Raspberry Pi interview: Laura Dixon, Computing At School author

Laura Dixon

Laura Dixon is head of Computer Science and ICT at the Royal High School, Bath. She has a degree in Computer Science from the University of Bath, and prior to training as a teacher she worked as a web developer. Laura’s interests include investigating new ways of learning about Computer Science, as well as improving the delivery and perception of education in this field. She is also a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator, CAS Master Teacher and chair of the CAS #include project, which aims to challenge stereotypes and improve the diversity of students studying Computing in the UK.

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Raspberry Pi is becoming more and more popular in education every day, but how can unfamiliar teachers begin using this technology in their work? Laura Dixon - Raspberry Pi expert, head of Computing at Royal High School and Computing At School author - was kind enough to answer some questions on the matter.

We asked Laura Dixon a series of questions in order to illustrate how teachers can go about implementing Raspberry Pi in their classrooms.

What is Raspberry Pi, and how is it currently being used in education?

Raspberry Pi is a tiny, credit card sized computer; you simply connect a mouse, keyboard and monitor, add an SD card and you have a fully-functional machine. Schools across the country are starting to use the Pi as a means of teaching children about programming, hardware and networking, all of which are part of the new national curriculum.

What kind of kit would a teacher need to get started?

For one set-up, you will need a Raspberry Pi which costs around £20. The Pi requires a USB keyboard and mouse, and you might need a VGA to HDMI adapter depending on the type of monitors your school has. You will probably already have most of the kit you need available in your classroom. Of course, there are other parts you can buy to make your Pi even more exciting, ranging from a fancy case to keep it in, to breadboards, LEDs, cameras and other electronics kit – even motion sensors!

Is this the kind of thing that could potentially be pricey for schools?

No – in fact, there have been lots of free Pi kits available through CAS hubs and Code Club, courtesy of companies such as Google who want to see them getting into the hands of children. The actual Pi are very cheap compared to a full sized desktop computer, and each child can have their own SD card, which are inexpensive, and plug into any Pi. They can even take it home and plug into a Pi there.

What's Raspberry Pi like for inspiring pupil-creativity?

One of my favourite activities has been using Minecraft Pi, as it instantly hooks the students in. They are able to program in Python to create things in the Minecraft world, for example creating a large building quickly or leaving a trail of flowers wherever they walk. I've enjoyed seeing students adapt the basics, creating trails of ice or lava. When we then do more formal Python programming in lessons they can see "it's like we did on Minecraft".

How does Raspberry Pi fit in with the new computing curriculum?

The standard set up for the Raspberry Pi software which you load onto your SD card (this is known as NOOBS) contains pre-loaded Scratch and Python environments. These are ideal programs to use for the new curriculum, offering the required progression from Scratch as a block-based language to Python as a written language.

Can it be used for non-Computing subjects?

Yes – one of the best applications I have seen is the software ‘Sonic Pi’ which allows students to live-code music using both musical notes and sound samples sequenced together. Alternatively, in junior schools you could apply a Pi to many projects, such as creating a stop motion camera to tell a story, a 'badgercam' for outdoor learning or even using Scratch to tell stories.

What Raspberry Pi-oriented companies or organisations should schools consider working with?

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a pretty good place to start! They run an amazing training course for teachers called Picademy which is completely free – you get to visit their headquarters and spend two days learning about how you can use Pi in your classroom. They even take you out for dinner! There are also lots of video tutorials on Youtube which enthusiasts post to help others, for instance the Raspberry Pi Guy, and blog tutorials such as those from David Whale are also extremely helpful.

Tell us about a time when this technology brought a classroom to life.

I have used Raspberry Pi in the Programming Club at my school, which is a girls' school. Since introducing the Pi at the beginning of this year the membership has more than doubled, and I am seeing students from Year 7 to Year 13 turning up and working together – sometimes the youngest with the oldest! We have a range of projects, from composers working on Sonic Pi to girls wiring up flashing LEDs to make patterns, to Minecraft aficionados. The club is so popular I now have to buy more Pi kits!

Anything else you'd like to say about Raspberry Pi?

When the Raspberry Pi first came out, I admit I was very sceptical – I wondered what this computer could do that my existing desktops could not. After all, I already have Scratch and Python on my desktop computers. After attending the Picademy, and actually hands-on making a project for myself (my team made a ‘cat scarer’, which detects movement in your garden and then activates a camera which takes a picture of the offending cat and tweets it), I discovered what it was. The Pi is like the Blue Peter of computers, it's just as much fun as that time you made a Tracy Island out of two old toilet rolls, a cereal packet and some PVA glue. Hidden within this fun is learning about Computer Science, except it's so exciting you might be forgiven for not even noticing.

Have you used Raspberry Pi in your school? Share your comments below.

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