A donor provided STEMulate Learning with several devices known as an ASIC Block Erupter, which is a special purpose “Application Specific Integrated Circuit” USB chip used to mine for BitCoins. BitCoins are a encryption-based currency which originally gained success with hackers but which has since become legitimized as an alternate form of online currency.
BitCoins have entered the mainstream media recently because the author of the CryptoLocker malware only accepts payments using this highly anonymous currency that exists outside of normal banking and can be moved around as a block of code as if it were cash currency. One BitCoin currently trades for approximately $220 USD, and numerous articles encourage many to enter into “BitCoin Mining” which involves the use of computing power to crack encryption blocks to access additional BitCoin blocks. Once, CPU chips provided a useful number of decryption calculations, but then GPGPUs (the chips in video cards) took over this purpose. Later, new chips like the VSICs took the place of GPUs.
Now, even more powerful circuits have taken over for professional BitCoin miners, and circuits like the USB Block Erupters provide very little profit so they now cost around $10 USD each on sites like EBay, bringing them into the range for class projects. At the current rate, each USB ASIC Block Erupter generates roughly 0.00004 BitCoins each day (this number continues to decrease as the mining difficulty is continually increased by the BitCoins creator), so as of now each only generates about 8 cents per day. This is not a useful amount for professional miners so they are selling off Block Erupters for very low costs, but in classrooms it is measurable and useful while remaining low-value enough to avoid presenting a tempting item for theft.
Used with a Raspberry Pi, these BitCoin mining chips can provide resources for making mathematics and economics studies more relevant and meaningful to young learners. Each USB Block Erupter can serve in the place of a single “Virtual Worker” where students can calculate the value of each worker’s output and then test their calculations against the actual measure. By tracking the value of a BitCoin (a very dynamic value as investors manipulate the market daily), lessons on stock valuation and shifts can be provided with an example students can try to predict and measure against the actual changes.
Individually, a single USB Block Erupter can provide this same level of information, but in groups they become more visibly attractive to students, each chip occasionally flashing a tiny green LED to signal its acquisition of the next data block to process. With several, the power consumption needed for operation is enough to measure, allowing more advanced lessons in the costs associated with production as students can take the cost of the equipment together with the cost of power and measure against rates of production as more Block Erupters are added to determine the break-even point (if possible at all) as the value of the BitCoin market continues to shift.
USB ASIC Block Erupters require a fan to work continuously, as you can see in the full setup (1 Raspberry Pi running the autoconfigured MinePeon software, 1 powered USB hub, 6 USB ASIC Block Erupters, 1 USB fan to cool the chips, and 1 WiFi chip to provide network access – all together around $100USD at current prices). Two of my workshop kids are currently testing the BTU output of the rig as a demonstration for a science fair project addressing data center power and cooling requirements.
The same inexpensive Raspberry Pi computers I use in other events work with software to coordinate them that is free to download (I used the free MinePeon download for the Raspberry Pi). RasPi’s using USB miners form a great addition to the classroom when teaching about the costs associated with computing and data centers, techniques for cooling or materials science lessons on thermal transfer and basic thermodynamics. The USB Block Erupter’s output is measurable as a small-form high-performance-computing example to go along with our workshops on grid computing and visualization systems using the Raspberry Pi platform as well, allowing the same tool to provide the basis of a number of different lessons. Monitoring data flow to/from the mining host Raspberry Pi also allows lessons in networking and the impact of data interruption on productivity, allowing exploration into the cost of illness in the workforce represented by a Block Erupter being disconnected for a day and its neighbors disconnected the next day as the illness spreads.
BitCoin mining is no longer really useful for individuals due to the constant costs associated with staying current on the best equipment, but can provide a great opportunity to teach about basic mathematics, currency variation, worker productivity, stock markets, cost of production, break even points, high performance computing, data center management and a range of other topics in the classroom. It is also useful to have available for donations if your supporters want a simple way to help your local makerspace or STEM program but you do not want to handle cash.
Anyone who uses BitCoins can transmit a fraction of a coin (right now, a donation for an Arduino kit for one of our workshops would be around 0.13181 BitCoins) and all they would need is the identifier for the BitCoin wallet receiving the donations (STEMulate Learning‘s Donation channel is: 17iC6Pg8FvV8GqmjQG3owcAguDViTWbueu, or the QR code above). The value of donations fluctuates with the BitCoin market, and there is a transaction fee for extracting the BitCoins into useful currency but a growing number of vendors will accept BitCoins directly for basic supplies.
Entrepreneurial lessons including business costs for power, cooling, transaction fees and equipment costs can be used to prepare young learners who might be interested in starting businesses of their own or in conjunction with project management lessons the impact of resource availability across multiple projects, programs and portfolios can be demonstrated by moving the Block Erupters between Raspberry Pi hosts for each. These types of lessons may be more suited to college level or professional development programs than for K-12 educational settings depending on student capacity and lesson plan curriculum options.