The life of Pi - clever ideas with a tiny computer

Pupils from a school in Cheltenham

While the Chancellor was delivering his budget yesterday, I was in a room near Cambridge full of young people who may be part of the answer to Britain's economic future.

They had all come up with clever ideas to use the Raspberry Pi, the ultra-cheap computer developed in Cambridge, and they were the finalists in a competition held by the technology advisors PA Consulting.

I was one of the judges deciding who should win - and it was a tricky task.

There was the London primary school with a plan to recycle old computer components to turn the Raspberry Pi into a communications device for schools in developing countries. Their only problem - they couldn't figure out how to make Skype work on the little device,

Then there was the North Yorkshire community school which had turned the Pi into an RFID (radio-frequency identification) reader to measure lap times in their cross-country races, and the London independent school whose pupils had come up with Teacher's Pet, a way of delivering homework via USB sticks plugged into the tiny computer.

But the winners combined great teamwork with excellent use of both the Raspberry Pi hardware and inventive programming.

A team from a Cheltenham primary school came up with a system to help elderly or disabled people answer the door with a wireless keypad, using the Piface attachment for the Raspberry Pi.

Dalriada students Dalriada School students with their winning entry

Dalriada School from Ballymoney had invented a pill dispenser which allowed a GP to control what drugs a patient was taking at home. The boys and girls from the school, while wrestling with a demo which had a few teething problems, gave a compelling presentation of the need for the product and the design challenges involved in manufacturing it.

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If the idea behind the Raspberry Pi was to inspire a new generation to look under the bonnet of computers, these schools showed it was working ”

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And two sixth-formers from Westminster School had the most polished and commercially attractive idea of them all, the AirPi. It combined various sensors with some clever programming to turn the Pi into an air quality and weather station.

They've even put up a site explaining how anyone could copy this idea, and building a community around the project.

If the idea behind the Raspberry Pi was to inspire a new generation to look under the bonnet of computers and get their hands dirty, these schools seemed to show it was working.

And if just a few take their ideas further and decide to start their own businesses or compete for jobs needing computer science skills, then that could make a big difference to the UK's competitiveness.

The judges did have one concern - just how few entries there had been from state schools.

One theory was that the constraints of the curriculum meant teachers were too cautious about committing the time to time-consuming projects which might not contribute directly to exam results.

Which if true, is a pity.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    82 Wayne

    Yes, good teachers are important and the curriculum needs to be right but that's not going to happen overnight.

    In the meantime, there's the PI. There's a lot of hype around it but that's not necessarily a bad thing if it gets people interested. It's not compulsory. It's not expensive. If you don't want one, don't buy one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I think we possibly do disagree Miss Ingoff. I think we need a robust computer science curriculum, but I believe the pi is a waste of time and money. The focus needs to be on the quality of teaching and curriculum rather than a new toy.

    If I were at school now and wanted to prepare for the IT industry, I'd want a motivated and knowledgeable teacher combined with industry standard tools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    79 Wayne

    I'm not sure you did disagree with me, did you?

    The "sniping" comment wasn't aimed in your direction: it was aimed at those who seem intent on belittling the efforts of others to solve a problem, without offering any better ideas themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    #70 Aidy, the transferable skills are problem solving and the ability to think logically. The pi is aimed at 11-15 year olds, there is no guarantee that .net will be dominant in 8-10 years when they enter the job market. An understanding of how computers work, the basics of programming and how to learn is more valuable than specific languages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Miss Ingoff, I understand its not aimed at me. But you don't need a new cool toy to inspire kids to learn about computing, you need teachers with a passion for the subject. As a taxpayer I'd want schools to make use of the existing resources as much as possible.

    And "sniping"? Do you always take such a belligerent attitude with people who disagree with you?


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