Jamming in Marlborough
We can all use computers – they’re all around us, in a myriad different gadgets – but most of us can’t program them. For those of us who fondly remember the “golden age of computing” (definitely the microcomputers of the 1980’s!) but whose coding skills have grown a little rusty, help is at hand in the form of the Raspberry Pi. Super-cool, super-small and super-cheap (the Pi Zero kicks off the range for under a tenner), Raspberry Pi computers mean programming skills are now back in the hands of the masses, with children as young as 7 being taught basic techniques.
What is a Raspberry Pi?
It’s a fabulous British innovation, manufactured in Wales (and named in accordance with a longstanding fruit-based tradition in software and hardware). Raspberry Pi is used to teach and learn how computers work, and how you can create your own programs or electronics projects, leading to a boom in inventive approaches to computing not seen since the good old days of 8-bit. You easily get the idea of how straightforward it is to code, particularly in Scratch, which is now being taught in primary schools.
Raspberry Pi has spawned a whole industry of accessories, spare parts, add-ons etc and a unique culture based around accessible coding for all. “Raspberry Jams” are a good example – open events designed to showcase the possibilities of the technology and to encourage experimentation and learning.
We went along on a wet Sunday morning to Marlborough Town Hall for the Marlborough Raspberry Jam, made possible by MADT – the Marlborough Area Development Trust. We’d signed up for a 90-minute workshop in advance and, after registration, we had a good look around at the information stands and demonstrations. The workshop was free, and the aim of a Jam is not to make you an expert, but rather to give you an idea of how simple it is to prototype simple circuits that can then be controlled by a Raspberry Pi.
The room was a-buzz with several different sessions running concurrently, all split into a 45-minute Build stage followed by a 45-minute Test stage. Documents were sent out in advance to give a chance to look through them and understand a bit about what we would be doing. We were also provided with a black & white print-out of instructions on the day.
We were given a box of standard electronic components to work with and there was plenty of friendly help on hand to get us started and to sort out any problems we had with the Build. The goal was to build as many of 5 separate projects as time permitted.
For the Build stage we were sat at a large table in the centre of the Court Room in Marlborough Town Hall, with four other groups including a mother with her two daughters, a grandad with his grandsons, and a couple of dads with their kids. There wasn’t much time for neighbourly chat – the build instructions required a lot of focus and it helped having little fingers to assemble the components on the “breadboard” (so called as the first Pi was designed on an actual bread board, how very British!).
At the end of the Build phase, we plugged our masterpiece in to a Raspberry Pi for the Test stage, with more documents, more instructions and (fortunately) more help. We connected our breadboard to the computer and discussed the options of using Scratch or Python (or both) to control the setup. The Test stage of the Jam was far more satisfying for the kids than the build – after all our hard work, we got to see out lights flash and buzzers buzz just as intended!
We also got to see some other applications such as motion-sensor wildlife cameras, weather stations with WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, and robots that can follow a line or trace out letters. Even the popular game Minecraft is available for the Raspberry Pi for free.
What is Scratch?
Scratch is a free, educational, graphical block programming language developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). An off-line version has always been available as part of the standard distribution for the Raspberry Pi. The beauty of Scratch lies in its simplicity and its ‘graphical blocks’ that allow actions to be carried out via the Raspberry Pi’s input/output pins. It’s very accessible to children and Ramsbury Primary School for instance shows children in year 3 how to complete simple projects like getting a cartoon cat to do jumps.
What is Python?
Python is the main text-based programming language supported by the Raspberry Pi via the Linux opensource operating system.
Although it is similar to mainstream coding languages like C and C+, Python is simpler and quicker to edit and correct, and therefore easier for beginners. The payoff for this ease of use is that it does not run as fast but for most Raspberry Pi programming tasks this difference in speed is not noticeable. Text based programming like Python is now taught routinely at schools from Year 8.
So we’ve had our taste of the future and it’s definitely Jam, sweet Jam!
The next Raspberry Jam workshop is on Sunday 20th May 2018 in Marlborough Town Hall. For more information visit makerspace.marlborougharea.org