Thu, 04/16/2015 - 08:55 -- bbutt

     The tradition laden Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School library is slowly transforming itself into a “learning commons” environment complete with technology, makerspace materials, print resources and support from myself, the South Shore Regional School Board Technology Teacher-Leader. 

     Within this transitional environment teaching resources and learning materials, not readily available through the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, are provided to teachers and students.  This is possible due to the financial support of administration at all levels, collaboration with teachers willing to share resources and access to external funding sources. 

     One high interest area of a minority of students in our school is that of computer coding and electronics.  An afterschool and lunch hour club have been developed in the learning commons to give these students opportunities to learn basic coding through online websites (code.org), mobile apps (Hopscotch) and now through Raspberry Pi devices (obtained through funding through a Nova Scotia Teachers Union PDAF grant).  

     The Raspberry Pi Kits were purchased from Cana Kit (http://www.canakit.com/).  The kits contained the credit card sized circuit board complete with input and outputs, a clear plastic case, a wifi USB for connecting to the internet, cables to connect to an HDMI monitor, and assorted electronic parts such as breadboards, resistors, diodes, etc.   We required a monitor and wireless keyboard / mouse for each device.  The total cost to set up one device with attachments/peripherals was approximately $280 when taxes and shipping/handling charges are added.  Additional components, such as a camera module that attaches to the device, are also available from the Cana Kit website. 

     The Raspberry Pi (https://www.raspberrypi.org/) was chosen from several small portable devices.  It is an economical computing device that allows students to explore computer programming (in languages such as Scratch, Python, and Wolfram) and design innovative projects.  The size of the device allows it to be the computing “guts” of everyday devices that may be recreated or reimagined.  Projects ideas abound online with YouTube videos of students as young as five years of age (https://youtu.be/Qtu5UmWPo0I) creating innovative projects utilizing the Pi and simple computer programming.

The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it's to create a culture

where everyone can have ideas and feel that they're valued.”

                                                       Ken Robinson

     To introduce the Pi to our learning space I started the “Pi Club”, an afterschool gathering of interested souls.  On the first day I gave them the unopened new monitor, wireless keyboard / mouse, Raspberry Pi kit and HDMI cords.  Their instructions were to assemble the hardware, load the software, and play with the options in the user interface.  Both junior and senior high students tackled this request with un-nerving silence.  Now I must confess to having already set up my own Raspberry Pi and having played around with the programming language and online resources.  But how would these shy young people cope with it?   Honestly, there were a few moments when I questioned the problem solving skills of one student.  His desk a mess of torn cardboard, ripped plastic, upon which electronic components were scattered.  After a couple of days curious students were stopping in to check out the set up.  Another two students requested the opportunity to set up their own Raspberry Pi and with little to no instruction went to work, completing the task with the support of the other Pi Club members.  I now had the foundation of a club.

     Now setting up is easy enough; the scary part is how to use the stuff.  I had no training other than my own experiences and being self-taught.  The students had little to no background in using the Pi programming languages.  I had one German exchange student had been taught logic and C++ language in Germany.  That did not really help.  In essence he had to learn a new computing language. 

     The feeling of trepidation was alleviated after a simple login process.  We opened up the operating system to find that it wasn’t so hard to use.  A simple but clean interface provided a drop down menu and single dashboard.  With the click of a mouse we were able to access multiple programming platforms (Python, Scratch, Wolfram, etc.), internet, games (coded in Python and resembling my early years of programming with Commodore computers), Minecraft for Pi, and typical programs such as calculator, file manager and text editor.   The Raspberry Pi comes preloaded with websites meant to support the user in learning basic programming skills.  These sites provide help and support for users of all abilities.  For the beginner, they give up the coding on several projects students are able to try out.  One of the more intriguing projects gives a student the option of programming their own aspect to add to the Minecraft for Pi game.  So my students now had self-directed learning opportunities by utilizing those resources, hints, tips, and example programs that the online Raspberry Pi community of users provide.

In the new economy, information, education, and motivation are everything.

                                                         Bill (William J.) Clinton

     One of the most exciting aspects of running the Pi Club is the opportunity to interact with students as they take on learning activities and projects both individually and collaboratively.  Students are now accessing the Pi resources at all times of the day and during our weekly afterschool meetings.  Interest wanes for some students as other fun learning opportunities arise to compete with the Pi Club.  In contrast some students have requested a second day of the week to accommodate those who found it difficult to make the original set day. 

     For those teachers thinking of using the Raspberry Pi in their classrooms or in afterschool clubs do not be ashamed to say “I don’t know” to an issue, problem, or query.   I tell students up front that I am here to learn with them.  The students who take on this learning tool have an interest and drive to understand.  We problem solve issues together with them teaching me as much as I can teach them.   We have dug around the online resources together.  We have “played” with the extra resources such as the camera module and a 7” portable LCD monitor and the discovery continues.  A rewarding learning opportunity for both student and teacher.