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Coding

Raspberry Pi and the new computer science kids

Computer science is coming back to UK schools. Google and the Raspberry Pi Foundation are distributing 15,000 free computers and hope to create a new generation of computer scientists.

At a computer science class at Graveney School in South London, a group of 11 and 12 year olds are being taught the basics of programming.

"We started in September and we were learning about e-safety," says Ifra, who is 12 years old, "then we moved onto a program called Winlogo when you, like, type in commands, and now we're doing Robomind, which is instructions with a robot."

Ifra and her classmates are encouraged to experiment, to make mistakes, and to play.

"They're learning but they don't realize it, they're having fun," says Shahneila Saeed, the head of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) at the school. "They don't see it as 'I'm learning computer science,' they see it as 'I'm playing games.'"

Shahneila Saeed says school children have been let down by outdated computer science teaching that doesn't equip them for the 21st Century. And she's not the only one who is worried.

As part of a MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh in 2011, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said he "was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science is not even taught as standard in UK schools."

Google's chairman Eric Schmidt (Photo: Andy Wong/AP/dapd)

Google's Eric Schmidt has been touring Asian countries, extolling the virtues of computing and the Net

Schmidt accused the British government of ignoring the importance of science and engineering and of throwing away what he called the UK's "great computing heritage."

Something needed to change and fast, he said.

"You need to start at the beginning with education. We need to reignite children's passion for engineering, science and mathematics," said Schmidt.

code.org

But the situation is not much better in the US.

The Partovi Brothers, who moved to the States from Iran as children in 1984, and were tech visionaries and millionaires by the 1990s, have been highlighting the issue with a video campaign on code.org.

Hadi Partovi says "The tragedy is the skills […] are not hard to learn, but only 10 percent of schools offer computer science courses, and these are usually the privileged schools."

Google's Eric Schmidt is part of the code.org campaign.

The naked computer

Eben Upton, a former University of Cambridge professor and co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, agrees. He had witnessed the decline in the numbers and skill level of applicants studying Computer Science at Cambridge. He also knew that reaching people at a young age would be the key to their understanding of how computers work.

His solution: the Raspberry Pi - a very, very small and very inexpensive, computer.

"It's just a little PC," says Upton. "It's a credit card-sized PC that runs the Linux operating system and that we bundle with pretty much every operating tool under the sun, with the hope that it'll get into kids' bedrooms and that they'll use it to learn to program."

Eben Upton of the Raspberry Pi Foundation

Upton says he considered enclosing the Raspberry Pi in a shiny case but decided kids prefer it simple

It is powered using a standard USB cable - just like the one that charges your phone - and it includes an audio-out port for connecting a set of speakers.

And it's naked!

"A lot of them do respond to having a device where they can see where all the bits are that do the work," says Upton.

The Raspberry Pi has captured the imaginations not only of children but also of educators, hobbyists and tinkerers around the world… and it's caught Google's eye.

Eben Upton was approached by Google last year with the idea of giving away 15,000 Raspberry Pi's to British school kids.

The aim was to inspire children to take up coding.

Critics have questioned whether large corporations such as Google should take on such a role, but Upton defends Google's investment.

"Someone like Google is a real stand out, because they're investing in these kids," says Upton. "But when these kids graduate, they're going to have to compete for these kids' services on the open market with companies that didn't bother to invest."

Fixing the system

Google and Raspberry Pi are working with six educational partners to distribute the devices to schoolchildren, including the Computers at School (CAS) working group.

Simon Peyton Jones is the chair of CAS, which he set up in 2008 to fix information and communication technology education in Britain.

"Since we live in a completely digital world infused by technology, if you know nothing about it, if it's an opaque and mysterious technology that you are simply subject to, you're sort of disempowered by that, so I want kids to feel, 'I can do this'," says Peyton Jones.

The Raspberry Pi computer

The Raspberry Pi costs less than the price of a new keyboard - less than 30 euros

Peyton Jones wants computer science to be established as a proper, rigorous subject discipline from primary school onwards, rather than a specialist subject for "male socially inept geeks."

So he was delighted when the government asked for his help to radically revamp the existing ICT curriculum.

"The department of education has been writing new curricula for all subjects but for ICT uniquely, they invited a stakeholder group from the sector to draft such a curriculum," says Peyton Jones. "And here it is... it's two sides of A4… we were told it had to fit onto two sides of A4."

Back to school

Back at Graveney School, teacher Shahneila Saeed says she's very happy with the changes afoot on an educational policy level. She also hopes to obtain several Raspberry Pis for her school because of what they can offer her pupils - especially the disadvantaged ones - who don't have computers at home.

"Independence. Independence in learning, taking responsibility for their own learning, fostering creativity, enthusiasm, fun, motivation," says Saeed. "The Raspberry Pis will really help us extend the learning beyond the classroom."

But Saeed says it's the combination of government support for boosting teacher ICT skills as well as resources such as the Raspberry Pi that will ultimately create an exciting future for Britain's blossoming computer scientists.

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