“That’s it?! But that’s so little!” one of my students said, incredulously, when I showed him the Raspberry Pi. I nodded. Another student explained, “That’s what a computer looks like. A lot of people think this [he pointed to the television monitor] is the computer, but it’s just a screen.” The other students, who mostly lived in a world of tablets and laptops, stared solemnly at the small device.
I had just returned from Picademy in Austin. Whenever I am absent for any kind of staff development, my students demand justification for abandoning them. They knew, before I left, that Raspberry Pi was a computer, not a dessert. But just like me before the 2-day intense training, that was about all most of them knew. It was time for me now to show them that my absence had been worth it.
“You said there was Minecraft,” one student prompted. I pulled up the Python program we coded at Picademy and asked the students to guess what would happen when I initiated it in Minecraft. They weren’t quite sure. Then I showed them how my Minecraft character could walk, leaving a path of gold behind me.
“Cool!” was the general consensus. I was proud because, before Picademy, I had never played Minecraft or coded with Python. In fact, I was still awed by the fact that I had hooked up the tiny computer to an old television monitor from home, and that it actually worked.
I had applied to Picademy in Austin with great apprehension. Raspberry Pi seemed to appear on many of the educational sites I regularly visited and I felt like I needed to to have one in my classroom. But I didn’t want to have the school invest money on something that couldn’t be used. When I saw that Picademy was being offered an hour and a half from where I lived, it seemed like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. But I was worried it would be way over my head. The problem is that I am constantly telling my students to take risks, so I would have felt like a hypocrite if I didn’t even try.
Fortunately, the organizers of Picademy have a lot of experience differentiating for a room full of educators with multiple skill levels. On the first day, they led us through several hand-on sessions, guiding us to “Hack Minecraft,” light up L.E.D.’s, compose music, and make ridiculous selfies. We were given lots of free “stuff” (including a Raspberry Pi, keyboard, and mouse), introduced to new vocabulary (Sense Hat?), and tons of support from a group of experienced educators.
On the second day, we were tasked with creating our own Raspberry Pi projects with partners. We were given 4 hours and extra supplies. My partner and I decided to program our Pi with Python to allow students to take pictures of their work with the touch of a button, also sending out a random tweet with the picture and a phrase such as, “Look what we did in class today!” There was a lot of trial and error and frustration. (Spelling and punctuation are extremely vital in Python, as we learned.) However, we finally got it to work, and got to experience the exuberance our students feel whenever they work through tough problems.
If what I just described to you sounds ridiculously impossible for your skill level, remember that I was (and still am) an amateur. The key to programming Raspberry Pi is taking other programs offered freely on the internet and adjusting them to do what you want. Once you get used to the syntax of Python, it isn’t that difficult to “steal” and remix. Also, you are not limited to using Python. Scratch, for example, now works with Raspberry Pi.
If you can attend a Picademy, I highly recommend you apply. The 2-day workshop is free, and you do receive free breakfast and lunches, a free Raspberry Pi, and other accessories. However, there may not be a Picademy coming to your area anytime soon, so you may want to check out the new online courses. All training information can be found here.
An incredible number of resources are available on the Raspberry Pi website. I suggest that you go to this page if you are brand new to using Raspberry Pi. The site is extremely user-friendly. However, I think the training is what has made my experience so enjoyable.