Liz: Another day, another expansion board. Here’s a guest post from John Woodthorpe at the Open University, where SenseBoard is being used in teaching along with the Raspberry Pi, which drives it. Some of our forum members have taken the university’s My Digital Life course, which uses the SenseBoard as a teaching tool; you can read what they thought here. Over to John!

One of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s motivations was to promote physical computing, having the computer interact with the real world. Unfortunately, most of the existing physical computing experiment sets, such as Arduino and Phidgets, can be difficult for the uninitiated to get started.

The Open University faced the same problem when we started developing a new introductory module called ‘My Digital Life’. We wanted to integrate computing hardware into our teaching, but nothing on the market was suitable for complete newcomers.

SenseBoard – click to enlarge

So we developed our own device – the SenseBoard – and the Sense programming environment that drives it. The Senseboard is about the size of a Raspberry Pi, and comes with inputs and outputs including a slider, noise sensor, and IR detector. Input sockets allow other sensors to be added. We supply light, heat, and motion sensors, and you can make others that act as variable resistors. Outputs include a bank of LEDs and plugs for stepper motors, servo motors, and an IR LED on a lead. The SenseBoard simply plugs into a USB port.

The SenseBoard gets students, most of whom are new to computing, quickly building physical devices that have real, immediately visible effects in the real world. Based on the Scratch programming environment, Sense makes this possible by including blocks to interact with the Senseboard, as well as reading and writing over internet.

When the Raspberry Pi came out, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. A cheap, simple computer together with a simple, robust physical interaction board opened up many possibilities.

However, getting Sense working on the Raspberry Pi wasn’t straightforward. Sense, and Scratch, are built on an old version of Squeak. We had to go through some shenanigans to compile a Squeak virtual machine for the Raspberry Pi’s ARM chip, and then persuade it that serial devices could exist on USB ports. But we got there in the end!

We’ve been working with several schools who bought SenseBoards from us, helping them to use the board and Sense in their teaching. One of the first schools to contact us was Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury. Graeme George has been using SenseBoards in their Computer Science and Informatics department for almost a year. They’ve created projects like weather stations, data loggers, and games like Pong.

Graeme has also been one of several teachers throughout the country asking us when Sense would be available for the Raspberry Pi. His reaction to being given this development version was to comment that it ‘could make the teaching of programming more mobile and might even mean that the classroom could become more of an experimental room than a traditional ICT suite’.

You can buy your own Senseboard kit through the OU Worldwide shop, but our main target is schools rather than hobbyists. You can download Sense for the Raspberry Pi (and for other Linux, Windows and Mac platforms) from


NewRpiUser avatar

130 Euros to connect to a $30 Rpi? Doesn’t make sense to me

liz avatar

Agreed – at that price it’s not for everybody! I guess they were looking at the sort of prices course books at university level tend to end up being, and set SenseBoard’s price (it does come with a lot of materials) in the same area; also, without huge volumes it’s very hard to get hardware prices down.

pgman avatar

There are 2 different boards shown. The one at the top of the article shows the USB connecter mounted to a board that is underneath the board, with a 8+8 / 6+6 expansion header that is the same layout as the Arduino Uno.

The second board shown in the presentation box looks has a 0.6″ DIL expansion header that looks rather like the Arduino nano layout.

slinxy avatar

If this was a kickstarter, with options such as just bare PCB, PCB and components for self assemble, pre assemble and pre assemble with add ons; so forth. I would certainly back it to bring the price down. But for price wow its expensive.

Richard Collins avatar

I’m doing this course and it is very good. The sense boards goes hand in hand with the course material. Adding a Raspberry Pi to the course will help to resolve some of the issues some users were getting with the USB drivers.

My course started in October 2012 so will miss out on this, but then I already have two RPi :)

Paul Hayes avatar

I’ve played with one of these when my girlfriend did the Digital Life OU module last year. It’s quite an interesting board to introduce people to such things. It’s pretty similar to an arduino but with I/O devices on-board. I’m not sure what real use it has other than for education (not that that’s not a good reason for it’s existence of course!).

sej avatar

I don’t see the point in dumbed down sense/scratch languages, its not doing anyone any favours learning pseudo languages when python is not that hard (at university level!) and is readily available.

clive avatar

I’m not sure what your definition of a “pseudo language” is, but a Turing complete language designed by MIT to teach programming to beginners is OK by me. In fact, I think Scratch (which Sense is based on) is one of the best tools for teaching computer science ever made. (I’m also guessing that you’ve never had to teach Python to a mixed ability class of any size — thirty’s a good starting point! — who have never programmed before ;) )

I want my students to learn computational thinking. For beginners, syntax is huge barrier: Scratch/Sense gets around the syntax problem, leaving learners to concentrate on fundamental computing concepts such as iteration and variables . Errors tend to be of logic — can anyone say “learning opportunity”? :)

The OU “My Digital Life” course is an introductory course. It’s not for CS specialists — in fact this course is likely to be the first time the students have ever been exposed to computing and programming — so Scratch/Sense is a perfect intro to concepts and coding. Especially with physical computing thrown in.

Richard Mullens avatar

I’m doing the online (free) MITx course 6.00x – Introduction to Computer Science and Programming which is teaching Python not Scratch :)

We are now into the third week, but it would be still possible for someone keen to enter and get 100%

This course is marketed as a beginners course but of course it is hard and I don’t think it has a hardware component.

I’m surprised that the Raspberry Pi Foundation hasn’t pushed it – but perhaps they want people to apply to Cambridge University instead.

Steve Drain avatar

I recall Microelectonics For All (mfa) boards, Technical Lego, BBC Micros with Logo with Control Logo more than 20 years ago. All pupils did it and classes were of all abilities. I reckon we were doing much the same in educational terms as you would achieve with the modern kit. It is the time in between that has been a desert in most schools.

