Do you have a kid who likes to tinker with stuff?
When I started my studies in computer science at what is now the University of North Texas, there was a lab of homemade personal computers running Intel 8080 processors. This lab was used by the department for classes in assembly language programming as well as to provide an environment for learning basic computer architecture. This was at a time when “real” computers were room-sized contraptions managed by the 20th century version of the Illuminati. They were in a glass encased room and could not be used for experimentation and deep-dive learning.
Many of the students at that time were hobbyists, who built their own computers or used very rudimentary computers in high school. This lab helped bridge that gap for students like me who didn’t start out as a hobbyist. It was a powerful educational tool.
Over the decades, I’ve noticed a trend in recent graduates from computer science programs were their competences were of high-level programming languages and techniques, while lacking a fundamental understanding of the operating system and hardware level. This is akin to learning mathematics via a calculator without understanding the underlying principals of math. One can successfully perform various math functions to solve known problems, but will have limitations on how to leverage math to solve real-world problems due to the lack of knowledge of the mechanics under the surface.
Also, it also removes one of the joys of computers, being able to watch how the machines dances to your tune (so to speak)!
A professor from at the University of Cambridge in Britain named Eben Upton and his colleagues were also concerned. They were finding many students entering into high-tech university programs with little more than web programming capabilities. So, he developed a very low cost computer for teaching children how to program called Raspberry Pi. The computer costs between $25-$35 (though it’s $60 at Amazon) and is simply a credit card sized circuit-board with the basic components like a System-on-a-Chip (SoC), which contains the Computer Processing Unit (CPU), Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) and memory, as well as interfaces to various peripherals. The purchaser would need to provide the storage (in the form of a SD card), keyboard, mouse, monitor. It also comes without software, though you can get the software from their website or build your own. They provide various versions of Linux and use Python as a programming language.
The original intent of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the UK non-profit building and selling this product was to provide kids with a computer to tinker with and to help them learn how to program. What they’ve found is a hobbyist culture that resembles the one that produced the original Apple II and Heathkit computers in the ’70s. These hobbyists are interested in a small, low power and cheap computer to use for various applications. As a result, the Foundation is selling them as fast as they can build them.
So, if you have a kid who likes to tinker and you want to keep them from tearing your home computer apart or if your inner kid wants to play with the basics of computing or you have an application that would benefit from a cheap, small computer, you should have a look at Raspberry Pi.
For more information:
- See the Raspberry Pi website and their FAQ.
- There is a terrific article by John Biggs of the NY Times on the computer and how it’s being used.
- Adafruit has software for the device, with a child friendly browser. They also have some extensive on-line training for the device.
- Wikipedia has an article on the device, which provides some of the history.
Note: I’m not associated with Raspberry Pi in any way. In fact, I only just heard about it.