Build a Space Radio

Project Empathy kits use Raspberry Pi as their foundation. These credit card-sized computers are great learning tools in their own right. Students will complete a Raspberry Pi project to acquaint themselves with the hardware, then assemble the Project Empathy kit and send it to their partner school. Students will test the kit to make sure it works, create a set of instructions on how to use the kit, and an introduction to what content they have installed on the kit's storage drive. We like to fill the kits with content so that they can be used right away and not wait for Project Empathy content from space. Empathy will be critical here as students put themselves in the shoes of students who have likely never worked with this type of technology before.


What you need

Building the Project Empathy radio requires several components that can be ordered for less than $150.  Here is what you need:

  • The Raspberry Pi Foundation has a very nice list of what you need to get your Raspberry Pi working. You will need all of these components to get the kit working, but you will not be sending the monitor, keyboard, HDMI cable, mouse, or power supply to your partner school. So look around for these, you likely already have them. When picking your Raspberry Pi, go for the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B.
  • A battery charger to supply remote power to the Project Empathy kit. Power is not regularly available in the places where your kit will go. We recommend at least 5,000 mAh (milliampere hours) but the more the better.
  • A USB storage drive. This will be the capacity of the library, so we recommend at least 32GB. Do NOT get an external hard drive as they require too much power.
  • The Outernet DIY Receiver Kit. You can also buy these on Amazon. You need:
    • Amplifier
    • SDR
    • Antenna

What students will learn

  1. Introduction to Raspberry Pi and the basics of computing.
  2. Assembling a computer and installing custom software.
  3. Testing software and making notes of friction points for a user.
  4. Articulating those friction points in a set of instructions designed for new users.

Lesson topics

  1. Raspberry Pi project.
  2. Assembling Project Empathy receiver.
  3. Testing the receiver, making instructions.

Get Your Raspberry Pi Working

There is plenty written about this on the website of the Raspberry Pi Foundation - their instructions are better than what we would write - but we will give you a high level overview. 

First, you need to install an operating system on your microSD card. We highly recommend you use NOOBS, which is described here. Once you have NOOBS and start your Raspberry Pi for the first time, select Raspbian as your operating system.

Next, we recommend you have your students get familiar with the Raspberry Pi by completing one of the many cool projects that the Raspberry Pi Foundation has created.

Connecting to the Outernet datacast

Next follow the instructions prepared by Outernet for installing their software. Don't be intimidated by the fact that you have to type a few lines of code - you can do this! If you get lost, ask a question in the Outernet forum. These guys are great and they respond really fast.

This should take you to the point of receiving data from the Outernet satellites. Have students leave it out overnight and check what data they received the next day.

The entire setup process you will have just completed required the Internet so, in effect, you donated your bandwidth to the school where your receiver will ultimately get sent. They could not have built it without the Internet to download the software. This also means that the process you just went through will not have to be repeated, but the process of how to use the receiver will need to be documented in an offline way so that new users without Internet can turn it on and get going.

Create a set of instructions

Have your students create a set of instructions on how to connect to the Outernet receiver and browse for content. This an excellent empathy exercise that will synthesize everything learned so far. The students will have be familiar enough with using the receiver themselves to be able to explain it to others and will need to consider the technological literacy of their audience. 

What will also be important to include in the instructions is how to make requests for content over Twitter. Again, the students should look at the bonus project and respond to a content request themselves. There are definitely small best practices about using the 140 character limitations of Twitter that make the requesting process much smoother. If students can write clear instructions to get their partner school started off correctly, it will contribute to a better Project Empathy ecosystem.


Sending your kit abroad

Once your students have built the kit, tested its functionality, written instructions on how to use it, and participated in a Twitter request, they should be pretty familiar with the Project Empathy ecosystem. Before sending the kit, be sure to load it with all of the content that was selected during the edit-a-thon so that it arrives pre-stocked with a library of great content.

When you are ready to send to send your kit, send an email to to receive details on a partner school, including the address for where to send your kit.