Manchester academics introduce schoolchildren to a life of Pi

Raspberry Pi
We want to demonstrate that these are things that anybody can do. Programming is no longer the preserve of highly skilled computer scientists.
Dr Andrew Robinson
A team of academics from the University of Manchester is utilising Raspberry Pi and PiFace technologies in an attempt to inspire a new generation of computer whiz-kids. The scientists have used the credit card-sized computers to create a range of applications including a tweeting chicken that can help January dieters to stay the course.

Raspberry Pi was developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the aim of improving the teaching of computer science in schools. In turn, Dr Andrew Robinson from the University’s School of Computer Science developed PiFace – an easy-to-use interface that allows the Raspberry Pi system to sense and control its environment.

With support from the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET), the Manchester-based team has been introducing these technologies to schoolchildren at special workshops. In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Dr Robinson explained that far from being Pi in the sky, these platforms are helping to bring computer science back down to earth.

"We have been working in conjunction with teachers and pupils to help to improve the computing education within classrooms," he began. "We’ve been carrying out fun activities involving Raspberry Pi which are both relevant and practical. For instance, we have developed a twittering chicken that can help people trying to lose the excess pounds that they might have acquired over the festive period. Basically, we showed the children that they could take an animatronic toy – in this case, a chicken – and control it using Raspberry Pi."

The animatronic chicken – which guards the contents of cupboards by warning would-be feasters not to eat cake – uses Twitter to communicate any instances of dietary deviation to its user’s followers. This is just one example of a simple yet amusing way in which pupils can engage with computing through Raspberry Pi and PiFace.

"We have also created a twittering bird box," Dr Robinson continued. "We hope to use this system as part of a large-scale citizen science project. Essentially, participating children will build bird boxes with integrated sensors. These sensors detect when birds fly into the box and trigger a camera which takes a photograph of the visitor. In turn, this information is uploaded onto a central website which monitors the movements of birds all around the country.

"We want to demonstrate that these are things that anybody can do. Programming is no longer the preserve of highly skilled computer scientists. Schoolchildren can put these programmes together in about 20 minutes. We want to show them how easy and fun computing can be; these devices can connect with whatever the users are interested in."

Many academics contend that the current generation of undergraduates arriving at university has a lower level of technical knowledge than in previous years. I asked Dr Robinson why he thinks that Raspberry Pi-based technologies are so suited to the teaching of computer science.

"I think that it is important to shift mindsets," he answered. "We want to change youngsters from consumers into producers. Think about how we currently engage with technology. Products come shrink-wrapped with applications that have been designed by other people. We are using what other people are giving to us rather than making the technology do what we want it to. Our team is trying to encourage pupils’ creativity within the digital domain.

"I think that the sophistication offered by Raspberry Pi allows it to compete effectively for the attention of children," Dr Robinson continued. "For example, the platform supports HD video and it can be used in conjunction with social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Basically, it incorporates features which are already popular amongst young people, and this adds to the credibility of the system. The children of today are very sophisticated and as such, they demand sophisticated technology. Raspberry Pi offers the high level of performance that they are looking for."

Of course, computer science teaching can only improve if the educators themselves are onboard. In light of this, I asked how these technologies had been received by participating teachers.

"We’ve had a good mix of responses," Dr Robinson replied. "Personally, I would say that this has been one of our best outcomes. We’ve worked with some really inspirational teachers who understand the potential of Raspberry Pi. In many cases, they are desperate to bring this technology into their classrooms. Having said that, it is important to note that some teachers will need extra support in order to give them the confidence to teach processes with which, perhaps, they are not entirely familiar."

Technologies such as these could well provide the raw materials necessary to give computer science teaching in the UK a much-needed shot in the arm. To conclude our interview, I asked Dr Robinson to detail the next steps for his research.

"Alongside some of our colleagues who work in the arena of international policy development, we are currently looking into whether this project can be scaled out into developing countries," he said. "Raspberry Pi offers numerous advantages in this respect. It can operate as a basic computer, it can be used to teach computing, and it represents an ideal platform for infrastructure. Moreover, it offers those living within developing countries the opportunity to produce tailored solutions to their problems. This could prevent the outside world from imposing solutions onto developing countries that don’t necessarily represent the best fit.

"It is not our intention to turn everybody into a programmer. We simply want to show people some of the fun things that they can do with computers; to open their eyes to new possibilities. In turn, this will give them the skills to develop what they want to develop. One analogy that we like to make is with cooking. Everybody should be able to cook a basic meal for themselves, and ideally, they should derive some enjoyment from cooking. Without these elements, people are condemned to a lifetime of ready meals. It is the same with computing. We just want to provide people with some basic skills that will enable them to problem solve and create."

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I think Raspberry Pi is an excellent opportunity to get people back into 'real computing'. I teach mainly to 19+ does anyone have any experience teaching RPi to this range of learners?
Paul - Sunderland
I am reminded of the home computers of the early 1980s, which used high-level languages such as Basic to programme simple applications (I used it to construct a game of snakes and ladders for my nephews and to randomly select questions for a pub quiz). From there it was a simple step to using real applications at work such as word processing and data management.
It's great to see academics returning to the idea of involving the user in making the machine work in a simple way.
Chris Stokes - Lancashire
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I think Raspberry Pi is an excellent opportunity to get people back into 'real computing'. I teach mainly to 19+ does anyone have any experience teaching RPi to this range of learners?

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Manchester academics introduce schoolchildren to a life of Pi

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