Google “Raspberry Pi projects,” and you’ll get a diverse set of results: Home automation systems, weather data stations, time-lapse cameras, retro video game systems, a staircase that plays music as you climb.

The accessibility and versatility that make the Pi a must-have for hackers and makers also render it indispensable for educators seeking to bring science and technology to life.

Launched in 2012 by the United Kingdom-based Raspberry Pi Foundation, the Pi is a single-board computer that retails for about US$35. It was designed to make computer science more accessible to students, according to Matt Richardson, Executive Director, Raspberry Pi Foundation North America.

“When you have a low-cost device that can be treated more like a material than an expensive tool, it can be integrated into projects all over the house, all over the school, all over the factory,” Matt said.

More than 25 million Pi computers have been sold. Despite its wider popularity, the Pi is still (at heart) an educational tool. Our most recent Open Source Stories documentary, “Farming for the Future,” profiled 3 classrooms where Raspberry Pi-based projects give students a new perspective on agriculture and computer science.

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Community outside
the classroom

Community outside class

Educators Chantell Mason, Chris Regini, and Melanie Shimano see their students for a few hours a day. In that time, their task is to teach course content, prepare kids for standardized tests, teach problem solving and critical thinking―and keep their attention.

The Raspberry Pi (the maker spirit it embodies) is a single tool that serves all those needs.

“We are willing to take risks and infuse an aspect of learning-by-doing into the classroom atmosphere that many others shy away from due to perceived time restrictions,” said Chris, a STEAM educator in the Half Hollow Hills Central School District in Long Island, New York.

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Chris met Chantell and Melanie at Picademy, a gathering for educators looking to integrate the Raspberry Pi into their course plans. Chantell is a computer science teacher at Steger 6th Grade Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and Melanie is a data analyst with the city of Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of the Food Computer Program.

The 3 teachers clicked when they began talking about their classes’ urban agriculture projects:

  • Chris’s students at West Hollow Middle School built vertical hydroponic gardens, using the Raspberry Pi to automate watering of plants.
  • At Green Street Academy in Baltimore, home of Melanie’s Food Computer Program, high schoolers have built food computers: tabletop greenhouses where the Pi manages light, water, and temperature.
  • Chantell’s middle schoolers at Steger 6th Grade Center are using the Raspberry Pi to monitor soil moisture in their indoor aquaponics system.

It’s no accident that Picademy is where the trio met. The event exists to bring together dynamic teachers whose approaches focus on problem-solving, Matt Richardson said.

Four years after the first Picademy in the United States, more than 1,000 American educators have participated and become Raspberry Pi Certified Educators. The 2-day event creates “communities of practice” for educators who might not have many maker-minded local peers, Matt said.

Chantell, Chris, and Melanie have maintained their connection, regularly checking in and comparing notes on their agriculture projects.

“I’ve started talking to (Melanie) more through Twitter, just as I see all these ideas she has and things her kids are doing,” said Chantell, who was an instructor at the 2018 Picademy where she met Chris and Melanie. “(I’m) asking, ‘What's that? Where'd you get that from? What kind of sensor are you using for this?' Because that's where you get the best ideas, is from one another.”

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The community that began with 3 teachers has grown to include their students. Using Flipgrid, a social learning platform, the classes exchange notes and ask questions of each other via videos. Those interactions improve everyone’s work, Chris said, and offer other benefits.

“Melanie's students are a little older than ours, but I think that's actually perfect because you can't keep kids in these little boxes all of the time,” he said. “They've got to understand how to talk to someone that's older than them and someone that's younger than them.”

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A step into
a larger world

A step into a larger world

For American students born this century, computers are omnipresent. The phones in their pockets, the tablets in their classrooms, the cars that carry them from home to school: Nearly everything is a computer. But as intense as the human-computer relationship is, it’s largely one-way. The computer (via the software that governs it) produces videos or apps or games or music, and the student consumes them.

Chris, Chantell, and Melanie’s students are restoring the balance to that bond by using the Raspberry Pi to bring their ideas to life. And the experience is giving them a new perspective on technologies they thought they’d understood.

Savannah Fine had never coded anything before Chris’s class. After building a simple circuit to turn on a light, though, she started to think broadly about what she might be able to do.

“You're playing other people's games, but you can make your own game,” Savannah said. “You can play something that you wrote out by yourself, which is amazing to think.”

Malachi Williams, one of Chantell’s students in St. Louis, was surprised to see the Raspberry Pi interact with natural and tactile materials in his class’s aquaponics system.

“There were kids who were working on all the stuff you would do by hand: cutting the PVC pipes, actually assembling the system,” he said. “Everybody had something to do, which I really liked.”

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"I'm gonna
create the way"

While the Raspberry Pi might not have been built to control a desktop greenhouse or a time-lapse camera, those projects fulfill the original vision behind the Pi.

“We saw that computers could be used as a material for making and creating,” Matt Richardson said. “They have been (in the past), and we wanted to get back to that.”

Managed by an open source operating system and built with flexible hardware, the Raspberry Pi is a connection back to the maker spirit of early computing—and a first step forward into a hackable world that’s open to these students’ ideas.

“Everybody's got this one big project that they can constantly change and improve,” said Max McDade, one of Chantell’s sixth-graders, “and it's always building on itself, which is awesome. And I think it's really helpful for kids today to learn about open source because then they can be that change in the future.”

There’s no limit to what you can do coding. You can make it anything you want.

Savannah Fine,
West Hollow Middle School
student in lab

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