Tiny Computers Spark Interest in Programming

Using Raspberry Pi computers, learners as young as 11 or older than 70 can connect pieces of code like puzzle pieces.

by Kecia Bal, The Tribune-Democrat / October 28, 2015 0

(TNS) — Administrators at Windber Area School District in rural Pennsylvania are helping to demonstrate that technology doesn't have to be big or costly to interest children and teens.

The school hosted a workshop on Raspberry Pi computers – pieces of 2-inch-by-3-inch wired plastic that cost around $35 each and can be used in classrooms to show students how to program. Administrators and teachers from 12 school districts spent Tuesday at the school, learning to use the credit-card sized computers from technology enthusiast Doug Fletcher, owner of Fletcher Computer Solutions in Indiana. Each also took one back to their schools in Cambria, Somerset and Bedford counties.

"We want to expose more people to these low-cost devices and show them how to use them to solve problems they have," Fletcher said. "A lot of people see that young people are not getting involved with computer programming. They're using computers every day, for games or for school, but we want to re-engage them with what's under the hood again."

Fletcher, who also owns apartments in Indiana County, used the small computers to program boxes to reboot modems and routers – and diminish late-night calls about Internet service.

Fletcher gave the group an overview of the computers, controlled through a Linux operating system, before administrators and teachers put their kits to use, connecting the board to a monitor, mouse and keyboard and making use of the 40 input/output pins and small LED lights.

"I'll show them how to affect physical objects, in small steps," he said. "If you can do this (light an LED light), you can control an outlet. You can create a device to reboot modems and routers. You can control a garage door."

Learners as young as 11 or older than 70 are able to pick up on the idea quickly, Fletcher said. Connected to a monitor, users can connect pieces of code like "puzzle pieces," he said.

"Technology shouldn't be scary," Fletcher said.

Dave Dzurko, a technology and engineering teacher at Windber, said he's been using the Raspberry Pi in his class to power a project that creates 3-D holograms – images of hummingbirds, fireworks and flowers so far, though his students are working on more advanced techniques, such as projecting images of actual students.

The school also took peers around classrooms to highlight other tech-based curriculum and ideas to promote STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and math – and presented other advances at the school, such as student news production that uses an $800 drone to provide high-definition aerial video. Glenn Gaye, the Windber's education director, said administrators are working to at least expose students to the newest changes in careers and lifestyles.

"Technology is with us to stay, and I don't now whether any of us will be able to truly keep up," he said. "But I believe it is our responsibility as educators to allow students to have an exposure knowledge."

The district opened the workshop to other schools and received far greater response than anticipated, he said.

"We wanted to provide an opportunity for teachers across the region to network and expose themselves to something that may be useful for students," Gaye said.

Shade-Central City teacher Cheryl Hohman said she was impressed and was updating co-workers of the opportunity throughout the day with her phone.

"I think this is the way it's going to be in the future," she said. "I'll definitely use some components of it and hope to expand on that."

Windber Superintendent Rick Huffman said he hopes districts work together more often on emerging technology with quarterly workshops at schools in the three counties.

"It's a sharing effort," he said. "We can advance learning together, getting stronger together."

The response, he said, was encouraging.

"You see people here who are not the status quo," he said. "You have to be keeping up and improving. That is part of what makes this region special. We're not competing. We're collaborating."

©2015 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.