In Praise of the Raspberry Pi

We love the Raspberry Pi. This small, single-board computer roughly the size of a credit card may not look impressive at first sight, but its value in demystifying the world of computer programming cannot be underestimated. The best thing – particularly for me – is that you don’t need to be a software engineer to use it. In the last few weeks, I’ve gone from being a complete stranger to the Pi to using it to encourage children to pursue STEM careers.

First hitting shelves in 2012, the Raspberry Pi has undergone a number of modifications over the years. Created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the intention behind the Pi was to promote the study of basic computer science in schools. Over 19 million Pis have now been sold, making it one of the best-selling computers of all time.

This week, myself and a software engineer went to the Mahdlo youth centre, which hosted an event organised by MPloy Solutions. The event aimed to inspire primary school children from across Oldham to think about their future careers. Armed with a Raspberry Pi, an add-on called an Explorer HAT, and a CamJam Robotics EduKit, we spent the day turning 10-year olds into computer programmers!

Every seven minutes, a new group of children descended on our table, eager to see what a career in IT might look like. We began by asking them if they played with computers at home and how many types of computers they could name. Every single child was familiar with some form of computer, playing on laptops, tablets, game consoles and phones. We then asked them if they knew what the small object in front of them could be. Their guesses included microchips and motherboards, but none of them knew that what they were looking at was in fact a computer. Once we’d convinced them that the Pi could do most of what a regular computer could, we told them that their task for the day was to become computer programmers.

We hooked the Raspberry Pi up to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, and used the Explorer HAT and CamJam Robotics EduKit to connect the Pi to a small DC motor and some wheels. We then explained to the kids that the job of a computer programmer was to input the correct commands to make a computer do what they wanted it to. With very little additional information – and a bit of trial and error – they were able to tell us what to type in to the Pi programme to get the wheels turning. Once they had found the right words for this, they were able to apply that logic to turn the wheel at different speeds, in a different direction, and managed to make it stop. They were also able to explain the reasoning behind the commands they had used.

While the task they were performing was fairly basic, it showed them something important. In the space of seven minutes, they had used a programming language – in this case, Python – to get a computer to perform a function. Python is the language they will most likely encounter in secondary school classrooms, and its popularity with IT teachers and programming beginners has seen it rocket up the list of languages most frequently included in IT job advertisements.

The Raspberry Pi has become an essential part of our activities with young people in the community, from careers events to school coding sessions, to our weekly Coderdojo. If we’re going to one day close the digital skills gap and secure the future of the tech industry, it’s children that we need to focus on. This is especially true when thinking about the gender imbalance in STEM careers. Research shows that although most girls become interested in STEM subjects at the age of 11, by 15 they close their minds to this career path. A lack of female role models in STEM careers and little practical, hands-on experience with STEM subjects means that girls are less likely to aspire to a STEM career than their male peers with the same education. We’ll continue to bring a Raspberry Pi to every community or educational event that we can. Giving children the confidence to say that they’ve been a computer programmer – even just for one day – could have a significant impact on the way they think about computers and STEM subjects going forward. For that, we can all be grateful to the Raspberry Pi Foundation for making such an accessible, affordable and fun product. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

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