Logo is the original teaching language – cf Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms – also MIT and list processing.

Tim Rowledge avatar

It’s not a pseudo language – it’s a graded context language as part of a learning system. Horses for courses; some people like to type text, some like to connect icons with links, some like to write lambda calculus expressions in Tex. I like to use proper object languages (of which there exists only one) whilst some people like assembler. Some people like Mike below need a quite different system that allows expression of their computational intent without needing sight. Use the tools that helps you work effectively, whatever that ‘work’ may be.

Andrew Scheller avatar

It looks quite similar to which is also designed to interface to Scratch. Coincidence?

tzj avatar

Thats why the sense board is only available in the UK, there’s rights issues in other countries.

Bob Bridges avatar

Much too expensive at £130….The PicoBoard is only $44.95.
I have been using the SparkFun Inventor’s Kit for Arduino ( includes the Arduino ) which can be bought for £60.60. It does just about the same thing as the SenseBoard. In fact I think that it has more bits and pieces.

Tasty_Pi avatar

Good luck but at that price Im expecting a very limited take up.

Richard Collins avatar


I’ve been a software engineer for 20+ using C/C++. Sense is a language just as much as Python is. Knowing the syntax and the API is only a small percentage of programming.

It is a tool to do a specific job and that job It is to show people what programming is about and to give them a feel for it, not to teach any given language.

This course is not just for people starting the computer courses it is also taken by people finishing a business degrees for example and the like so it has to cater for a large audience of people. And for that it is ideal.

The Raspberry Pi Guy avatar

Uninitiated! < Reminds me of Batman every time! Very expensive for £130

Gordon Henderson avatar

USB… Oh.

Mike avatar

Sounds like another OU course that excludes me as a blind user. Scratch is totally unusable for me and other like me. I’m already a programmer of 25 years standing but this sounds as if the OU, normally very good on accessibility, haven’t considered blind kids at all in the structure of this course material

Tim Rowledge avatar

What do you currently use Mike? What do you think might help with providing blind kids with access to the fun offered by things like Scratch & the Pi? I can’t imagine nobody around here would be interested in trying to do something to help with this.

Jim Manley avatar

130 pounds for something like the SenseBoard wouldn’t have been considered high just a year ago. Now, we’ve been spoiled by the “Raspberry Pi Effect” which is rumored to be referenced in Stanford Business School lectures on preparation of tech business plans, probably from mention of it in tech media, blogs, and forums. I’m just glad that my bills aren’t paid for from sales of “low-cost” educational computing devices these days!

I don’t know how OU funds its operations, but if enough students and faculty bought SenseBoards, it might generate useful income. If other educational institutions also bought them, the revenue could be significant. As noted by others, the current price is probably more a result of low sales volume. Seems like someone needs to negotiate a bulk buy at a bargain rate …

Richard Mullens avatar

Although it doesn’t have peripherals (apart from a couple of LEDs and pushbuttons), for value for money, nothing beats the Texas Instruments Launchpad. “booster packs” are available for it also. But then it is rather more “hard core”.

tzj avatar

I’m really considering getting one of these, can’t go wrong at £3-odd for a dev kit.

meltwater avatar

I love the Lauchpad, it is an excellent kit! Has analogue inputs, which is handy.

You should be able to buy direct from TI too, which means the price includes worldwide shipping (at least it was when I brought it last year). Amazing value!

Now, combine one of those with Aaron’s smart power switch (, perhaps a solar charged battery ( and could be interesting.

(PS.There are even some code examples for the launchpad hiding on the wiki (in my probably never to be finished easy gpio section) from when I was Pi-less (and had spare time)).

Sorry about all the products links (I won’t be offended if removed)

meltwater avatar

Oh and throw in a low powered model A of course!

nickl avatar

And it’s also easy to program if you use Energia, I just wished that they used female headers instead of male headers.

Richard Collins avatar

I don’t think people who are saying it is too expensive are looking at the pictures! They just see the board.

Look at the 3rd picture!
You get a mounting board, sensors and other bits to plug into it. There is also a big very well laid out and presented instruction book. For noobs this is worth it’s weight in gold.

Go cost a RPi with all the bits it needs + temp, light, motion and IR sensors and with a printed book! Not so far from £130 now is it!

Yes the RPi is better priced but you are not looking at the whole package on offer and you are not comparing like for like.

Darren Townsend avatar

I agree that it is a good package, for use with a PC, but it makes no sense to use this with an RPi. As you say, the cost of an Rpi and all the bits to make up the same sort of kit would be about the same, but you’d then also have a standalone, Linux-based computer and the whole lot would then be more useful, for longer. Also, the development time for this would be pretty small as most of the stuff is already out there.

Richard Collins avatar

Yes I agree with that, would have been so cool to have done this course with a RPi instead of the sense board.

Milo Scope avatar

Does anyone know the cost of the course last time it was offered? It sounds interesting.

Fastkat avatar

I’ve just started the Digital Life course. It is a level 1 module worth 60 modules. Current price is £2500. I don’t know what is being offered in the £130 box, but the Senseboard I have differs. It doesn’t contain a base board, has 3 sensor inputs not 4 and only has 1 servo output not 2.
Mine looks more like the top picture.

Fastkat avatar

60 points , not modules!

Sam S avatar

We have these at our school and we have RasPi’s. This will be great to be able to use them together.

Deaf lama avatar

The SenseBoard is currently SenseBoard 4 which is exactly as you describe and that is what the TU100 course now provides its students with. The pictures are of the previous SenseBorad version first issued in 2011.. It is not clear which is being provided by the OU World shop, but I would expect it to be the latest SenseBoard 4.

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