Why the Raspberry Pi is the most important teaching tool a school can own
My earliest memory of computing was spending hours hunched over a keyboard furiously tapping lines of code into my ZX Spectrum from the back of a magazine. My friends and I would spend hours rattling off line after line, semi-colon after GOTO. If we got a single character wrong it was back to the start to find that elusive needle in a haystack, but once we got it right the reward was glorious.
A game. A game as basic as could be. Characters that were just a few pixels square were our Mickey Mouse, primitive digital beeps and boops sounded like an orchestra to our ears, and insanely difficult jumps that would test even the patience of the Dalai Lama were justification for all our hardware work. The idea that from a few lines of text you could create an entire world inside of box attached to your TV was a revelation and an experience that would forge decades long careers and a continuing passion for technology.
Jump forward 20 years and for today’s young people all of this is done at the press of a button. Photo-realistic graphics, physics engines, and deep story-lines can all be accessed instantly. The “appification” of software has lead to a disconnect between the creator and the user. The young people coming up through your school can now use software and games a thousand times more complex than those games we created as children with only a thousandth of the work involved.
With an iPad a student can no longer look under the hood, tinker with the settings, or modify the code. We risk bringing up a generation of students who have no concept of how computers really tick, and that’s why the Raspberry Pi is so important in education today. Raspberry Pi strips back the slick marketing, the shiny cases, and the slick user interfaces of today’s computers and allows students to tinker again, to experiment, and to explore.
You can forget your iPads, your Surfaces, and your Chromebooks. The Raspberry Pi is the most important educational technology of the next 10 years and will define for us the technological leaders of the next 30. It will pull out those students for whom computing will become a professional, and enlighten those for whom the iPad is a sealed box of magic tricks. The Raspberry Pi is something that should be central to any school’s computing program, and this is how you bring the Pi to your school.
Getting started with the Raspberry Pi in your school
First let’s take a look at the Raspberry Pi itself. There are currently two models on the market, the Model-A and the Model-B+ which replaced the older Model-B.
Raspberry Pi Model A
Model A is the lowest-spec Raspberry Pi, with 256 MB of RAM, one USB port and no Ethernet port. This model is better for embedded projects that don’t require continuous user input and requires a WiFi dongle to connect it to a network. It’s not recommended as a first teaching tool.
Raspberry Pi Model B
The Model B is latest Raspberry Pi to be released and the highest-spec variant of the Raspberry Pi, with 512 MB of RAM, two USB ports and a 100mb Ethernet port. The Model-B was replaced by the Model-B+ in July 2014.
Raspberry Pi Model B+
The Model B+ is the highest-spec Raspberry Pi available. It replaced the original Model B in July 2014. Compared to the Model B it has:
- More GPIO. The GPIO header has grown to 40 pins, while retaining the same pinout for the first 26 pins as the Model B.
- More USB ports. The B+ has 4 USB 2.0 ports, compared to 2 on the Model B, and better hotplug and overcurrent behaviour.
- Lower power consumption.
- Better audio. The audio circuit incorporates a dedicated low-noise power supply.
- The Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends the Model B+ for use in schools.
What you need to get started with Raspberry Pi in the classroom
The standard Raspberry Pi is just a printed circuit board with a couple of input ports, some output ports, and some RAM. In order to get your Raspberry Pi in a state ready to operate you’re going to need a few additional components.
The Raspberry Pi has no built-in storage to run an operating system or save your project files. For this you’ll need an SD Card — the same type used in digital cameras. Ideally you want a “Class 4” SD card or higher, which gives you a nice speed boost when writing and reading to and from the card, and at least 4GB in size to support the standard Raspberry Pi operating system.
Keyboard and Mouse
The Raspberry Pi supports most USB keyboards and mice. You can also use a wireless keyboard and mouse if you’re low on USB ports, but be aware that power consumption may stop your Pi starting up. If you don’t already have a USB keyboard and mouse you can pick one up very cheaply from most online retailers.
Powering your Pi
Your Raspberry Pi takes its power from a standard micro-USB port. If you have a mobile phone charging cable you can probably use that — just check the voltages — or you can pick one up very cheaply from most shops and online retailers. The power supply must be able to provide 5 volts and at least 700 milliamps of current. The more peripherals you plug in to your Raspberry Pi — for example, DVD drives, external HDDs, and WiFi dongles — the more power the Pi will need.
