Raspberry Pi helps build strong brains

From CNET Magazine: They might not look like much, but tiny Raspberry Pi computers could help society relearn what it means to be technically literate.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read

After designing a Civil War computer game for an eighth-grade project, Sonia Uppal was intrigued by programming. But her school material was just too dry and boring for a kid to endure. "It was awful," so she gave up computer science, she says.

At a technology fair the next year, though, a chance encounter with a $35 computer called the Raspberry Pi reignited her interest. The palm-size machine is a proudly naked circuit board brazenly showing all its chips and electronic connectors.

"It was magical to me," she says. "I picked one up and started tinkering with it. You could do so much with this little thing."


A Raspberry Pi, in all its naked glory.

Stephen T. Shankland/CNET

For openers, Uppal, 17, taught herself Python, one of today's hottest programming languages. Next, she raised $600 for a project called Pi à la Code, buying 10 of the little computers while at home in Los Altos Hills, California, and taking them to the hill town of Kasauli in northwestern India. There, she taught programming to 25 kids while still a high school sophomore and junior. Now she's headed to the University of California, Berkeley, eager to study computer science.

Her story is exactly why Raspberry Pis may be coming to a school near you.

The computers burst onto the scene in 2012, six years after a team of computer scientists at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory realized fewer and fewer students had any real understanding of computers. Together, they designed a deliberately bare-bones computer they hoped would encourage a new generation of hobbyist programmers, just like the old PCs from Commodore, Tandy and BBC Micro did in the 1980s. The result was the Raspberry Pi, a credit card-size circuit board exposing students to computer fundamentals.

"These are the USB ports where you plug in a keyboard -- this is input," says Matt Richardson, evangelist for the Raspberry Pi Foundation charity organization that designs the computer and, through its trading operation, oversees sales. "This is where you plug in the monitor -- that's an output. That's a computer lesson right there."

The little computer is a commercial success, selling in 114 countries and shipping 8 million units over four years.

"When we first launched Raspberry Pi, we thought we'd ship 10,000 units a year," says Claire Doyle, head of the Raspberry Pi division for Element14, which makes and distributes the computer. Instead, the explosive growth of the Raspberry Pi took the company by surprise as schools and tinkerers built a movement around it.

Because the Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity, it funnels all profits back into R&D and things like providing free teacher training and resource materials. It also plays a role in some interesting projects, such as working with the Zoological Society of London and the Kenya Wildlife Service, which have put up camera traps to spot illegal rhino and elephant poaching.

Dive in

The computing industry doesn't want us to dirty our hands with chores like formatting hard drives, administering network privileges and updating antivirus software. We don't even have to type if we don't want to; we now tell our gadgets what to do just by speaking to them.

Sure, making gadgets easier to use means more people can use them. But somebody has to know what makes these things tick.

"The 'it just works' ethos from tech companies is phenomenal. It's changed people's lives for the better," says Raspberry Pi Foundation Chief Executive Philip Colligan.

"But it's also robbed us of a sense of agency over the computer," he says. "I don't think we're going to get much innovation from people who don't understand how computing really works."

That's where the Raspberry Pi comes in.


At Code Club in London, kids build games, apps -- and robots -- using the Raspberry Pi microcomputer.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Because you can plug lots of widgets into a Raspberry Pi -- cameras, thermometers, motors and blinking lights, for example -- it's a great foundation for all kinds of projects.

"Are you interested in nature? Here's a bird box project," says Richardson. "Music? Here's how to make a synthesizer. Robots? Here's how to use Raspberry Pi as its brains."

That's why it appeals to Melissa Jurist, who designs school programs for children in her job directing K-12 outreach at the University of Delaware's College of Engineering. Jurist especially likes it when kids tackle Pi projects that are "slightly subversive, something that could yield something gross or funny, or something parents probably don't know how to do.

"Allowing kids to catapult, shoot or hurl disgusting stuff at each other using a Pi is also at the top of my list," says Jurist. "Cool kids may have iPhones, but cooler kids know how to manipulate and create with their devices."

Go for it

But the Raspberry Pi can be used for more than child's play.

Computer engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology often use a Raspberry Pi as the brains for their senior projects. These range from devices to monitor home security and control home electronics, to operating a weather station that posts reports on Twitter.

"Having a board with all the capabilities built in lets them focus on the application they're trying to get working," vaulting over low-level electronics work that otherwise would fritter away most of the year, says Roy Melton, a lecturer and engineer who teaches the students.

And graduate students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Aerospace Engineering program put Pis on drones to help them navigate.

"We need a fairly powerful computer that can fly," says Professor Raghvendra Cowlagi. "You can't find something under $50 that's so powerful. If you burn one, you just get another."

Civic duty

The Raspberry Pi can do more than just raise the next generation of engineers, although that's plenty.

With technology pervading every part of our lives, modern society needs a technically literate population, says Laura Blankenship, chair of computer science at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and member of the Computer Science Teachers Association.


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Michael Muller

Knowing how computers work can help Baldwin's middle-school classes wrestle with social issues -- like the conflicting needs of national security and individual privacy. Informed students also can question the tech giants whose products and services reach deep into their lives, says Blankenship.

"Once they build something that's similar to a mobile phone, they can ask, 'Why is there software installed on a phone that I can't take off?'"

There's a lot riding on the tiny computer. Who knew it could achieve so much? 

This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.