Raspberry Pi creates new engineering buzz

Girls in Charlotte Latin’s middle school engineering class are learning computer programming with the school’s new Raspberry Pi computers. The school is the first in the United States to use the small devices.

Inspiring young minds to take interest in science, technology, engineering and math has always been a top priority at Charlotte Latin School. Now they’re taking action to ensure students get the education they need at a young age – and they’re the first school in the United States to do it this way.

The school recently introduced 14 credit-card sized computers to the middle school girls’ engineering class. Known as the Raspberry Pi, the small computer is cutting edge in the Great Britain engineering community, allowing students to easily learn physical computing and programming. Since the computer comes with a $35 price tag and features an open source operating system, students are able to take apart and reassemble the small device without fear of destroying expensive technology.

“The benefit of the Raspberry Pi is that it allows our kids to go ahead and become creators of technology, not just consumers,” Tom Dubick, engineering teacher at the school, said.  “What I mean is being a $35 computer that is a productivity machine and does things like Word processing and PowerPoint, the computer also has the ability to connect with the physical world. We can do imbedded computing, also known as physical computing, like robotics.”

The computer debuted in British classrooms in 2011 and since spread to other European classrooms and in developing countries where its low power requirements and affordability are making computers accessible. Dubick, who is involved with Charlotte’s STEM and engineering community, is working with McClintock Middle School to become Charlotte Latin’s engineering partners. He found the Raspberry Pi while researching computer options for McClintock.

“McClintock didn’t have enough computers for their program, so I found the Raspberry Pi and I said, ‘I could use these at Latin,’” Dubick said. “This computer isn’t as powerful as an iPad or anything, but it doesn’t need to be. That’s not what we need it for. It’s giving people opportunities to use it to create things.”

Dubick said the computer comes with Scratch and Python, both programming languages used for beginner levels in computer programming. So far, he says his small class of seventh-grade girls is really catching on, since the computer is easy to explore and understand. The girls are already programming after only a few weeks, Dubick said, hoping by the end of the class they will know the concept of physical computing through their use of robotics.

“I want them to see the creativity that can be found in computing and technology. It’s a lot more creative than people realize,” Dubick said.

This year’s engineering Raspberry Pi class is a pilot program for Charlotte Latin, Dubick said. He hopes that in the future, all kids at the school will have access to the small computer – and at only $35, he thinks it’s possible.

“A college degree no longer guarantees you a job and it won’t for the foreseeable future,” he said. “What we want is for our kids to go a step deeper into technology and really understand how technology works. We are entering a new world where everything is hooked up to the Internet. If we are going into a world like that and it’s happening really, really fast, these kids need to understand it.”

Dubick’s students are loving their time with the small computers, mostly noting that since the computers are so cheap, they’re not afraid to really explore what they can do and how they work.

“We can program with them and mess with them, and we know it’s not a huge deal if we mess them up,” seventh-grader Breck Stenson said.

The Rasperry Pi connects to the Internet and television monitors to create a media center. Multiple units can be connected to create a supercomputer. For more information on the computer, visit www.raspberrypi.org.

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