VIDEO: Raspberry Pi Opens a Gateway into STEM
Meghan Brown posted on November 11, 2016 | | 3406 views

A lot of engineers get their start at a young age, building structures with Lego or taking apart and rebuilding small electronics and computers, but not every aspiring engineering has an old toaster or laptop to experiment with.

Education for young engineers today often has a distinct focus on electronics and computers at the software level, such as programming and apps, rather than teaching the nuts and bolts of how these devices work at the component level.

Ensuring students develop a solid understanding of computer hardware is the goal of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The popular low-cost, but high-performance electronic component kits aim to improve STEM education for aspiring engineers of any age, providing materials they’ll need to learn and understand computers at the most fundamental levels.

In the video above, ENGINEERING.com’s Shawn Wasserman had the opportunity to speak with Matt Richardson of the Raspberry Pi Foundation at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, where he shared the importance of accessible materials, experimentation and the intersection of engineering and artistry.

“When I was a kid, I got really close to the metal of a computer,” Richardson said.

“I was excited about the hardware itself and I was using a command line interface. I was making batch files, I was programming in C. Then, all these wonderful development tools came along that make it so easy to create these sophisticated applications. I think what we need to do is to think about how to step closer to the metal again, how to get a little bit more low-level and get more young people looking at how computers work.”

The Raspberry Pi presents a wide variety of possible projects and applications between different components and kits. This gives Raspberry Pi users the freedom to create a nearly infinite number of devices and creative applications.

“You can find someone creating an arcade cabinet or someone creating a set-top media player for their television,” Richardson explained. “Personally, I like artwork. Computers can intersect with a lot of different disciplines, and I love it when someone takes a computer and creates something beautiful with it.” 

The USA Science and Engineering Festival featured a visually stimulating installation, built from nearly 100 Raspberry Pi devices.

“The Raspberry Pi’s moved in a big sculpture-like way, using data and communicating with each other,” Richardson recounted. “It was a nice, beautiful intersection of the arts and technology and I love seeing how people use Raspberry Pi to do that.”

The Raspberry Pi’s diversity in application, coupled with its affordability, makes the kit seem ideal for STEM education and experimentation from the K-12 level and beyond, into college and university. The $35 price point and the ability to easily “get back to the start” even if something goes wrong, makes it easy to try new things.

According to Richardson, its low price constitutes the main engineering challenge for the Raspberry Pi.  There are always requests and suggestions from users to have more features or new capabilities – which would translate to higher costs.

“In order for us to achieve our mission, we have to make computers accessible by making them affordable,” Richardson explained. “Sometimes it’s a waiting game, to see when component prices will come down or doing some creative engineering so that we can give people the features they want but still make it an affordable computer.”

For those just starting to explore computers and STEM, those who are new to Raspberry Pi or teachers who want to use the device to teach STEM in schools, the Foundation offers a range of resources for users of all ages and experience levels.

“If you just want to get started, we have a section for the basics of programming,” Richardson said.

“If you’re a teacher and want to use it in the classroom we have a section about the practical issues of using Raspberry Pi in the classroom. The biggest section is the ’Make’ section. The site features different projects that use lots of different computer science and engineering principles, in a cross disciplinary approach.”

As an example, Richardson offered, “If you’re interested in space, we have a lot of resources for how Raspberry Pi can be used to run space experiments.”

Richardson’s advice? “Don’t be afraid to mess up.”

“What we want is for people to be empowered and to feel bold, to experiment. This computer is meant to be experimented with and I think you learn the most when you take away that fear of breaking something.”

To learn more about Raspberry Pi and STEM education, check out the video above or visit the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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