards, backwards, add, subtract, divide the time left into weeks or months, etc.

Our Disney Countdown


Summer is a great time to help children learn the value of money.  Assign a money value to extra chores you need done around the house or yard.  Let children choose the jobs they want to do, then pay them for the work they accomplish.  For example, my husband pays the grandkids a penny a weed to weed the garden.  The young children love to bring the weeds to grandpa and collect their payment.  We occasionally lose a plant or two, but it’s worth it.  Once the kids get their money, teach them how to manage it.  Have them put some towards a savings account (percentages can be taught here) or a vacation spending account.  Let them decide how to spend the rest.  Help them learn about taxes so they don’t run short of cash when it comes time to pay at the store.



Children love finding ways to make money.  Lemonade stands are a childhood favorite, as are mini yard sales where children sell their old toys.  I’ve had children make and sell cookies, brownies, and cupcakes.  One child would draw pictures, then go door-to-door in our neighborhood selling her signed artwork.  As children get older they can babysit, be a mothers helper, do yard work, wash cars, or teach classes to younger children.  I’ve hired teens to teach piano and trombone lessons, my 16 year old teaches underwater robotics classes, a friend’s daughter teaches art lessons.  Not only do kids learn the value of hard work, but they also have to learn how to keep track of expenses so they don’t spend more on supplies than they make from whatever they are selling.



Cooking uses lots of math.  Teach your child about temperature, using timers, figuring servings, measurements (including ounces, pounds, teaspoons, cups, etc.), and fractions.  Need more of a challenge?  You can try doubling or tripling a recipe or cutting one in half.  If your cookie recipe makes 4 dozen cookies and you want to give a dozen cookies to each of your 6 neighbors and still have some for your family, how many do you need to make?  How many cups of flour are in a 5 lb. bag?  If you make cookies once a week, how many bags of flour do you need to buy each month?



Computer Time

We use our PicoCluster for all kinds of math activities. It’s a mini computer lab for your home! Wolfram Research’s Mathmatica comes free with Raspian (like Windows for the Raspberry Pi).  You can also log onto Khan Academy for fun math games and activities.  Teaching children how to code also helps them with their math skills.  A Python learning application comes free with every Raspberry Pi.  Even when kids just play games like MineCraft, math skills are used.  But don’t let the kids know.  🙂


Summer STEM Fun for Families – Engineering

The results of the first ever national test of technology and engineering were released in a report by the US Government on May 31, 2016.  There were a few eye-opening statistics in this report that tested a sampling of 8th grade students from 800 public and private schools nationwide.  The most interesting statistic to me is that 2/3’s of students reported that family members were their primary teachers on how to build or fix things.  Another more problematic figure is that only 43% of students tested were proficient in technology.  Less than half!!!

If parents or other family members are the primary teachers for engineering skills, how can we help our children improve in this area?  Here are a few suggestions that parents can use during the summer when our children are a captive audience.


For young children, building blocks of all kinds are fun educational toys.  Some ideas are wooden blocks, Legos, MagFormers, K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, and many others.  If these toys aren’t in your budget, consider shopping at a thrift shop or yard sales where you can purchase these at a major discount.  You can even make your own wooden blocks, providing yet another engineering learning opportunity.  Blocks encourage imagination and ingenuity as well as fine motor skill development.


Build Together

Build something together.  It doesn’t have to be big or expensive.  Patterns for things like bird houses, bread boxes, water rockets, and doll houses can be found for free online.  Use extra pieces of wood you already have at home, collect pallets from neighbors or businesses, or purchase new wood or other materials at a local lumber store.  Many of these items can also be made from kits.  Kits are a bit more expensive, but usually contain everything you need for the project.  Building things encourages working together, creativity, learning how to use and care for tools, and gives kids a sense of accomplishment when they produce a useful item.


Home Repairs

Is your faucet leaking?  Do you need to change your oil?  Is your fence in need of repair?  While it may take longer to do these things with a child or two “helping”, the rewards for your child far outweigh the extra time spent working with them.  Teaching a child how to replace a plug or fix a leaking toilet not only helps with engineering skills, but gives them life skills as well.

Robotics 003

Extend Your Skills

For kids ages 12 and up, teach them how to build things that will extend their learning.  Instead of buying a microscope, build one that works with their smart phone or tablet.  Instead of buying a computer, buy a kit and let them put it together themselves.   Not only do they learn important engineering skills while building these projects, but they also learn how and why these things work, giving them invaluable information that will help them in all aspects of engineering and technology.

If we want our children to succeed in an increasing complex and technical world we need to help them learn the skills that will propel them past the 57% of students who are not prepared for the modern work place.

