The Raspberry Pi is succeeding in ways its makers almost imagined
Kids don't want to code. They want to solve problems us oldies can't perceive
“Grandpa is getting pretty old. Out there all alone on that farm, he has no one to look in on him, just to see if he’s ok. He’ll use the landline, but he’s beyond of the range of mobile, and he’s never been really great with computers. No Skype or emails. Grandpa does have internet. So I built this for him.”
The girl points down to a small box with a few wires coming out.
“I can bring up a web browser, and take photos inside grandpa’s house. Has he moved his coffee cup today? Is the telly on? At least then we’ll know he’s okay. And I can even type messages” - she changes focus to a textbox inside a web form - “that show up on top. We used ImageMagick for that part...here, you can see it in our code.”
Fingers fly across the keyboard, and now I’m reading the source code for an index.php page, another marriage of convenience between HTML and PHP. How’d this girl - all of eleven years old - learn to do this?
“A lot of it was trial and error.” Both she and her project partner blush a bit. “The PHP bits were kinda hard. But we found a lot of stuff on Google,” she confides.
After assuring her that grownups also find answers to their coding problems on Google, I had a good look at the code. Nothing spectacular, but readable enough.
Neither girl had written a line of code before this. They knew nothing about how to build a computer-controlled camera, or drive a computer-controlled display. But with Google’s help - and Raspberry Pi - they prevailed.
When the Raspberry Pi shipped to a planet excited geeks in the middle of 2012, it changed the way we taught IT. That had always been the intention of creator Eben Upton. Give the kids the goods and they’ll do the rest.
At first, it seemed as though the grownups were more excited than the kids, creating all sorts of wacky Pi-based projects. Fortunately, those grownups - eager for the respect of their peers - shared everything they learned, posting to blogs, StackOverflow, and thousands of other websites. Want to know how to blink an LED? Drive a motor? Read a sensor? Set up a web server? Within the first year, all of that was out there, all of it indexed, searchable, and useful to kids.
I was one of the lucky few who got their hands on one of the first Raspberry Pis to hit Australian shores. That first Pi gave me all sorts of ideas of a world where powerful computers had become cheap enough to put almost anywhere. It’s giving kids the same ideas.
For the last few years I’ve been a judge for Young ICT Explorers, a nationwide competition and celebration of kids who get bitten by the IT bug. Back in 2013, we saw a range of web-based projects, with one or two Arduinos thrown into the mix. Last year, a few more Arduinos, and a single Raspberry Pi project. That project - with the most sophisticated crontab I’d ever seen, and also built by an 11 year-old - won the big prize.
This year, that project would barely rate.
Look here, these kids are using sensors on a Raspberry Pi to read the air quality of the room, alerting asthmatics to seek an environment less likely to give them breathing problems. Over there - because sometimes the referees miss goals - a netball-crazed 11 year-old girl used an ultrasonic sensor and Raspberry Pi to create an automatic scoring system.
Consider three ten year-olds who fussed and fiddled with LlittleBits - a mashup of Lego with the Internet of Things - until they found just the right combination of pieces to create a system that allows you to know whether that sushi tray gliding by on that continuous track has been sitting around a little too long to be safe to eat. (Their inspiration was a teacher who’d gotten sick from bad sushi.)
Each of these projects solve a real-world problem. They’re not speculative: they’re prototypes. The Raspberry Pi has proven to be more than just a way to get kids into IT. It’s broadened their canvas of possibilities. They can look at a problem, dream up a solution, and make it so.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote that kids, raised in an era of pervasive interactivity, would expect the entire world to interact with them. I hadn’t realised we’d give those kids the capacity to create the world. But that’s where we are now.
Completely at home with Raspberry Pis, these kids Google around for the things they don’t know how to do - because when you’re 11, you don’t know what you can’t do. They are inventing the future, and for them it’s just child’s play. ®