Secondary Secondary Science

A taste of Raspberry Pi

A taste of Raspberry Pi

A friend wanted to order a Raspberry Pi computer and tried to order online on the first day of sales. Unable to get through (at one point orders were coming in at 700 per second) he phoned up and was asked whether he wanted a Raspberry Pi or, for a slightly higher price, a Raspberry Pi bundle. He went for the latter, which arrived last week. Alas, the bundle contains lots of useful connectors and peripherals – but not the Raspberry Pi itself. His disappointment was palpable and he was back on the phone like a shot. He readily admitted that he had nothing like the personal interest in recent orders of Macs and PCs for his business.

Why has the Raspberry Pi caused so much interest? I’m not convinced that it’s the ‘budget price computer for schools’ argument. It is cheap but by the time you add the peripherals (including the screen) it’s more than an entry level Android tablet and less user friendly. Talking to a group of people about this recently we fairly quickly got into a discussion of first computers that we’d owned. My gambit of a Sinclair ZX81 was soon trumped by someone else’s kit-built ZX80. For many schools though, it was the BBC computers that were the turning point. What they made possible were not only software applications but also programming and interfacing; it was computer science as well as ICT. However as subsequent waves of machines came out and schools tooled themselves up for teaching office applications the interfacing side tended to get marginalised. Like Wallace & Gromit’s motorcycle and sidecar, the bolts started to work loose and the two parts took increasingly divergent paths.

This is not to underestimate the importance of ICT – it’s come in for a bit of a pasting of late, not all of it justified – but rather to say that it’s only part of the picture. Another part, what one might refer to as digital technology, has vanished from the curriculum in some schools and Raspberry Pi looks like being a rallying point for its reinvention. Is it ICT though? There are arguments that the outcomes achievable sit more comfortably in other parts of the curriculum.

Does this affect science? Well, it’s very likely that in some schools science teachers will be the ones delivering this part of the curriculum. A school leader, wanting to exploit the opportunities presented, is likely to be flipping through their mental rolodex of staff interests, skills and understanding to find likely innovators. Some science teachers will come pretty high on this; some will want to get involved. It’s also true that this is an area that students who are successful in science are very likely to be involved in. It’s not science but in the atlas of the curriculum it’s not only in the same continent but a near neighbour. Professor Sir John Holman, previously Head of the National Science Learning Centre and now Senior Fellow in Education at the Wellcome Trust, is fond of pointing out that of the STEM subjects, schools often talk more about science and maths whereas employers are more concerned about recruitment in technology and engineering. Digital technology sits pretty much right in the middle of this.

The Expert Panel on the review of the National Curriculum has proposed that both Design Technology and ICT are redesignated to the ‘Basic Curriculum’ – i.e. that schools have to provide them but that there would be “no centrally prescribed Programmes of Study or Attainment Targets”. If this is accepted then schools will be free to design their own courses. Scientists may have a significant contribution to make at school level to both the design and even the delivery of such courses.

Ed Walsh
Advisor for Cornwall Learing

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