Reflections on using the Raspberry Pi in schools to make learning programming fun

Introduction

Primary and secondary schools across the UK are currently faced with the exciting, yet daunting prospect of inspiring a new generation of programmers, following the introduction of the national curriculum for computing in September 2014. The Raspberry Pi is a very low-cost credit card sized computer that was launched in 2012 to promote the study of computer science to school-age pupils, and is therefore ideally suited to supporting this challenge. This article describes some experiences of using the Raspberry Pi to deliver extra-curricular activities in secondary schools.

The Raspberry Pi (Raspberry Pi Foundation 2014) is a small, cheap, yet powerful computer first released in 2012 by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a UK registered charity that was founded in 2009 to support the study of basic computer science in schools. The Pi has rapidly gained popularity, partly because of its capability to control external electronic circuits with computer code.

The project described in this article began as an after school club at Wheatley Park secondary school. It was led by volunteers who were inspired by the potential of the Pi and concerned about the deficiencies in the 2013 ICT curriculum. The aims of the club were to make learning computer programming fun for the pupils and to transfer knowledge to the school’s IT staff.

The students undertook activities during the project that involved programming in Python (Python Software 2014), which most of them had not used before. The exercises involved controlling simple sound and lighting systems.

The pilot project

The first after school club was launched during the summer of 2013 and ran weekly. Each session was delivered by a group of subject experts, latterly including volunteer students recruited from the University Computer Science degree programme. The sessions were initially designed to last for two and a half hours, but were subsequently reduced to one and a half hours, which proved to be the optimum session length.

The sessions used some extra equipment in addition to the Raspberry Pi, including a device constructed by a Brookes staff member in his spare time. The original version comprised a board to which a saucepan lid, jam jar lid, tin can a glass jar were fixed. Four solenoids were arranged to hit the objects to make a noise; the patterns of sound were controlled with a Raspberry Pi. It captured the attention of all those that saw it; there was potential to inspire children in the subject of computer programming. Based on that original, a simplified board with two tin cans and two solenoids was designed and made, and the final contraption became known as the ‘clonker board’ (see Figure 1).

Two tin clonker board

Figure 1. Two tin clonker board

Four of these production two-tin sets were built, Raspberry Pis were ordered and dates for the club were arranged for a hand picked group of Year 8 and Year 10 pupils, drawn from the school’s Gifted and Talented list. Teaching materials were based around controlling external devices using the Raspberry Pi starting with a two tin can version of the clonker. Lesson plans and other resources were developed and are all freely available (Andy’s Raspberry Pi Teaching Resources, 2014).

Initially four sets of hardware were shared amongst twelve pupils but this was not a good ratio, since usually only two pupils per set would be engaged at any one time. Since there was not time to build more clonker boards, the activities were modified to offer a choice of solenoids or LEDs, via a traffic light board (see Figure 2), which is a small board that connects directly to the Raspberry Pi GPIO pins with no connecting wires. The traffic light board is a homemade board costing less than £1; alternatively there are commercially available plug-in boards that offer the same functionality. Some of these boards come in kit form and need soldering; this could be viewed as either a problem or an opportunity to gain another skill.

Traffic light board

 

Figure 2. Traffic light board

Some novel aspects of the delivery that proved to be particularly successful were the use of pair programming and ‘question tickets’. Each pair of pupils had access to an internet-connected PC as well as their Pi. This allowed one pupil to research syntax and error codes on recommended websites, while the other pupil was typing Python code and trying it. This gave the pupils a realistic introduction to the way a computer programmer works on their own, researching and problem solving to achieve an objective. The other useful trick to encourage the pupils to answer their own questions was to give each pair three question tickets for the session. If they wanted to ask a question to one of the other volunteer helpers they would have to surrender a ticket. Few tickets were used – the impression was that the pupils were motivated to do their own research before putting their hand up to ask for help.

One of the appealing features of these sessions was their interdisciplinary nature, in terms of combining electronics and computing, thus drawing together IT and other school departments, initially Design and Technology, but also Physics. This fits well with changes to the national curriculum:

“…apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs such as sensors, and control outputs such as actuators, using programmable components such as microcontrollers.” (The National Curriculum In England Framework Document, 2013, p196)

Reflections on the pilot project

The first session was a learning curve for all those involved. Too many assumptions were made about the pupils’ ability to take a circuit diagram and translate it into a physical component layout on a breadboard, though by the end of the first session all pupils had managed to achieve the session’s objective.

The two-tin clonker sets and traffic light boards were successfully used for the initial sessions, but it was felt that more variety was needed in order to maintain the pupils’ interest for the entire duration of the club. So subsequent sessions included additional peripheral devices, for example:

  • a xylophone comprising seven solenoids each arranged to hit a milk bottle tuned to a specific note by being partially filled with water;
  • a solenoid activated snare drum.

More information and pictures of these are available on the website (Andy’s Raspberry Pi Teaching Resources, 2014). In practice, it was found that the progression of activities that worked best for the skillset available to this project was: start with three-LED traffic light board or commercial equivalent; progress to eight LEDs on prototype boards to make more varied light patterns; introduce solenoids when LEDs are mastered. One final topic can then be introduced: positional control using a stepper motor; this was demonstrated in the last session of the pilot project but the resources need further development.

