With Raspberry Pi, UK can have chips with everything

Cambridge tech to boost students’ computer skills captures imagination of British public. Chris Parr reports

December 20, 2012

Affordable menu: Southampton’s Simon Cox (and son James) with supercomputer

Turkey, cranberry sauce and Brussels sprouts may be more traditional, but thousands of households across the UK will be tucking into a serving of Raspberry Pi this Christmas, hoping to fill not their stomachs but their minds.

The Raspberry Pi is a programmable credit card-sized computer developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge, who were concerned about the year-on-year decline in the skills of A-level students applying for computer science courses at the institution.

It costs around £20, making it a popular stocking filler for parents eager to equip their children with programming skills.

“Our original aim was fairly parochial. We’d noticed that the level of skill acquired by 18-year-olds was lower than it had been in the 1980s and 1990s, and our explicit aim was to improve the quality of applicants to our courses,” said Eben Upton, founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and former director of studies in computer science at St John’s College, Cambridge.

“We were planning on giving the device to sixth-formers [at] open days so that when they came in for interviews, we could find out what they had done with it.”

However, in practice the project has captured the wider imagination: around 800,000 Raspberry Pi units have been acquired by people of all ages looking to boost their skills.

Hands-on hardware

Meanwhile, universities across the country have used the devices to give their undergraduates the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of projects they might expect to encounter in industry.

At the University of Glasgow, for example, academics connected 64 Raspberry Pis together to show students how data centres work (see box below).

“A real data centre would have hundreds of computers and cost millions, and the companies that own them are reluctant to let non-employees in to see them,” said Jeremy Singer, a lecturer in Glasgow’s School of Computing Science.

“Ours fits on a desk, but the processes and software involved are exactly the same, so it gives students a realistic experience.”

At the University of Southampton, researchers have constructed a Raspberry Pi supercomputer and used it to calculate the value of the mathematical constant pi.

Simon Cox, professor of computational methods at Southampton, led the team, and his six-year-old son James, pictured, assisted by producing a specially designed Lego case for the technology and helping to test the device.

“To build a supercomputer…costs tens of thousands of pounds, but to teach the basics using four Raspberry Pis costs about £100,” Professor Cox said.

“It’s the first time it is conceivable for students entering university to already have experience of supercomputing.

“Schools can’t afford thousands, but £100? They can raise that with a cake sale.”

Professor Cox added that he believed the device could do far more than simply encourage the next generation of computer science students.

“More than 50 per cent of the research across our engineering school relies on computing, so the impact of improving these programming skills could be huge, not just for computer science but also for all scientists, electronics students, civil engineers and mechanical engineers,” he said.

“All of these need computing skills just as much.”


Value of Pi: outreach on the menu, if academics make it so

A recent report by the Royal Society, Shut Down or Restart?: The Way Forward for Computing in UK Schools, examined the urgent need to renovate the curriculum to eliminate “demotivating and routine ICT activity”.

The report concludes that children should be exposed to computer science as a rigorous academic discipline, an opinion now gaining currency at Westminster, judging by the views expressed by Michael Gove, the education secretary.

Now it is the responsibility of computer science academics in UK universities to grasp this golden opportunity for outreach.

Some lethargic lecturers might argue that even if we do nothing, we should still see a spike in applications for computer science courses over the next few years - a pipeline effect from the current generation of secondary school learners becoming enthused by computer programming and engineering.

However, I see two compelling reasons for universities to get actively involved, rather than just applauding from the sidelines.

First, we can engage our current computer science students as Raspberry Pis become more widely available over the next few months.

Second, we can participate in the Raspberry Pi community as a means of promoting degree programmes at our individual institutions - in effect, targeting an ideal, self-selecting demographic of applicants.

At the University of Glasgow, academics are building a scale model of a data centre as a teaching aid. A life-sized data centre (as owned by Facebook or Google, for example) costs £500 million and occupies 100 acres: a fully functional scale model based on Raspberry Pis costs around £5,000, including other components such as cases, cables and network switches. This model is used to provide hands-on experience in undergraduate courses covering topics such as distributed algorithms.

However, I see a larger, more significant question: is any of this enthusiasm transferable to other disciplines? Can we give potential applicants and current students in other fields something cheap, cheerful and engaging - a tool to inspire a lifelong love for their subject?

Jeremy Singer is a lecturer in the School of Computing Science, University of Glasgow.

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