The Raspberry Pi has two display output options — HDMI, and composite video. In my experience HDMI gives the most flexibility and best quality image but it depends on what ports your monitor has available. The Pi is designed so that you can plug it into a standard television with an HDMI port free.
HDMI cables can be picked up for as little as a few dollars or pounds — don’t go spending more than this on an HDMI cable, there really is no benefit buying one of the more expensive options.
If you’re really struggling to find an suitable monitor, or can’t justify the outlay, consider using remote desktop (RDP) to connect to your Pi from another computer. It’s slightly more complicated to set up, but it means you don’t have to have a screen connected to your Pi. I’ll cover more on this in a later article.
If you’re using HDMI you don’t need to worry about a separate audio connection as sound will be transmitted over the HDMI cable. But if you do need to get sound from your Pi there is a 3.5mm audio jack which can be connect using a standard 3.5mm audio cable.
Unless you’re using the Model-A, which doesn’t have an Ethernet port, the simplest way to connect your Pi to a network is with a standard ethernet cable. If you want to connect to a wireless network, you’re going to need a WiFi dongle, which you can pick up for just a few dollars.
Optional bits & bobs
The problem with the old Model-B was that two USB ports wasn’t enough for most uses. Once you’d connected a keyboard and mouse there were no sockets left to connect any other more exciting peripherals. With the Model-B+, which comes kitted out with 4 USB ports this isn’t such an issue, but there may still be occasions where you want to connect more than 4 external devices. In these cases you’ll need a USB hub, and if you’re connect devices which use that bit more power you’ll want to use a powered USB hub so that they don’t drain power from your Pi and stop it starting up.
Raspberry Pi cases
When you first unbox your Raspberry Pi you’ll find that it’s just a printed circuit board with bare components so you’ll probably want a case to keep it warm and safe. Just like iPhone cases there are a huge variety of Raspberry Pi cases available. Some make your Pi that little bit more aesthetically pleasing, some add a range of new functionality, and others let you hack the Pi hardware more easily, but for most a simple and cheap Raspberry Pi case will be sufficient.
Buying Raspberry Pi for your classroom
There are several official Raspberry Pi retailers that you can find listed below, but to be honest I’ve found them to be a bit of a headache to deal with. Placing bulk orders, dealing with international deliveries, and making sure hardware is in stock can be of a bit task.
In my experience Amazon do a great selection of 3rd party bundles that may not be official, but they’re easier to deal with, and you can guarantee you’re getting compatible components.
The official Raspberry Pi retailers are:
So once you’ve bought your Raspberry Pi where do you go next? Well, there’s a huge community of teachers, students, and hackers that have put together teaching resources for almost any situation.
ClassThink’s resident Raspberry Pi guru, Vincent Willcox, has put together several unique Raspberry Pi projects that you can use in your classroom including:
- Getting started with Raspberry Pi
This guide takes you step by step through setting up your Raspberry Pi for the first time, installing an operating system, and connecting up all your peripherals.
- How to remotely control your Raspberry Pi via SSH
We show you how to control and configure your Raspberry Pi from another computer. This is great if you don’t have a spare display to give up to your Pi, or you want to tuck it away under a desk never to be seen!
- Getting started with Python on the Raspberry Pi
Vincent takes you step by step through the basics of coding with Python.
- Raspberry Pi Project: Vocal intruder warning system
This is a great project to get your students started with some of the more advanced features of Raspberry Pi hacking. Using the GPIO connector pins Vincent shows you how to rig up a simple intruder warning system that gives a verbal warning to anyone foolish enough to try and bypass your Pi enabled security system. And for those looking to go even further, in the second part of the project you can learn how to add in the Raspberry Pi camera to take a snapshot of the burglar!
There are also loads of other great teaching resources from communities across the Internet, which include:
- The official Raspberry Pi website.
- Raspberry Pi School – specifically for primary age students.
- Scratchmypi – Raspberry Pi training courses
Let me know in the comments how you’re using Raspberry Pi in your school, and of any teaching resources that you’ve found useful.