Getting physical: computing at Raspberry Pi Towers

I was lucky enough to be one of 20-odd educators to be selected to take part in the first ever Raspberry PiCademy that took place last week. Two days of free, Raspberry Pi-powered CPD, I was keen to learn more about this budget-priced, micro-computer because in all honesty that was really all I knew about Raspberry Pis. I wanted to know what I could so with a Raspberry Pi in school that we couldn’t just do with a standard PC or tablet.

What is a Raspberry Pi?

Well, essentially it’s a very small computer – and by computer, I literally just mean the motherboard and few electronic-y bits (check out my terminology), no casing etc – that can do just about anything that a desktop PC can do. You can connect it up to a standard monitor, keyboard and mouse and away you go. However, its size and ‘uncased’ form make it easier to tinker with: you can connect all sorts of peripheral devices to it and actually see what’s going on. This makes it perfect for physical computing projects such as building alarms and sending cameras up into space as well as on-screen stuff. Here’s a cool video that explains it all better than I can:

 

What did we get up to?

The first day mainly consisted of four different workshops: Minecraft Pi, GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output), PiCamera and Sonic Pi and there were new things to learn in all of them. Who knew that you could use Python code to control elements of Minecraft? If only I’d known this last year, when I had some serious Minecraft fans in my class. GPIO was interesting because we got to do some physical computing with Scratch. I’ve used Scratch before, but using it to control physical objects like LEDs rather than just a screen-based outcome was great and something that I know will grab  the attention of my children – oh the power of a simple LED.  I can’t tell you how proud I felt when I finally managed to program the traffic light sequence correctly.

In the PiCamera workshop we got to build a camera with a working button by doing some Python programming and in Sonic Pi, we got to see the links between programming and music and I know the immediate, if slightly noisy, outcomes will again be something that can grab children’s attention straight away.

 

On the second day we got lots of time to hack (AKA play) with Raspberry Pis and all the kit available. I spent time getting to grips with Python programming and adapting Carrie-Ann’s Fortune Teller recipe to build a story generator. This really took me back to the days when I was 17 and teaching myself to hand code websites using HTML and CSS – it was both frustrating and brilliant because I was learning something completely new and had created something tangible and yet it could all go wrong with one missing set of inverted commas in my code. It felt good to relive those days and reminded me just what our students can get out of this type of exercise – a real sense of achievement and layers upon layers of real problem solving.

 

PiCademy was inspiring, full-on and brilliant and as with anything of this nature, one blog post doesn’t really do it all justice. However, what I am really going to take away, along with a better knowledge of Raspberry Pis and Python etc, is a reminder to keep the exploration part of computing embedded with the new curriculum and also try to make sure that we do much more physical computing than we currently doing: plenty of time to tinker. Equally, I can see that some programming languages like Python may actually have a place in primary schools. Initially, I wasn’t too sure about that, but after playing about with Python myself, I’ve no doubt that some of my year 6s could have a go at tweaking and adapting some code at the very least and really, who am I to stop them?

Clearly inspired – our collective ideas about what we might do with Raspberry Pis next

Clearly inspired – our collective ideas about what we might do with Raspberry Pis next

Big thanks to Carrie-Ann, Raspberry Pi’s fantastic education pioneer (what a job title), for organising the whole thing and inspiring a lot of teachers to try something new.

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