Raspberry Pi in schools

This term, we’ve started to see the beginnings of school applications of Raspberry Pis. We’ve been taking a lot of orders from teachers in the UK, and we’re very pleased to see teachers elsewhere catching on to the project too; I’m talking to a number of charitable bodies and businesses around the world who are providing units to local schools, and we’ve met some singularly inspiring teachers both at home and on the recent tours we’ve been doing.

Pupils at Charlotte Latin School meet a Raspberry Pi for the first time

Tom Dubick, who teaches engineering at Charlotte Latin School in North Carolina, is one of those teachers. He thinks (we do too) that he became the first teacher in the United States to teach a regular class using the Raspberry Pi, when he started Pi lessons on October 1 with a group of middle-school girls. They’re working on systems using sensors, motors, lights and microprocessors from robotics to wearables, alongside programming in Scratch and Python. And they’re loving it, which we are pleased (and cheerfully unsurprised) to hear.

Tom says: “Our students are doing math and science when they learn how a computer works or a microcontroller can be programmed. They are doing engineering when they develop an unique use of the Raspberry Pi to solve a problem.  It will be a great opportunity for our students to experience the creativity and beauty found in engineering and design. It’s like a sandbox and you get to play and try new ideas. I am excited to see what you will do with the Raspberry Pi that hasn’t even been thought of yet.”

I met Tom at the Charlotte Hackerspace, where I wish we’d had more time to talk. He’s got some solid and tested pedagogical ideas, which he’s very happy to share with teachers around the world, and which we found exciting and thought-provoking; if you’re a teacher looking for tips on teaching with the Raspberry Pi and you’d like to talk to him, please email me and I’ll pass on your address.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, St Saviour’s School in Paddington, London, has been holding a weekend session for 240 kids between five and eleven, where Story Corner was temporarily transformed into Coding Corner with the addition of 30 Raspberry Pis, as one of 20 weekend projects.

The kids were working with Scratch, and later with a Lego WeDo crocodile, who they programmed to snap at any encroaching little fingers. (Farnell very kindly donated half of those Raspberry Pis to the school at the end of the weekend’s fun, and they’re now earmarked for teaching.) The workshop was organised by the most excellent Little House of Fairy Tales, who I hope we’ll be hearing more from.

Formal lessons aren’t the only way to go. We’re also seeing a lot of interested parents and teachers who have been setting up after-school clubs. Dave Culp has been working with an after-school group of programming kids and the Raspberry Pi over the summer at his daughters’ elementary school (Mark Twain Elementary in Colorado). He’s been pleased and surprised to find that 2:1 of the kids who signed up were girls. Dave says:

I was introduced to the TRS-80 and the wonders of programming at the same age as my oldest is now – seven.  So, in some sort of nostalgic way, I was seeking something for her that possessed the same breadth and mystical charm that programming did for me in my childhood.

Setup during the after-school club’s first session

Whether it was programming games, making computer music or simply scrolling my name across the screen in an endless loop, each completed (or incomplete, for that matter) project allowed me to play out a different character in an ever-evolving story of the mind.

A couple of years ago, during a period of time when the whole concept of creating a computer club was nothing more than a fleeting thought in my head, I chanced upon a book called, Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners by Warren and Carter Sande.  I bought a copy and read it, then had my daughter – who was 6 at the time – work through the first couple of chapters just reading the grey boxes and looking at the pictures.  As it turned out, she seemed somewhat interested and was able to convey to me the general principles set forth in each of those chapters.  I thought to myself, if we should ever really get this thing off the ground, this would be the book that I would suggest using.  Consequently, because of its usage in the book, Python became the primary language of consideration.  Additional research to this point has not revealed a ton of other well-written computer programming books for children, although there are a few out there.

Rapt attention

Fast forward a bit to this summer, leading into this school year.  The decision to implement the computer club had already been made and I was working with administrators to download and install the requisite Python-related programs on the school’s computers; develop a full plan for the club; gain the appropriate school network credentials; and work a couple of other unrelated freelance development projects.

During one of these projects I was reading a blog related to a Linux product with which we were working.  Somehow I stumbled upon the mention of the Raspberry Pi, totally unaware at this point that such a product existed; or, for that matter, was even in development.  Needless to say, the make-up and functionality of this device seemed to be a perfect fit for use in our club.

As I mentioned, today was the first meeting of the club and six wide-eyed, exuberant youngsters and one wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights instructor all arrived ready to get the ball rolling.  Let’s just say that this was one of the fastest 1 hour, 20 minutes encounters of my life.  My goals for the day were to get everyone acquainted with the Raspberry Pi; have each student get one-on-one attention while hooking it up for the first time; and, get that oh-so-wondrous “Hello World” program written and executed properly.  We somehow managed to pull it all off without incident and the children left with that same bright-eyed, inquisitive look that I had when I wrote:

10 print “My name is Dave”
20 goto 10

All 30-plus years ago!  As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same!

 

It’s early days, but we’re excited to see the beginnings of school use. Are you teaching with Raspberry Pi already? We’d love to hear from you.

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