As sales of Raspberry Pi reach more than one million and the buying frenzy continues, many educators are snapping up the computer devices without a clear plan of what to do with them.
Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized motherboard, costing under £30, designed for schools to teach computer programming cheaply. However, months after delivery, many Raspberry Pi devices remain in their cardboard cartons, unboxed and unused.
Many teachers, including myself, have questioned where this low-powered, low-cost computing device fits in to the classroom and wonder how practical it would be to build a computer science curriculum around the tool.
Raspberry Pi has been heralded as the potential saviour of computer science education and the device offers a wealth of opportunity with which to inspire students through an accessible platform.
For example, at a recent Egham Raspberry Jam, Dave Ackerman wowed the crowd with his “Pi in the Sky” project, a back-yard space launch with a budget of just £300.
The feather-weight payload, low-value and diminutive size of the Raspberry Pi make it the perfect on-board computer for controlling such a mission. I have since introduced Dave to two Merseyside schools, keen to transform their classrooms into the Kennedy Space Center for a day, and hopefully, inspire some future scientists.
While sending a Raspberry Pi into space may be well beyond the reach for many schools, the relatively low-cost and low-power consumption of a Raspberry Pi opens up many more accessible locations in which you can site an intelligent data-collection mission.
For example, you can set up the device in a tree next to a bird box, buried in a sandpit, or on a rock next to a pond – places you would not want to use an expensive iPad or laptop. A Raspberry Pi will chug along quite happily collecting data for you on 2xAAA batteries.
“Why buy Pi?” is a question that I am often asked. The phrasing of the question varies, but the sentiment remains startlingly similar: “As a teacher of ICT, I’m really keen to introduce computing in my school – but I simply don’t understand where Raspberry Pi fits into all of this. Why on earth would I choose to have a class suite of Raspberry Pi computers?”
The need to address these questions motivated me to establish Raspberry Jam, a community of events and experiences for anyone of any age, background or experience, to come together to discover the potential of the Raspberry Pi computer.
The first Raspberry Jam sold out within an hour and I received enquiries about the event, and how others might be set up, from around the world. Almost overnight, Raspberry Jams sprung up across the globe, spanning from Silicon Valley to Singapore and Melbourne to Manchester. The majority of these “Jams” are run by self-organised groups that have started up with minimum involvement from myself, but we remain connected via Skype calls and emails.
To support the growth and success of this network, we recently held our first annual Raspberry Jam conference in Manchester: Raspberry Jamboree.
A group of 365 teachers and educators from across the globe gathered to discover the educational potential of the Raspberry Pi computer, and also to trade tips for organising successful Raspberry Jams of their own. We organised a range of talks, demonstrations and hands-on Raspberry Mastery workshops.
Over the next 12 months we will be releasing further support to enable people to set up their own events and creating a foundation to encourage more families to code together. We also plan to create a comprehensive “how to” guide, The Raspberry Jamual, to support those setting up their own Raspberry Jam events.
We hope to encourage as many people as possible to unlock the potential of Raspberry Pi and learn through sharing their experiences. With the recent funding we secured from Nesta, the Nominet Trust and Mozilla we have the opportunity to step closer to our goal and grow this network of Raspberry Jams still further. Watch out for a Raspberry Jam event appearing near you soon.
Ideas for Raspberry Pi in the classroom
With the new national computing curriculum set to launch in September 2014, there are a number of ways you can introduce Raspberry Pi in the classroom.
Learn programming: To ensure that students understand not only how to use technology but also how to create and make, the new ICT curriculum is very likely to have a heavy focus on coding. Why not make a head start, with a Raspberry Pi and a free book, you have the complete toolkit to teach yourself how to program in Python.
Launch a club: You could use the Raspberry Pi to help inspire a group of pupils to lead a lunchtime club, why not Pi-day Friday?
A moving display: Use it in kiosk mode with a TV or monitor, and play a reel of photos or videos showcasing pupils’ work or inspirational quotes and video clips. The RaspBMC image is perfect for displaying a range of media.
Robot arm display: You can purchase a robot arm for less than £30 and if you are feeling really brave make it a voice-controlled robot arm.
School weather station: Get up-to-date snow alerts from your school over Twitter. Follow @Weather_Pi or set up your own Raspberry Pi controlled weather station.
Raspberry punnet: Make your own custom case for your Raspberry Pi. The “Punnet”, a free downloadable PDF, is just one example.
Minecraft Pi: While your network manager may not be keen on installing games on the school network, you can now let Minecraft junkies in your class show you their talents with this version of Minecraft, which runs on the Raspberry Pi.
A Quadcopter: If you are feeling very adventurous, you can build a search and rescue drone with a Raspberry Pi controlled quadcopter to take aerial photos of your school.
Alan O’Donohoe is principal teacher of ICT at Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston and founder of Raspberry Jam, the global community of people who want to discover more about Raspberry Pi.