Tuesday, 30 April 2013

What is a Raspberry Pi? A simple overview

So what is a Raspberry Pi? You might have heard that it's a little computer that can help kids learn how to program. But you might also be a bit confused about exactly what it is and how you use it and whether it's the right thing for your child.

In this article I'll give a simple overview of what it is and what you'll need to know to get your child started so that they get the full benefit of their Raspberry Pi rather than it becoming 'shelfware' and gathering dust somewhere.

I have a computer science PhD and I learned to program on my Sinclair Spectrum computer when I was 10 years old. If it hadn't been for my Spectrum I don't think I would have made my way to the profession that I have loved.

I'm also Mum to two primary school aged boys. I want to make sure they have the same opportunity to learn about computers and programming that I did.
We have a couple of Raspberry Pis that we have been using for projects with them and will teach them how to program for themselves as they get older.

The Sinclair Spectrum was a brilliant environment to learn in. Today's computers are a lot more powerful, do much more and are harder for kids to really take control of. The Raspberry Pi is intended to fill that gap for kids today. It's a bit harder to get started with than my Spectrum was though as it's less self-contained. It's much more powerful though and you can do a lot more with it!

What does a Raspberry Pi look like?

Here's our Model B Raspberry Pi (the Model A looks a little different.) As you can see it's a board with lots of components on it. These are similar to the components you would find in a desktop PC, laptop or tablet. You just don't usually get to see them. It also has some input/output connections for controlling electronics projects.

The Raspberry Pi is just a computer on a board, it needs various peripherals and cables to turn it into a functioning system. In particular you connect it to a monitor or TV screen and a keyboard and mouse. (I'll cover this in more detail in another article because there's a lot to consider.)

What can you do with a Raspberry Pi?

There are 3 main ways you can use a Raspberry Pi:

  1. You can write software programs on the Pi to make it do things. So you could design and write your own game or fun animation. 
  2. The Raspberry Pi is a fully functioning computer so you can use it as a regular computer to browse the internet or play movies. We like to connect ours up to a mini projector for a portable movie theater!
  3. The Pi can also be used to connect to electronic devices to make useful projects. We have connected ours to a temperature sensor to take readings and see how the temperature changes over night.

What age is a Raspberry Pi suitable for?

You might be wondering what age of child a Raspberry Pi is suitable for. Well that really depends on how much parental involvement there's going to be, and of course the abilities and interests of the child.

You do need to wait until they aren't likely to drool on it or attempt to eat it. But after that, why not?
For kids under the age of 8 you're likely to need to work with them quite a bit to get them started and help out with tricky bits. And for really young children, you may actually be driving things with them telling you what to do and you guiding the activity.

Scratch is one of the programming languages supported on the Raspberry Pi and that is recommended from around age 6.  If you've got an even younger child who is interested and you're willing to work with them then they can still learn a lot.

From around age 8 a lot of kids will be able to work reasonably independently if they have a book or course to follow to get started and you help them to get the system up a running. Though they will probably need some help in finding the right introductory material (again we'll return to that in another article.)

Once you get to electronics projects then they might need a bit of help getting started again. Don't worry, you can do a lot without needing to solder these days.

Isn't it just a computer?

One of the things you might wonder about the Raspberry Pi is why you need one when you've already got a family PC.

Well you can certainly do Scratch programming and play media files on your home PC.

But a lot of parents are a bit nervous of letting their kids loose on an expensive shared family computer. What if they break something? Usually they won't but the Pi can help with that issue - it's easy to restore to a clean install. 
One of the interesting features about the Pi is that it has input and output ports that can be used to control electronic devices in the real world. This is a great feature and one of the main attractions to me.

The Pi is also small which means you can include it in projects and move it around the house easily. It can also run off batteries which means it can easily be moved around.

The Pi also runs the Linux operating system which lends itself nicely to working out what's really going on. Yes, you can run Linux on a PC but parents might not want to set this up.

I think one of the key things about the Pi is that it is sold as a board so you can actually see what's going on. You can see where you plug in the keyboard and what the SD card reader looks like. This makes it a much more hands-on experience than a computer hidden away in a sealed case.

I think it's also about perception. The Raspberry Pi is seen as a machine for learning about technology. So hopefully kids are more likely to embrace that and not just watch videos or play games all the time as they might on the family PC. (Though they can do those things too.)

The idea is that this is a hobby machine that you can control.

Isn't it expensive to put together a complete system?

The price of a Raspberry Pi is a round $25 dollars for Model A or $35 for Model B. That seems quite affordable. Then you realize that the Raspberry Pi needs lots of other bits to make it work. If you buy everything new this can be quite expensive.

But, you can use items you already have in the house and they don't need to be dedicated to the Raspberry Pi. So you could use the keyboard, mouse, USB hub and monitor from your family PC. You won't be able to use the family PC at the same time of course, but this will save you money.

You can also ask friends and family for old hardware and cables they are not using and check on Freecycle. The Raspberry Pi is pretty good at using older hardware. You may need adapters but this is cheaper than getting new kit.

It's less convenient to build a Raspberry Pi system this way so if you can afford it you can choose a kit with lots of the pieces in. But if money is tight there are ways around it.

You can always upgrade peripherals later once you know that the Raspberry Pi is being put to good use and your investment will be worthwhile.

I'm still incredibly grateful that my parents bought that Sinclair Spectrum when I was a child. We didn't have much money so it was definitely a big deal. But it completely captured my imagination and opened up my future.

So, what is a Raspberry Pi?

I think a Raspberry Pi is a device for encouraging kids to understand that they can control technology. We love our gadgets, but being mindless digital consumers isn't a good direction. We need kids to keep moving things forward. They need to develop that mindset and be given the chance to fiddle and tinker.

For some kids it will be the device that opens up their future. For others it will give them more understanding of the technological world that we now live in.

I'll be writing more articles about buying, getting started with and using the Raspberry Pi.

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