Teaching Technology With The Raspberry Pi


It’s often the small things that revolutionize the way we interact with technology. While sleeker, faster, and less accessible electronics are foisted on us year after year, it’s easy for us, and our children, to fail to appreciate how our machines work, much less tinker around with them to bend them to our own purposes.

Enter the Raspberry Pi, which just celebrated its first birthday on February 28th. The Pi is a credit-card sized computer that holds the potential to make electronics much more accessible to our children. While it’s a relatively slow machine by modern standards (the CPU clocks in at around 700Mhz), its low cost and ease of use mean it will bring the power of computing to places where it would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago.

In fact, this is what the Raspberry Pi was made for. Imagine school computer labs where each student has her own tiny computer, on which she merrily labors to learn the ins and outs of computer science. The Raspberry Pi allows young children to explore the full gamut of computing, from software to hardware.

Make It Look Awesome

The Raspberry Pi doesn’t come with a case. In fact, it doesn’t come with anything, so you’ll need to pick up at least a power supply and SD card to boot it up. From there, you can get as stylish as you like with your Pi’s decor. While there are cases for sale through third party vendors, more creative Raspberry Pi enthusiasts have made their own cases from materials ranging from wood, to Legos, to Nintendo 64 game cartridges. There are even free, printable cases that you can use to make a case out of cardboard.

If you’re interested in making your own case, you’ll need to take some time to really think through your design. The Pi itself is fairly delicate, so you don’t want to be forcing it into a poorly designed housing. Start with the Punnet printable Raspberry Pi case, which will give you a good layout of the Pi’s various interfaces. Use these as your guide for the sizing and placement of the access holes you’ll need to fashion into your new case. Of course, keep an eye on your younger ones if you’re using any tools to cut apart your favorite retro icon for your Pi to live in.

Once you’ve got your Raspberry Pi nice and snug in its new body, you can get to work on doing something awesome with it. Here are some projects to get you started with.

Learn Programming with Ada Fruit Raspberry Pi WebIDE

Learning to program can be daunting, especially when you have to start dealing with hardware and unfamiliar systems. Fortunately, you can build a software interface to control your Raspberry Pi using easily accessible languages such as JavaScript, Python, & Ruby. The WebIDE allows you to access your Raspberry Pi over your home network using nothing more sophisticated than your browser. The IDE itself is simple, but powerful, as it allows you to develop code and deploy it to your Pi. Take the time to learn a programming language with your kids (I personally enjoy working with Ruby), and challenge them to make their own video games. They’ll have a great time and become computer literate. Instructions on how to install and use the WebIDE can be found here.

Build a Robot

It’s almost like the Raspberry Pi was designed to build robots. It’s small, easy to use, and has a General Purpose I/O pin set that makes plugging it into your robot a cinch. Of course, you’ll want to pick up a good book on robotics before you start, like “Robot Building For Beginners” by David Cook, so you know what you’re doing. Once you know enough to not ruin your precious Pi, gather your kids around and build a remote control robot that uses your Wiimote as a controller. Or, make your own voice controlled robotic arm:

There are tons of tutorials out there on robotics projects for the Raspberry Pi, so take a moment to sit down with your kids and pick out one that you’re interested in.

Make A Retro Arcade Machine

I’m currently converting my Pi into an old school gaming console complete with DIY USB conversions of classic NES controllers, using this solid tutorial. While my venture may not be the most educational project, it does involve some programming and modification of electronics. Plus, who needs educational when you can use the project as an excuse to school your kids on their gaming roots?

My project is fairly modest, but if you’re looking to really recreate the arcade experience at home, you can go all out and build your own arcade cabinet. This is a rather ambitious undertaking that expands beyond the realm of mere computing, but if you can pull it off, your kids will not only have learned some valuable lessons, but they’ll be able to brag to their friends about their sweet home arcade. Fortunately, others have blazed a trail for you, like this tutorial.

There are literally hundreds of other projects out there utilizing the Raspberry Pi, waiting to be tackled by you and your family. There are plans on everything from streaming home media centers to homemade GPS devices to geiger counters. It really is astounding how versatile the tiny Raspberry Pi can be.

For more great project inspiration, and lessons on programming and electronics, check out The MagPi, a volunteer run magazine for Raspberry Pi enthusiasts everywhere.

For information on the Raspberry Pi and details on how to order your own, head over to the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Web site.

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