Summer STEM Fun for Families – Technology

Summer is almost here.  It’s time to start thinking about how to extend STEM learning while the kids are out of school.  Studies have proven that the students who enter STEM careers tend to have parents who supported their interest at home.  Just a few statistics:

  • As of 2013, 83.8% of US families owned a computer (
  • From the same study, 73% of US families owned a computer with broadband access (
  • As of 2015, 68% of US adults own a smartphone (PEW Research)
  • From this same study, 73% of teens own or have daily access to a smartphone (PEW Research)
  • As of 2014, 70% of homes with children had tablets or iPads (RJI Mobile Media)

Unfortunately, most children are just using a computer, tablet, or smartphone for game playing, music, or video watching.  This type of use does not teach the technical skills necessary for a  STEM career. These pursuits are also solitary – for the most part they can only be enjoyed by one person at a time or, as is the case with video watching, don’t encourage interaction.  So how can you help your child learn these STEM skills?

How can you make learning technical skills a group (or parent/child) activity?  One way is to purchase a PicoCluster.  A 3-Node PicoCluster can be used by 3 different people at the same time, a 5-Node by 5 different people.  For the price of a lap top or iPad, you can have up to 5 people connected to the computer at the same time, all working and learning together.


What technical skills can you learn or teach over the summer? 

Create a family website.  Include your children in the designing and content of the website.  You can have the website focus on your family or on something your family enjoys like camping, a favorite sport, or your pet.  There are many companies who offer free websites.  Two of my favorites are Weebly  and Wix.

Have your child start a blog.  The blog can be private and used for journaling about their private thoughts.  Or your child can blog about vacations, sports teams, cooking or other interests.  You can allow your child to send the blog link to family and close friends.  My favorite free blog sites are Weebly, Word Press, and Blogger.

Learn how to code.  A PicoCluster can be used to learn Python, Java, C/C++, Scratch, and other programming languages.  If your child is more advanced, you can also learn Big Data programs like HaDoop, SQL, Apache, and NoSQL.  Learn to make apps using Game Salad.

Use local resources.  Look for summer camps in your community where you kids can learn about robotics.  Lego isn’t the only kid on the block.  Look for underwater robotics by MATE or Sea Perch.  Bristle Brush robots are fun and easy to make, too.  If there are no camps available in your community, purchase a kit and build a robot together.


The key to learning over the summer is to make it fun.  With these activities, your child will have fun and build their technology knowledge base.

Tech Geek Project – Dream or Nightmare?

You have seen the PicoCluster, a personal data center with anywhere from 3-100 nodes utilizing the Raspberry Pi 2 or 3.  You looked at the 5-Node PicoCluster with its price tag of $599 and thought to yourself, “What a great concept!  But I bet I could build it for much less.”

PicoCluster 5-node 2

Let’s analyze that thought for a minute.  Assuming you can see the potential for a PicoCluster in your workplace, school, or home, I can think of 3 major flaws with your line of thinking.


If you are like me, you always have more things to do than you have time for.  And while building a Raspberry Pi cluster sounds like a simple dream project, it could quickly turn into a nightmare.  Especially if you have plans to use it in the near future.  The PicoCluster is ready to go right out of the box.  Hook up your keyboard, mouse, and monitor and turn it on.


To build your own PicoCluster, you will need to figure out how to connect the Raspberry Pi’s together so they can talk to each other, and find a way to power the entire unit.  You’ll also need to design and build a case to hold all of your components in a compact way so it is functional.  We have spent hundreds of hours perfecting our case and components to provide a “plug and play” experience.


Will it really be cheaper to reinvent the PicoCluster?  Assume you are a lot smarter than we are and you can find a solution to the problems listed above in around 20 hours.  It doesn’t have to look perfect, be portable, or function at the same level as the PicoCluster since you will be the only one using it. Of course, you won’t have the same functionality, either.  So, how much money did you save?

Let’s add things up.  Take the cost of 5 Raspberry Pi’s.  Add in your cost for 5 SD cards, the components to link them together, power them, and encase them.  Now let’s talk about your time.  Figure out how much you make per hour and times that by 20 (or more).  Don’t forget to include what you should or could have done in that 20 hours.  Now your cheap PicoCluster knock-off isn’t looking very cost-effective.



This is the real power of the PicoCluster.  Purchasing a PicoCluster also gets you the management software that you would have to develop yourself if you built your own.  (We are adding to the time and money issues we’ve already discussed.)  We also have a training center with open source educational materials that comes FREE with every PicoCluster.  And don’t forget the PicoCluster App Store.  While we may one day allow the general public paid access to our educational materials and apps, for now you are out of luck.

The PicoCluster is starting to sound like a real bargain!  Visit our website and see how the PicoCluster can take you to the next level of parallel and distributive computing at home, work, or school.  You can purchase a kit if you still want the thrill of building a PicoCluster or purchase a PicoCluster ready to go.