Friday, January 6, 2017

Nothing Like Some Raspberry Pi

I still remember buying my very first computer. It was 1996 and I had been saving birthday and Christmas money, as well as banking as much money as I could from my after-school job with the goal of buying this machine. I remember carrying my $1,400 to the local Walmart and walking out with a monstrous box and getting home as fast as I could in order to set it up. The possibilities were endless - games were becoming more widely available and increasingly awesome, and the internet was beginning to take hold. The world was, indeed, at my fingertips.

All these years later, I look back on that moment with a mix of emotions. Yes, the excitement was real, but so is the disappointment I now feel. I'm disappointed with 16-year-old Justin and his lack of curiosity, courage, and creativity. He approached that first computer as the majority of our students approach computers today - as priceless machines that are meant to be used only for the purposes determined by the software developers, machines not to be tampered or tinkered with in any way. Yes, the technology companies successfully placed me in a digital box. I was only doing with the computer what they told me I should do - doing what their software told me I could do. Never once did I consider that these programs were just a starting point, that I could break out of that digital box and tell the computer what I wanted it to do. Twenty years later, this makes me sad, but I have recently found a new hope (cue the Star Wars theme)!

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
One of my favorite magazines is Make, a publication focusing on the maker movement and the amazingly innovative creations from makers around the world. These creations span across every conceivable interest - from art and fashion design, to cooking, electronics, and computing. Many of the more interesting creations are powered by a tiny computer called the Raspberry Pi. This powerful little machine is widely available for around $35, with more complete kits for various interests running slightly more. The beautiful thing about the Pi is it's focus on making and creating. The goal is to provide people with a low-cost powerful machine on which they can learn programming and computing skills without the fear of trashing a $1000 machine. It is amazing what happens when students are introduced to this technology!

I have had the opportunity over the last month to introduce students in my Emerging Technologies class to the Raspberry Pi. From the beginning, they have been hooked. Whether it has been programming a world in Minecraft Pi with the Python programming language, building a touchscreen camera and photo booth app, or creating a retro gaming system, the energy in my classroom has been amazing. Many of these students are so hooked on the possibilities of this computer, that several Pi's were given as Christmas presents this year! Click the link for a look at the classroom resources available for free from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

If you, a spouse, a child, or anybody in your life has ever expressed an interest in diving a little deeper into computer science, I highly recommend the Raspberry Pi. It has been such a blast to work with and I find myself amazed at the things I've been able to do with it. Every time I successfully complete a project, I immediately start thinking about my next project and what that might be. This old dog is definitely learning some new tricks and finding that the sky is indeed the limit with the Raspberry Pi. Check it out!