A bite of raspberry pie.


A new computer is about to go on sale in the UK that, shall we say, is a little different. Priced at only £25, it looks like a broken electronic toy, but its impact could be very big. It’s called the Raspberry Pi and here’s how it came into being.


For the last 5 years, the ICT course in schools has largely taught children a set of skills useful for many businesses, particularly those who use Microsoft Office. What it hasn’t done is to inspire students to study IT at College and University and to create the skills necessary to create and develop IT products. The Department for Education has finally realised the error of its ways and in January this year, the Secretary of State for Education announced a radical shift in how computing will be taught in schools. Computer Science will return to the GCSE curriculum and will (hopefully) meet high standards of intellectual depth and practical value, with more freedom (allegedly) for schools to decide the content.


Instrumental in this change have been some key figures in industry and academia. In their eyes the UK had fallen badly behind in an area that used to be one of our strengths, computer programming. Cambridge University had the bright idea of conceiving a computer that would be cheap but powerful, one that students wouldn’t be afraid of breaking and similar in price to a textbook – except they hadn’t realised the high cost of modern textbooks. The computer was given the fruit-themed name of the Raspberry Pi, with the Pi being short for Python, a programming language.


Small and currently rather crude-looking, the Pi simply requires connection to a USB keyboard and mouse and a modern TV or digital monitor. All the programs and data are stored on cheap SD storage cards, just like the ones used in digital cameras. You’ll soon have a range of SD cards each tailored to different tasks, in many cases downloaded from a growing set of on-line resources. In practice, the Pi will find many uses way beyond teaching students how to program. It could form the heart of a home security system, a garage door opener or even control your Christmas lights display! Connect it to your TV and it can stream HD movies from the Internet and of course, it’ll play games.


Collaborative efforts setup by schools and colleges may see more ambitious programmes being developed. There’s also the possibility of departmental co-operation. For example, build a small car in Wood Tech, then program and install a battery-powered Pi into it in Computer Studies. Then watch it drive itself round a room negotiating obstacles.


The Raspberry Pi will be a tool that will help to inspire a new generation of kids, who may well one day become the founders of the next Apple or Google. Or in the words of Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, “If you give people tools, (and they use) their natural ability and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.”


More info on where to order a Pi can be found here, http://www.raspberrypi.org/.


© Peter Johnston, ByteSupport Ltd  2012.