Further projects

A second club was run in the spring of 2014 at the Oxford Academy. This time it was decided to broaden the scope of the initial project to include the representation of music as data to be interpreted by a Python program for a Pi controlled musical instrument. Some of the utility programs were provided by one of the student volunteers, which was an unusual extra-curricular activity that would not have been offered by their course. As another example of an Enhancement and Enrichment activity, four Oxford Academy pupils were able to represent their school at the LiveFriday event at the Ashmolean museum (Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, 2012) in March 2014 where they were able to show their Pi work to members of the public.

Raspberry Pis have also proved popular with computing students undertaking school placements (The Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme, 2014). Several students have adapted the resources developed for the two clubs described above to carry out special projects with the school pupils.

Feedback

The teacher involved in the pilot project was asked to give a summary from his perspective for the pilot review:

“The after school club has been a huge success so far, providing challenging enriching content that sits alongside the ICT Curriculum.”…”From a motivation perspective, the project has led to pupils working with examples of successful employees and undergraduates from Brookes University who have similar interests to themselves. This has then transferred into the classroom for some of the more vulnerable learners through increased motivation, confidence and resilience.”…”Overall a massive success and we have been incredibly honoured and privileged as a school to be able to take part in this project. Thank you.”

At the end of the initial club at The Oxford Academy, five pupils responded to the following statement “Having been involved in the Raspberry Pi club…” as follows:

  1. I have learnt new skills. 100% positive. 85% strongly agreed. 15% agreed.
  2. I have better understanding of computer code. 100% positive. 85% strongly agreed. 15% agreed.
  3. I am more interested in further education / a career in Computing. 100% positive. 100% agreed. (none strongly agreed).

One of the pupils was heard to ask the teacher “Why can’t all IT lessons be like this, Sir?”

Conclusion

Having seen the fear in the eyes of those seeing electronic components for the first time, one conclusion of our experience is that it is best to start people’s exposure to electronics off slowly, and to involve other disciplines to support the work. On the positive side, the speed that the pupils picked up the programming and worked through the suggested exercises was surprising, and led to the expansion of activities in the second after school club.

All of the activities have been successful, with wins on many sides, e.g. for:

  • Brookes as an institution: this work fits with the external facing section of the Brookes strategy (Our Strategy for 2020, 2010).
  • Brookes students: gain experience; potential contribution to the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) and CV.
  • School pupils: Enhancement and Enrichment activity that contributes directly to the computing curriculum.
  • School teachers: knowledge exchange, curriculum development.

However, the projects have all required a huge amount of time and energy on the part of the volunteers. In future, the aim is to make the schools as self-reliant as possible to enable Brookes to take a mentoring and coaching role for many schools instead of concentrating resource. Some lessons learned during the delivery of these activities are listed below for the benefit of others who may contemplating similar projects:

  • Technical support is essential in the early sessions until sufficient knowledge is transferred to the school staff;
  • the combination of Raspberry Pi and operating system should be tested in advance;
  • allow no more than two pupils per Pi;
  • provide a case for each Pi to save damage to the Pi circuit ;
  • there may not be access to 240V power sockets in the school environment, but the Pi can be powered from a PC USB socket.

Future work

There are many more ways that the Raspberry Pi could be used to support teaching, and there are multiple associated resources, such as those offered by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. One way to simplify the delivery of such material at a local level could be to create Pi Project Packages comprising sets of hardware that can be borrowed, together with lesson materials and support for the knowledge transfer to the teaching staff, all of which would be delivered by suitably trained student volunteers. Such packages could be related to the national curriculum and structured to cover basic programming principles.

The authors’ interest lies in exploring how the new school curriculum is delivered and how this project can continue to be mutually beneficial to school pupils, teachers, Brookes’ students and Brookes as an institution.

References

Andy’s Raspberry Pi Teaching Resources, 2014, Andy Austen. Retrieved on 23 September 2014 from: http://go.brookes.ac.uk/pi

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, 2012. Retrieved on 17 November 2014 from http://www.ashmolean.org/livefriday/

The National Curriculum In England Framework Document, 2013, Department for Education. Retrieved on 19 September 2014 from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/210969/NC_framework_document_-_FINAL.pdf

Our Strategy for 2020, 2010, Oxford Brookes University. Retrieved on 21 September 2014 from: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/about-brookes/strategy-2020/our-strategy-for-2020/

Python Software, 2014, Python Software Foundation. Retrieved on 02 September 2014 from: www.python.org

Raspberry Pi Foundation, 2014. Retrieved on 23 September 2014 from: http://www.raspberrypi.org/

The Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme, 2014. Retrieved on 13 October from: http://www.uas.ac.uk/

 

Andy Austen

Andy Austen is IT Project Manager (Research, Knowledge Exchange and External) in Oxford Brookes Information Solutions, Oxford Brookes University. He has worked for the past 16 years on the IT systems that support the University’s business processes in a number of roles from programmer to project manager.

Clare Martin

Clare Martin is a Principal Lecturer for Student Experience at Oxford Brookes University.  Her research interests include using mathematics to reason about the semantics and general algebraic properties of programming and specification languages. Clare has worked previously as a computer consultant and then as a lecturer at the University of Buckingham.

Posted in Short Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Subscribe to BeJLT

Get email alerts when there is a new issue.
* = required field

Send this page to Kindle

your kindle user name:
(you@kindle.com, without @kindle.com)
Approved E-mail:
(Approved E-mail that kindle will accept)
Kindle base email kindle.com | free.kindle.com
(Use kindle.com to download on wispernet or wifi, use free.kindle.com for wifi only.)
using kindle.com may incur charges)