The Pi á la Code Project: Taking the Raspberry Pi to rural India

Liz: Today’s guest post comes from Sonia Uppal, a high-school student from California. We first met Sonia at the Bay Area Maker Faire a couple of years ago, and she emailed me this month to let us know about a project she’s been working on. What she’s doing is extraordinary. Here’s Sonia to tell you more about it.

Pi á la Code is a project I began in July 2013 as a way of teaching underprivileged teens in rural India how to code using the Raspberry Pi.

The first exposure I had ever had to computer science was during my 3-year stint in Bangalore, India in middle school. And I really disliked it. The curriculum was dry, the material boring, and we started off learning Q-BASIC and Logo: the least interesting subjects for a 6th grader. All instruction was on boxy PCs that were otherwise used for writing documents and presentations. When I moved back home to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011, quite by chance I participated in an App Design competition and we dabbled with Balsamiq and Eclipse. Now it was getting more interesting. But, I still couldn’t forget what an awful introduction I had to the world of Computer Science, and I wanted to do something about it. I just didn’t know how.

And that’s when I stumbled upon the Raspberry Pi at the Bay Area Maker Faire 2012, when I was browsing around looking at cool designs and crafts. Here was a cool looking tiny computer just for teaching kids how to code! What if I used the Pi to teach kids back in India how cool it was to code? However, I also realized that students at an elite school in an urban city in India would still have access to technology if they went out and found it. But students in rural India would never have this access. So I went back to a little school tucked away in a village in North India, called Kasauli, which was an area I had visited before.


The train I took on my way to Kasauli!


View of Kasauli from above

A plan began to form. I raised money through to create ten Pi teaching sets with Raspberry Pis and peripherals. I developed my own Python curriculum by hand, after teaching myself how to code in Python. I was also helped immensely by being selected as a Stanford SHE++ fellow in my sophomore year. SHE++ is an organization that works to help close the gender gap in computer science. I met some amazing people through the fellowship and was paired with a mentor, Will, from Stanford, who has been with me throughout the Pi á la Code journey. After tying up loose ends and contacting the school, I flew out to Kasauli, India for a ten-day trip my sophomore year.


The first page of my curriculum


Students at the school lined up for the daily assembly

My time in Kasauli was tumultuous but rich and rewarding. In Kasuali, my only mode of transportation was by foot; I didn’t have access to a phone either. Living “unplugged” for a week really helped me bond with the students. I had a full class of 9th and 10th graders, which was quite interesting since I was the same age as them. We got to know each other quickly, and the language and cultural barrier didn’t hold us back from having a great time. At the end of the week, the students even invited me to join them on a weekend trip to the local fair! They learnt the Pi and basic Python quickly, which was incredible since the only computer experience they had prior was learning how to save a Word document or restart a monitor.


A student’s notebook


My notebook

After I returned to California, I continued to teach the students over Skype for the following year, assigning homework and challenge problems. I also began to explore web programming during the year and found it to be intuitive, fun, and awesome! I really wanted to find a way to show my students visual programming, and that’s when I discovered Google Coder. It uses the Pi to teach web programming by creating a tiny server which the kids can make apps on. It’s very intuitive and user friendly, the perfect way to get younger students interested in coding. When I was in New York City in the summer, I had the opportunity to meet Jeff Baxter and Jason Striegel, the founders of Google Coder. They gave me great advice and helped me finalize my plans for what I want Pi á la Code to become.


We’re having a good time!


Setting up for my Google Coder workshop

I also spent a large portion of the year at my local TechShop laser-cutting cases for my Pis. Using different types of bright, clear acrylic and Adobe Illustrator I was able to make Raspberry Pi cases that appealed to the kids. I went back to Kasauli the summer after my Junior year to teach another workshop. This time I had two classes going on simultaneously: one in web programming and one in Python. However, it took a while for all of the PCs to connect to the Pi, and since only some of the PCs had Google Chrome or Firefox, others were stuck with using and old version of Internet Explorer, that didn’t show Coder well. However, we managed to get going, starting off the day’s discussion a few basics on the blackboard. We went through what HTML, CSS, Javascript, and node.js are used for, and how we can code in each of them.


The individual Raspberry Pi kits setup


Learning basic Python functions

They absolutely loved the web programming! While Python is very useful for understanding the fundamentals of computer science, web programming really hit home. It was fun, engaging, and produced immediate responses. I am still teaching these same students today. After returning back to California again, I had the opportunity to teach Python to 5th grade kids in the Bay Area. I served as a camp counselor at the Bullis Boosters Camp for socio-economically disadvantaged kids. and this year we added Programming on the Pi. They also got quite interested in coding and programming. I am really glad that I have been able to reach so many kids through this project.


Some of the incredible girls I met through SHE++


My 5th Grade class in Los Altos, California


A Skype call with one of my students in Kasauli

Right now, I am making an e-book compiling all of the various lessons and curriculums I have implemented. I am also still teaching my Kasauli students; some of them have gone to college now and are interested in computers. I am currently in the process of proposing to bring more Raspberry Pis to the state of Himachal Pradesh, India. I’m excited to see what the future of Pi á la Code will mean for kids everywhere. I believe that every child, no matter what circumstances, deserves the chance to get to play with some really cool technology.